The more I think about it, the more I think that Risen is like accidentally swallowing the key to a pair of handcuffs you're currently wearing: You know something good is coming, but it's going to take a while and you're going to have to go through a lot of crap to get it. There's a good game under everything - a satisfying, deep, complex RPG core that glimmers like the proverbial diamond in the rough - but it's obscured by ... unfortunately, just about everything else.
Risen starts you off by shipwrecking you on an isolated island during the middle of the storm, leaving you and your lone surviving companion to try and get things together before discovering where you are and what's going on. Before long, you'll be given a choice to choose a side between the oppressive Inquisition (though you get the best stuff), the free outlaws living in the swamp, or perhaps just choosing to keep your head down and try to establish yourself in the island's main town.
So begins what I assume is a fairly standard RPG, though by the time you choose a side you'll have already noticed most of Risen's immediate flaws. The game's subpar graphics feel more like 2004 than 2009, and they're compounded by the fact that the animations are particularly awkward: Landing after a long jump and leaping up steps are so jerky and unnatural looking that they immediately pull you out of the moment, and jumping itself seems to break the laws of physics. No matter what direction or speed you're moving in, jumping sends you bounding through the air in a slow leap like you're walking on the face of the Moon.
These animations carry over into the characters with whom you speak, leading to conversations filled with the same five or six animations over and over, both the player and the NPCs gesturing like a jerky, broken marionette. It's a shame, too, because the voice work isn't half bad, and the writing actually feels rather natural and gives the characters you interact with some badly-needed color.
Combat is rather difficult, but not because the game is challenging - rather, the combat engine itself is clunky. You use the mouse buttons to attack and block, and can theoretically parry and counter, but I wasn't able to ever get the timing down no matter how much I tried. I found myself dying to overgrown porcupines because the controls felt like I was playing the game with giant rubber gloves - it's unwieldy, hardly strategic, and honestly made me want to cheat just to get past the fights. Archery combat seemed to flow more smoothly, but melee was still more effective.
Even the stat increasing - ostensibly the meat of any RPG - felt flawed and hamhanded. When you level up, you earn Learning Points which can't be spent right away, but must be redeemed at trainers (along with money) in order to purchase your upgrades. You use the same points for, say, Blacksmithing, increasing your Strength or increasing your skill with a sword, so if you get some in-depth training as a smith or metalworker, best hope you aren't going to get into any fights anytime soon! This results in having to grind not just for levels for extra LP, but for gold as well, just because you needed an extra +1 Agility.
It really is a shame, because I think with a smoother implementation of many of the ideas, there's a substantial core here that fans of WRPGs might really enjoy. But they'll have to be able to put a lot of time into the game: I have to confess that I haven't beaten Risen. In fact, I haven't come close - despite sinking about 10 hours into the game, I'm still in the early stages and the introduction thanks to repeated deaths in combat, having to grind to be able to actually learn skills, and the general slow pace of the game.
There may be a great game there under the surface, but frankly, I don't have the patience to slog through to try and find it, and I don't suspect many other gamers will either.
Bottom Line: A complex and tantalizing (if hardly groundbreaking) RPG core surrounded by poor graphics and animation, awkward combat that's difficult due to unresponsive controls, and a frustrating skill-up system. It's extremely slow to get going, and most people will lose their patience before it ever does.
Recommendation: If you're a diehard fan of WRPGs (specifically the Gothic series), and are willing to sift through the muck in order to find a decent core game, you might want to give it a try. But at $50, I can't in good conscience recommend Risen to anyone else.
John Funk seems to attract murderous wildlife wherever he goes.