When a game eventually releases and ends up being completely different from what was initially announced, it's rarely a good sign. Ryse: Son of Rome was initially a wholly Kinect focused adventure which hoped to be the “killer app” to prove Kinect was a useful addition to the Xbox family, even for the “hardcore” gamer. Fast-forward a few years and now Ryse is one of the Xbox One's launch titles and is being touted as the console's best graphical showcase, but does it make for a good game?
Ryse: Son of Rome is the story of Marius, a Roman soldier whose family is slain by invading barbarians. He takes it upon himself to fight the English barbarians in order to get his revenge, eventually climbing the ranks and becoming a major figure in the Roman army. It's not exactly an epic for the ages but it's an enjoyable story nonetheless for the five hours and twenty minutes that it ran me. There's even a grand reveal near the end that fixes some of the narrative inconsistencies that you may notice during the first hour or so.
The voice acting used for this tale is very well done and the character models are some of the best I've seen. Animations, however, are a bit wonky sometimes and I noticed the odd texture pop-in, momentary freeze, and other such random bugs during my adventure, such as when the enemy I was fighting would lose his weapon model but still attack as though he had it in hand, or when the game pauses the action to show you something and one of your soldiers will be violently shaking like a hyper kid playing red light green light. Looking past the odd bug and animation issues, I have to agree that this the best exclusive game for Xbox One if you want to show off what your new black box can do. The lighting during a few scenes is breathtaking and most of the character models have that attention to detail that makes the God of War series a common reference in the halls of graphical powerhouses. Now if only it played as nicely as it looks.
Battles in Ryse are a lot like the reactive non-combo based systems of the recent Batman or Assassin's Creed games, but there's something lacking. You can attack with your sword using one button, your shield with another, and dodge or parry with the remaining. Often you're fighting against circling groups of foes and the goal is to focus on one until you get the ability to execute them. At this point pressing the right trigger button will start a kill sequence on that particular enemy that cannot be interrupted by anyone else. Button prompts appear in the form of a slight glow on your target in the color of the button you should be pressing - either yellow or blue - but these are not necessary for the execution's actual execution. If you don't care about maximizing your bonuses and keeping your combo counter up you can totally ignore these prompts, which makes a particular scene near the end of the game completely pointless from a gameplay perspective.
That said, the bonuses that I mentioned are incredibly important to your survival so you can't just ignore executions in their entirety. Based on what you choose, you can replenish your health, get bonus experience for buffing up your abilities, deal more damage, or fill a meter for a time-slowing super move. This is the only way to get back your health during the middle of a fight, so managing your execution bonuses can be crucial. Ryse is at its best when you have to manage standard combat in parallel with larger goals such as kicking ladders off of a wall you're defending or killing barbarians with torches before they get to light something on fire. It's a testament not only to how varied the objectives can be throughout playing Ryse, but also how repetitive the combat is without them. Of course some of these additions are less meaningful than others. Take, for example, calling for archers to fire volleys which you usually just want to happen as soon as possible; you end up either holding the Left Bumper button throughout the entire fight or shouting at your TV and using Kinect to make it work (which functions perfectly well but I personally am not a fan of yelling at my TV).
It's tough to say exactly how Ryse's battle system is inferior to those in the Batman or Assassin's Creed series, but it certainly is. Perhaps it's that it's missing a reason to care about perfection. Battling in Batman, you want to avoid being hit at all costs and increase your combo counter, because you'll start to do notably more damage and you'll gain access to more abilities. Trying to keep from being touched while you wail on your foes turns large group battles into a kind of violent dance. Ryse attempts to get this going by giving bonuses for keeping the combo counter going but they can be much more easily ignored than the systems in a game like Batman: Arkham City. Without that impetus to keep the combo counter going it turns into a pretty simplistic battle system with no actual attack combinations to speak of.
Outside of simply slashing at people there are many times throughout the campaign where you'll have to either man a projectile weapon or lead troops. These are fun distractions but add very little to the overall experience. Shooting projectiles is done using a locking aim which is really the only way to hit much of anything. Strategic choices are mostly just decisions between two different options, one of which will put more of the work on you while the other will likely kill off more of your troops, but other than losing when you're out of troops there aren't many reasons to care about keeping the maximum number of troops possible around. Lastly, there are times when you have to directly lead a squadron of Romans against a group of entrenched archers. These make for good set piece moments but they're so easy they quickly lose their charm.
So the battles get a bit repetitive, which isn't necessarily so bad, but more damning still is that Ryse is a lackluster value proposition. As I mentioned before I got through the entire campaign on the medium difficulty setting in only five hours and twenty minutes. Hack and Slash games are often short affairs, but this is short even for that genre. Two player cooperative arenas help to alleviate this a bit, but their novelty is rather short lived as the events are heavily scripted. That said, watching two players cooperatively execute a barbarian is worth giving the mode a shot at least.
Ryse is a rather short, repetitive, beautiful game that is going to be a tough sell for many while others will adore it. If you want something to show off to your less fortunate friends who are still stuck in the previous generation of consoles, then Ryse is a good bet, but that's quite the investment solely for a brief graphical showcase.
This review is based on a retail copy of Ryse: Son of Rome for the Xbox One