Germany-based company Crytek is best known for its Crysis and early Far Cry games and the CryEngine technology. Ryse: Son of Rome is probably not as well-known, and it certainly is not very popular. The game’s Metacritic score is 61, and the user score is 6.8. The biggest complaint I was able to ascertain was a lack of freedom and extreme repetitiveness. While I cannot argue with that, I also see it as a strength instead of a weakness. If you want to know why I encourage you to continue reading.
Before I get to the meat, let me start with the vegetables (not that vegetables are bad, quite the opposite, in fact). Ryse was released in 2013 on the Xbox One, and a year later, it came to the PC. Now in 2021, seven years later, I picked it up for about 10 European Orens on Steam. Why do I mention the period between its release and now? Because its visual quality is still very impressive. Granted, I am yet to play something like Cyberpunk 2077 or any of the other late 2020, early 2021 triple-A games with high-end graphics. Therefore, my most recent reference points are probably Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 – the latter on PS4 Pro.
Nevertheless, Son of Rome is pretty. Because of its age, or the advancement of modern computer hardware, it runs with decent performance at full quality. My 1660 Super can mostly hold it stable above 60 FPS in 1440p, with a bit of headroom for more. The game requires a tweak to its settings file, though, to unleash its full potential. See pcgamingwiki.com for a fix if you experience occasional lousy performance with a low GPU utilization. In that case, your CPU is not feeding it with data fast enough.
Let me feed you with why I think Ryse’s restrictive and repetitive gameplay is not necessarily a bad thing. First, what is meant by that? Ryse: Son of Rome is a very linear game. Its level design does not give you any options on how to get from A to B. You traverse the levels the way the designers intended. The best comparison I can come up with is the Gears of War franchise, only that your hero wields a shield and a sword instead of carrying a bunch of guns. And I do not hear many complaints about the Gears games. Or Doom, for that matter, which is a bunch of arenas with waves of enemies stringed together one way or the other. Speaking of arenas, Ryse’s levels provide a high level of variety in terms of looks. You fight your way through a city, lush forests, dark swamps, event the Colosseum. Visually it never gets boring.
When it comes to swordplay, I think a decent comparison would be Souls-like games. Son of Rome is not a simple Hack’n’Slay. You must master its different mechanics to be effective. Combat only requires a few buttons: you can block, attack, and push back or stun enemies with your shield. There is also a distinction between light and heavy attacks, which depends on how long you press the buttons. I did not realize that during gameplay and only found out about it while I was researching information for this blog post. There is a bit of ranged combat as well to spice things up a bit. See this IGN guide for more details. What makes it Souls-like, at least as far as I understand Souls games (I have not played any yet), is that you must know your enemies and how to combine the different techniques to defend yourself and break your enemy’s defenses. The game constantly keeps you on your toes. It requires you to fend off multiple enemies at once, combining attack and block and stun. At the same time, you are surrounded and attacked by different enemy types at once. From what I can tell, it is also a bit faster than the Dark Souls games. The way the combat flows is also reminiscent of the Batman Arkham series.
What differentiates Son of Rome from other games I have played so far is how you regain health or boost experience. There are also other things I have not really picked up on, but I will not talk about them. I leave that up to you to discover the What and the Why. During combat, when an enemy has low health, an indicator pops up to notify you that an “execution” can be performed. Executions are a series of attacks in which you must press the X or Y buttons. The game prompts you to press one or the other by imbuing the enemy with the respective button’s color. You cannot really fail this execution, but you can leave XP on the table when you press the wrong one. That is because the order in which you must press the buttons changes, so it is not enough to learn one sequence by heart. It is best to get it right because that impacts how much health you regenerate or combat XP you gain (or other things…). Why the first is essential should be obvious. There are no health pickups in this game. Combat executions are the only way. But it is up to you to decide what boost you get from an execution. Thus, you must monitor your health constantly and choose when to enable health regeneration in favor of the other boosts. That is an interesting concept.
Regarding XP, you can spend that to increase your total health and other things I never entirely understood. Although the game tells you what this is all for, it is up to you to remember and use it once it has done so. There are no more reminders that make you aware of the benefits.
This is a bit of a weak point of the game. Suppose you are a player like me who has a hard time managing complex combat systems and remembering all the button combinations. In that case, a game should occasionally provide easily noticeable reminders. For example, it detects that you have not used a particular feature in a specific situation for some time. What does not help is shortly flashing a button combo during a heated fight. Those tend to get overlooked too easily because your focus is on something else. I otherwise tend to employ only the basics if they get me what I want.
Having said that, I do not feel I have missed much by not knowing about all the intricate details. I did not find the game became increasingly difficult because I did not utilize everything to its fullest potential. I fact, I was somewhat “proud” of myself that I managed to master the combat to the extent that I did. I was unable to do that in the Witcher 3 or Jedi Fallen Order.
With this small excursion, the Execution System is sort of cool and sort of annoying at times. It interrupts the otherwise fluid combat motions by quick-time events. Since it is a core element of the game and a requirement to heal your character, you cannot completely ignore it. You do not have to use executions to kill an enemy, but there is a benefit to doing so. If you like gory and brutal finishers, like in Doom (Eternal), you’ll love it, though.
Now that I have covered the gameplay, I loved and did not expect that the game had a meaningful story and a good presentation of it. Although you journey through the levels like walking through a hose, they are interconnected by the story of your main character and several nice cutscenes. Your hero Marius is a legionnaire in the Roman empire that is at war with the British Barbarians. But there is more to it because the story is personal and political. It does not feel like an after-thought that was glued on. The cutscenes, the presentation, the audio, and the voice acting are of high quality. I was not expecting this, and now that I have beaten the game, I am surprised about the overall negative ratings.
I do not remember the gaming landscape back in 2013/2014. To me, in 2021, there is a substantial Open World-fatigue. I have recently played too many Ubisoft titles, and I am tired of their Open World formula and similar games. Some time ago, I snatched up Rage 2 for free on the Epic Games Store, thinking that a 1st person shooter might be a good variety. After the fantastic introduction to the game, when you are released into the Open World, I started to get bored as soon as I saw the first “?” on the map. This was when I began looking for a new game that is not an Open World title. And so, I came to play Ryse: Son of Rome. It was the perfect game at the perfect time. I wanted something linear, or at least not so big, that repetitively running from question mark to question mark becomes a chore. Gears 5 is an excellent example of a semi-Open World, but I have already played that twice. Anyway, Son of Rome satisfied my need. Despite the often-cited shortcomings, it is also a short game where the linear levels and repetitive combat action do not drag on for hundreds of hours. It is a dense and intense action-adventure that I finished in roughly eight hours – eight hours of constant entertainment. The Division or Assassin’s Creed cannot compete in that regard.
Son of Rome gets a big thumbs-up from me.