As a launch title for Microsoft’s Xbox One back in 2013, Ryse: Son of Rome was, in a way, carrying the entire machine on its shoulders. Sony’s PlayStation 4 had launched just the week before, and Microsoft had to prove itself after a disastrous console reveal. What was originally meant to be a Kinect title, the game was also in development by Crytek, developers of the gorgeous, PC-melting Crysis series. Taking their graphical expertise away from modern times and into the past, Ryse was the prettiest launch game on either console.
But, the game released to average reception. Nobody dismissed the powerful CryEngine visuals, but people did criticize the repetitive gameplay and lack of staying power for a launch title. Of course, with the game being the first showcase of a new console generation, people will skew their perceptions.
That’s not to mention PlayStation 4’s The Order: 1886. Similar to Ryse, The Order was a cinematically gorgeous showcase of the system’s power. But it also suffered from limited gameplay and short timeframe. Overall, it was a weird time for gaming as we moved out of the seven-year generation of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Were we expecting too much at the time, or were developers not ready for the power that was the eighth console generation?
For its fifth anniversary, we at TechRaptor figured Ryse should get another chance. We’re looking at it as its own experience shed from all the pressure of a generation-launching game.
Ryse tells a supernatural tale in alternate-history Rome. Players take control of Marius Titus, a Roman Centurion tasked with defending Emperor Nero from a Barbarian attack. This sequence makes up the first mission before the two hole up in a safe room to wait out the attack. Here, Marius reveals his past to Nero via playable flashbacks that make up most of the game. This storytelling mechanic marks the first point of controversy about Ryse.
In storytelling, flashbacks can fill in plot holes, add suspense, and flesh out characters. The best stories use flashbacks sparingly, and each one should significantly influence the narrative. Son of Rome ignores this rule by instead relaying Marius’ entire history via these retellings. We follow as our character makes his start as a soldier, moves through the ranks via his tactical genius, experiences heartbreaking betrayal, and becomes the god he is meant to be. These missions allow the player to relate to Marius, showcasing his honor and willingness to sacrifice himself to protect his home country. However, the flashbacks come in awkwardly. This brings about an uncomfortable adjustment period that could turn some players off before the game reaches its stride.
After each mission, we return to Nero and Marius in the safe room where the Centurion preludes the next story arc. At first, it seems there will only be the one flashback before resuming the attack on Rome. But the missions keep coming, and you’re in this odd state of anticipation. When will the flashbacks end? Is this how the entire game plays out? This mechanic distracts from the narrative and doesn’t build up anticipation as much as Crytek wanted it to. Peppering in missions between the present-day attack on Rome would have helped to ease this tension.
That said, jumping around previous points in Marius’ life gives an excellent excuse for us to explore Britain and other European countries. From forests to cities to swamps, CryEngine pushes the Xbox One to its limits. Sun shafts bust through canopies to spotlight the details on trees, bushes, and surrounding nature. These visuals serve as a cushion for the second, most important point of contention: gameplay.
No one can argue that Ryse’s combat flows well. But that flow comes at the expense of depth. You can attack, defend, dodge, or shield bash any enemy at any time. Once you’ve lowered their health, you can enter a quick-time execution sequence full of slow-motion stabbings. These interactions are fast, violent, and provide little breathing room. At first, executions are exhilarating, and you look forward to their variety. Only, combat hardly amounts to anything more than this during the campaign.
Sure, there are small adjustments and game-changers sprinkled in, but too few to make much of a difference. You can throw the occasional spear or activate a special “focus” move that freezes time, but these events only push you towards more executions. With nothing added to the formula aside from more variations of these quick-time events, you’ve seen everything there is to see within the first couple of missions. By mid-game, I’ve already memorized these events and can predict which buttons to hit before the prompt. There goes all the challenge. However, there’s a sense of power in the easy-to-learn, easy-to-master fighting mechanics. It feels good to walk into a room and massacre all enemies without even trying. Until you’ve done it for the hundredth time, that is.
The uneventful combat suffers extra from the lack of enemy variety. Every combatant is a humanoid. One might have a shield or two swords which require you to dodge or block more than others. Otherwise, all fights are consist of the same stuff. This extends to the frustrating boss fights which counteract any sort of flow state. Because the leaders have high health bars, you’re stuck mashing the X button until you can execute. Should we ever see a sequel, the gameplay would enjoy going a bit supernatural with its enemies. With an extra layer or two, these quick time events would suit giant Hydra battles perfectly.
Fortunately, the story is short and engaging enough for you to look past the lacking combat. Unfortunately, it still mires some of the more epic moments. For example, the third act returns to the present and has Marius killed before returning to life as the vengeful spirit, Damocles. He is now invincible and participates in Nero’s arena as an undercover fighter. This moment should feel grand in scale as you relive Marius’ accomplishments that Nero took credit for. It’s an ultimate tale of revenge, but you’re bound to be tired of the combat by this point. And here you’re forced to fight wave upon wave of the same enemies as beforehand. The fights take place in a custom arena with some extra objectives like “burn the trebuchet” or “protect this section,” yet it’s all a shallow attempt at diversification.
More so is at the end of the arena where you fight Nero’s son. It’s another boss fight, but now you must lower his health three times. By this point, I didn’t even want revenge on Nero. I just wanted the fighting to be over. If you’re still looking for more combat even after all of this, these arena elements are reused in a multiplayer mode that’s fun for another couple of hours.
Ryse: Son of Rome tries to balance simplistic, streamlined combat and shove it into a full-fledged game. Only what’s here is too shallow. A game shouldn’t introduce all of its combat mechanics within the first few hours. By the end, the challenge wasn’t if I could defeat the enemies in front of me, it was how many can I beat without getting hit. Building a six-eight hour experience on top of that is hard.
That said, the game is still worth a shot if you can find it for cheap. The still gorgeous visuals, feelings of flow state, and off-putting-but-pays-off-in-the-long-run narrative combine to present a title that tries hard to be engaging, even if it can’t always deliver. Should a sequel ever come, Ryse has more than enough foundation that a second game would be the smash hit we all want.