Ryse: Son of Rome

1244 wc

You play Marius, a Roman soldier with a gruff Sean Bean-style accent.

The main reason to play Ryse: Son of Rome is because you bought it for $7 in a Steam sale three years ago, and you’re bored of everything else and desperate for something-anything-new and interesting to play. (Without the bother and expense of spending $60+ on actual new games.) That being said, it’s actually not a bad game.

I don’t know why I bought it. It might have been the consistent “Very Positive” Steam reviews, which, in retrospect, seems not quite misplaced, but maybe a little generous. (An unqualified “Positive” would have been more accurate.) It might have been that the trailer made the game look quite beautiful and fun. It might have been that I can’t think of any other third-person action game I’ve played in Ancient Rome, a setting I have always liked.

Third-person over-the-shoulder view of the lush (and imaginary) world of Britannia.

It was probably all of the above plus the $7 price tag in the 2015 Winter Sale.

Whatever the reason, I bought it in 2015, but it took some two and half years before I finally installed, played, and finished the single-player campaign for Ryse: Son of Rome. It took a whopping three days and all of about seven hours of game time to play through the whole story (one dollar per hour!).

You play a Roman soldier in the midst of a big battle in Rome. A backstory that the goes into Britannia is told in flashback. The story unfolds in cut scenes that pop up periodically.

In terms of gameplay, it’s a standard third-person, close over-the-shoulder action RPG in the same sort of style as a hundred other games. Most of the combat is melee hacking and slashing, though occasionally you can throw spears and take over scorpios (ie. ballistae). I played on a controller, though you can play with keyboard and mouse if you like their un-customizable key bindings. (I didn’t.)

I found the combat sort of relaxing, oddly enough. Once I got the hang of it, I could sort of zone out while fighting, much like you might do in an MMORPG when you’re just grinding for reputation or something.

The execution system: The enemy is glowing slightly blue here, so you hit the blue (X) button on the controller as quickly as you can to continue chaining execution moves together to get more rewards.

The big feature of the combat is an odd sort of “execution” system: When enemies get low on health, you press the right trigger to “execute” them, which involves pressing corresponding buttons when the enemy flashes different colors, sort of like that old Milton-Bradley game Simon. (You’ll be doing Simon-style gameplay a lot in this game, as it pops up in many contexts including boss fights.) Completing the execution gives you perks like restoring your health, or filling up an energy bar to do other moves, and things like that. If nothing else, the “executions” look kind of neat on the screen, because you get to see the characters do all sorts of cool fight moves in slow motion.

Playing Ryse: Son of Rome sometimes is a lot like this Simon game. (Picture from a random YouTube thumbnail.)

I started out playing on Normal difficulty but I decided the combat wasn’t interesting enough to deal with trying to excel at it, so I bumped it back down to Easy difficulty for the majority of the game. It was pretty easy, although I still died a few times.

One other interesting gameplay mechanic: Sometimes when approaching enemy archers, you form into a “shield wall” with the rest of the Roman soldiers around you. This lets you creep forward toward the archers without getting killed. You have to control when you duck down behind the shield wall and when you move forward, and direct the soldiers to throw spears. It was pretty simplistic, but I thought it was a neat thing that I’d never seen before in a game, so kudos for that.

Forming a shield wall to advance against archers.

The game is quite beautiful, graphically speaking. Lush set pieces abound, from Roman cities to green forests. The Cryengine is used well. The only thing I can think of to criticize about the visuals is a noticeable lack of motion capture animation in some cut scenes.

Honestly I can’t think of many negative things to say about the game. The biggest problem for me was a crazy lag that cropped up quite often, while trying to run the game on my PC at 2560×1440. I would have lowered the resolution, but there was no setting to change it. It runs at whatever your desktop resolution is, period, the end. There is a resolution scale setting, but I did not use it because of the principle of the thing. There is also a frame lock setting which locks the game at 30 fps, which does improve things, but again, I didn’t use it because I’m a PC snob. The lag never really interfered with the gameplay, though.

I supposed you could call it a problem that the single-player campaign is very short. But in this post-Call of Duty era, it’s debatable whether that’s out of the ordinary or not. All I can say is that I would not have minded playing more. It did not wear out its welcome by any means.

Other than that I would say the game accomplished exactly what it intended to do.

You take over and shoot "scorpios" like this periodically in the game. They have infinite ammo and reload instantly, so it's a bit like a machine gun that throws spears. :)

The story is not a deep thinker, but I don’t think it was meant to be anything but an exciting action blockbuster mega-spectacle, more-or-less a mix of the movies Conan the Barbarian and Gladiator, at which it succeeded reasonably well. (You actually do get to fight as a gladiator in the Colosseum, by the way.) I’ve seen better, but I’ve certainly seen a lot worse. I was interested in seeing how the story turned out, which is more than I can say for many other games. At seven hours long, the story did not stick around long enough for me to dwell on the problems.

Don’t think for a moment that you’ll find even a single shred of historical accuracy in Ryse, though. A prominent plot point has Boudica (yes, the one from Britannia) invading Rome, riding an elephant. I read on Wikipedia that the game is supposed to be an “alternate history” setting and I can confirm it was definitely not from our history.

Incidentally the development of the game has a complex and interesting history itself, as reported on Wikipedia. Some elements of the game actually began life as an MMORPG.

There are multiplayer components to the game but I did not try them.

Overall I would say Ryse sits in an odd sort of limbo area on the scale of game quality. It’s not a fantastic, genre-changing game, but it’s certainly not shovel-ware. It’s fun but it’s not terribly memorable. It’s got some bugs but nothing that really gets in the way. It felt like a Big Mac and Fries in game form. If I had paid full price for it I might say something different, but for a $7 and 7-hour investment, it was not a disappointment.

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