A history lesson Ryse: Son Of Rome most certainly is not, but it finds itself increasingly troubled by its past. Without digressing on the ins and outs of its development, it was at one stage tailored specifically to demonstrate the capabilities of Kinect on Xbox 360, but was tweaked into a traditional third-person action game as it made the leap to Microsoft’s new hardware. The impact of that decision results in a game that is increasingly at odds with itself.
Unsurprisingly, the crux of the gameplay consists almost entirely of combat, executing a series of precision-based attacks, counters and blocks to dismantle enemies in a crimson mist. It’s a bloody array of moves inspired in some part by the gore-drenched ferocity of the God Of War series, building up combos until you’re able to activate an execution kill – ostensibly QTEs, subtly masked by illuminating enemies in colours that correspond to buttons – that pirouette and linger on the grisly spectacle in a manner that recalls the savagery of Zack Snyder’s cinematic bloodbath 300.
There’s also another more obvious comparison to be made, but by now likening a contemporary game’s stripped-back combat to the systems established in Rocksteady’s Arkham series is a little old hat. Nevertheless, it’s fundamentally the same set of mechanics, which is made more apparent here in our case by frequent and rather embarrassing attempts to counter using Y rather than Ryse’s mapping of A. There are notable differences, albeit mostly negative. For instance, there doesn’t appear to be a major penalty for mistiming prompts during executions; the cinematic just continues to roll onwards until the enemy has met his unfortunate end, the player simply receiving slightly less XP than had they been more precise.
Once you’ve spent a few minutes familiarising yourself with the combat you’ll essentially be countering and jabbing all the way to Rome. Bosses, of which there are a few scattered between chapters, don’t require a great deal more dexterity than the Barbarians that constantly flock towards the edge of your blade, making strategy a simple choice between hitting X repeatedly or tapping Y. A focused warrior will find themselves cleaving their way through the main campaign in around five hours, but given the dearth of features we can’t imagine you will be striving to stay any longer within the world.
This is where the ghost of Ryse’s past creeps into view. The game is crushingly linear; any break from combat is spent walking a pre-determined path (mostly by looking for red or blue garments draped over ledges) that will inevitably end in another extended bout with a clan of howling marauders. Although Crytek has loosened the screws, this is still an experience that is very much on-rails. In fact, beneath the solid, punchy combat that defines Ryse is the Kinect game that it once was, still very visible on the surface. You’ll find frequent evidence of this, from repeated set pieces where your Roman general must
lead a squad forward in phalanx formation, squatting beneath shields to block incoming arrows and returning fire at the opportune moment – everything here is constructed specifically around the motion-control device. Even the menus themselves have been designed with Kinect in mind, emulating the Xbox One dashboard itself with large icons spread across multiple screens.
Ironically, Kinect 2.0 is used sparingly throughout the game itself, but in a manner that presents an unnecessary disadvantage if you’d rather not participate. This is mostly through voice commands, enabling players to bark orders at soldiers during battle, with the alternative being hitting the left bumper. However, opt for the latter and you’ll be waiting several seconds for it to execute, while shouting phrases will register instantly.
But what Ryse lacks in gameplay versatility it makes up for in visuals. This is a fulsome presentation, not just boasting spectacular vistas of Rome or densely packed battlefields thick with black smoke and bloodied corpses, but hugely evocative environments that aid in the immersion into the exaggerated drama of the period. Whether tensely creeping through a forest at twilight, studying the beastly shadows observing your squad or slowly making your way up the steps into the Colosseum as the sun cascades through ,the gates in front of you, Crytek’s direction is assured and enrapturing throughout.
The plot doesn’t aim for any historical accuracy, and there’s something about the way the last half of the campaign spirals into absurdity that has to be admired. You step into the skirt of Roman general Marius Titus, whose unwavering commitment sets him on a course back to Rome to enact revenge on those who wronged him. It’s a whole heap of dumb fun that echoes the similarly themed God Of War and, weirdly, BioShock Infinite. By the time you embark on a series of Gladiatorial events inside Rome’s most famous amphitheatre, the stadium lowering and shifting itself like a Rubik’s cube to unveil new environments like a sword-and-sandals rendition of The Hunger Games, you will have stopped caring about the politicking and be happy to ride the madness until its climax.
It’s easy to see a new franchise in Ryse; one that could potentially rival God Of War if it maintains the momentum of the latter half of the campaign. However, the gameplay is so rote and uninspired that it merely hints at a more robust and rewarding experience that it fails to deliver. Ultimately, it makes for a few hours of passing entertainment, but it’s certainly not one for the history books.