(Xbox One Review) Ryse: Son of Rome

Developer: Crytek
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Action
Players: 1-2
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 6.5 = Fair

Barbarians are pouring into Italy from the north. The legions are buckling under the weight of their hordes, which are threatening the existence of Rome herself. Yet one man remains who can save the eternal city, a battle-hardened general by the name of Marius. Nothing less than the civilized world is at stake in Crytek’s Xbox One debut Ryse: Son of Rome. In this blood-soaked journey into the past, players assume the role not of the famous Gaius Marius, the able general who smashed the marauding Germanic tribes devastating Italia, but as Marius Titus, a soldier of the XIV Gemina who must lead what remains of the empire’s forces against the invading Britons in a series of gory encounters.

Ryse isn’t shy about what it is, but what it is can be difficult to peg down. Ostensibly, it is a game about a Roman general who must save the empire from an army of allied barbarians led by Boudicca. In reality, it’s a bizarre concoction created by all of the silliest, strangest, and curious tropes from the sword-and-sandals epics of Hollywood’s past. Medieval-style castles? Check. Britons wearing ahistorical Viking-style horned helmets? Check. Crazy, nonexistent (son of the) emperor who loves to fight as a gladiator? Check. Nipple armor? Most definitely check. Everything has been altered so much that it would be easy to forget that there was an actual rebellion by Britons against Rome led by Boudicca that was indeed suppressed by the XIV legion. This might seem like splitting hairs, given how off-kilter the world of Ryse actually is, but it’s worth noting that Nero was also not an overweight middle-aged man with a psychotic son that shared the same name of fellow arena aficionado Commodus. This is swords and sandal at its most surreal—over the top and two steps away from completely bonkers. But in the end, who has time to contemplate the small stuff when there are heads that need bashing (or removing)?

After landing in Britannia, Marius is faced with a growing rebellion against the rule of Nero and his son. As a lower-ranking commander of the XIV, he must go deep into the country alongside his men to face the power behind the uprising, King Oswald. Oswald and his daughter Boudicca, the famous warrior queen who is now relegated to second-string status and sports an uncomfortable-looking strap of armor, have joined with others to push Rome back to the continent. The game’s eight chapters will see Marius rise through the ranks as he journeys between Italia, Britannia, and Scotland—sorry, Caledonia—battling barbarian armies and taking revenge on those who have abandoned his comrades in arms and masterminded his family’s downfall.

It’s a fairly short journey, but it’s definitely an action-packed one. As a one-man army, Marius will fell cemeteries’ worth of enemies by sword, shield, pilum, spike, boot … pretty much anything he comes across. Each defeated foe provides experience based on how effectively they were taken down. Enemies can be killed hard and fast and bloodily or gracefully and bloodily, depending on the player’s timing. As a skilled soldier, Marius is capable of attacking, shoving, blocking, and evading while kitted out. Exactly what type of attack is performed is determined by the duration of the button-press, with quick taps resulting in light, fast attacks while holding buttons down unleashes slower but more powerful blows. Shove is best used against fast or shielded enemies, which will cause the former to become unbalanced and the latter to stumble as their shields are knocked aside. Blocks also have different types, with the simple block causing enemies to become knocked back and a perfectly timed block causing them to recoil and open themselves up for a counterattack, as well as to block heavy attacks that would otherwise need to be evaded.

After enough damage has been dealt, Marius has the opportunity to finish his opponent in a gory cinematic takedown. These are more than just showpieces for the lovely visuals, as they also reward players with bonus experience based on performance. These moves are unlocked by allocating the valor earned through leveling—or gold, which is earned in multiplayer or purchased with real money—and play out as quick-time events, with enemies turning blue or yellow during certain moves; additional rewards are given for not only hitting the appropriate button but for doing so quickly. These scenes will have arms and legs chopped off, bodies impaled, besiegers tossed off the side of walls, and faces crushed in by caligae. These also reward Marius with one of four selectable bonuses: health, experience, damage, or focus. The latter is a crowd-clearing move that stuns and slows down nearby enemies, allowing players to slash with impunity. Each power-up also has its own upgrade path, allowing for greater boosts with each combo. If enough combos have been strung together against enough enemies, a special type of multi-enemy takedown will occur, with Marius switching between multiple targets during the sequence. This is all satisfyingly visceral and incredibly over the top.

In many ways, the game’s short length works in its favor. Ryse is repetitive in almost every way, whether it is the limited kill animations, the handful of enemy types, or the small move list. Given the high encounter rate, everything the game has to offer will be experienced over and over again. While this does make the game monotonous, the smaller mission size actually keeps the story moving so briskly that the frequent cutscenes and locale changes keep any one session from feeling tedious. A few non-melee actions are also included to break things up, including turret sequences, where Marius uses a scorpion to impale approaching enemies, and leadership moments, when he can choose where to send men (e.g., ‘left to cover infantry or right to deal with archers’) and group with them to advance in testudo, attacking with pila volleys when not ordering the squad to duck behind their shields. These are actually pretty interesting diversions, especially the formation sequences, and I would like to see them further developed in a sequel.

Even if players cannot get enough of combo linking and timing decapitations and amputations, the game only lasts for so long. After around eight hours, and a sharp turn into Gladiator territory, Marius’ journey is at an end. Players aren’t done, though, as they can still continue to reduce men to bits and bobs in Crytek’s Rome as a gladiator. The multiplayer component allows for up to two players to compete in matches against barbarian gladiators. The different arenas, each with their own motif (e.g., sandstorm, oasis, etc.), are filled with traps that are daunting to handle solo but are an absolute blast to tackle with a partner. A choice is given to have the matches load as a playlist or to select which challenges to meet beforehand, which will have players freeing citizens from cages, destroying trenches to stop enemies from emerging, saving giant wickermen from fire, defending areas, hunting down traitors, and destroying catapults. Matches are topped with a last battle against heavy-attacking barbarians that can kill with a few swipes, which adds some late-match tension.

Players can outfit their gladiator with gold, which is earned as winnings in the arena or with real cash, by buying booster packs. These consist of copper, silver, and gold item packs from one of five tiers. New tiers are unlocked as players level up, but older tiers remain enticing as the more expensive packs offer the chance of getting a rare item. The items, which include shields, swords, helmets, greaves, armbands, crotch and chest protectors, affect the player’s stats, from the amount of focus gained to their max health. There is even a stat for maintaining the crowd’s enthusiasm: the longer they are enthralled by the performance, the greater the gold bonus at the end of a match. A god is also chosen beforehand that will bestow one of the four combo bonuses as well as a focus ability (Diana offers Hurricane Blast, Apollo Solar Stun, Mars Fires of War, and Jupiter Time Storm), and an extra item, which is unlocked after playing in their honor for an extended period of time. Despite being limited to two players and offering a small arena selection, multiplayer offers a great way to spend a few hours, as the teamwork aspect provides a real jolt to the core gameplay, with players helping one another by reviving them, taking down an enemy going in for a death blow, or initiating a co-op combo. In comparison, I spent about as much time fighting in the arena than I did in the dark forests of Britannia or streets of Rome, and had a blast the entire time.

Ryse: Son of Rome is a bombastic action title filled with bloody battles, cinematic encounters, and gravely sounding centurions barking orders about glory and empire, but it’s also very repetitive. A vicious, almost rhythmic combat system is let down by a small move list, a handful of takedown animations, and a very limited enemy variety. The short mission structure helps to negate some of the innate monotony caused by such limitations, but the game suffers from it nonetheless. An enjoyable multiplayer component helps to add longevity, but it, too, has only a small pool to draw from. I hope to see a more experimental follow-up built on Ryse’s base, free from the restrictions of a launch-window deadline.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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