Ryse: Son of Rome looks like a fake video game. The kind of vaguely-believable nonsense you’d see a character in a TV show or cartoon play as they hammer away at buttons. Regrettably, it is actually a real game and was, at one point, intended to showcase the technical prowess of Microsoft’s Xbox One. If anything, it makes me very happy that I skipped that console (and most of its generation) entirely.
This totally-real game that you can play yourself is a historical fantasy hack & slash set in Roman times around 60 AD. The City of Rome is under siege by an army of Britons and players take control of a General Marius who leads the defense. He eventually comes to the rescue of Emperor Nero and escorts him to an underground saferoom where, Marius then descends into a 6-hour rant laying out his entire life story up to this very moment.
Marius was a soldier fresh out of training and ready for his first deployment, until Briton barbarians SOMEHOW raided the city of Rome and killed his entire family. Swearing vengeance, Marius is recruited into the 14th legion as it sets out to Britannia to snuff out the recent rebellion.
Ryse doesn’t communicate its status as a fantasy story terribly well because, at a glance, it appears to just be horrendously misinformed about Rome’s history, people, and the time period in general. Things get a little more clear as the later portions of the story start openly featuring magic and Gods. Even if its all fiction, this does not excuse Ryse’s terrible pacing and nonsensical plot developments.
The gameplay does not make up for the shallow storytelling either. As a hack & slash, Ryse is criminally underdeveloped and as mindless of a game as you can probably get nowadays. Every combat encounter is won by spamming the same hit-hit-shieldbash combo over and over again, occasionally pressing a button to perform an Arkham-style counter if the enemies get any fun ideas. The game has a few special enemies, but these are either vulnerable to the same routine or require a mild variation on it. For example, the shielded enemies require a bash before you start the combo and the dual-wielding can’t be attacked until you perform a counter-attack first.
After landing enough hits, a skull appears above the enemy indicating that they are ready for a cinematic finishing move. These finishing moves come with a quick-time event that has no purpose besides increasing your score and irritating colorblind people; you can fail the event entirely and Marius will kill the enemy all the same. While initially pretty cool, you’ll do the same handful of finishing moves on hundreds of enemies across the game. There is no point in just slashing them to death, as finishers are quicker and can restore health, focus (to slow down time), grant extra experience, or boost your strength, depending on what perk you have active at that moment.
Both the basic combat and finishing moves get horribly monotonous; the game has no idea on how to vary itself up. Its only plan for a difficulty curve involves giving the enemies more health and throwing in more of them, which just extends the boring combat even further. Boss-fights, meanwhile, use the same patterns as the stronger enemies, but frequently require you to perform perfect counters in rapid succession to create an opening, again forcing these battles to be pointlessly prolonged. It’s especially awkward when a little cutscene plays with the boss getting mad, regaining some health, and then it just keeps doing the same attack loops as before the cutscene. What???
Each of the game’s chapters cycles through the same few ideas, with Marius doing a few solo battles, fighting alongside his legionaries, having to solve some puzzles through context-sensitive actions, and then conclude on some cinematic battle moments. Levels are aggressively linear and especially the cinematic bits are stupid. Marius will call his men to his side and get into a formation, just so you can slowly walk through a bit of the level instead of walking fast. Sometimes enemies appear that shoot arrows, so you press a button to raise shields, then press another button to kill the enemies.
This is what I mean when I say that the game feels fake. You walk down an automated bit of level and press a button to instantly kill a bunch of enemies. You walk up to a shining item and press a button to solve the puzzle and progress the adventure. You follow an objective marker to a shining scorpio and then proceed to mindlessly fire into a crowd of enemies for 20 minutes. You win a siege battle by kicking away shining ladders and hitting shining siege towers with your sword until the enemy has run out of them. Everything is shining, context-sensitive, and trivial. Even worse, chances are you’ll be doing most of those activities a dozen times each before the game is finally over.
I do appreciate the rapid-fire, unlimited ammo scorpios though. I did not expect classical era turret shooter segments, yet here we are.
The longer the game went on, the more it began to bore me and the more I noticed how ugly it was. The early levels had some impressive elements to it, like the busy nature of the siege on Rome and the beach landing on Britannia’s shore, but later levels are increasingly boring and have no business being this taxing on my gaming hardware. Areas are drab-looking and confined, character models are ugly and recycled a hundred times over, cutscenes are full visual artifacts, so why is this game dipping below 20 fps with frequent freeze-ups?
Especially the character models frustrate me. Every enemy type has 1 model, so you frequently fight armies of clones with your own legion of clones at your side. Marius himself is so generic I often failed to recognize him in cutscenes and those 2 filler chapters at the end suddenly introduce multiple mystical women—all naked of course—and a whorehouse level. Not only are these shallow attempts at bumping up the game’s age rating, these women also look ridiculous. Their breasts reverberate so intensely with every step they take that it looks outright comical
Ryse’s lacking visuals were occasional sources of great hilarity, like an endless flow of war elephants charging through the gates of Rome, just so Marius can play a game of classical Frogger. At other times, they were embarrassing and frustrating to play through.
I can’t recommend Ryse to anybody and have no excuses to make for it. Its an ugly game with a meandering, overlong story that still only manages to clock in at 6 hours on a high difficulty setting. Its gameplay mechanics are shallow; you repeat gimmick segments over and over again to fill the time between regular fights, that you then effortlessly button-mash through. Its nonsensical story is filled with unlikable character and twists that make no sense whatsoever, and then still manages to end on a vague conclusion that leaves out many details and explanations.
For a further rant about plot inconsistencies, please stick around.
Alright, top 5 nonsensical plot developments in Ryse: Son of Rome. GO
How did Britons raid Rome and why does nobody question it.
While later revealed to be part of a divine plot, the game doesn’t address how an army of Britons currently waging a rebellion in their homeland finds the time to cross the whole Empire just to butcher Marius’ family and raid Rome for a bit, nor does anybody question it.
Where does Marius display Boudica’s head?
The game starts off with Marius handing a subordinate a sack and telling him to display it somewhere high, claiming it will rout the barbarians. This is later revealed to be the decapitated head of Boudica and it succeeds in scaring off her entire army, but how? Where does this soldier put a single head in the Roman capital where enough people will see it to have any impact? The defenses are shattered at this point, there are hundreds of war elephants stampeding through the city and fighting has spread everywhere. I sincerely doubt a loss of the already-loose leadership at this point would cause the tribes to retreat.
Why did Nero install his son’s statue?
After returning to Rome hellbent on slaying Nero, Marius first goes after his sons. One of them was working on a stone statue of his father that could be made to cry any liquid. Marius kill him and fills it with the son’s blood (though the cutscene makes this pointlessly vague) just so the statue will cry blood as Nero flees the Briton invasion. How does Marius time the crying to coincide with this exact moment where Nero would be looking at it? Why did Nero even install the statue in the first place after finding it next to the butchered corpse of his son?
How did the Britons siege York after being betrayed?
After defeating Boudica and King Oswald, the Romans force them into a peace conference where they then slaughter the king. The Britons begin to riot and throw stones, whereupon Commodus retreats and flees back to Rome. Marius is told to man the walls and contain the fighting, only to find a Briton army outside with catapults and siege engines. How did they prepare this in literal minutes?
Why is Marius retelling his story?
The whole point of the game’s framework is such that Marius wants to slowly have Nero realize why he wants him dead, but instead of being concise about it, the emperor is obliged to listen to hours of rambling about Marius’ career and achievements in Britannia. I can accept this as Marius contextualizing the events, except by that logic the game should end after the siege on York, where Marius is revived as Damocles. Instead, Marius goes on to ramble about events Nero already knows about, like his public killing of Commodus. He also sabotages himself, such as by spoiling the origin of the crying statue, revealing the Oracle’s divination that Nero uses against him, and telling Nero that the barbarians are retreating, giving the emperor the confidence to muster a final defense instead of going through with his suicide.