January 9, 2019 at 6:27 AM #1526
Ryse: Son of Rome
Rating: 3.5 – Good
Repetitive in Nature, but a Pleasant Surprise
Ryse: Son of Rome tells the epic revenge story of Roman Centurion Marius Titus as he climbs through the ranks of the Roman military to avenge the murder of his family. The game’s opening chapter begins in the middle of the climactic invasion of Rome by British barbarians and concludes with Marius locking himself in a sealed chamber with Emperor Nero in order to protect him. The rest of the game is spent telling the story through a series of flashbacks from Marius’ perspective, detailing his steady rise through the chain of command, his arduous campaigns in Britain, and his involvement with lamentable members of the Roman government. The story explores the theme of conflict between a righteous warrior and his selfish, incompetent government, taking care to detail the emotions and thoughts of friendly and enemy characters alike. The storytelling style itself felt, in a lot of ways, similar to the Classical Greek epics, with elements of divine intervention, fulfilled prophecies, and fate. Marius as a character is little more than a typical single-shaded protagonist, and it feels as if his only purpose is to be a character for players to experience the story through. Aside from a weak protagonist, however, the plot and characters of Ryse work well with each other and come together nicely as the narrative unfolds.
It’s important to note that the abundant amounts of historical inaccuracies are not blunders, but intentional design choices. Ryse is set in an alternate historical timeline, and even though many characters that appear are historical figures, their roles can be exaggerated, twisted, or completely fictional altogether. The Colosseum, a characteristic edifice of Roman culture, is recreated in stunning fantastical glory, though it utilizes technology- shifting floor tiles, seemingly spontaneous generation, and gunpowder- that was obviously unavailable to historical Romans. Even certain elements of the game’s plot are fictitious: a lot of names and dates don’t line up accurately. This degree of creative license is nice to see, though, as it adds some originality to an otherwise stagnant time period in Roman history.
Visually, Ryse is easily one of the best looking and most detailed games on the Xbox One’s launch lineup. The graphical fidelity of the game is simply stunning. Every aspect of Ryse’s artistic direction is handled with care from well rendered vistas to realistically flowing water. The chapters set in Rome utilize authentic architecture schematics, and it’s a very nice-looking portrayal of what the city might have looked like. Each chapter is easily distinguishable by its color scheme and unique environment elements that work well to portray the themes and atmosphere of the current narrative. The game’s combat even uses authentic Greco-Roman martial arts- albeit dramatically embellished- to add additional layers of detail. Even some of the most minute facets get attention to a degree that simply doesn’t appear in other games: in one instance, I noted that when my character was standing over a dead body, instead of clipping through it he placed his foot on top of it. Trivial little things like this add up throughout the game and just make the experience that much richer.
If you’re familiar with Assassin’s Creed, the Arkham series, or other similar combat systems, you’ll feel at home with Ryse’s gameplay. Using the face buttons, players have access to a light sword attack, a bashing guard-break, a standard block, and a dodge roll, with the sword strike and shield bash being able to be held down for a slower, heavier attack. Each of the enemy variants are susceptible to different attacks and approaches, meaning that the different moves can be used strategically to deal with specific enemy types. For example, basic grunts can be sliced and juggled until defeated, whereas shield wielders need to be stunned before you can damage them. Other enemy archetypes, such as dual-wielders, require trickier input combinations or perfect deflections to open them up to damage. Some enemy classes also utilize a heavy attack, which is impossible to block without perfect timing. As the game moves up in difficulty, all enemies will start to use heavy attacks and groups of enemies will begin to ignore the "take your turn" mentality, meaning that success is only rewarded to players with a good sense of awareness. Additionally, a Focus meter will charge passively as Marius performs successful attacks and executions. At the cost of one charged Focus segment, Marius can temporarily enter Focus mode where enemies are stunned and slowed, attacks do increased damage, and combo multipliers grow easier.
Once an enemy has taken enough damage, a skull icon will appear above their head, indicating that they can be executed. By pulling RT near an enemy with a skull icon, Marius will enter one of many beautifully choreographed executions. During an execution, both Marius and the target enemy will enter combat animations. Marius will be immune to all forms of damage during this time, and at certain key points in the animation sequence the enemy will glow either blue or yellow, indicating a press of the X or Y buttons respectively. Executions are, in essence, very simple QTEs. The speed at which the correct button is pressed will result in a tiered rating for that strike, with Recruit being the slowest and Legendary being the fastest. The animation will be continued regardless of whether or not the correct button is pressed, but inputting the right buttons quickly yield additional benefits. Active at all times, players choose one of four perks mapped to the D-Pad: health regen, XP boost, damage boost, and Focus boost. Upon successful executions, these perks come into effect and grant boosts to Marius in combat. The rating of the execution contributes greatly to the weight of the boost granted: a Recruit execution might heal only a little bit of health, while a Legendary one could refill a good chunk. Performing a Legendary execution can be challenging, however, as it requires players to read and potentially memorize the animation itself rather than the color highlight of the target enemy. As the game moved up in difficulty, I was expecting the executions to utilize other buttons instead of just X and Y. This was not the case, and I feel as if this was a missed opportunity to further diversify the repetitive nature of the executions.
Additionally present is a combo meter which climbs as players land successful attacks and execution inputs consecutively without taking damage. Building a combo as high as possible rewards players with higher level execution prompts, score multipliers, and increased perk effectiveness. The combo counter, along with the feed of successful attacks, blocks, executions, and plenty of other things, is displayed on the left hand side of the screen. This contributes greatly to HUD clutter: oftentimes I found myself unable to see attacks coming from enemies on that particular part of the screen. Not only did this cause me to take unnecessary damage, but it also ended whatever combo I was in the process of building. Landing different attacks, parries, and techniques in combat reward players with set amounts of XP points, also displayed on the feed. Building your combo meter through skillful play can increase the amount of XP earned in a combo exponentially, and the longer you maintain a combo, the greater the benefit. XP in single player allows you to level your player rank up to level 10 which makes upgrades and executions available for purchase with the in-game currency, Renown. Renown is earned by simply playing through the game and defeating enemies in combat. Additionally, you can purchase single player upgrades with Gold, the multiplayer currency that doubles as microtransaction currency. If you play a lot of multiplayer and have plenty of Gold to spend, you can certainly use it for the single player upgrades, but there’s no shortage of Renown and it doesn’t once feel like you need to grind or farm in order to make ends meet. You can’t use Renown to buy multiplayer items either, so Gold is best spent wisely.
As Marius is a growing member of a functioning military body, it’s only natural that he take command of troops. At certain points of the game, usually in hectic battle scenarios, Marius is tasked with commanding troops in a slew of different ways. Most common are simple trigger commands, like "Fire Volley," which are activated by holding down LB or speaking into the Kinect when the prompt appears. At other times, Marius must make decisions about where to place troops on the battlefield. Each decision comes with advantages and disadvantages: in one instance, you can have your archers suppress enemy archers with their volleys, or you can have them support you in combat. If you choose the former, you’ll have to fight more units yourself, but without having to dodge additional arrows, and the obvious inverse if you choose the latter. Finally, Marius will sometimes have to take direct control of and lead units into battle directly. In true Roman fashion, Marius will organize his troops into the infamous Roman Testudo and lead the charge against embedded enemy middle positions. In these on-rails segments, players have to juggle between advancing towards the enemy position, taking cover behind shields, and returning fire with Pila.
The game’s multiplayer allows players to assume control of a customizable gladiator and fight through hand-crafted campaigns of carnage and destruction. Either with a friend or through random matchmaking, players join up in teams of two and enter the Colosseum where they’ll face hoards of enemies. Playing in the Arena playlist gives the option to select from a series of campaigns that are designed to imitate famous battles and events in Roman history, such as incursions into Carthage, Gaul, and Egypt. Players have to work together to kill their way through the Colosseum, complete objectives, and win the campaign. Throughout the campaigns, the customizable gladiator earns XP and Gold based on performance. XP increases your rank, which makes certain items available for purchase and Gold is the form of currency used to buy new equipment. Items are tiered from Tier 1 to Tier 6, and obviously, the higher the tier, the more expensive it’ll be. Each piece of equipment comes with perks that can be used to build stats on your gladiator. By piecing together favorable combinations of perks, you can create a meaty tank, a frenzied Focus fighter, an XP hound, or anything in between. A major problem, however, is the fact that Tier 6 equipment is unavailable without the purchase of DLC. If you want access to the strongest equipment in the game, you need to pay real money.
The Colosseum’s hoard mode approach is fun and the campaigns are unique and creative, but it doesn’t really do much to differentiate the formula from the rest of the game. Between vanilla, DLC, and solo campaigns, there are about thirty different scenarios to play through. At this point, it comes down to whether or not you find the combat repetitive and fun. Someone who enjoys the combat will have no problem sticking around and grinding out to get the best gear and put together a Tier 6 build, but if you started to get bored by the end of the single player campaign, you won’t find much to keep you entertained. After a certain point, the Colosseum gimmick wears off and it’s basically "do this, kill that" until you’re done. Ranking up is just a matter of continuity: keep playing to keep earning XP and your rank will increase over time. There’s not really much to keep you invested except for the drive to continually improve your stats.
Despite a few points of mediocrity, Ryse shines in more key areas than I was expecting. The single player campaign was much better than I had anticipated, and though it was extremely linear, the combat was entertaining to a point that more than made up for it. Couple that with a curiously well done story, and it’s something not worth missing. Despite the battle system’s notoriety for repetitiveness, chaining together epic combos and cutting through swarms of enemies with skillful precision feels extremely gratifying, and I didn’t grow disinterested even after multiple playthroughs. The multiplayer feels essentially tacked on and at certain times lazy in design and the lack of a PvP mode is another huge missed opportunity, but if you enjoy the game’s combat then you’ll find a lot entertainment with it. It really peeves me (and many others, certainly) that the best equipment and almost half of the maps are locked behind a paywall, but again, if you enjoy the combat it might be a worthwhile investment. Also worth mentioning are the game’s load times: if you intend on playing the game’s higher difficulties, you’d best be very good at not dying. Loading screens have on occasion lasted as long as two minutes for me, and when you’re developing strategies for a frantic boss fight that just kicked your ass, the last thing you want is a long load time to throw your rhythm off. Overall, Ryse is a good game, but nothing more than that. The single player is a quality package with a well told story, but the multiplayer seems lacking in comparison. If repetitive combat systems and grindy multiplayer experiences isn’t something you enjoy, Ryse: Son of Rome may not be the game for you.
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