Ryse: Son of Rome is like an Xbox One tech demo - it's short, simple and focused on graphics rather than gameplay. I've seen a lot of other reviewers call it "shallow", and that's the right word for it. Aside from the plot, which I actually think is excellent, there isn't much in Ryse to bite down on. It's not as quick-time-eventy as early videos implied, but it's still a thin experience.
It goes like this. You're Marius Titus, a Centurion in the Roman army fighting in the campaign to re-capture Britannia from barbarian tribes. Your weapons are a sword and a shield, naturally, and the combat is lifted almost verbatim from Arkham Asylum: dodge, counter, block, roll, that sort of thing.
There are some strategy elements as well. At certain points, you have to give your Legionnaires orders, telling them to, say, set up a defensive line on the right flank and archers on the left. It's well-meaning, and I love the violence, but Son of Rome's combat never really gets off the ground.
You only really have one attack, which you repeat over and over by spamming the A button. And the strategic moments are few and drip-fed.
Rather than order your men as you see fit, whenever you like, at maybe five or six points in the game, you're presented with a screen that gives you two options of what to do with them. It's not like you have much say.
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Ryse just pauses, asks "do you want them to go right or left?" and then restarts. I don't think your decision even makes much of a difference.
I still like it
So, there isn't a lot of depth. Even the enemy types repeat themselves. In every encounter you can pretty much count on the same two fat heavy attack guys, a speed attack guy and four or so grunts. Apart from a few sloppy bow and arrow sections, there is basically zero variety.
But I still like Son of Rome. Despite the slim core mechanics, it has some really wonderful moments. There are these bits where you form up your legion and order them to lock shields, then march slowly towards the enemy in a turtle shell formation. If you see enemy archers start to aim their bows you have to hold A to stop still and dig in, and wait for the arrows to bounce off before you continue marching.
In terms of gameplay there's not much going on - you just walk forward and occasionally press A. But these sections are so atmospheric.
Play the jock
You get a real sense of the power of the Roman army. Your enemies are disorganised, angry, barbarian tribesman. Against the practical discipline of the Romans - against you - they have no chance. You often play the underdog in videogames.
Ryse: Son of Rome Review
I like Ryse because you're the jock.
And it looks great, obviously. Though I said in my Xbox One review that Ryse didn't make my eyes pop the way I thought it would, it's nevertheless great-looking. Particularly, I like the way Marius' facial expression changes in-game. It was always weird for me, in the PS2 and PS3 days, when characters would be locked in sword battle wearing a blank, poker face.
In Ryse, Marius clenches his teeth and furrows his brow. If you go in swinging, he opens his mouth like he's yelling. It's a small touch, but as in Killzone: Shadow Fall, it makes a lot of difference. When characters have emotive faces, they're easier to care about.
Better watching than playing
Some of the big set-ups are visually stunning as well. There's a sequence where you fight a barbarian chief beneath an enormous burning wicker man, filled with Roman soldiers. It's honestly one of the most spectacular things I've seen in a game. The combat was still thin and, as with most of Ryse, I was enjoying watching it more than I was playing it but still, that scene was a real achievement.
Ryse is genuinely well-written, enough so that I don't even feel like I need to add that caveat "for a videogame."
The opening is a bit hackneyed. Marius' journey begins when his father, mother and sister are murdered by barbarians, and it's all a very humdrum. But then the invasion of Britannia begins. You have these great scenes of Roman generals addressing the troops, and Nero's sons - two awful, spoiled sods who think they're divine - become major characters.
Ryse: Son of Rome Review
The political wrangling between the Empire, King Oswald and Boudica is genuinely tense and you begin to lose faith in Nero at the same time as Marius.
I think that's Son of Rome's strongest achievement. In so many games, the way you feel about characters and events at the start is the way you feel about them at the end. There are no arcs, no narratives. But in Ryse, you begin the game as the proud Roman soldier, marching on the barbarians like I mentioned earlier, and end it with a sense that everything you've done has been a waste; that rather than your country, you've been serving a venal, insane emperor.
And it all ends in tragedy. Crytek doesn't gloss Marius' story. It's a bloody, violent and grim tale, the kind you've probably read before in books of Roman mythology. There's not even a small sense of redemption. Everybody dies.
Against my better judgement, I like Ryse: Son of Rome. I know it's shallow and manipulative - I know that, as a linear combat game where you only have one attack, it's hardly setting out the stall for next-generation experiences.
But it really does have a great story. And although they're contrived, some of the set-pieces are excellent. There's a part where Marius goes all Boromir from Lord of the Rings, fighting off enemies while he struggles to stand up from his wounds. All you have to do is press X or Y depending on the on-screen prompt. But it's so well choreographed, and so built-up by the story, that I can't help but get into it.
When the writing is this good, sometimes, I'd rather just watch.
- Gameplay: 6/10 - Shallow and repetitive but there are a few standout moments, like the beach invasion at Dover, which really save it.
- Graphics: 7/10 - That I can look at a game like Ryse and think "I expected more" makes me feel a bit spoiled. It's beautiful and detailed, but I thought Crytek, with next-gen hardware available to them, would do better.
- Sound: 7/10 - Terrific voice work and battle sound effects, but the music is bland and overbearing. The game works better if you turn it off.
- Writing: 8/10 - Seriously good. The dialogue is sharp, the characters change and I like how miserable it gets towards the end.
- Replay value: 4/10 - The campaign is really a once through affair and the multiplayer, where you and a friend play wave defence in the Coliseum, is pretty empty.
- Overall: 7/10 - Ryse is a flawed and thin game that nevertheless tells a good story. I'd like to play a sequel.
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