Both the PS4 and Xbox One struggled to assemble a list of launch exclusives that could truly be described as “must haves.” And each has their own respective launch “failure,” with the Sony's Knack failing to deliver, and Microsoft's Ryse thought of as the worst of the trio that includes Forza and Dead Rising 3.
As such, I avoided the game at release, but now that I realize there aren’t going to be many worthwhile games out for either system until the spring, I decided to give it a go.
What I discovered isn’t a game that’s necessarily awful, but one that failed to live up to its potential. And yes, it did have potential.
Ryse was very clearly trying to be the birth of Microsoft’s own God of War. That franchise has been one of the most popular across two PlayStation generations now, and though Microsoft has shooter cred with Gears of War and Halo, they lack anything noteworthy in the hack n’ slash genre.
Like God of War, Ryse pulls from elements of mythology (Roman, not Greek, but practically the same difference), relies heavily on linear level building, and has combat that focuses on quick time executions.
Unfortunately, on every level, Ryse feels like nothing but a stripped-down version of a God of War outing. Originally developed for the Kinect, the simplistic gameplay that would have to accompany such a title is felt pervasively throughout the game, and makes it feel like God of War for kids, minus all the blood and guts of course.
The controls are more or less binary throughout the entire game. You have one button for shield bashing, and one for sword swinging. It’s the only hack and slash game I can remember playing where there’s no such thing as a “combo.” You simply alternate between shield and sword with every enemy, occasionally blocking or rolling if the situation calls for it. But there’s no combination of buttons that makes you perform different moves other than simple slashes or bashes.
Rather, the only “diversity” in combat comes from executions. After a certain amount of button mashing, a “skull” symbol will appear over an enemies’ head. You pull the trigger and launch into a button-less quicktime event. Rather than the physical button popping up onscreen, the enemy will simply be highlighted blue or yellow. In an attempt to shed the quicktime label, the game designers pitched this idea as merely a different form of combat. The buttons aren’t random. If the person is blue and you press X, the next move involves a sword slice or stab. If it’s yellow, you’ll be smashing them with your shield or boot.
Unfortunately, what the game sacrifices to make these quick time events “logical” is diversity. Early on, I thought that these combos would grow more complex over time, but they never do, and X and Y are the only buttons you’ll ever need to press during an execution. Some involve four slow-motion moves at the most, but some only have one, and though you can buy more executions with XP (replacing purchasable combo moves) you never seem to have any control over which one you perform. The most expensive moves I bought I don’t think I saw used more than twice in the game, and the slight boosts they give are negligible.
Unlocks were really mishandled in Ryse as well. There’s something gratifying about leveling up different moves for different weapons in God of War, and truly feeling more powerful as the game progresses. This isn’t the case in Ryse at all. Enemies get tougher, but outside of a larger lifebar and seldom seen super-executions, there’s no actual difference in your character. You use the same weapon the entire game, and never unlock any moves for it that aren’t executions. And the stuff you can buy? Who wants to pay 80,000 XP points for a perk that gives you 1% more XP after kills? Or one that makes “Focus mode” burn 3% slower, or makes a perfect combo take 1 less hit to achieve? Nearly everything you can buy except executions are incredibly boring, but you can’t even rely on seeing those uber-moves in combat consistently.
Ryse continues to suffer past basic combat during the obviously Kinect-based sections left in the game. There are rail shooter segments where you gun down barbarians using a ballistae that reloads like it’s a machine gun. There are portions where you march forward in a phalanx, dodging arrows and hucking javelins at archers. These are meant to be breaks in traditional combat, but are far, far less interesting than God of War’s puzzle sections. There’s nary a problem to be solved in Ryse, other than shoving carts out of your way with your shield or slashing open doors with your sword.
Similarly, though there’s nothing inherently wrong with linearity in a game, Ryse takes it to the extreme. God of War has players finding secret outcroppings of XP orbs or health bar increasing trinkets. Ryse has almost no secrets, and the only things you find are scrolls and “vistas,” neither of which help you in game. The camera is constantly pointing you where you’re supposed to go, and if you dally for more than a few seconds, a giant eagle will appear onscreen telling you you’re stupidly wasting time trying to explore an empty area.
For all Ryse’s faults, I think it got a lot right, and really could have been a fantastic start to a desperately needed exclusive Xbox series if it had made the game even just a little bit more complex. There are markings of what I thought was a halfway decent story, including a final few chapters that really were top notch from a narrative perspective.
Unfortunately, the gameplay is just too muddled for the game to work effectively, and that’s coming from someone who likes relatively simplistic controls in games like these, as opposed to say, The Witcher or Dark Souls. The lack of diversity in combat is astounding, and even with a litany of executions, by the end you’ve seen all of them two dozen times over as you always want to kill every enemy with an execution, lest you miss out on an XP, health, damage, or focus perk. I like the concept of “logical” quick time events using the proper in-game button for the correct move, but there has to be more than two buttons in play. That said, the animations of these kills are quite good, and I could easily see a 300-style video game made using this system.
I don’t think Ryse needs the “leap across the screen, float in the air” combat system of God of War, but it would certainly benefit from one like that of the Arkham series. Combat flows reasonably well in-game, there’s just a lack of moves making it all easy and repetitive. Similarly, the boss fights are in desperate need of reworking as each and every one is just “roll and slash” for ten minutes as you chip away at their health bar. Where’s the fun in that? And weirdly, despite your character executing every Tom, Dick and Hairy barbarian in his path, you never actually execute bosses yourself, as the game makes each kill an uncontrolled cutscene. It’s bizarre.
Ryse is a beautiful game on the Crytek engine, and had a story that kept me engaged (more so than the last few God of Wars, at least). There are a lot of good ideas in combat, but the stripped down nature of the game is its downfall. I honestly hope that despite the negative associations with the first game, they do end up making a Ryse 2. If they removed any pandering to the Kinect and simply made it a badass brawler, they might be able to turn it into an actual franchise, something the Xbox One desperately needs at present. Ryse is not irremediable, and should be a lesson, not just a cautionary tale.