Violence is treated with such a casual tone, I found during my two hours sampling a near-final version of the game at Microsoft's Xbox One showcase in San Francisco last week, that it seeps into every corner of Ryse, dulling the impact of all conflict and narrative. Why should I mourn the death of a story character after I just killed 412 barbarians in the last 20 minutes?
Ryse: Son of Rome feels like all sizzle and no steak. It's a procession of CPU-controlled warriors lining up to fall on protagonist Marius' sword in a stylish slow-mo ballet of blood and dismemberment. Killing enemies feels less and less triumphant with each strike, which is kind of a problem when the main focus of the game is seeing just how high you can stack the corpses. Ryse: Son of Rome revolves around Marius Titus, a gifted soldier in Nero's ranks during the early first century. Marius fights as his father did before him - and that's about all I can really share about the narrative. Microsoft isn't keen on any of the story details from my two-hour gameplay session getting out there, but rest assured you aren't missing much.
Marius, while being a dutiful soldier of Rome, has a unique eye for combat. During battle, Marius can slow time down to a crawl and, while in this state, unleash a flurry of blows on any singular opponent or quickly strike out at multiple enemies. It's a handy skill no matter the situation, but especially invaluable when being surrounded by savages.
Unlike Batman, however, Ryse doesn't give Marius that many moves or gadgets to employ. He has his sword for light and heavy attacks, his shield for blocking and deflecting incoming blows, his pilums (Roman javelins) that he can toss at will and that's it. Eventually Marius can unlock double executions to take out multiple enemies at once, but the entirety of what I sampled offered no hope for any kind of variety later in the game. It's sword, shield and centurion against the world.
I will admit executions are flashy and you certainly have to do a lot of them before you start seeing repeats, but it's ultimately a hollow thrill. Once an enemy has been damaged enough, Marius can trigger a quick-time execution. Press the corresponding attack when the enemy flashes that color: blue is for a light attack, yellow is for a heavy attack. Oddly enough, if you press the wrong button when prompted, you'll only be penalized some points and Marius will still give the death stroke, which I found detracted a bit from the weight of well-timed and accurate button presses. If I'm being rewarded for performing the wrong action, what's driving me to be better and master the game's systems?
Executions, while quite violent and stylized at the outset, do wear thin pretty quickly. It's the crux of Ryse's problem: It comes on strong and quickly fizzles out. After an hour of fighting savages, I wasn't too eager to subject myself to more of the same.
Ryse's combat manages to differentiate itself in one very interesting way, thankfully. While performing executions, Marius can choose an execution reward mid-fight. These include instant health or focus energy for slowing down time, an immediate boost to experience points earned or a timed increase in damage output. It's a smartly-implemented system (you switch rewards on the fly using the d-pad) that adds a layer of strategy to the procession of murder, but these rewards form the entirety of Ryse's intricacy. It's simply not enough to keep the combat from feeling like a chore after an hour.
After jumping through a few levels in the campaign, I grew tired of the gameplay loop of moving from area to area in order to kill the next group of barbarians. Ryse never hit a good stride and, in my brief amount of time with it, was all too content to beat me into submission through combat sequences repeated ad nauseam. The game offered little hope its campaign is intent on presenting anything to the contrary.
Ryse: Son of Rome launches on November 22 for Xbox One. A $20 Season Pass, which guarantees access to four DLC packs, will be available alongside the game at launch.