I raise my sturdy iron-clad shield and drive it forward at my foe, setting the Mohawked barbarian stumbling backward, weapon flailing as he tries to regain his balance. From there it’s as simple as knocking his razor-sharp battle-ax off to the side with the flat of my sword before splitting his muscled torso with a quick slash on the way back down. The gutted guy grabs for the wound, briefly startled that I caught him by surprise, and that’s just enough time—as he flashes blue and a skull symbol appears over his virtual head—for me to crouch, pivot to his rear, and drive three feet of finely honed steel up through his backbone and out his neck. As the marauder gurgles his last and collapses, I ryse, with polished armor sparkling, and flick the gore from my blade with a practiced snap of the wrist. I am the protector of the empire. I am Marius Titus.
Sound like something you might see in a movie like Gladiator or 300? It should, because it seems to be exactly what the creators of Ryse: Son of Rome are shooting for. Theirs is a bloody melee battler designed to show off all the story realism and über-detailed graphic capabilities of the latest gen Xbox console while transporting gamers to a land where video games never trod, not even the 8-bit ones: ancient Rome.
Tell a Tale of Titus
Ryse’s story opens with a resplendent 1st-century Roman capitol in the midst of a rampaging barbarian attack. It’s up to seasoned centurion Marius Titus to direct his legionaries, stem the tide of destructive onslaught and then escort Emperor Nero to a palatial safe room.
Once the soldier and his whimpering ruler/charge get a breather, we flash back to Marius’ early days as a new recruit, and the game takes us through his storied career. We see what made him the leader he is and what foolish imperial choices created the dire circumstances currently facing his nation.
It’s a winding journey that gives gamers the opportunity to battle through a number of well-crafted environments—from sandy shipwrecks to lush jungle encampments to city streets filled with Roman architecture to blood-spattered gladiator arenas.
For all of its detail and artistic flash, however, the game does not proffer anything close to a realistic history lesson. Actually, this particular narrative feels more like something made up by a flunkey who forgot to actually read his textbook—a “historically based” tale that’s a mishmash at best as it lumps together Roman emperors who lived hundreds of years apart. It opens the gates to attackers from the isles of Britain who somehow get their hands on Iberian war elephants. It even weaves in a spiritually twisted version of an old Greek myth about Damocles, re-hammering him into the shape of a vengeful, sword-wielding god.
Ryse also adds in some decidedly modern f-words. And while nudity and prostitution are as old as time itself and therefore not questionable from a historical standpoint, they’re certainly disturbing from a gameplayer’s perspective. And so it’s well worth reporting here that we’re asked to witness an orgy filled with women who’s costumes leave them essentially naked (covered only by flaking paint, a brief skirt or the teeniest of pasties). They undulate, rub against male guests provocatively and fall to their knees to offer (offscreen) oral stimulation.
Ryse’s Ravagyng Repetytyon
That’s “merely” a distraction, though. At its heart, this is quite simply a brutal combat game about burly men with swords who kill and kill and kill. It’s designed to give gamers somewhere between eight to 12 hours of vicious flesh-rending and death-dealing.
Once you master the strike/block/parry way of this war-torn world, Ryse offers somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 or 90 different combo “execution” finishing moves to evoke the visceral impact of in-a-crowd combat. These moves can be triggered either by anticipating your character’s natural movement patterns or reacting to a series of flashing colors that envelop your opponents.
This turns the game into a fluidly flowing performance of bone-crunching shield blows, backbone hackings, throat skewering, savage guttings and lopped-off limbs. And it all happens over and over to numbing effect. Any special graphic whiz-bang scenic plusses and storyline could-have-beens are ultimately washed away in an onslaught of gore.
Or as a reviewer for ign.com cleverly put it, “Ryse: Son of Rome is about going to beautiful places and repeatedly stabbing everyone you meet there.”
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.