When Crytek showed off Ryse: Son of Rome at E3 2013, the timeless phrase “You can’t polish a turd” came to mind. Here we had this gorgeous looking next-gen exclusive for the Xbox One being hammered down by constant QTE’s and Kinect support, which aren’t two things that really excite anyone. Crytek took notice of the overwhelming negativity surrounding Ryse, but did they actually do anything about it in the months leading up to the Xbox One launch? Well, yes.. and no.
Ryse: Son of Rome is a hack-and-slash in which the player controls Roman General Marius Titus, the sandle-clad hero of the story. After witnessing the death of his family as the result of a barbarian attack, Marius escorts the emperor, Nero, to his panic room and tells him of his life while they’re locked away. As the story unfolds you’ll re-live each moment in-game, from Marius’ time as a common soldier in the dull 2nd Division, to his eventual promotion to Centurion and beyond.
While the plot of Ryse is predictably a tale of vengeance, there were a few surprises here and there that kept me interested during my initial run through of the campaign. The storytelling was effectively told through solid voice acting, an excellent soundtrack and scripted cut-scenes, but my initial assumption about the outcome at the beginning of the game was nowhere close to what actually occurs in the final chapters.. and for that, I tip my hat to Crytek.
Graphically, I could sum up Ryse in one word – “eyesex”. So it’s not a real word, but I still find it extremely accurate. Ryse is, in my opinion, the best looking next-gen title for either of the new consoles. Crytek is well known for their graphical benchmarks in the Crysis series and Ryse is no different, sporting insanely detailed facial textures from Marius’ shiny yellow teeth to Commander Vitallion’s beefcake 5 o’clock shadow. Every piece of armor looks hand-crafted, every sword seems battle-worn and every strap of leather looks like it once belonged to a baby calf, happily nom-nomming on grass before being brained for its hide. And the beards! Oh, the beards! If only I could have facial hair that looks as good as it does in Ryse, I’d die a happy, manlier man.
One thing that really got on my nerves was the overall lack of variety in enemy models. Enemies look great, but each type only had one model. Maybe barbarians and pagans keep their fashion secrets close to the chest, but I could only impale the same fat guy with nipple shields or the dual-weilding douche-bag with the rat tail haircut 100 times before face-palming. Each enemy had their own pattern and I’d chew through wave after wave of “the fat shield guy”, “the tall axe guy”, “the dual-weilding sword guy” or “the weak guy who forgot his other axe back at camp”, all the way to the end of the game.
Graphical gushing aside, the core of a hack-and-slash game lies in how well it plays, right? Ryse offers a very simple pick-up-and-play combat scheme that reminded me a lot of the Arkham games, or the reactive fighting style of Sleeping Dogs (not God of War, as so many people have been quick to compare). There are no flashy air combos to master and no additional weapons to pick up, which may bother some, but I was fine with it.
Using the face buttons, Marius has access to a basic slashing attack, a shield bash attack to open up enemies for combos, a deflect button to parry and a dodge-roll, so nothing too fancy. He also has access to a Kingdoms of Amalur-like fury ability that slows down time and allows you to dish out a little old-fashioned Roman street justice. Once Marius has beaten an enemy to within an inch of their life, a magical skull icon will pop over their head to indicate one thing — it’s time for carnage in the form of executions.
Executions play a huge roll in Ryse for two reasons. One, there are tons and tons of them to unlock and they’re so brutal that black metal bands write songs about them. The second, and most important, are the execution bonuses. Using the D-pad, each direction selects a different execution bonus, like health regeneration or increased XP gains, and you can change them to your preference any time you’d like. Executions will play out whether you press the correct buttons or not, but completing them correctly will award you with your selected execution perk, and the quicker you press the button the higher the reward. This is especially crucial on the Legendary difficulty setting as you’ll only receive execution rewards for perfectly timed attacks. It’s in this aspect that the combat in Ryse goes from being basic and forgiving to needing to have every execution input memorized, else ye’ face certain death. A lot.
I’d also like to point out that I’ve finished Ryse twice, I’m currently going through again on Legendary, and never once did I feel annoyed by the execution system or their animations. You can get a better idea of how the execution perk system works out in the video below that I recorded with Upload Studio and posted online via the SkyDrive app.
The most surprising portion of Ryse came in the form of it’s co-op multiplayer in the Colosseum. Starting off as a diaper-clad level 1 scrubling, you battle your way through random objectives and an ever-changing gladiatorial arena that is a sight to behold. Watching the floor give way to my soothing lake-side corpse pile-up only to reform itself (in a steam-punk sort of way) in to a completely different forest setting was jaw-dropping and still causes me to shed manly, bearded Roman tears. Combat in the Colosseum is similar to the single player experience, but objectives are randomized and you have access to a few different abilities instead of just having the time-slowing fury deal that Marius enjoyed so often. Bonuses are also awarded depending on the length of your combos and just how in to your battle the crowd is, so you never have time to just sit around and kick rocks. Oh, and there are double executions because severing limbs is so much fun that you’ll want to share that experience with your friends. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Battling waves of enemies in the Colosseum with your bro-op buddy will add a lot more life to Ryse, which is fantastic considering the campaign only lasts about 5 or 6 hours. You can even opt to head in to the arena solo if you don’t have any friends (it’s okay, we still love you) and level up your gladiator yourself.
Now I know the question on everyone’s mind is “How does Kinect make this experience BETTER?“, and I’ll be sure to answer that for you right now. Ryse initially started off as a Kinect-only title, but thankfully took a turn for the better in its current state. If Kinect isn’t your thing, there is absolutely nothing in Ryse that requires its use.. but I went through my 2nd play-through using voice commands any chance I could, and I’d never go through it again without them.
There are various points in Ryse where Marius can order his troops to assist in different ways, like firing a volley of arrows at whatever you’re fighting to lighten the load. You can give out these orders by holding LB for about 5 seconds DURING combat, but between keeping my combos going, swapping execution perks and doing my best not to end up on the business end of a pagan pain train, I found it much, MUCH more efficient to just say “fire volley” and watch my troops do all the work. Voice commands with the Xbox One Kinect worked every single time, even with my TV blaring, my girlfriend yelling at her brother in the background over Skype and my cats battling it out in some sort of weird kitty Thunderdome beneath my feet. It was always responsive and a hell of a lot easier. I dare say, I loved it.
One oddity I’d like to point out before finishing this review is the presence of micro-transactions, using real-world cash to buy in-game bonuses. The presence of pay-to-win micro-transactions is sure not to sit well in the stomachs of many a gamer, but the option isn’t intrusive at all. You can purchase gold from the Xbox Live store to buy abilities in-game instead of spending the in-game XP. I feel this is completely unnecessary though, as I had enough valor to buy every single execution and every stat upgrade but one in my initial play-through.
Overall, Ryse: Son of Rome is an oddly named title (as Ryse is not the name of any character, nor place in the game) that will be hit or miss with a lot of people. I enjoyed the solo campaign and the Colosseum enough that I can justify the purchase, but if multiplayer bro-op isn’t your thing you may be turned away by the short (and linear) campaign. Still, it’s a graphical marvel and a solid hack-and-slash with enough replay value to keep you playing, but it’s definitely far from perfect.