Ryse: Son of Rome for Xbox One

Pros: Breathtaking graphics, RPG elements, gruesome execution moves

Cons: Linear environments, repetitive

Ryse is a game that caused me to go out of my comfort zone. Normally it’s not a title I would have bothered with because of its focus on non-stop action and quick time events, but at the launch of the Xbox One console I wanted more to play. I rented Ryse despite the general negativity that surrounded it. I was genuinely surprised that I enjoyed it so thoroughly; it turned out to be one of my favorite games across the launches of both next generation systems.

The story here focuses on historical Rome at the height of the empire’s glory. You play as a soldier named Marius who, at the beginning of the tale, loses his entire family at the hands of invading barbarians. With the promise of bloodshed he joins the Roman forces (under King Nero) and eventually comes to lead many of the men to glory. The tale is told across eight different chapters which generally all take place in different settings. Ryse doesn’t really try anything new in regards to story, but it’s interesting to follow and introduces some fairly memorable characters along the way.

Ryse is pretty simple by action game standards. You guide Marius through various linear environments and engage in battle with approaching enemies. Marius uses his trustworthy sword for combat but he is also armed with a shield. This game offers three different primary moves in combat; you’ve got a light slash that is fast but weak, a heavy slash that is slow but strong, and you can block attacks or strike opponents with the shield. These attacks all function slightly differently and it’s safe to think of combat as a sort of rock-paper-scissors match with each being strong against one and weak against another. Marius can also perform a roll on the ground which is useful for evading. Combat is a little on the simple side, but it’s flashy and rewarding.

What makes the combat system interesting is that you’re regularly accosted by several enemies at once. The game requires a lot of focus in these situations and to be honest I struggled through the first few chapters because of it. When you finally get the hang of it battles flow gracefully as you will find yourself striking one enemy only to block another approaching from the other side. It’s all about timing, and when you get a good grasp for it battles flow in a smooth and versatile fashion. By the end of the game enemies, no matter how many of them I was up against, were no match for my skills. It’s extremely rewarding once you get the hang of it.

The most frequently advertised feature of this game are the execution kills. After striking an enemy multiple times or just making them vulnerable a skull icon appears above their head. By pressing the right trigger button time slows down and said character begins to glow in one of two colors; either blue or yellow. This corresponds with the color of the X and Y buttons on the controller. Pressing the appropriate button grants you bonuses as Marius strikes them multiple times in slow motion eventually killing them. You can actually take out two enemies at once with it, but this situation is rare. This is the easiest way to take out an enemy, and you will have to use it literally hundreds of times as you play. Unfortunately there are only a few different animations for this, and it becomes repetitive soon after you become adept at it. Also odd is the fact that the attack continues on regardless of if you press the right input, and this only affects the bonuses you’re awarded.

These aforementioned bonuses are chosen by the player with the directional pad. You can gain double XP (which allows you to upgrade Marius’ abilities), regain health, focus, or increase your strength. These bonuses (except strength) are awarded based on how well you matched the button inputs during execution sequences. I found switching reward modes was an odd design choice, and it took me a while to get used to it. It can be frustrating when you’re low on health and need to recover by putting yourself in danger by fighting enemies, but this is only a minor complaint.

What holds Ryse back is its repetition. All of the environments are linear, and while it’s all very pretty you’re doomed to traverse small paths that occasionally lead to bigger battlefields. There’s virtually no exploration. Combat is much the same with very little difference between each encounter. What makes this more apparent and tiring is that the enemy designs frequently repeat. You’ll only encounter a handful of basic soldiers that look differently from one another which exacerbates the repetitive nature of this title. Ryse tries to alleviate this by allowing you control of an entire army in formation wherein you can throw spears or hold up your shields, but these instances are few and far between. Other times you’re tasked with protecting a structure or person, but this is hardly a significant gameplay variable. Don’t get me wrong; combat is a lot of fun, but this is one of those titles that benefits from being short.

Ryse is the first next generation game to really wow me graphically. The character models feature intricate details, and their animations are breathtaking. I particularly liked how realistic and dynamic the faces are; I’ve never seen anything so life-like in a console video game before. The scenery is absolutely stunning featuring amazing lighting, and subtle yet detailed animation. The only unfortunate thing about this is that you can’t generally explore and see the most impressive sights close up. The most impressive sequence in the entire game is when Marius is participating in a battle inside the Colosseum. In the stands are seated thousands of animated characters, and that’s just in a background. Ryse is the best looking next generation game I’ve played so far.

All of the music in Ryse is orchestrated, and it sounds amazing. Unfortunately, none of the tracks are particularly memorable, but it all suits the action and environments well. The sound effects are gruesomely realistic. Everything from the sound of stabbing into flesh to footsteps are all extremely well done. The actors did a good job of playing their roles, but the actor who played Marius did an absolutely stand out job in the role. His performance helps bring players into the world and story, and the developers deserve major props for the casting. Controls are also really well done. Marius has a ‘weighty’ feel to how he moves, and it feels very realistic. The combat requires a keen eye and constant attention which is why it takes a while to master, but the controls do a great job of easing you into the action.

Ryse: Son of Rome is the most underrated launch title between the two newest consoles. It feels weird to say considering it’s a big budget title that was heavily advertised, but it’s true nonetheless. Because of its short length and repetitive gameplay I can only recommend it as a rental, but it’s definitely worth playing through once.

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