Ryse: Son of Rome

Crytek has a long and storied history on the PC.  After developing an Xbox One launch title, they are back on the PC with the port of the same game, Ryse: Son of Rome.  Crytek is known for making games on the technological cutting edge, and they pretty darn fun to play too.  With Ryse, they have deviated from their FPS comfort zone and moved into the beat-em-up/button masher genre.  Crytek fans looking for the highly ambitious, emergent gameplay of Crysis may feel that this title comes up short, but there is still a lot to enjoy. Ryse doesn’t offer the same technological “wow” factor of their previous games, but it does provide a highly entertaining, blood-soaked romp. It doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of depth or length, but its well-paced campaign is more than enough to justify a reduced price tag on the PC.

Ryse: Son of Rome isn’t a bad game by a long stretch. As a fan of Crytek’s past works, however, it is hard to shake the disappointment that it isn’t nearly as mind blowing and ambitious as Far Cry and Crysis, games known for their visuals and huge, wide open environments.  Ryse delivers in the graphics department, but is a step backwards in level size and in-game physics. The levels in Ryse are tightly linear, other than the occasional, very small side paths that lead to collectibles. In a huge missed opportunity, combat arenas are completely devoid of destructible objects. You can’t smash windows, walls, tables, weapon racks, or food carts. This mechanic would have made the game more impressive, and add opportunities for emergent gameplay and environmental combat. Ryse sets its sights lower than previous Crytek games, although the high level of polish almost makes up for that.

With Ryse, Crytek elected to make a character driven button masher/beat-em-up.  You play as the hero Marius, who is both a legendary warrior and an admired leader.  During your five or six hour revenge quest, both qualities will be used frequently. Most of the game is spent in melee combat against small groups of enemies.  For most enemies, a simple one-two combo of slash and shield-bash weakens enough to perform an execution move.  Executions are horribly brutal, gory quick time events where you tap the buttons as needed to slice off arms, open necks, bash heads, impale enemies on your sword and yank it back out to use on somebody else.  The melee and execution routine is the bread-and-butter of the game.  It isn’t very deep or complex, but there is enough substance to these mechanics to sustain a quality game.  Suffice it to say, this game gets a lot of mileage out of its "M" rating.

You won’t find any power-ups lying around. Instead, you have to earn them by performing executions. Execution bonuses can be applied to health, XP, damage, or focus (which slows the movements of enemies).  With XP, you can upgrade your character and add more executions to your list of moves.  These mechanics provide some basic resource management that helps gives the game much needed depth.  There is a little bit of variety to the enemies, but it could have used more.  The overwhelming majority of the game’s enemies are simple grunts or barbarians with shields, who don’t fight much differently than the grunts. The difficulty picks up a little bit in the final chapters, as the game requires you to perform more blocking and parrying and sets you up against heavy enemies whose attacks cannot be blocked.  That variety is welcome, but the game still could have used more.

Melee combat sections are broken up by other short-lived activities, such as turret shooter sequences that find you manning a ballista to mow down enemies by the dozen.  The game also has one interesting innovation – the phalanx march.  You occasionally form up with fellow troops and march across open areas while being pelted with arrows.  You have to do it carefully, marching slowly and then raising your shields at the last second to keep your guys from turning into pin cushions.  There are about a half dozen of these events in the game, which are a perfect fit for the ancient Roman setting.  Changeups in the action are frequent, keeping the game moving along nicely.

Ryse isn’t going to be long remembered for its story, but it is a surprisingly entertaining affair.  The game is clearly inspired by movies like Gladiator and HBO’s Rome, and it pays great homage to the subject matter.  Big, beefy soldiers in colorful armor with gravelly voices and British accents battle barbarians while being backstabbed by corrupt Roman officials.  References to the Gods and the afterlife make frequent appearances. Marius and his adversaries exchange lots of testosterone-fueled dialog.  The story actually had potential to be a very good one, but it seems as if some important material was left on the cutting room floor.  As a result, not everything in the story makes sense.  The killing that sets the game’s events into motion is explained very poorly, as are the motivations of the poorly developed villains.  The apparitions that appear occasionally are also a bit confusing – the game never establishes that the supernatural is real, but these apparitions appear to have a real effect in the game.  It is too bad that the script wasn’t given one more rewrite, because the game is genuinely trying to provide a quality story.

No review for this game would be complete without effusive praise for its visuals.  The game’s primary role is to act as a showcase for the next generation of hardware, and it does so perfectly.  The Roman soldiers’ banners and uniforms are bright, highly detailed, and colorful.  The character models look beautiful and incredibly realistic, brought to life with an impressive library of motion-captured animations (this game has the most impressive animation that I have ever seen outside of an Assassin's Creed game).  The animations are especially impressive when it comes to the executions, of which there are dozens.  On a midrange PC with an Nvidia GTX 770 card, the game looked gorgeous on my machine, despite most of the settings being on medium.  Suffice it to say, if you have a beefy PC and you are in the market for some outstanding eye candy, you can’t go wrong with Ryse: Son of Rome.

The game’s beautiful visuals have gotten a lot of attention, but it isn’t all that the game has going for it.  Its production values are outstanding across the board.  The audio is a cacophony of grunts, metal clashing against metal, swords slicing through flesh, arrows thumping against shields, commands being barked, and screams of pain.  The voice acting is top notch, with Marius and his pal Vitalion faring particularly well in their stereotypical roles.  All of this comes with a great booming orchestral score playing in the background.  The game sounds as amazing as it looks.

Ryse: Son of Rome can be criticized for not offering enough variety as a game, but with a reduced price tag on Steam this criticism isn’t as damning.   The game deserves credit for accepting its short length instead of trying to pad itself out with lots of copying and pasting.  Ryse is a fun game pretty much from the beginning, and it ends right before it wears out its welcome.  If you are in the mood to spend a weekend enjoying some graphic ultra-violence with your brain turned off, then Ryse: Son of Rome should make a nice addition to your library, especially if you can find it on a Steam sale.