Ryse: Son of Rome: Video Game Review

"Ryse: Son of Rome"
Stunning graphics -- with a story that fails to inspire the same wonder.

This glory-of-Ancient-Rome adventure game, one of Xbox One's launch titles, is a wonder to behold.

The thing that knocked me out when I first sat down to play the Xbox One launch title Ryse: Son of Rome was that not only could I see the teeth inside the mouth of a fellow Roman legionary as he spoke to me, but that those teeth were dirty.

Launch titles for new consoles can be hit or miss, but while Ryse might not be the most innovative game I’ve ever seen, man, is it beautiful. Every locale you find yourself in -- from the rocky beaches of the British Isles to the marble spectacle of the Colosseum to Rome’s grimy slums is rendered with a lush depth that’s possible only with a next-gen console. On an HD screen, the images really are breathtaking.

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The story, on the other hand, is a little more stock -- especially if you’ve ever seen Gladiator (which you have). You play Marius, a soldier of Rome, whose family is slaughtered in their home by a band of marauding Britons. With revenge on his mind and bloodlust in his heart, Marius volunteers for the bloodiest duty possible, as it will take him far to the north where the barbaric Britons rest their heads. Lots of fighting ensues -- always with your handy sword and shield, occasionally with a spear or a mounted crossbow. Cue the inevitable betrayal, the requisite detour into the gladiatorial ring, and a vat full of comeuppance.

It’s not that that’s a bad story outline, it’s just not a particularly surprising one. And when the game does have the opportunity to throw you a curve, it doesn’t take it: there’s a bit toward the end of the game’s “first act,” where Marius finds himself stranded, far from home, burning with the knowledge of who betrayed him and his family. And a player might think that the middle third of the game will be about him fighting his way back to Rome, learning new fighting techniques, inspiring followers, so that when he makes it back to the Eternal City, it’ll be time for the big, climactic showdown. Alas, what could’ve been a character-defining stretch of game is covered in a cut scene.

The gameplay is simple enough. Ryse is a third-person smashy-punchy-slicey game. It’s all about the melee -- and the timing of blocks and strikes to elicit the most damage to your opponents. And when it’s time for the “execution” moves -- when a little skull is dancing over your opponent’s head, like so many Tweety Birds -- you’ve basically gotta play Simon and match the colored controller buttons to the onscreen cues. It’s fun and satisfying enough -- especially with the Xbox One’s graphics processors working overtime -- but it does get rather repetitive after, say, three or four hours of button mashing.

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There’s no stealth whatsoever to this game and nothing resembling an open sandbox, either: You’re on rails for the entire time you’re playing Ryse. And don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely a place for a game designed like this -- if nothing else, the God of War series proved that -- but despite the immaculate new coat of paint, there’s nothing particularly innovative under the hood.

That said, there is still a virtue in new IP, in not grinding away at yet another installment in a long-running franchise. If only Ryse: Son of Rome had as much ambition in inspiration as it has excellence in execution.

And I still don't know why they spell "rise" with a "y."