I’m not particularly a fan of challenge in games. I’ve never had a high tolerance for playing the same sections over and over again until they’re finally grokked, and that tolerance has only lowered as I’ve played more games. I’m currently at a stage in my life when I have enough time and money to play all the games I’m interested in playing, both out of personal taste and professional interest, but because I’m squeezing as many games as possible into the free time I have, I still don’t want to “waste” any of that time, and replaying difficult sections over and over certainly feels like a waste.
Obviously there’s a difference between my personal tastes and my professional design paradigms, and I’m fully aware that a lot of players love a solid challenge and get a kick out of finally pushing past a nearly impossible part of a game. That’s what difficulty settings are for. It’s just that I generally play on Easy, or Normal if I’m playing a type of game where I’m pretty confident in my own skills or which is pretty clearly targeted for a mainstream audience.
So when I booted up Risen, with which Leo shocked me by gifting it to me for my birthday, I picked Easy without hesitation. Risen is a German RPG made for a niche audience, and I’m not an idiot: I know that means it’s going to be tough as nails. It also tends to mean the tutorial will be shit, half the mechanics will go completely unexplained, and all the visual feedback will be ambiguous at best, but I reckoned as long as I could at least hack my way through the fights, I could lean on the Internet to fill in for the substandard tutorials.
Turns out even on Easy, I was completely taken apart by the simplest enemies. I became stuck in a negative feedback loop where I seemed to be too low level to survive any of the fights, so I couldn’t level up because no enemies were low-level enough for grinding, the quests that didn’t require me to fight required gold, and I couldn’t get any gold because the rest of the quests involved impossible fights. There were hints at ways to get gold without questing, but the mere act of exploring the world was incredibly painful because I would constantly aggro monsters by accident and get slaughtered. All of this frustration was compounded by the loading taking ages and crashing the game a third of the time.
Eventually I found a solution: God mode.
I played through most of the swamp and the whole Harbour City section last night, completely impervious to damage, and had lots of fun. Some games aren’t engaging at all without an element of danger, but Risen became significantly more so once I was invulnerable. Now, I can actually explore the world without being annihilated every time I dare to leave the road. Finding locations and objects and solving quests still have elements of challenge due to the lack of quest markers or proper descriptions of what to do, and the simple act of climbing around on rooftops and sneaking into people’s homes at night to relieve them of their possessions without being caught in the act is easily enough to keep me entertained, despite knowing that I can easily fight my way out of any bad situation.
When the danger of engaging in combat is no longer there, the fun of exploration and the surprisingly engaging narrative (based more around interesting quests than memorable characters or plot points) slide into the foreground and take over as the primary motivators, and it happens to be a form of motivation that I enjoy far more than fighting swamp creatures. One simple console command has changed the game from an indescribably frustrating slog to a highly enjoyable game of exploration, thievery, and prospecting.
But Risen still drastically needs a better tutorial and proper visual feedback during combat. “Read the manual” just really really doesn’t cut it in 2011. There is no excuse for that kind of laziness. And it would really help if “Easy” meant “Easy”, and not “Damn near impossible.”