“My name is Marius Titus. A general in the 14th Legion of the Roman army. Son to murdered parents. Brother to a slaughtered sister and I will have my historical tale of betrayal where I become Roman-Batman (or Roman for short) in this life or the next — oh and revenge, I’ll have some of that too!”
• Developer: Crytek
• Publisher: Microsoft Studios
• Reviewed on: Xbox One
• Also Available On: N/A
• Release Date: Out Now
While I paraphrase the famous lines from Gladiator because I am dumb or funny (you decide) it is also done so more deliberately with good reason, as Ryse: Son of Rome is not that far removed from the story that played out in Ridley Scott’s Roman epic. Marius Titus (surprisingly not a name used in Monty Python’s Quest For the Holy Grail‘s “Biggus Dickus” scene) finds himself not as a slave, as Maximus did in Gladiator, but both were Generals in the Roman Army and Marius also ends up returning to Rome as a gladiator as part of his path of revenge to uncover the evil plot that killed his family. This is one element where the tale steers away from the exact backstory script of Gladiator and veers into the origin story of Batman, as opposed to his wife and young child being killed, it is his mother, father and sister that are murdered.
As a videogame, the Batman comparison does not end there. The combat system is based on the similar premise, popularised by the Arkham series, of needing to defend yourself from attacks at all times with liberal use of dodge and deflect, while then taking the opportunity to strike with your sword or shield. These attacks can also be held down for more powerful versions that launch you at your opponents with force. The shield attacks are particularly useful for breaking a tough or shielded opponent’s guard and sword attacks are particularly useful for stabbing people in their highly detailed faces. You can also make use of a Focus Attack which stuns and slows down nearby enemies, which ends up being particularly useful against crowds or harder mini-boss and boss characters.
Adding a slight depth to the tactical side of combat is the use of Execution Moves. These allow you to finish weakened enemies with what definitely is NOT a Quick Time Event — Okay, despite the devs protestations it really, really IS a Quick Time Event. I am aware that there is an overly negative stigma attached to QTEs, but I have never understood the argument of a videogamer saying “I don’t like pressing a button to see something awesome happen on screen!”. I also like the way they have been implemented in Ryse, as instead of any button prompts flashing up on screen the enemy you have weakened will flash either yellow or blue depending on which attack button needs to be used — presumably as the flashing up of buttons made it more difficult to attempt to continue to deny the presence of QTEs.
There is also an element of skill required in using Execution Moves as the timing needs to be precise for higher score bonuses and for greater Execution rewards. These rewards come in one of four flavours, that can be swapped between mid-combat, with; Health Regen – which will replenish some health, Focus Gain – which builds up your focus attacks, XP Gain – which increases experienced earned and Damage Boost – which increases the amount of sword and shield based pain and suffering you are capable of inflicting.
The story is told through some very cinematic and visually impressive cut scenes and backed up by some accurately represented Roman architecture and seemingly historically accurate military armour and equipment. A history lesson this is not though, it does have real figures from history with Emperor Nero and Boudica (or Boadicea) both intricately woven into the story, but this story is set in an alternate timeline and does not attempt to accurately represent facts. It is a slight dumbing down, but as long as you are happy with some artistic licence being taken with moments from history, it is non-offensive adaptations of events — with the likes of Boudica and her “Barbarians” sacking Rome rather than London (Londinium) as she and her hordes of Iceni and other tribesmen did in real life. Where the elephants came into it is anyone’s guess.
There are some sections where you need to defend an area using a ballista. These parts can be overly repetitive and drag on for too long, but are not very difficult, as long as you accurately follow the instructions you are given. They also give you the chance to shout instructions back, as some of your troops, commonly archers, can be told when to fire using voice commands — the accuracy of which astounded me as throughout the whole game it worked correctly 100% of the time and I never found the need to repeat myself. You can instead just hold down the bumper button to issue the same command, it is faster to do so with your voice, but only as you have to hold the button down rather than tapping it.
The single player campaign is a little on the short side at just over six hours, but you will need to play through the game more than once to unlock the rest of your execution moves. The single player portion is padded out with some solo gladiatorial combat arenas and that can be used to level up your multiplayer character when a co-op partner is unavailable. You will want to ensure you make some time for the multiplayer as this ended up being my favourite component of the game.
Multiplayer sees you and a friend step into one of eight trap-laden, dynamic Coliseum based environments to take on a series of challenges. While most of these challenges involve stabbing hordes of barbarians, there is a fair degree of variety in the objectives you are tasked with completing – from burning offensive catapults to capturing and defending a certain position, killing key targets or dosing the flames of a burning wickerman effigy. Although simplistic, having one player stand on a switch while the other player has to go through a gate to reach one of these objectives or having one player defend another while they man a ballista, are both good examples of ways that teamwork in enforced.
Teamwork is generally a good idea and encouraged throughout the co-op mode, not least as they are a number of co-op execution moves to unleash, but also as the God powers that you pick from at the beginning of the round imbue their powers onto your teammate too. So, if you pick health gain and your co-op partner chooses focus gain then you will both gain health and focus from each execution kill. Each God grants you a different focus power and all affect enemies within a certain radius of the player character — meaning that you will both gain a benefit if fighting in close enough proximity of one another. While it might be helpful that Ryse taps into my education fuelled desire to reenact scenes from Gladiator, the co-op particularly, does feel like a refreshing change from the many ages of guns. It is not very difficult, especially as you can revive each other with no time limit being enforced, but it is just challenging enough to keep you on your toes and to make the plethora of upgrades available desirable.
Microtransactions do feature in both single and multiplayer aspects of the game, with everything being unlockable via an in-game purchase of Gold — however, none of this is in anyway necessary and you can happily play through everything without ever having to invest. If I had made any investment of real world cash, it would have actually subtracted from my enjoyment of the game, where I feel that I have unlocked everything with skill or dedication. A bit disappointed to see that the Season Pass was quite so highly priced (I believe £15.99) as I would be very interested in more multiplayer arenas.
I do not like to read other reviews of a game before writing my own, but could not avoid talk of some reviewers scores and the current Metacritic score. At a point around half way through the campaign – I paused the game and said out loud; “Am I playing the same game that everyone else reviewed?” I can understand some criticisms of the game, but I am still unsure what everyone else disliked quite so much.
All I can tell you that it was a refreshing change to play an action game in a Roman setting, which may have increased its appeal to me and given how much of a fan I was of games such as Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit) I can conclude that I have less of a problem with QTEs than most. Ryse is certainly a one-trick show pony, but I happen to really like that trick. It is not perfect, it may not be a great game that will be held in high regard when we come to discussing the best games ever on the Xbox One, but it is a good game I greatly enjoyed and a good showcase launch title for some of the capabilities of the Xbox One. And I think we can all agree that it is better off not being a Kinect only game.