I’ll be perfectly honest, I didn’t have high hopes for Ryse: Son of Rome. The Xbox One launch game got all sorts of negative press at E3 because it what seemed to be nothing but a series of quick-time event (QTE) interactive vignettes. When I experienced it in person at E3 I felt those comments were completely justified. I hate QTE, and to see an Xbox One launch game based entirely on them was a total letdown. But now that the game has launched and I’ve completed it, my Ryse: Son of Rome review has completely changed. In fact, I’ve come to think it’s the best first-party Xbox One launch game.
Ryse: Son of Rome does include QTE at every turn, but almost all button prompts are completely optional. In some respects it’s like the reload mechanic in Gears of War. In that Xbox franchise you can reload your gun like normal, just waiting for the game to do its thing, or you can engage in a sort of time/rhythm-based minigame that gives you extra-powered bullets for a short time. Likewise, in Ryse: Son of Rome you can continue to heavy- or light-attack at whatever button-mashing rate you want, but if you take the time to synchronize your attacks with the colors indicated, you get an XP boost.
Crytek does this in an ingenious way, and I’d like to see more games execute QTE as they did. Rather than show a big colored button hovering over an enemy’s head, the developer gives the enemy a slight outline of the color you’re supposed to press. Depending on your response time, you’re given a score of Recruit, Soldier or Centurion, and when you chain together up to four properly timed attacks your overall combo is given a similar grade. If you botch every single one and just mash buttons you’ll still defeat most enemies; there’s no instant death because of missed signals until the anticlimactic end level. But if you pay attention to the timing you’ll be rewarded with more XP to boost Marius’ skills.
Because it doesn’t require a QTE attention span, Ryse can be played as a mindless button-masher. It’s just not as rewarding if you play that way. In addition, the game’s later chapters include powerful enemies that require using specific attacks to break through their guard, so button mashing against them accomplishes nothing. In addition, certain enemies have charged attacks that require Marius to block to avoid taking damage, introducing another nuanced gameplay mechanic that’s rewarding for those who choose to pay attention.
As for Marius, the main character in Ryse: Son of Rome, he’s unlike many heroes in a Crytek games in that he’s not a faceless goon about whom you never care. Crytek tells a surprisingly good (though predictable) coming-of-age story with Ryse. [Spoiler alert: skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t yet played or beaten the game.] The story is actually good to the point that when the game concluded I was sincerely disappointed to realize there probably won’t be a sequel. Marius is at times loving and thoughtful, though he does spend most of his time as a viscous killing machine.
The story weaves its way through a variety of settings, from the wall-storming scene Microsoft showcased at E3 to a lush jungle environment, a foggy English village and a dark, foreboding forest in what seems to be Scandinavia. All the while, as Marius seeks revenge, we’re introduced to a few key characters, each of whom plays a role not just in the overall game but in Marius’ development as a person realizing his fate. Really, the plot shows some fantastic effort on Crytek’s part, and it was as much of a pleasant surprise as realizing that the combat and gameplay were far deeper and more enjoyable than a game reliant on QTE mechanics.
If there’s any disappointment in my Ryse: Son of Rome review, it would have to be the game’s multiplayer mode. Ryse wisely takes its cues from the Roman Colosseum, using a large number of different arena environments to have players participate in a “last gladiator standing” sort of tournament. It sounds great, and in theory it could be, if only you weren’t limited to two players. Rather than have an all-out multiplayer grudge match in the arenas, you can merely team up with a single cohort to take on wave after wave of enemies.
The enemies are tough, in some cases ridiculously so, and they’ll make mincemeat out of anyone who fails to think strategically or work as a team. Going it alone isn’t wise either, because the difficulty doesn’t seem to scale based on the number of participants. But if ever a game seemed built for eight- or even 16-player gladiator battles with real Xbox Live members, Ryse: Son of Rome is it. The game’s multiplayer play is entertaining I suppose, but it really is a letdown in terms of what it could’ve been, and it’s a letdown when graded alongside the single-player Campaign.
Much has been said about the graphics in Ryse: Son of Rome, and with good reason. The game looks drop-dead gorgeous. If there’s any debate about which game you pop into the Xbox One to show off next-gen graphics to your friends, just insert Ryse and the debate will end. Lighting, textures, character models, particle effects and even seemingly insignificant environmental details in all those varied settings are all pulled off as only Crytek can pull them off. Ryse is one of the best-looking games I’ve ever seen, and it’s an Xbox One launch game. I can’t wait to see what developers can pull off graphically in year three and four of the console’s life.
I went into Ryse incredibly skeptical that I would make it past the first level. Not due to its difficulty, but due to my abhorrence of QTE gameplay. Having beaten the game and loved almost every minute of it (dang waves of elephants), I’m both surprised and relieved that my Ryse: Son of Rome review has turned out glowing. Ryse is flat-out the best first-party Xbox One launch game, and it’s right up there among the best launch games in general. If you’re a multiplayer junkie you may not feel the same way, but if you’re a fan of solid Campaigns, good narratives and nuanced gameplay, you’ll definitely want to add this game to your Xbox One game library.
Check the prices for Ryse: Ron of Rome on Amazon.com.
Score: 9 – Fear not, QTE haters, for Ryse: Son of Rome is fun to play and one of the most enjoyable Xbox One launch games.
Platform reviewed: Xbox One (exclusive)