Review: Rise of the Argonauts
There was a section of an article recently that pretty much said that if you wanted to know if a game was going to be pretty but lousy, check to see if it used the Unreal engine. If it does, chances are you will end up playing a beautiful game devoid of much substance.
Guess what - Rise of the Argonauts uses the Unreal Engine. And has beautiful visuals. So, it is a foregone conclusion that the game is crap? Read on as I discuss the various merits and flaws of the game!
Blade of Dank Mustiness
Well, before I kick this off, let me take you back to 2001, to a game that I still play annually - Blade of Darkness. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised, as it was lost in a sea of poor marketing. Anyway, Blade of Darkness is an excellent and ultra-gory third-person action combat game with some RPG-lite elements and excellent graphics. There was a story in there that was fairly interesting - certainly enough to keep you engaged as you gained new weapons and skills and combos to work your way through level after level. Oh - and the fact that you could decapitate one enemy and pick up their skull and use it to beat the next enemy to death wasn't too bad either ...
Which brings me to Rise of the Argonauts, a game that despite having well-known names lacks interesting characters; that despite having loads of potential in the setting lacks a stirring motivation; that despite having a skill tree and set of magical powers that looks great on paper never feels like it expands beyond being a button-mashing slash-fest. While I know that the RPG elements have atrophied significantly from the earliest announcements, I can live with that - I am only concerned with the game as released, which is why I keep going back to Blade of Darkness for my point of comparison rather than something like Gothic 2.
Quite frankly, even as a simple action-slasher game, Rise of the Argonauts is lousy. I was never captivated by the setting, never interested in any of the characters, never thrilled by the skills or magic, constantly frustrated by the on-again off-again camera controls, and so on. So in keeping with the way I handled things in my recent Gothic 3: Forsaken Gods review, let me make this quick for those of you wondering if there is anything aside from the poor score to learn here: no, this game is sadly mediocre and instantly forgettable and not worthy of even bothering with a demo. If there was one. Which there isn't. So never mind.
I'm Feeling a Bit 'Fleeced'
Pardon the awful turn of phrase, but if you made it here I might as well tell you how the story relates to the popular Mythology. The general tale of Jason and the Argonauts is well known; in fact one of my kids was recently studying it at school and was interested to find out how the game translated the myth. Well, the names and places and journey are very similar, but much of the rest is left behind.
The opening scene has Jason and Alceme exchanging vows of love in a tender ceremony interrupted by an arrow plunging into Alceme's chest. Her body is sealed away in the temple where they were to be married. Jason learns he can revive her by acquiring the Golden Fleece, and then learns at Delphi that the only way he can discover the secret path to the fleece is to find descendants of three of his patron gods - Hermes, Area, and Athena - and convince them to join you. Only then can you discover the location of the fleece, go there and recover it, and finally return to awaken your love. Of course, this is where you discover that you have been betrayed and played from the start and have a final confrontation with the one responsible for all of the problems and subterfuge.
Enough of the original myth is retained through the use of familiar settings and characters to keep history buffs engaged, and the substitution of the 'love motivation' for the pursuit to reclaim the throne can easily be forgiven as it simply makes for a more accessible story than one of political intrigue alone. The game immerses you into the mythological world by having you play as Jason and having a group of up to four Argonauts accompany you as you battle your way through the story. These are familiar characters such as the massive Hercules, Achilles, Pan the Satyr, and Medea. There are others you will meet along the way, such as the infamous 'wicked uncle' Pelias. Of course, the fact that you start out as King already and leave your kingdom in Pelias' hands very quickly might come across as a bit of a stretch for some.
These Graphics are UNREAL!
I had mentioned that Rise of the Argonauts 'has beautiful visuals', but that doesn't mean I think it is a great looking game.
Apparently the developers missed the memo on how Oblivion's use of a half-dozen basic characters diminished the overall sense of personality of the game (of course, the over-inflated scores probably don't help there, but that is a matter for another day). Rise of the Argonauts has about a dozen total individuals, replicated endlessly throughout the world. Of particular offense are the women: there are pretty much two, and both are impossibly proportioned stereotypes that only serve to remind us that all too often games are by and for young men living out fantasies in digital form. But the men are little better - nor is the world itself.
The levels are 'pretty' but devoid of a striking style - it all just says 'generic Ancient Greece'. You run through buildings that all look very much the same with some different window-dressing details, into similar courtyards with people just standing around, and so on. There is no sense of life anywhere in the game. My feeling was that the developers captured an artistic feel that looks great in screenshots but bland when spending time roaming around. Of course, what I am talking about goes beyond graphics and into the level and area design, which I will discuss next.
These Boots Were Made for Walking!
For me the biggest problem with the game isn't the story or the combat or the role-playing or the skill-tree. It is the balance - and by that I mean the balance of combat to everything else. This is an action-RPG, after all, and therefore you should expect a near-constant flow of enemies to dispatch with quest-related chatter and occasional storytelling moments interspersed. What Rise of the Argonauts delivers instead is one of the chattiest games in recent memory!
There are two problems with this - unskippable story moments and never-ending backtracking. Now, while unskippable cutscenes as a pet-peeve have been given plenty of play through the years, Rise of the Argonauts takes it to a new level. For about the first hour you will be in what can be considered the tutorial before getting your ship, the Argo, and heading off on your main quest. After watching the initial cutscene, you will find yourself getting pulled out of the action every few minutes to watch some 'important detail' revealed to you through another unskippable scene. Then as you spend your time wandering around the city, talking to citizens and so on, you will get engaged in overly long and unskippable dialogue exchanges - only too often the 'dialogue' involves them talking and you listening. It serves little purpose other than as a deterrent, as I'll mention later.
The area design throughout the game seems to be built around a sort of 'hub and spoke' design in concept, but not direction. What I mean is that you start at a central location and have to trudge through a series of enemies to accomplish some local goal, then trudge back along the same path in order to complete it or gain access to the next area (usually accompanied by an unskippable cutscene!). The overall area design reeks of choices made to lengthen the game without adding substance. Loads of backtracking, constantly having to traverse areas for no purpose, and on and on. Once you do start to battle you'll find that the setup is designed for plenty of combat options - but like most things in this game, that is hindered by the balance of combat to filler.
Just to reiterate: because the game sets a pace of near-constant story-telling, you are set up to expect a richly layered story. What you get is a story befitting a typical action-RPG - that isn't necessarily a bad thing...however, with a good action-RPG you can spend time working out what is happening in the plot or completely ignore it and spend all of your time just hacking and slashing your way through hordes of enemies for hours on end. You don't get that option here - there is loads of non-combat trudging around followed by too many overly-long cutscenes that try too hard to be cinematic. So while there are some cool combat moments they are watered down significantly.
Role Playing or Roped-in Playing?
Action-RPG's are typically single-path: you get a scenario at the beginning that makes it pretty clear how the rest of the game will proceed. Occasionally you will get to choose to play a 'good' or 'bad' character, though that choice usually comes at the beginning or is of a fairly superficial nature (I always come back to the 'Press 1 for the Dark Side' choice in Jedi Academy!). As you can likely predict from my earlier description, the entirety of the game is about your quest to resurrect your love. Unlike the intrigue in the actual mythology, there is no possibility to explore things with Medea or Pelius or abandon Alceme completely. That isn't a problem, but the issue I have is the way the game tries to make you feel that you have actual choices along the way.
Very early on you get a choice through dialogue about what weapon to grab. But by the end of the first string of battles you will have all three weapon types (sword, mace, and spear). So much for that choice. Then later on you get some dialogue choices. These seem to matter, but as you quickly find out the impact is like taking a toy away from a puppy: it has an immediate impact but is gone as quickly as it arrived. There is an entirely different purpose for these 'choices' that I will get to in just a bit.
So the story is linear and you get very few choices of any impact, what about exploration? Well, once again the 'tutorial' area tells the tale. You feel from the start like you have some ability to go wherever you want - but quickly discover that isn't the case. The areas you encounter as you make your journey are all required, and the progression is entirely linear as you complete quests on each island and each area. Each area has plenty of running back and forth just to accomplish the core tasks to progress through the game, but you can engage in side-quests given out by various folks you meet along the way ... if you are willing to trade off even more pointless backtracking for a few more 'deed' points.
A Moment About the Map
There are some choices that are made by game developers that really deserve to be called out. This is one of them. In order to access the map in Rise of the Argonauts, you need to access the 'Pause' menu and then access the map off of the radial menu - it doesn't sound worse than many other games, but it is dreadfully slow whether using keyboard or controller. Of course, this might be somewhat forgivable if there was a mini-map on screen, but that isn't the case.
The Aspects of My Deeds
Jason gains power during the game in two different ways: more powerful weapons, and more powerful skills. You have some control over both - the weapons by which you use most, and the skills through what is called the Aspect system.
Rise of the Argonauts provides you with three weapons as mentioned earlier - sword, mace and spear. Each has its' own strengths and weaknesses, and you will find yourself using the one that best suits your combat style - for me it was between the sword and mace. Switching weapons is simple to do, and you always have your huge shield for defense and a nice little offensive push.
The Aspect system is an interesting way of wrapping together choices in the dialogue system with branches in the skill tree. While the skills themselves are not particularly novel, where it is interesting is how you get there - you get 'deeds' based on completing specific tasks such as killing a number of enemies or completing tasks or even making choices in dialogue, and you 'dedicate' the completion of these 'deeds' to a particular god to curry favor with them. This is given in the form of an 'aspect' point which is then used towards buying new skills. From there the skills themselves are solid, but nothing out of the ordinary.
It is a decent system with a twist that really had me excited until I started using the skills I was buying: the problem is that they power-up so slowly that they were pretty useless and hard to use strategically. That is somewhat typical in these games - it is set up so that you are not constantly using over-powered skills, but given that the core combat was pretty much button-mashing, it would have been nice to get a bit more out of the skill system.
There are some other random things I am thinking ... first, can you believe that I'm nearing the end of the review of an action-RPG and barely mentioned the combat? I actually did that intentionally - because that is how it is treated by the game. Which is a shame, because the combat system - while not great - is the best thing about the game!
In general combat in Rise of the Argonauts can easily be described as 'button mashing', but it goes a bit beyond that. There are primary and 'power attacks' using the two main mouse or controller buttons, and also modified attacks and defense moves by holding down modifier keys (or shoulder buttons on the controller), as well as the special skills you gain from the skill tree. And aside from a 'dodge' move that is it. The specifics vary from weapon to weapon, and the 'shield attack' is done by pressing a button while guarding. There is no 'locking' - you just run around and slash at whatever enemies you can find.
There are a few basic moves you'll be making with the various weapons - slice cuts that decapitate or slice through the waist, staff-like cuts that clear out a bunch of enemies, and smash-like push backs. Aside from boss fights the game is pretty forgiving, so you can generally just wade into a crowd and try out cool looking moves without too much concern. For boss battles you will inevitably run around a lot waiting for your skills to recharge.
Your allies are controlled by the computer AI and tend to do a good job of actually battling things. You take different Argonauts with you, each of whom has different skills. Since Jason is a melee warrior, but not a classic 'tank', whether or not you'll need an additional warrior depends on your skill and style. I was happy to get all the close-range kills, so perhaps it was a good thing that Achilles and particularly Hercules were terribly boring and useless characters so I never felt bad about leaving them behind. Well, occasionally it was fun to watch Hercules breaking people's backs, but Achilles I found annoying outside combat and useless in combat. My favorite was Pan the Satyr, who was responsible for the only really interesting interactions in the game. He is also a very useful mage, and was almost always with me. I also used Atalanta quite a bit, as she was also quite useful since her AI had her hang back thinning the crowds with volleys of arrows.
As for the controls, you might guess from my mention of both keyboard & mouse and controller that I put the game through paces using both - and might also surmise that I felt compelled to do so. This started because very early on I was using just the keyboard & mouse and found that the camera - even when it didn't have a mind of its' own - was still too finicky. At first I thought that the camera issues might be controller related - so I spent a night with my XBOX360 controller ... and found that rather than making things better it actually became a confusing mish-mosh as it felt like the game still wanted me to use the keyboard at times in menus. I went back and messed around some more and found that I could do everything with either control scheme. The camera issues were fairly typical of a third person action game in terms of having the game grab control inappropriately at times and letting things go when it should have taken control. I found the sensitivity needed tweaking to get the camera movement set up correctly - in general I got it to work but was constantly aware of it.
One and Done
Rise of the Argonauts took me about a dozen hours to complete, at which point I realized that there was pretty much no repeatability. There is no multiplayer, no difficulty levels unlocked by completing the game, no alternate path or hidden quests or even a real sense of role-play. So once you've finished the game once, there is little reason to ever revisit it again. That alone makes the game a very questionable value - while a 10 hour shooter or action game is quite satisfying, an action-RPG of that length, especially one where you are constantly feeling like the game is doing things to pad out the overall playtime.
So let me sum things up in terms of the overall experience: Rise of the Argonauts is a single player action-RPG where you play as Jason and are on a single-minded quest to get the Golden Fleece to revive your love, Alceme. You travel a fixed and linear path with minor and forgettable interactions, picking up some characters along the way. Your choices come down to one-of-three weapons and which of four skill trees to emphasize. There are a number of annoyances throughout, very few things to hook you into the game apart from possibly a prior love for the mythology. And given that there are absolutely no paths to replayability, the value of the game is questionable at best - at worst it is an absolute waste of money. Regardless, it is a lousy value and a mediocre game - one that is easily avoided without regret.
Information aboutRise of the Argonauts
Developer: Liquid Entertainment
Genre: Hack & Slash
Play-time: 10-20 hours
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PS3
· Released at 2008-12-16
· Publisher: Codemasters
· Platform: Xbox 360
· Released at 2008-12-16
· Publisher: Codemasters
· Platform: Xbox 360
· Released at 2008-12-16
· Publisher: Codemasters
- Looks good
- Simple & effective controls
- Solid use of mythology
- A couple of good characters
- Finicky camera
- No replayability
- Poor balance of story to action
- Too short
- No real choices