Launch titles are strange beasts, with their range and quality often determining the number of early adopters of a new console. At least on paper, Microsoft had the edge in the lead-up to the Xbox One versus PlayStation 4 showdown, with a greater range of exclusive titles on offer at lunch. Cue the entry of one such example in the form of Ryse: Son of Rome—a title brimming with potential, but also conceptually problematic in terms of its shift from an Xbox 360 Kinect-only title to a fully-fledged Xbox One launch game.
Then, of course, there was the negative reception to the gameplay on offer at E3 that was riddled with quick-time events and, frankly, all looked a bit bloody boring. While the QTEs remain for the all-important execution mechanic, the switch from button prompts to colour-coded hues (yellow or blue) makes Ryse feel more organic while having the added benefit of letting you marvel at the attention to detail in the animations, high-level visual fidelity and the emotion that’s been translated from mo-cap performances.
This means the combat emphasis of Ryse is a lot of fun – both as player and spectator. It also helps that it’s a damn pretty game that’s my go-to point of reference when friends want to see evidence of next-gen eye candy. The 900p presentation isn’t as disappointing as I’d feared (compared with the 1080p goal), mainly because of the level of detail evident in almost every frame on the screen. That being said, the 30fps offering is a noticeable detractor in sporadic moments when the frame-rate takes a hit for a breath.
Eye candy isn’t the only thing that Ryse offers in spades, either. The soundscape transports you back to Ancient Rome, the soundtrack is suitably epic, and the voice-acting frequently flirts with awesomeness, even if some of the lines are occasionally cringe-worthy. What I didn’t expect from Ryse was a compelling narrative at the heart of the hack-and-slash title, but it really is the foundation upon which the gameplay is built and keeps driving you towards the end credits.
You play as legionary Marius Titus as he protects Emperor Nero during the throes of a barbarian invasion of Rome, relaying the tale of his ascension through the ranks and his thirst for revenge. This general overview is a deliberate oversimplification of what’s really happening in Ryse, as the flashback presentation of the story offers some satisfying narrative pay-offs, even on repeat play-throughs. Crytek weaves in supernatural elements on top of a mostly grounded tone in a way that works, all the while showcasing its growth as a studio whose storytelling abilities are being honed with each successive title.
Naturally, the crux of Ryse is in the hack-and-slash combat, which is offered in abundance. It works on the ‘easy to learn, challenging to master’ principle, with the learning curve also reflecting this approach. You really only have to contend with X for slash, Y for shield stun and A for block. Both X and Y can be held for heavier attacks that take time to charge up but become absolutely essential against tougher foes that know how to block or dodge. The right trigger is used to activate executions once enemies have the relevant icon above their head, while the right bumper can be used to trigger ‘Focus’, which slows down time.
To be honest, I rarely used Focus, as it felt like a cheat, allowing Titus to perform super-fast ‘death by a thousand cuts’ across a group of foes. The real test of Ryse’s combat is when you’re surrounded by a variety of different enemy types. They’ll often not attack straight away, which forces you to wait for them to charge, or to play it aggressive and get up in their faces. As soon as you attack one, though, the others are actively looking for openings to slash you in the back and break your combo meter. Thankfully, the block button works on a single-frame logic, meaning you can bust out of your combo at any time to block an incoming attack, or deflect an arrow with a perfectly timed block for the ultimate in badassery.
Speaking of arrows, archers are a frustrating threat that take pot shots at you while you’re hacking away at their friends. They’re made more manageable by Titus’ ability to accurately chuck Pilium (spears) over great distances. You can line up a throw manually with the left trigger, or simply pull both triggers simultaneously for a cheeky quick-throw, which is perfect for damaging tougher foes or performing a one-hit kill on a charging barbarian. As you slash through the locals and the locales, you’ll also encounter minor defence missions, which are a tad undercooked but make a pleasant departure from the combat that can easily feel repetitive. At times, you’ll even be able to hold left bumper and yell out basic voice commands in your best Russell Crowe impersonation to “unleash hell” on overwhelming odds. It’s an okay idea, but it also feels like a feature that’s been transposed from the Kinect-only version of the game.
You have control over how executions will reward you by activating one of four options at a time. The default option is a health buff (the only way to restore health), with Focus, additional XP and boosted damage as the other three choices. Additional XP makes it a cinch to blast through the ranks and unlock additional executions, health bars and other facets to complement your play style. Selecting the extra-damage booster makes encounters laughably easy, though, as enemies eventually only require a couple of slashes to get them into an executable state or to put them down for good.
This also highlights the biggest core problem with Ryse. It drifts between a satisfyingly challenging hardcore game at times and back to all too easy at others. When it works, and it’s more often than not, you’ll find yourself lost in the story, awed by Crytek’s high-level visual presentation and addicted to the combat mechanics. When it doesn’t work, you’ll crave greater depth and more variety, as certain sections feel like cookie-cutter renditions of what’s gone before.
The real problem, though, is that it’s impossible to fail executions. Sure, you’ll be punished by less experience or whatever it is you’re chasing, but pressing the wrong button or completely missing the timing still results in the same fluid animation with no risk of having it turned around on you. Couple this with the reality that executions are a tactical cheat, in that other enemies won’t attack you while you’re executing another, and it’s a glaring flaw in the game design that should have been taken back to the drawing board.
It took me around eight hours to beat the campaign, which isn’t as long as I’d hoped (and included plenty of deaths), but there are plenty of extra hours of fun to be had in the online arena. There are three main maps and a variety of scenarios that can be played with one other person online, or by yourself if you fancy a challenge (and it is tough). These challenges ramp up in difficulty relatively quickly, and tactical play becomes essential against overwhelming odds. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s best played with someone you know as clear communication is key.
It’s a shame there appears to be components of the Kinect-only version of Ryse in the final product, which would account for the design that bounces between overly easy and challenging. The almighty power of ‘what could have been’ is difficult to ignore when the Ryse formula works, but in its current form it’s difficult to recommend as a must-own Xbox One title, despite the clear potential that regularly bubbles above the surface.