300 meets Gladiator in a pitch-perfect celebration of blood, revenge, and steel-on-bone viscera. Madness? This is next-gen.
I did not expect much from Ryse: Son of Rome. In the months and weeks leading up to the launch of Xbox One, the braying and neighing of Internet types reached a near-universal consensus: This game would be trash. After all, how could it not be? Here was a game which started life as a game for the Xbox 360, controlled entirely through use of the Kinect, a device inept for manipulation of anything more complex than a significant other’s dance and fitness software. Even after its reveal as a launch game for next-gen, the combat in Ryse looked like it was on track to be a repetitive feast of quick time events, a sort of warmed-over pile of leftovers from God of War (itself a series totally and completely out of gas).
It is true that Ryse is supersaturated with QTEs, but it doesn’t matter. Sure, four or five inevitable sequels/spinoffs down the line, this series will almost certainly run out of gas, and we’ll be writing articles begging for it to be put down like a rabid dog. That day is not today, friends: This Ryse, Ryse the first, is the most next-gen of all launch games. It is what we thought Killzone: Shadow Fall would be; the game you stick into your new expensive box to justify your purchase to any and all who view it. Despite being exclusive to the lesser of two systems, Crytek has pulled magic out of its ass to set the bar for next-gen production values. Other developers are officially on notice – this is the bare minimum, the new visual standard for all games going forth. While it would be the height of foolishness to insist that the graphics in Ryse are truly photorealistic, they do come as close as any game ever has, which is exactly what we should expect from a new generation of consoles, cynics and hipsters be damned to the devil’s burning hells.
At its core, Ryse is a very linear, third-person melee action game, and the moveset is basic. This does not act as a detriment, because the mechanics – like the production values – are masterfully polished and refined. There is something to be said for doing something simple extremely well, and so that is what we have on display here. The mechanics consist almost entirely of light and heavy attacks with the sword and shield, as well as blocking/parrying. That’s it, but it is enough, because each strike, smash, and deflection in Ryse is as violently, explicitly crunchy as anything in video games. It has long been the position at this site that a game’s feedback loop with the player is perhaps the most basic of building blocks for creating a truly stellar game, and in this department, Ryse delivers. Yes, more weapon variety would have been appreciated (and shall be expected for the sequel), but Ryse gets quite a bit of mileage out of a simple sword-and-board combo.
Ryse is the most next-gen of all launch games; it sets a new visual standard going forth.
As a capstone to this, each time you whittle an enemy’s health down, you will be given the option of starting a QTE finisher. It is perhaps the game’s sole misfire that failing a QTE does not actually keep the execution from happening. However, on hard difficulty (the only one you should be playing Ryse on if you have ever used a controller before), getting the timing down becomes crucial, because successful QTEs will result in a helpful bonus to one of four attributes: Health gauge, focus (special meter), damage, or experience points. The player can switch between these rewards on the fly, and as each bonus has its own set of gore-soaked executions, you will most certainly wish to do so.
And about those executions: They are metal as fuck. Each execution slows down the game speed, zooms in the camera, and prompts you to hit light or heavy attack. The result is a burst of wonderful, captivating violence. Sometimes you’ll smash your foe in the neck with your shield. Other times, you’ll pin him to the wall and run him through with your sword. Other times still, you’ll chop off a limb or two, curbstomp him, slice him clean through the neck, or slit his throat from behind while you watch the whites of his eyes roll into death. Yes, it’s a one trick pony, but it’s a fantastic trick in a game which doesn’t overstay its welcome (plus, more execution variation can be unlocked through in-game experience points). Much in the way that Zack Snyder’s 300 was a simple, masterfully rendered orgy of violence; Ryse brings all the craftsmanship of this medium to bear in service of six-to-eight hours of feel-good bloodletting. The better you do at letting blood, the more points you get to unlock more graphic bloodletting animations, and so on and so forth. The games press hipsters don’t get it; but it is truly its own reward. You’ll feel like a badass.
Ryse delivers feel-good bloodletting; metal-as-fuck violence powers a most crunchy feedback loop.
A final thing that Ryse (surprisingly) gets right is the story and dialogue. It’s not a particularly unique tale, but it gets the job done with a level of skill seen all too rarely in this medium. Here we have a basic, workhorse tale of a Roman general who must take revenge on those who killed his family and threaten his nation; elevated by a grandiose script filled with stately dialogue and speeches given between characters. Ryse owes much of its narrative success to its cast of voice actors. With great flair, each cast member commits to the role given, and the results shine on the screen: You will find yourself drawn to the plight of the game’s hero, and screaming for the blood of the game’s antagonists. It should be noted that a story is only as good as its villains, and the big bads in Ryse are standouts in an already superbly acted title.
Though brief and limited in both challenge and weapon selection, Ryse serves as a showcase for Xbox One. It combines technically proficient melee combat with graphics that truly preview the potential this new generation of systems holds. More than that, it brings the player to a place of total immersion by marrying a best-in-class feedback loop with top-shelf voice actors and production values. Crytek has committed wholly, unapologetically to the premise of its vision, resulting in the playable, better-acted version of 300 we’ve wanted since 2007.