In a year of revered storytelling and metaphoric interpretations, the joy of experiencing a game that wears its heart on its sleeve like Ryse: Son of Rome is quite refreshing. Dripping in Crytek’s creative honesty, the plain and simple fact is that the game’s simplicity is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness, resulting in an enjoyable experience that only just falls short of being something special.
What doesn’t fall short is the game’s quality presentation. Like a Roman goddess descending from the heavens, mere words cannot overstate how breathtakingly beautiful this game is. Both graphically and artistically, Crytek’s vision for the world of Ryse is communicated flawlessly. The tiniest critters of the wild flutter through glorious jungle landscapes as countless amounts of Barbarian blood spatter against the underbrush of the forest floor. Set pieces that we’ve come to expect from series such as Uncharted and Battlefield are matched and sometimes exceeded in terms of scope and visual grandeur. Torrential catapult fire slams the battlefield with quaking anger and ancient structures of titanic proportions topple under the weight and devastation of war and unflinching violence. The animations of all the characters are buttery-smooth too. The pain bestowed from the swing of your sword and bash of your shield can be seen on the faces of every enemy you slay.
It’s an attention to detail, a jaw-dropping quality of atmosphere and graphical splendour that must be applauded, and it sets the bar incredibly high for the console generation ahead.
The story follows Marius Titus and his journey through the ranks of the Roman army from fresh-faced cadet to battle-worn Centurion. The tale itself sets Marius on a brutal quest for revenge and the game does a great job of presenting objectives driven by both emotion and military motivations, which for a linear narrative is impressive.
Throughout this journey enemies will fall victim to Marius’ iconic Roman shield and sword in a combat system not too dissimilar to the Batman Arkham series. On a base level it’s very simple – strike with the sword, bash with the shield, roll to evade or deflect enemy attacks, with each of these actions tied to the four face buttons – but it is only the Centurion and Legendary difficulty levels that the true challenge and depth of combat are really exposed. In the two lower difficulty levels, Recruit and Soldier, enemies die with a few slashes and throughout the entire seven hour campaign the repetitiveness of mowing your way through hordes of foes without breaking a sweat isn’t very satisfying.
On the two higher difficulties of Centurion and Legendary, the game is much less forgiving and it’s here where it truly shines. Unlike the standard difficulties in the Batman games, in Ryse when an enemy is about to attack there is no floating icon above their head to remind players to counter. Keeping an eye on the animations of the surrounding Barbarians, judging what type of attack the enemy is using and timing deflections accordingly is of chief importance. Try to deflect a heavy attack too early and witness Marius cop a beating as he is thrown back with a third of his health depleted. Time it perfectly and send foes into a well-earned stagger opening them up briefly for a few swipes of his sword.
Once an enemy has been weakened, a small icon appears above their head indicating that the player now has the option to perform an Execution. By pulling the right trigger at this moment, Marius will enter into Execution mode as the enemies are sequentially outlined in either blue or yellow indicating which button, X or Y, the player must tap. While these executions are performed in a QTE-style manner, the beauty of them is that they are impossible to fail. Press the wrong button or hesitate too long and the Execution simply completes itself anyway. However by doing this, the player misses the opportunity to capitalise on the all-important Execution Bonus, which rewards players for completing an Execution as fast as they can. The choice of bonus is completely up to the player as well, giving them the option of being rewarded with a health regain, damage increase, experience boost or Focus increase. It’s a system that is easy to understand but demands the utmost attention of the player. Once mastered, the satisfaction of standing over the corpses of a dozen or more Barbarians, a single sword’s swipe painted across chests, backs, limbs and necks is a steadfast reminder of the glory found in a satisfying action combat system.
The only problem with that scene would be that of the dozen or so enemies laid waste, there would only be a handful of different character models. Enemy variation isn’t up to scratch for an action game as you face either standard assailants with a one-handed weapon, shielded opponents, dual-wielding attackers, archers or enemies bestowed with heavy two-handed weapons. This usually wouldn’t be a problem if the sandbox available to the player was enough to provide creativity and choice, but this isn’t the case. Marius is a jack of one trade; his shield and sword. Throwing spears are frequently available to use quickly in combat scenarios however they do little to add any form of variation into the mix.
After successfully dispatching enough enemies, players can also enter into Focus mode provided they’ve filled enough of their Focus meter. By tapping the right bumper, time slows and Marius is briefly allowed the advantage to bounce between foes inflicting tremendous damage without the hint of any enemy retaliation. This is especially helpful in boss battles that surprisingly offer a great challenge and force the player to show a mastery of the moves they’ve been using up until that point – they’re a true highlight of the combat experience and pleasingly memorable, not only for their challenge but the characters faced.
Other combat sequences do not fare so favourably. Scripted moments where you form a phalanx with your legionnaires are cool to look at, but ultimately can only be accomplished one way and become rather dull after the first few instances. Far and away the worst parts of the game arrive when Marius is manning a ballista. These fixed-position turret sequences are devoid of any enjoyment and creative spirit. It requires players to spam the trigger while moving the right thumbstick over targets, and sure there are explosive barrels to shoot and cauldrons full of incendiary material to topple, but more times than not the sticky aim is so heavy its infuriatingly difficult to aim at the target you wish to. It’s a respectable idea on the developer’s part to mix up the combat every now and then, but the monotony of these sequences does not achieve this in the slightest.
The RPG-like upgrade system tries, but ultimately fails to add much variety to the game as well. Experience is gained for every enemy killed and players can spend these experience points to upgrade Marius in whichever way they choose. What’s baffling is that all of the upgrades are purely passive; there are no new moves to unlock or skills to put to use. The benefit each upgrade provides strays way too close to the point of worthlessness and by the end of the game, no matter how poorly you performed, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll have unlocked everything anyway, abolishing any idea of players’ choices feeling significant.
On top of the solid foundation the combat system provides, what keeps the game entertaining is the story and in particular the voice acting. Marius Titus and his Commander Vitalion (played masterfully by John Hopkins and Tim Treloar, respectively) stand shoulder to shoulder with the most remarkable performances of recent years. The writing from Steven Hall is dark, riveting and compliments the tension, anguish and weariness seen in the faces of each character – a testament to the team’s creative vision and execution. In such a visually melodramatic action game it’s astonishing to receive a grounded, personal tale. While influenced by grandiose and at times supernatural themes, especially towards the end, the narrative remains untainted by the implausibility of such themes and serves the character development strongly.
This success also extends to the audio design as a whole. The heart-racing whizz of fiery arrows that clip Marius’ armour; the sound of a sword’s steel on armour or flesh as it makes a clinical slice; even the buzz of flies that infest the piles of fallen comrades are all aspects of the flawless auditory experience and do nothing but enrich the world and maximize its believability.
Overall, Ryse: Son of Rome is a great first foray into the new generation. It’s a cinematic masterpiece that cannot be denied of its technical wizardry. The combat system has a long way to go but lays a solid foundation for any potential sequel should Crytek and Microsoft decide to make one. While it stumbles in some regards, at the end of the day it can stand proud as an enjoyable game that will please action fans if they’re willing to rise to the challenge.