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Xbox One Review: ‘Ryse’

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Humanity no longer sends warriors into combat to kill each other for entertainment’s sake. Civilization has progressed since the days of an active Roman Colosseum. There still exists a primal urge for that violence though, enough that we digitize and pamper barbarism with lavish budgets. In videogames, we seek to engorge ourselves on ever more real displays of human maiming, whether by gun, fists, or sword.

For Ryse, bloodshed is everything. Rome is colliding with outside barbarians who scurry their hairy, greasy hides across the extravagance of city centers. Soon, those exemplary demonstrations of marble, glass, and concrete architecture are stained with saturated reds.

Videogames have arrived at the uncanny valley, a place where technological exploits meet up with reality in unnerving ways. Stabbing barbarians in the neck (or through it) captures the moment in ghastly glory. Authentic facial expressions turn cringe inducing, and mouths are agape as swords puncture for gratuitous executions. Camera work ensures no detail is missed. Most will live their lifetime without seeing another person stabbed, and while the uncanny valley can be used for emotional articulation, Ryse uses it to express painful anguish.

Marius Titus is not one to execute subtlety, a high ranking commander and vicious killer who exists for vengeance. Ryse delivers a player character of limited consequence; Marius must slaughter and do so in ways which can sell videogame consoles, unflattering depiction of gross sword play or otherwise.

Centrally, Crytek produces an anemic, winding update to the arcade’s beat-em-up hallmark. Collision carries a stammer as Crytek attempts to lift their new IP above its shambling facade. Marius executes strikes with monumental force and end effects are disappointingly minuscule. Most barbarians shrug it off and prepare for further retaliation. There is no sense that flesh and sinew are being severed until explicit executions lock Marius into choreographed patterns of limb chopping.

Combat arguably should be raw as a means to complete a sensation of fury and aggression between men battling for their lives. Shields should repel both forces during successful parries; such movement indicates the level of thrust in those strikes. Ultimately, Ryse is too committal in motion, locking Marius in combinations without an escape as animation routines cycle. The payoff is missing as swords prove inconsistently sharpened.  Fight pacing is also peculiar. Ryse removes the ability to falter in a quick time beheading (even with incorrect button presses), yet hesitates and wobbles when one is in more directly controlled conflict.

Ryse is often trapped and forcibly crumbles its illusory facade. Boats smash into background elements, towers fall, and catapults shatter Rome’s sense of superiority. These touches are impressive if superficial. There are no interactive elements at work. Ryse merely inserts increasingly banal confrontations as Rome collapses, under the assumption mere spectacle sells this medium.

Everything is drenched with textural beauty. Shimmering armor is adorned with tapered gold and attention to lifestyle details are captured with an audacious generational leap. Yet, barbarians cycle in pairs. Said valley which is wholly uncanny represents facial animation rather than seas of twins and triplets entering each fight. It is a genre staple to clone character sprites and models, but it devastates something oozing attempted realism.

Videogame budgets are what they are: budgets. It is an ingrained limitation and unavoidable. That becomes an obvious reason why hordes of invading forces are represented by six or seven warriors with the same face and body type. However, Ryse is built for Microsoft’s business platform, a means of extending their finances through microtransactions. Leveling, which extends to strengthening powers, expanding health, and stretching executions, can be done with real cash. Why wait when you can pay? Even multiplayer harnesses the power of cash flow, offering budding gladiators a chance to play dress up as they enter cooperative Colosseums. Fail, but do so in style as the mantra states. This entire system of post-$60 purchases is designed to be as frivolous as Rome itself. Suddenly, primitive and duplicate hordes come off as corner cutting.

And really, why does this system of fickle transactions exist? The answer is to sell Marius as a generational patriarch, bludgeoning prospective buyers with intense shouting and gruff antagonism. Trailers show a commanding Marius pointing his sword and screaming as he charges headstrong into the nucleus of combat. He is a man’s man, dipping directly into the psyche of traditionalized launch day demographics.

Ryse drapes itself in visual progression, covering up and patching its trivial update to Sega’s 16-bit Golden Axe. Ryse merely manipulates a growing need for spectacular cruelty. Marius becomes a mythical hero, a champion to be celebrated after he maims men wearing animal skins on a ground made of skulls. It is simple fetishistic sword clashing fantasy, where people yell and die in overly loud pockets of conflict. Nothing here is new, but it’s pretty in a sweaty, blood stained, mass grave sort of way.

Ryse is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language .

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.