Ryse: Son of Rome – Analysis

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Ryse: Son of Rome is not the type of game I would usually play. But I ended up buying it anyway for four reason:

  1. I love Roman history, and even though this game has next to no historical accuracy, it at least has lots of cool Roman architecture, clothing, and iconography.
  2. It has a certain historical value. Not the Roman stuff, but rather the fact that it’s an XBOX One launch title.
  3. The previous game I played was The Long Dark and I desperately needed a light-hearted break from feeling anxious and miserable.
  4. It cost $7.50 on a Steam sale.

The first thing I have to say about the game itself is that its title is complete nonsense. I expected the main character to be named “Ryse” or something, but no, his name is Marius. And he isn’t Romulus and Remus’s brother either, he’s just the son of some Senator. So neither part of the title means anything at all and a four letter word is spelled incorrectly for no reason.

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The second thing I have to say about Ryse: Son of Rome is that it’s not bad. It’s not very good either, but it’s certainly not awful. I half expected it to be another The Order: 1886, but for the XBOX One. Fortunately unlike that useless piece of junk, Ryse manages to contain a competent combat system and coherent story despite its prevalent sense of depressing blandness. Ryse is obviously a soulless, design-by-committee title made to look good in promotional trailers and show off the XBOX One’s technical capabilities at launch, and has no interest whatsoever in doing anything innovative or even interesting with its relatively unmined (at least in the video game industry) subject matter, but at least it does it all well enough to maybe be worth playing for the right (ie. low) price.

That’s the problem with Ryse. It’s not a bad game in and of itself, but its design philosophy and ostensible expectations are bad. Ryse was made by Crytek, a company I always thought was unfairly saddled with a reputation for creating glorified tech demos in the form of the first Far Cry and the Crysis series. I won’t claim any of those games were masterpieces, but Crysis 1 and 2 are quite good, even underrated. At the very least they have great environmental designs and refreshingly versatile combat for AAA FPSs. But now we have Ryse to pretty much confirm every stereotype about Crytek, both good and bad.

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Ryse is drop dead gorgeous. My poor four year old Asus laptop, which was once considered state of the art hardware, struggled to play the game even on the lowest graphical settings and texture resolutions. Yet even through the chugging frame rate and blurry pop-ins I could see an undeniably beautiful video game landscape. Crytek wisely stepped away from photo realism for Ryse and instead went with a subtly cartoony look to match the simple, arcing story. The city of Rome looks fantastic with its marble skyline. Crytek’s signature jungles make a welcomed appearance in Britannia, where most of the game takes place. A stormy coastal shipwreck in particular looks amazing, even by modern console and PC game standards. The most memorable part in the entire game for me was when I smashed an enemy barbarian into the shallow tide and water splashed around him in a stunning display of physical realism.

As beautiful as the environments are, the animations somehow eclipse them in most scenes. The combat system is basically the same as Arkham’s with the twist that execution moves are accomplished with multi-step quick time events which reward the player with experience points for timing. The otherwise bland combat is constantly peppered with an array of stylish finishers that show Marius bashing or slashing an enemy to death with brutal precision. Most of the enjoyment Ryse has to offer comes from observing the sheer spectacle of its choreographed fights as Marius dispatches endless hordes of enemies in rapid succession. At six hours in length, Ryse stayed around just long enough for the decent quantity of individual execution moves to not outstay their welcome.

Even the story in Ryse isn’t bad. Actually, I thought it was complete nonsense for the first quarter of the game, possibly to the degree of The Order: 1886, but it managed to surprise me after that by actually wrapping up into something coherent. I mean, Ryse’s story is certainly broad, even by cheesy video game standards, and it plays very fast and loose with the historical setting. But even still, I found myself actually kind of liking Marius as he trudged across the Roman world killing god knows how many unwashed barbarians. The villains are also a lot of fun in a shallow, but utterly insane type of way. And I also want to give a shout out to whomever directed the cut scenes for actually paying attention to video game cinematography, which somehow a lot of AAA developers still haven’t realized matters.

(Although I do have to note that even for such a simple plot, it’s absurd how much of the story is driven simply by Marius being better at fighting than everyone else in the world. And until he suddenly gets divine backing near the end of the game, it’s never explained. This random Roman soldier can inexplicably defeat any man in the Roman army, Roman praetorian, British barbarian horde, or Scottish clan army.)

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Yep, Ryse: Son of Rome has some enjoyable qualities and is overall a pretty good game. I would recommend paying $10, or maybe $15 for it.

It’s just unfortunate that Ryse isn’t some mid-budget action title with surprisingly high production values. In that case I could appreciate that game for what it is. But instead it took Crytek seven years to bring Ryse to market. I couldn’t find the game’s budget, but between a tortured development history (Ryse started out a first person medieval combat game played exclusively through the Kinect, seriously), being a technically intensive launch title on the XBOX One, and coming from Crytek, I can’t imagine how many tens of millions of dollars were spent to create what amounts to an ok, but forgettable six hour “action adventure” game.

Yeah, the combat looks pretty and flows pretty well, but it’s also excruciatingly simple and monotonous. The same handful of enemy types repeat endlessly, and besides the braindead battle porn, there is absolutely nothing to do in this game but fight groups of four or five enemies in a succession of pretty backgrounds. It gets so incredibly tedious that I typically couldn’t stand to play the game for more than 60-90 minutes without having to stop.

All of the good things I said about the game above still apply, but it’s all just window dressing. This is a game after all, and if the core mechanics are boring and there is nothing of substance or of any particularly interesting design to buttress its mechanics, the game ultimately fails to serve its primary function. Granted Ryse isn’t quite a complete failure, it’s just underwhelming if one considers how much the game cost to make and the developer’s judgment. Crytek did not care about the mechanics except to the extent that they could look cool in trailers, commercials, and maybe a short demo. The rest of the tens of millions of dollars invested in this thing were spent on the peripherals which obviously cannot support a quality game on their own. This is nothing short of backwards game design.

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I don’t want to belabor this argument that has been made time and time again by pundits like Yahtzee, Jim Sterling, Shamus Young, and George Weidman, but it was hard not to think of it when playing Ryse. So much money, manpower, time, and effort were poured into this game which could have been spent better elsewhere on who knows how many more projects. Crytek made a game that’s pure style over substance; but not even creative or interesting style. Just graphical prowess and easily digestible visuals. Nothing new, nothing innovative, not even anything refined or tweaked exists in Ryse: Son of Rome. That’s a shame and it makes the game another example of the long-standing bad priorities of AAA video game developers.

I guess I just want to get it out there that having a bad development philosophy and wasting a lot of resources on inefficient game design doesn’t necessarily create an awful game. Just a disappointing one. But whatever. For what it’s worth, Ryse is still fun to play if you can get it on the cheap, especially if you like pretty environments, pretty combat, pretty cutscenes, and don’t care about remembering any of it a week later.

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