Ryse: Son of Rome Review

“A brave man tastes death once. Cowards, a thousand times over.”

Launch games for a new console are always an odd affair, most seem solely preoccupied with showcasing the expanded technical prowess of the system instead of building a decent game. Ryse: Son of Rome is another unfortunate example, a desperately shallow experience that seeks to hide behind the smoke and mirrors of its stunning graphical fidelity, sacrificing player freedom and expression in favour of mundane simplicity.

Ryse’s narrative has you assume the role as Roman centurion Marius Titus in a laughably predictable tale of loss and betrayal. Marius returns home at the beginning of the game as a newly commissioned officer just in time to conveniently see his family slaughtered by a bloodthirsty barbarian horde; and thus he then sets off to the uncivilized plains of Britannia to subjugate the rebellious natives and end the barbarian threat. You’ve seen these themes a million times before and done much better too, so it’s not exactly a shock that the story will fail to hold your attention for long. What is surprising however, is how it may be the most tedious aspect of the game, which is a large accomplishment to be honest considering the state of the rest of the game here. It’s also worth noting that the story is very strictly an alt-history version of events so if you’re looking for authenticity you’re going to be rubbing your eyes in disbelief at some of the set-pieces, with the player witnessing the legendary British warrior Boudica striding into Rome on the backs of a dozen or so war-elephants as just one bizarre example.

At its core, Ryse is an extremely basic hack-and-slash game that somehow manages to make ferocious combat uninteresting. You’ll slaughter hundreds of enemies with your sword and shield, dictated through a couple of attack buttons, light and heavy with a designated dodge button included too. Not exactly rocket science, but it is very much an issue considering this combat system is designed to maintain your interest for the entirety of the game’s experience, not just a chapter or two. There is a sort-of bullet time trick present once you fill a rage meter up that slows all enemies right down so you can hack at them like a coked-up chef dicing his produce, but it has virtually no bearing on the overall design of the enemy encounters.

Once you’ve weakened your enemy enough, a skull icon will appear over their head, signalling you can start an execution move and for the love of Jupiter is Ryse truly obsessed with executions. Upon initiating the execution, you must press the buttons that match the color-coded auras that appear around the wannabe corpse.  If you press them at the right times, you’ll get a large bonus in XP, damage or health. Somewhat hilariously there’s no punishment if you miss these prompts, Marius will still cut them down as usual, you’ll just not get a bonus. XP can be used to purchase upgrades, but considering the flat difficulty curve and limited combat, you wonder why they even bothered.

The critical point I wish to stress about Ryse however, is how exasperating the repetition is within this game. Combat relies on an unremitting pattern of button presses, you won’t unlock new combos or main weapons, it shows it’s hand painfully early. Executions in the game are for a brief spell, gloriously visceral and entertaining, then you do the exact same one on the following enemy, and the next one, then the next one, then… well you get the idea. For whatever reason, Crytek decided that executions could be used on every cannon-fodder barbarian, hence what was once special is now dull.

Everything you do involves fighting enemies in the same way thanks to utterly disastrous enemy design, the same grunts appear again and again, with about half a dozen enemy types in total and little to no variance in tactics employed. I’m very reluctant to label this as lazy, since it’s common knowledge how tirelessly devs work on their projects. Instead I feel Ryse wandered into the trap many launch games do and focus on production values instead of adding (any) depth to the gameplay foundation.

Ryse’s troubled development as a Kinect title is also keenly felt through its uncompromising linearity, enemies are concentrated into mini-arena like locations, and the intervening sections are basically long corridors to get you to the next one. Gimmicky troop-order sequences are highly scripted, with little player agency involved, and it’s obvious they were solely put in to frantically get any change back from all the lost months spent working with Kinect.

The campaign will only last you around four or five hours, but to be fair to Ryse it supports a cooperative online mode to keep you around. Taking the form of a gladiator-style arena, you work together with a partner (or even alone if you want) to progress through a set number of enemy waves. The stadium morphs with every passing round, so it keeps matters a little livelier than it may originally seem, but nevertheless it’s still underpinned by the brainless combat system.

Ryse: Son of Rome is little more than a tech demo to show off the generational leap in consoles. Combat is maddeningly repetitive with no depth to be found in its core mechanics, or any progression with regards to level design.

Slim on substance, and what’s there is a total bore.

3/10

+ It still looks impressive, even in 2016

+ Co-op mode is passable enough

-Shallow combat

-Tedious level design

-Laughably cliché narrative

-Linear to the extreme

-Woeful gimmicky sections