Platform: Xbox One
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Ryse isn't the sharpest pilum in the cohort. This is a game in which Boudica proudly rides an elephant through the streets of Rome, where legionnaires smack arrows out of the air with their swords, that recasts Greek myth Damocles as a Roman version of Candyman and assumes that barbarians spent their free time manufacturing vast quantities of explosive barrels. Out of what? Woad? Never mind all that, though, because this is also a game where every QTE is impossible to fail. It's pretty, stunning even, but oh so hilariously stupid.
I really like it.
See, though we weren't particularly kind to Ryse over the last few months (an understatement), there's something endearing about its single-minded determination to be neither big nor clever. It's short and dumb, unbelievably repetitious too, but utterly gorgeous and built around a combat system that works.
In fact, anyone who suggests that Ryse is a "button masher" or "plays itself" probably clattered through it on the lowest difficulty setting to deadline. Or, erm, made perfectly valid judgements based on that awful E3 reveal, using the evidence at hand. Let's clear that up.
Our story begins as Rome burns, as Nero runs rather than fiddles. Escorted to the safety of a Roman panic room by legionnaire Marius Titus, the corpulent tyrant has nothing better to do than listen to the grizzled veteran as he recounts a tale of revenge and conquest in the British isles. It really is one of the most idiotic plots I've waded through in some time, but it's delivered brilliantly by a cast of capable British TV actors and captured with exquisite facial animations, to the extent where you'll actually want to see it out.
Which involves a heaped serving of arena combat. Whether storming a beach in a surprisingly exciting homage to Saving Private Ryan (stupid), duelling nightmarish demon-Scots in what very much appears to be Mordor (doubly stupid) or battling Boudica on a lofty wooden crane (I give up) Marius smashes through mobs of functionally identical but thematically distinct foes using a very basic moveset. X attacks. Y's for block-breaking shield bashes. B rolls and A parries. Powerful and responsive stuff, backed up with fluid animations, especially the parry which instantly sees Marius break from a combo to turn an enemy's blade away.
It's simple to the point of being patronising, yet surprisingly engaging. Enemies advance in challenging mobs and usually don't telegraph their blows with an on-screen icon, instead requiring you to pay close attention to each foe and parry as appropriate. It's reactive to be sure, but masks a pleasing amount of versatility. An incoming attack could be blocked or parried, interrupted by a shield bash, knocked off balance by a riposte of your own or rolled out the way of; rewarding players who actually use their eyes and brains a little bit. Meanwhile the heavy, visceral yet responsive attacks feel great to pull off and hit hard when they connect.
If you play it on a harder difficulty setting, button mashing will see you killed within seconds, instead putting the focus squarely on observation and perfect timing, and pushing the advantage with shield bashes whenever possible. Who'd have thought it?
Then we have the QTEs, which act as gory finishing moves for near-dead barbarians. Once one of the dozens of executions start, there's no way to stop it or fail, but pressing the right button demarcated by a coloured halo (a pleasing alternative to floating prompts) will earn you extra experience and in-game currency. Effectively the target is dead the moment you hit the right trigger and initiate the takedown, but swooping dramatic camera pans connect you to the brutality of the action, while your input makes each kill feel doubly cathartic. In fact, it's undeniably satisfying, more a reward for your hard work setting up the injured enemy than anything else. So long as you don't think too hard about it.
What Ryse absolutely doesn't need is an upgrade system, considering its 6-8 hour runtime, but it has one anyway. This is largely to artificially add the impression of depth without putting in much work, and also to flog a few unnecessary microtransactions to complete berks. The emphasis being "unnecessary." Trust me: Ryse is too dumb to trick anyone into parting with extra money.
It really is stunning, though. As one of the most graphically impressive next-gen titles on the market, Ryse ryses [really? - Ed] to the occasion and delivers a hyper-detailed, pin-sharp, lustrously reflective visual tour de force. Yes, it's upscaled from 900p resolution, but it's difficult to care considering the painstakingly-animated faces, textured materials and superb particle effects; embers floating thick on the breeze and characters wracked with emotion. It's lovely, and unlike Crysis 2 & 3, the graphical clout is backed up by superb art direction and a rich colour palette, making it a beautiful game in any sense of the phrase.
That said, its luscious looks do work against Ryse at times; tedious loading screens notwithstanding, the closer we get to photo-realism, the harder it is to disguise your oversights. Why do all these barbarians have the same face, Crytek?
Why indeed. Three hours into Ryse, I was convinced that my fellow reviewers had perpetrated a horrible crime against a fun and beautiful game. Four hours in, I was wondering exactly when Crytek were going to introduce any new enemies. Five hours in and I was actively fighting the urge to snap Netflix to the side of the screen in order to give my brain something to do.
It never goes anywhere. Despite the scenery shifting, the enemies stay exactly the same save for a change of costume, roughly half a dozen identical AI archetypes who appear over and over and over again. Just in greater numbers with a little more health. Attempts to break up the pacing usually end up broadly functional (such as pushing forward in a Testudo formation), pointless (unnecessary Kinect voice commands) or awful (turrets), and always too brief to make a lasting impression. It's the same, almost exactly the same, all the way through the 6-7 campaign hours - making the surprisingly enjoyable 2-player cooperative mode an unappealing proposition after you're done. Playing it through in a single session will make your brain dribble out through your nose in a bid for freedom, despite the combat actually redeeming itself against all of our expectations.
So don't play it through in one go. Ramp up the difficulty and approach it in chunks, enjoying the satisfying combat without tiring of the dearth of enemy variation and ensuring that you're always gawping at the scenery rather than taking it for granted. Dip into the multiplayer too, little and often, which sees two players work together to survive in an insane clockwork Colosseum.
When enjoyed in moderation and as a graphical showcase, you might well be in for a nyce surpryse. Sorry.
- Brutal combat is surprisingly satisfying and engaging, especially at higher difficulties
- Visceral and gorgeous, both graphically and artistically
- Silly story delivered with compelling gravitas
- Enjoyable cooperative multiplayer - enjoyed in moderation
- Crushing lack of enemy variety leads to enormous repetition
- Upgrade and progression system is inappropriate for a 6-8 hour game
- Dumb as a bag of squid
- Long load times (why did we have to install it?)
The Short Version: Ryse is stupid, beautiful, stupid, visceral, stupid and much more fun than we ever gave it credit for. A surprisingly solid launch title let down by a limited stock of enemies to fight, not its controversial yet ultimately entertaining swordplay.
Whatever you do, be sure to play it in short bursts on a harder difficulty setting. That way you'll fully appreciate the gorgeous visuals and enjoy the satisfying combat, rather than letting Ryse outstay its welcome in a single vainglorious charge.