Ryse: Son of Rome (review)

A few weeks ago, my laptop broke. This necessitated me to go out and buy a new computer, and I opted to pick up a beefy desktop computer, since I enjoy playing games and there were a few of them that I hadn’t been able to see in all their graphical splendour.

One of these games was Ryse: Son of Rome. Originally released for the Xbox One in 2013 as a launch title for this console, the game was also ported over to PC late last year and is available through Steam (and was even offered at a discount around Christmas). The game was developed by Crytek, the company famous for the original Far Cry and the Crysis series.

The game tells the story of Marius Titus, a soldier in the Roman army, who returns home only in time to see his entire family slaughtered by barbarians from the hostile island of Britannia. When he discovers that none other than the Emperor Nero was behind the murders, he sets off on a roaring rampage of revenge. The game is divided into eight chapters and sees you hack and slash your way through an array of barbarians, as well as the duplicitous Praetorian Guard.

First of all, this game is gorgeous. As far as graphics are concerned, I don’t think I have seen another game that looks better. Whether it’s the dense forests of Britain, the murk and mud of the land ‘beyond the wall’, or the richly-textured walls of streets and alleys in sunbathed Rome: it all looks absolutely gorgeous. The character models likewise are nothing short of fantastic, as are the animations: running a barbarian through with your sword and seeing their face contort in pain brings a level of – slightly uncomfortable – realism to the game that I haven’t really experienced before.

However, one problem is that the number of character models is limited. With the Roman enemies, this isn’t much of a problem, since they all wear variations of the same equipment and often have their heads obscured with helmets. But many of the barbarians are so unique as far as their design is concerned, such as the overweight guy with the goatee and shield, that when you face these for the umpteenth time it does take you out of the game.

Another issue is the story. It’s asinine on many levels. It’s a rip-off of Gladiator, with the main protagonist taking revenge on the corrupt Emperor who took away his family. In this universe, Nero is a sixty-something-year-old man who has two adult sons, one of whom is basically a riff on the main character from Caligula (debauchery and all), while the other is actually called Commodus and enjoys fighting as a gladiator, and in the Coliseum no less! In reality, of course, Nero died when he was 30 and he never had any sons, and the Coliseum was built after Nero was already dead. Basic errors abound, not in the least when it comes to names of characters (Vitallion?), and also as regards the sometimes futuristic appearance of Roman armour and weapons. A purely fictitious spirit of vengeance called Damocles (a Greek name) is also invented for the story. But it’s the really big mistakes that are astounding, including Boudica leading her Britons into the city of Rome on the back of a war elephant!

So don’t play Ryse: Son of Rome if you’re interested in historical accuracy. For the most part, the game gives you the feeling of being in the ancient world, but it does owe quite a lot to Hollywood conventions. For all the time and money they lavished on making the game look good, it’s quite frustrating that the story has been given such short shrift.

As far as the gameplay is concerned, it’s very much a hack-and-slash game by way of the Batman: Arkham-series of games developed by Rocksteady and associates: you have one button to attack, one to counter, one to dodge, and one to break an enemy’s defence. When an enemy has received enough damage, you can trigger an execution attack (basically a series of button prompts). You also have an option to pick up pila and hurl them at the enemy. At times, you will take command of a group of Romans and have the option to form up in testudo and launch pila at the enemy. Sometimes, you’ll have to man a scorpio and use it to take down enemy warriors and elephants. As you play, Marius also gains experience, which you can use to upgrade his abilities.

The single-player campaign is quite short. According to Steam, it took me a little less than seven hours to play through it all. I played it on and off over the course of a few weeks, but you could clearly finish it over the course of a weekend. It’s a bit of a pity that the same company who made the highly enjoyable Crysis games ended up making Ryse not as appealing to play: there are no options for stealth, aside from walking up to an enemy from behind to take them down in one hit (which was almost never a viable option), and there are limited paths to take to reach the next objective (often only one).

There are collectibles in the game, so if you’re keen on those you might want to play through the game more than once. You can also play the game again on a higher difficulty if you want, but I didn’t feel like that immediately. The game is not varied enough to revisit soon after completion, I think. There’s also a multiplayer mode where you get to fight in the arena. I didn’t check out the multiplayer, but you can also play some maps solo and try to get a good score. This way, you may get to squeeze some more hours of playtime out of the game.

In short, Ryse: Son of Rome is an absolutely beautiful game to look at, with an uninspired and silly story, rife with historical inaccuracies, and solid if unremarkable gameplay. I would recommend it to gamers who have an interest in the period and/or hack-and-slash games (since, despite everything, I did enjoy my time with it), but would advise you to pick it up solely when it’s offered for cheap, and not at the current full price of nearly €40.

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