There's always a point when playing an action game that makes you realise you've hit the limit of your abilities and must now look ahead at mastering the skills you currently have. Most games draw this out by adding additional weapons or skills in every level, eventually compiling all of your martial prowess into a measurable rate of progression. Most games follow this very easy to understand path of success because despite the background, story or quests, the game's expectations are crystal clear. Ryse: Son of Rome is not like most games.
In Ryse players control Marius, a Roman soldiers who climbs through the ranks of military hierarchy following a quest for revenge against those who murdered his family. His bloodlust and love for country take Marius through the streets of Rome to the besieged city of York, through outlying aqueducts and in the dark untamed woods of Britannia, all in an effort to right what was made wrong amid a not-so-subtle narrative of treachery and power. There are few surprises here, but Ryse isn't really a game built to tell an emotionally arresting story.
Ryse is a game where you hack people's limbs off before stabbing them, and in that it's a tremendous success. The controls are incredibly easy to handle, with buttons being broken down into attacks (X and Y) and defensives (B and A). Sword attacks through X deal more damage but can be parried or blocked easier, while shield strikes through Y can be used to break enemy defenses. Conversely, B is used to roll away from unblockable attacks while A is used to deflect incoming strikes. R1 unleashes a fury mode, which dramatically improves your attack speed and strength at the cost of your earned fury meter. Anyone familiar with the recent Batman: Arkham titles will recognise the groundwork for such a system, and though it lacks some technical finesse, Ryse's combat is satisfying.
The real bread and butter of the system comes with the executions, which provide the finishing touch for an otherwise straightforward combat experience. Once an enemy reaches low enough health, players can push R2, which throws the entire game into a slo-mo quick time event. Enemies will flash a particular color corresponding with a button on the controller, and pushing the button will cause Marius to strike the enemy. It's important to note here that it's impossible to miss these attacks, and that selecting the wrong button only earns a lower score.
Assigned to the D-Pad are four abilities designed to take advantage of executions, and the way you execute can earn you either additional fury, experience, health or a small boost to damage. These bonuses can be adjusted at any time during the slow motion sequences, which is convenient since combat can be hard to disengage from otherwise.
Because of this the action in Ryse is incredibly formulaic, which can be boring depending on the kind of player you are. Attack till execution range, execute, match colors in a QTE then rinse and repeat. By the time you've finished the first level in Ryse you've completely mastered everything the game has to offer, and the remaining seven levels in the single player campaign only serve to deliver the same gameplay in different environments. Experience earned throughout the game can be put into unlocking new executions, increasing health or improving fury built, but nothing you do will change the core of the gameplay.Ironically Ryse has its more boring moments when trying to break the monotony. This often comes into play when it attempts to emulate the grandeur of Roman military prowess by having players lock into a shield phalanx, rush against a barbarian horde, or yell for archers to support your position with fire via the Kinect. This isn't through a lack of effort of course, but because they've established this remarkably fluid system of (relatively) non-intrusive quick time events, it never feels as though it's used to its full potential.
That's where the arena comes in, replacing the story with a series of isolated locations that players can either enter alone or take on with another gladiator for online co-op. Here players complete simple challenges like 'kill everyone else' or 'stand somewhere and kill everyone else', and within the faster paced waves of enemies, Ryse's combat system really hits its mark.
With only a few simple blocks and a well timed execution, you can watch your character smoothly knock someone into a spike track, swing around and cut the throat of another only to grab a third and kick them sharply into a wall lined with blades; and the lack of execution variety in the campaign is made up for by having greater access to environmental kills and co-op executions, all of which look awesome. It's entirely possible to enter the arena alone, but if you have a friend to play with the Colosseum's gauntlet can be a lot of fun to run through.
Participating in the arena either way gives players gold, which can be used to purchase either upgrades in the single player (if you're impatient) or booster packs of items for the arena that can be used to customize your gladiator's appearance and stats. Though it would be nice to have extra options like character-unique executions or different weapons, the arena feels largely like the game Ryse should have been, more focused on the combat rather than massive set piece environments. That's perhaps where Ryse misses a huge trick.
The arena is broken down into two co-op modes; one which lets you play two scenarios with a teammate and one that marathons all ten maps for players to churn through. Another single-player mode lets players take their gladiator into the arena alone in one of three levels, however players may want to earn equipment or purchase additional boosters before attempting this as the difficulty can be quite steep without any help.
Where Ryse excels is in the visual department. The graphics here are really top notch. Though some levels are almost distracting with the amount of detail they contain (the first trek through Rome is a fantastic example of too much occurring on screen for the eye to handle) most levels look absolutely fantastic and contain elements that successfully draw in players into the excitement. A great example would be combat during any of the game's sieges, which often have the screen filled with smoke and embers as catapults rain down fire from the sky. Combined with Ryse's smooth attack animations and great audio no one should find the game's cinematic ambitions lacking.
Overall Ryse is a game that does a fantastic job showing of what the Xbox One can handle, while at the same time leaving you rather disappointed that the developer didn't pursue the concept just a little further. The single player feels too short, the combat isn't complex enough, and the multiplayer woefully undersold. If you're a die hard fan of history the plot will likely throw you into a fitful convulsion at all its inaccuracy, but Ryse isn't really a game trying to be accurate. It's trying to be fun while at the same time capturing the spirit of an era long lost. In that it succeeds, and though the ride is short and underdeveloped, it highlight's the platform's potential.
|Smooth combat and brutal executions are satisfying|
|Arena mode is fun, and works well with co-op|
|Visuals are excellent|
|Combat isn't quite deep enough, can be boring at times|
|Story is comically short|
|Lack of character customization a major disappointment|