I'm fond of Ancient Greece and the mythology that surrounds it, I devoured the old tales and loved the original Jason and the Argonauts movie with stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, so when a game with Greek myth turns up I always take notice. This review is somewhat late mainly because it's taken us a while to actually get the game for one reason or another. However this game is an underrated title and deserves some attention, so let's get to it.
On the eve of his wedding Jason's bride Alceme is slain and thus begins Jason's quest to find the only thing capable of bringing her back to life. The Golden Fleece, it's a typical Greek Tragedy kind of story with a dose of western style storytelling. Jason must assemble the crew of the Argo and set sail to find the mystical Island of Delphi.
Liquid Entertainment were mostly known for the Battle Realms series of games, a superbly made RTS that went against the popular grain of the modern titles and introduced specific new features. So I was a little surprised to find that they had developed this title. Liquid have approached Rise of the Argonauts with the same enthusiasm that they did with Battle Realms, removing the HUD and providing a slimmed down experience in that respect that allows them to concentrate on the story and dialogue, two aspects of the game that are highly polished and entertaining.
Gameplay is similar to Mass Effect and KotoR in that it's a 3rd person action adventure, you have a central hub between missions (the mighty Argo, Jason's ship offers you a chance to talk to the various characters and so on) and rather like the aforementioned titles you can tackle the various islands of Mycenae, Saria and Kythra in any order that you choose. Your adventure begins with only one Argonaut, the son of Zeus: Hercules and you're thrown right into the action with a simple tutorial as the aftermath of the attack on your Iolcus Palace still rages on.
Combat is slim on the ground in the game, what combat there is can be summed up very simply as a quick game of rock, paper and scissors. There are three main classes of weapon, mace, spear and sword. The sword will dart around a sluggish mace but isn't much good against a spear, a mace will batter a spearman to death but does not deal well with swords...and so on. You can perform shield bash attacks and dodges as well as other moves.
There are a smattering of God Powers that can be used (assigned to cardinal D-Pad directions) to help you in combat or provide aid to your AI Argonauts as they battle. You can also hot-swap weapons mid combo for extra damage and to surprise your enemies. It's pretty fluid and for the most part the combat system works quite well.
With no HUD to speak of you'll have to judge Jason's health by his physical state in battle and keep an eye on your allies as well. As long as you don't wade into combat as a button mashing psycho you should be fine, learning to block and counter with a simple tap of a button. You have a light, heavy and execution attack and the game teaches you how to use these skills right from the get go so you shouldn't have any trouble mastering them.
When it comes down to exploration, Rise of the Argonauts is a fairly linear game when you're on the various islands and there are a couple of things to find. The Herms are an all important source of information hidden around the various maps; they provide insight into the location as well as giving you a final Deed on each island that you can use to dedicate to your patron gods. As you adventure you'll earn these Deeds, for defeating enemies, doing side-quests and various other things during the game. Each Deed can be dedicated to one of the four Patron Gods, Ares, Apollo, Hermes and Athena.
Once you dedicate a Deed to the god in question, it gives you favour with them. Get enough favour and you earn as Aspect Point and this can be used to buy skills from the pretty expansive Skill Tree. It's a simple system and even though the game's light on combat, you can still find places to use the earned God Powers to tip the edge in battle, especially if you've been dedicating Deeds early on and building up your relationship with your Patron Gods.
Another way to earn favour is by dialogue choices, whilst these choices often offer short term consequences, they can be dedicated most of the time to the various gods and doing so earns a variable point reward to that deity. You'll want to stop and check your Aspect screen in the pause menu from time to time to check on your points; it's often not quite clear when you've gained enough to move up in your god's graces.
There is a map as well that helps you (though it's not a very good one) find your way to the next bit of your quest. All in all, the gameplay is a fairly decent mix, lacking in combat opportunities early on and beefing up later in the game. Finding new weapons and armour is done through story progression and side missions, some exploration and certain events. Never will you have to break another crate or spend hours on finding every chest.
It's powered by the Unreal Engine and this iteration doesn't provide as sharp as an experience as other UE games. Texture pop-in can be prevalent though not as nearly as bad as Mass Effect in certain places. Installing the game on the HDD actually eliminates a lot of this as well as providing decreased load times. There is a slight niggle with it however and sometimes the game hangs at first load until you reboot the console, this doesn't happen when the game runs purely off the disk, however it will be sluggish at times and judder. The tradeoff is up to you.
For the most part though, it's a nice looking game with a decent level of detail and some good lighting/special effects. The combat is visceral and there are gallons of blood as well as some nice slow motion special moments when you perform an Execution Attack.
The animations are decent enough, Jason when running does look though he's a bit stiff and appears to float along the ground most of the time. It's not a game breaker but they could have spent some more time on that part of Jason's character. The characters are well animated in combat though and the death animations are good. In the various dialogue scenes there is some stiffness, characters don't move their poses and they appear static with the occasional blink or slight motion. Again, this isn't a game breaker but could have been done so much better.
The combat feels solid and the physics in general are fine. You can be staggered by a harder blow and so can your enemies. There's very little in the way of environmental physics.
A simple AI seems to drive the game. Boss AI is repetitive and pretty predictable, some of the bosses provide a decent level of challenge but for the most part it's pretty simple to actually beat the various vanilla foes and most of the bosses using just Jason's brute force and the right weapon.
The sound in Rise is extremely good, the weapon effects, the clash of sword and shield as well as blades slicing into your foes are all of a high quality. The ambient sounds when you're exploring are excellent and each environment is well themed.
Tyler Bates (of 300 fame) scored the game so the music is extremely good. It brings to life the epic tale of betrayal and revenge as you explore and battle to bring Alceme back from the dead.
The strongest facet of the game along with its story is the voice work; it's performed by some of my favourite actors such as the talented Simon (Kain) Templeman and Jennifer (Bastila Shan) Hale to name but two. They deliver their performances extremely well and the script is a high point of the game. If you love story and dialogue you should adore this one.
Final Voyage of the Argo
There's no multiplayer so this is a definite single player experience and a game that I feel has been treated unfairly at times. It's not the best game of its kind but it's far from the worst and it has some nice moments in the story as well as pretty solid combat mechanics. Liquid Entertainment have certainly done a lot of good with this title, they just needed to polish a few aspects for it to be a truly worthy contender.