While there is always a gamble in buying a console at launch, I believe the eighth era probably had the worst titles upon their respective machines’ releases. Neither the PS4, Xbox One nor Wii-U gave me many reasons to acquire them until much later. Although, one game that intrigued me was Ryse: Son of Rome, due to my love for its historical setting and hack & slash. Yet, it would not be until I casually browsed the store on Series X that I decided to give it a shot since it was mainly looked at as just a tech demo. Even if this is true, I think it deserves a bit more credit.
A soldier’s mumbling
Taking place roughly in the year 68, Rome is being invaded by barbarians and the military forces are doing what they can to defend their capital. One of the soldiers named Marius, who also takes the role of this tale’s protagonist, finds the emperor Nero and helps him escape into a safe room. With plenty of time to waste, the hero suddenly starts elaborating upon how he became the man he is now, starting from when he was visiting his home before being stationed in Alexandria.
Having a simple story focusing on someone’s journey through life could be filled with strong themes of maturity. Unfortunately, it is all rather generic and clunkily executed here, going so far as to quickly involve a revenge plot and forcing itself to sound important, exemplified by how your father’s dying words are “you must save Rome”. There are some legit intriguing discussions you will encounter throughout that are even dissected decently, such as how one should never rush into battle. Regrettably, these are few compared to the rather abundance of monotonous dialogues, making them barely memorable.
I cannot say that the events are much to write home about in terms of significance either. Probably the most bizarre one was a romance that comes out of nowhere towards the end and even questions what could have been in another timeline. The rest are similarly poor, be it when invading a barbarian camp or saving civilians. Sure, these are exciting action scenes, but with a tale that tries hard to seem deep and rarely uses such parts for plot or reflection, they become lacklustre.
With that being said, these sequences are exhilarating on their own! Battling at the shores of Britannia, scouring a forest with dead comrades, and fighting inside the Colosseum are all entertaining. Sadly, even they are built up inadequately through blatantly bad leaders and interesting mythologies that offer subpar foreshadowing. It also bothers me that we have the death of the protagonist’s other family members that conveyed no valuable connections and forced yet dull scenarios like the random sex dungeon.
All of these moments really hurt an otherwise minimalistic saga that incorporates annoying cliches for no reason. This is quite depressing, as there is an engrossing setup here overall, but everything is presented awfully and makes the finished product feel like a bland and forgettable Hollywood movie. Had some parts been cut and made simpler, it would probably help. I say this as I enjoy Marius as a star, with his journey to learn how to balance a cool head and aggressive approach being engaging, as well as the setting bringing on a ton of possibilities for combining religious and political insights. At least the action is fierce, but that can merely captivate an audience for so long.
Story Score: 3/10
Not tactical, but effective
By being a linear hack & slash instead of its original Kinect project, Ryse already shows promise in delivering fun combat from the start. As the roman soldier, you are able to attack with your sword, push with your shield for stunning, dodge roll, counter, block, and perform an execution move whenever the enemy has a skull icon on the top of their head after taking a certain amount of damage. It is all fairly straightforward, but it makes the game easy to pick up and play.
Your swings of the gladius and bashes of the scutum can both be charged by holding down their respective buttons, but it is clunky due to taking time to prepare and not being worth the extra effect in exchange for leaving you vulnerable. Additionally, I question the aspect of timing actions for better outcomes. While it is neat and can go so far as to make it possible to deflect devastating strikes, this mechanic does not become important until the very end portion of the journey against one boss. In fact, this is the biggest problem I encountered with this title; not all abilities are useful.
The ability to dodge works flawlessly against all attacks compared to the counter, making it more reliable and me wondering why the latter was even implemented. Not to mention, your opponents are easy to decipher on how to take out, such as stunning those holding a shield for an opening. Luckily, the combat is always engaging by having you keep an eye on all the foes around you that come in a decent variety, like the pyromaniacs. There is enough to hold your attention, which makes finding pilums around to carry and throwing for an instant kill worthwhile!
At least, it would have if it was not for a couple of broken strengths. Under your health bar, you have a focus metre that when a portion is full, can be used to slow down time and strike everyone around you quickly. This could have been mitigated by only making you gradually gain it back from solely swinging your sword, but this is not the case. Another way to fill it is through executions. You see, you have four bonuses you can get after performing this; extra XP, the ability to deal increased damage afterwards, and a huge amount of either FP or HP back. The latter two break the game in half since you will be close to invincible, especially because of how you can switch between them on the fly.
Sure, the executions do come with QTE, but you do not even have to press the right buttons at all to complete them. The only thing you get by doing so is more experience points, which you use to arbitrarily upgrade a few stats of your character. All of them are underwhelming, such as being able to carry extra pilums or expanding your life pool, making them worthless for a linear adventure. What makes these even worse, is the microtransaction that is now completely free. Despite having level caps for certain enhancements, upgrades are easily acquired and destroy any challenge this title could have had.
However, I wish to reiterate that the combat is entertaining due to the amount of carnage going on and you still require a keen eye on who is attacking. It is just that the major problems mentioned make it close to impossible to lose and repetitive. Sadly, the added variety is simply terrible and contains questionable design choices. At least, the moments of superficial exploration and getting to the next fight, are rather short and include automatic traversal or the occasional button push. You can even sprint in these parts, which is nice for keeping up the pace! Although, I forgot that you can stumble on traps, as they are painless to deflect and a nonchalant aspect of the journey.
Unfortunately, the rest is lacklustre. Probably the most boring one is the turret section where you control a ballista or throw pilums, which is just a more involved QTE and completely shallow. Similarly can be said about commanding your troops when approaching enemies in turtle format. Basically, you shield up when the foes readying their arrows and charge your own projectiles back at them when it is clear, all in a slow manner. Not even the parts where you can decide which approach you take are much to talk about, as they essentially boil down to whether you want to battle on foot or by using one of these alterations.
The last criticisms I have are the bosses, as they are purely forgettable due to obvious patterns and simple setups. Only the last two required timed strikes and blocks to get out unscathed, but that is about it. All of this is quite tragic, as there are some neat ideas sprinkled throughout this adventure. Some favourite examples of mine are when you have to take down archers attacking your troops, dodging cannonballs flying towards you, or holding in the LB for yelling at your comrades to shoot at the adversaries, all while facing other melee warriors. You can even use the Kinect for shouting out orders, which is nifty and effective.
With eight chapters to go through, Ryse is over in about five-six hours. I appreciate this, as it makes the combat still satisfying and does not overstay its welcome, despite some obvious problems. Truthfully, there is fun to be had here as even with its bare varieties and objectives, this launch game is all about fighting and making you pay attention, to the point that there will be times when you try to perform two executions simultaneously. While mindless and shallow, it is also entertaining and showcases promises. Regrettably, it is hard to deny that this journey is nevertheless below average and repetitive.
Gameplay Score: 4/10
Certainly one of the primary draws of an exclusive title is to give clear indications of what powers the console can convey. This is something I believe this project by Crytek does solidly with its incredible take on this ancient era, and despite mainly visiting Britania and Rome, there is nonetheless a huge diversity in locations you will be visiting. Cities with distinct landmarks like markets, dark forests harbouring a mystical cave, a colosseum that changes its layouts, and more add to make this adventure quite intriguing. There are even subtle details, such as various food nearby campfires hinting that someone was here not too long ago.
Furthermore, it is a gorgeous game to look at on a technical level with beautiful textures, outstanding water effects, and amazing lighting. All of this was made through the CryEngine and it shows why it is still a remarkable tool. Enhancing the visuals onwards is the action itself with huge explosions in the far distance, magnificent facilities, and a ton of animations in the background that can include people fighting each other or a fortress being attacked by catapults.
Another aspect that is also admirable, is the gruesome gore, with your executions being a highlight. Slicing a foe’s arm off, flinging them over your head with your own sword, and using the environment to kill them never gets dull due to how realistic it all feels. Some moves are repeated, but all of them are immensely satisfying and come with tons of blood. It is also mesmerising to see the massacre you can create, and elements like dirt and rain just sweeten the tension.
I also wish to commend the facial expressions and details that let you read every emotion the characters have, making it always powerful when silent moments occur. Although, there is one gorgeous scene where this world’s mythologies are elaborated upon through a wonderful form of cell-shading that contains fantastic colours and effects to simulate motions, yet is never utilised again. This is genuinely a terrible loss and I do not understand why this style was quickly neglected. If nothing else, the templates for introducing each chapter of the game are meritorious and the overall cutscenes are great in their own right with good camera work.
What is a shame though, are the enemy and roman designs. They are marvellous on their own with authentic take on armour and lovely touches, like the stitched fur on the barbarians. However, there are only a few types, meaning you will come across repeated foes to fight against, and it is a big blemish on an otherwise amazing title in terms of visuals. I will also admit that travelling to other places in Europe would have been nice, but the areas you see have so much variety to them, it is hard to complain. Especially, with the tons of action going on around, including ship battles.
Regrettably, I cannot say I remember much of the soundtrack. It consists of bombastic orchestral scores with a lot of rhythms, but they contain underwhelming build-ups and flow, lack any highlighted notes, and are simply too bland to establish any mood. This is unfortunate, and I am somewhat surprised that merely the drums and relatively fitting trumpets are the only instruments that occasionally offer a suitable tone. With that said, the rest of the audio is definitely something to compliment.
Hearing your armour hustle as you run, foreboding echoes within huge establishments, and the clangs of weapons colliding are all impactful and excellent. Of course, barrels exploding, slicing your victims, and hearing anyone shout in distress, are just as strong and provide fierce tension to any motion occurring on the screen. As for the voice actors, everyone is superb with perfect directions and delivery. Even if they are not given a good script, all work with what they got, with John Hopkins carrying the narration beautifully through his confident and emotional performance. Truly, he captures the soul of a Roman soldier to the teeth.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Welcome to the Colosseum
Collectables in linear titles have always confused me, but Ryse continues this trend. These come in form of vistas, scrolls, and chronicles, but are all placed poorly around to the point that I wonder why they were even included. At one point, there was even an app to aid you in finding secrets and achievements, which is no longer possible to download and honestly never needed to exist. To be kind, you do unlock some neat bonuses like artwork, music, encyclopaedia, and comics, but that is all the praise I can give and in no way does it make me want to revisit the main campaign. Not even the fourth difficulty mode helps here.
Surprisingly, there is a solid amount of content for you should you enjoy the game’s combat! This is where “Gladiator” comes in, which is fundamentally the arena with various challenges. Most will have you kill tons of different opponents while either rescuing prisoners or using contraptions, but they are exhilarating because of the barrage of aggressive foes to deal with! Yet, the best part is that most missions can be done in co-op with a friend. I just wish there was an option for local, and not solely online play.
The primary objectives relegate to either going from round to round and taking on every enemy, survival where your health is drained and mainly gained back by killing or doing the basic tasks as explained earlier. All are engaging to take on, and seeing how you can revive each other should one fall and get cheers from the crowd in order to gain more XP for these modes, adds to the excitement! Speaking of, the RPG aspects are back and actually decently implemented here.
Now you can get equipment depending on your level, including armour for your head, torso, arm, waist, and feet, as well as shields and swords. All have different stats and can come with positives and negatives, forcing you to make clever choices on what to wear. Even the execution stands are fixed here, as you will now devote yourself to one specific god and thus get distinct abilities like a fire attack. None are overpowered and in co-op, you must use your strengths accordingly in order to get the most out of the battles and withstand the dangerous adversaries, which is wonderful.
With this and the countless enemies being tossed at you, this is a great part that showcases what promises Ryse originally had. Unfortunately, even this feature has some issues. The costumes you can get are rather underwhelming skins from the campaign and leaderboards are a bland addition, but these are minor problems. A major one is the microtransaction, which is now completely free. Purchasable potions offering significant boosts and crates for specific gear makes any point or supplies acquired in a fight not based on skill, lessening its hook. Luckily, despite it losing its steam after multiple replays, it is still a fun mode to take on if you ignore this blemish.
Extra Score: 5/10
Honestly, if this was the only exclusive I had to play at launch, I would have been decently satisfied. It has noticeable flaws with its unbalanced combat, poorly told story, dull variety, and no reason to go scavenging hunting. Yet, it is a marvellous game in terms of presentation and gives a delightful atmosphere filled with lovely violence, and an arena that made me revisit it with friends for some good hacking and slashing. Should attending the Colosseum sound appealing despite the repetition, you could truly do a lot worse.