Ryse: Son of Rome kind of feels like it belongs in the coliseum of old that it depicts; it’s impressive, fast-paced, heavy-hitting, and exceptionally bloody.
But just as the crowd roared for gladiators when they were entertained and screamed for death when they were growing restless, Ryse will have you cheering and rooting for Marius Titus as he hacks limbs off his enemies, but booing that the show is over so quickly.
Before I even got to play Ryse, I read reviews which ranged from scathing to almost-too-positive and had so much variation between the extremes that it was hard to tell if reviewers has even played the same game. Widely criticized for repetition but acclaimed for graphics, critics tended to focus on tearing apart certain aspects of the game or desperately defending others. Once I got some hands-on time with it, I realized that really, none of that was necessary.
I don’t care about putting it up against every other launch title (few that there are). I don’t care if months ago the combat looked different. I don’t care that there are microtransactions or a historically inaccurate storyline.
When I play a game, I play it for entertainment. And my experience with Ryse: Son of Rome came down to one thing – fun.
The game was just undeniably fun. As someone who is a big fan of the action-adventure and hack-and-slash genres, Ryse delivered in nearly every aspect I wanted it to, and offered a refreshing look at a genre that can easily grow stale.
Just to get it out of the way now, the game is astoundingly pretty; no one can deny the quality of Crytek’s work on the visuals of Ryse. The environments are each expertly-crafted, perfectly representing what each of the varied terrains and structures might have looked like in Rome’s hayday…but with an unabashedly fantastical spin. Character models and animations are some of the best I’ve ever seen, with incredible texturing complimented by the remarkable performance capture work of Andy Serkis’ digital effects studio, The Imaginarium. The Legend of Damocles cinematic early in the game by (Platige Image) is breathtaking.
Each piece of Marius’ armor moves separate from the next, bending where it needs to bend and swaying as he walks, over material that actually doesn’t look like it’s embedded into his skin. The lighting is gorgeous and the fire - the fire… Every time I fought an enemy armed with flaming swords, I ended up nearly getting killed because I was so distracted by the dynamic lighting playing off the beautiful textures.
Getting Marius killed, by the way, is pretty difficult to do.
And that’s where some of Ryse: Son of Rome‘s flaws start to appear. Maybe it’s because I played the game on the Soldier difficulty – the second of four levels – but I encountered only two real challenges during the course of the campaign. Some might find themselves bored if not constantly worrying about staying alive, but for the most part I was happy to be able to focus more on stringing together combos and performing perfect executions. That’s not to say I didn’t die at all; when you’re controlling a crazy powerful Roman soldier blessed by the gods, you can get a little cocky, and let’s just say there were more than a few times I went for bonus XP on executions when I should have been doing health regeneration. But I was so close to that next upgrade…
And see, it’s little things like that that actually made me really enjoy this game. The skill upgrades – which initially made me wary since it seemed I was unlocking them so quickly – constantly give you something to work towards, and the ability to so easily swap between execution perks lends an element of strategy, albeit a small one. Knowing the best times to switch between refilling your focus and replenishing your health plays a vital part in your success.
Combat, while smooth and easy to pick up on, is not necessarily just mashing buttons. Sure, it’s nice to just go flailing wildly into a pack of barbarians, swinging your sword around and hacking off limbs, but you do have to pay attention. There are no warnings an enemy is attacking, no icons flashing to tell you they’re coming – and I like that. You have to learn when to counter, and you’ll be rewarded for doing that at the perfect time, just as you’re rewarded for attacking at the perfect time.
But just as this combo system can help you really build momentum, you might find that ending each enemy’s life with a lengthy execution quicktime event might pull you out of the action a bit. Personally, I found myself looking forward to executions (…and then questioning my sanity. How many arms do I need to see chopped off until it’s not entertaining anymore?) but I didn’t use them every time. And just when the same old actions were getting stale, I’d have enough points to unlock some new executions and see new variations on the brutality.
Voice commands like “Fire Volley!” and “Cover me!” work and respond remarkably well (even if you might feel a little silly yelling them out in a less-than-epic voice among the outstanding soundtrack) and save you precious time while continuing to fire arrows from the scorpio, or single-handedly taking down siege towers.
Moments where you team up with your Roman comrades in a phalanx feel awesome. You stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your legionnaires, telling your men when to shield themselves from arrow fire and when to take up their pila and fire away. But these moments are few and far between, which do help them feel special, but they also dump you right back out to the same old hack-and-slash, making you wish for just a bit more.
Ryse: Son of Rome could absolutely have benefited from an expanded combat system. Crytek did so much right with the visual cues in executions, slow-motion animations, and bold, closely-cropped camera views; they really pulled you into the action, and it’s a pity that many people will dismiss it due to its lack of evolution. What you start with at the beginning of the game is what you have throughout – your trusty sword and shield, and maybe a pilum or seven. But I don’t think its single weapon setup diminishes from the game’s strength.
What does, however, is its shameless lack of variety in enemies. There are maybe seven different enemy types you’ll encounter (outside of bosses), and they all fight in a disappointingly predictable way, with only slight variations from type to type. Big shield dude makes you break his guard before hitting him, bald-headed two-sword guy will block all weak attacks, standard barbarian is dumb and dies easily. Once you see one, you’ve seen them all, and that’s a real shame.
What helps the enemy issue just a bit is that when surrounded by a group, the bad guys do interrupt your attacks at will – they don’t necessarily stand around watching their buddies get decimated, waiting patiently for their turn. Do they act like a live mob would? Of course not. But if they did, I can’t imagine Marius, the lone wolf of the Roman army, would survive very long. Here he can transition quickly to a shield mid-strike to hold off other enemies. Heavy hitting barbarian attacking? Don’t bother blocking – Marius will have to evade the incoming strike with a well-timed roll. Just these little details make the combat pretty well-balanced, honestly, and a whole lot more intense when it could become mindless; the player must pay attention to survive.
The campaign itself takes maybe six or seven hours to get through, and spread out over three play sessions, felt just long enough to keep my attention and not grow tedious; we’re not talking about Assassin’s Creed-level repetition here, but it is a basic formula you’ve probably experienced before, so be prepared for that. The story isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s compelling enough to make you want to see it through to the end. Marius deserves his revenge just as any other gruff male protagonist in an age-old tale of vengeance has.
If you’re looking for more once the story is over, you can continue your walk in the shoes of a Roman tough guy with Ryse: Son of Rome‘s multiplayer mode: Gladiator. Enter the Coliseum scantily clad, with nothing but your shield, sword, and god of choice to guide you, and attempt to complete objectives as the terrain shifts and changes between rounds. This mode alone saves Ryse a bit, adding to its replayability and giving you something to do with friends online. You can delve into microtransactions early (using combinations of in-game and real-life gold you’ve earned) to outfit your gladiator with better equipment, or you can just sit back and kill lots of things, leveling up in a more natural way. And why wouldn’t you? The combat is what makes Ryse fun, so it’s no wonder the combat-focused arena play will keep you happy.
Despite all the simplicity in its mechanics, Ryse: Son of Rome still left me with a smile on my face. Will I play through the campaign again? Maybe on a harder difficulty, maybe to go find more of the collectibles, maybe because I really want some achievements. Maybe I’ll just do some more matches in the Coliseum to better equip my gladiator.
Either way, it’s absolutely worth that first chance – if not for the experience of being a vengeful soldier, for seeing just how remarkably good a next gen game can look and play when it’s not trying to be Game of the Year.