"Review: Rise of the Argonauts "
Review: Rise of the Argonauts
(Let's start at the beginning). "The usurper Pelias takes the crown of Iolchus! Jason, son of the rightful heirs is born - they fake his death - he is smuggled away in the night. Gone! Jason is raised in a cave, by a noble centaur. Now Jason emerges from the cave! On the way to Iolchus, Jason helps an old lady over a stream. He almost slips, and loses a sandal. It's Hecate's work! When Jason arrives at Iolchus, Pelias recognizes Jason from the Oracle's propechy: beware of the man with one sandal, for he will take the throne from you!
Pelias addresses the challenger: 'Well, what do you know of governing a kingdom? You grew up in a cave, for Zeus' sake - what would you do if a problem like this came up, for example?'
Jason speaks: 'yeah, I see your point, but I have the solution. I'd send the poor bastard away to find the Golden Fleece, right, in a very symbolic quest that would prove him to be able to do the impossible. That'd get rid of him. What do you say now, eh?'.
Pelias the usurper says: 'well, ok. You do that, and I'll take care of the kingdom in the meantime'".
Thankfully, Rise of The Argonauts doesn't try to be accurate. Because if it did, it would probably be a game that only citizens of Ancient Greece would possibly understand or find entertaining. And it would be so full of hidden imagery and references to various aspects of the gods, that it would be unplayable.
Instead, Liquid Entertainment has made a completely new story on their own, and put into it a number of mythical characters and heroes - on the condition they should not offend the gods too much. Even if that last part fails at times, it's strangely successful on the whole - the story flows well, and pulls in Jason's guardian pantheon to explain the aspects of the gods involved, and why they take an interest in Jason's quest. It is not exactly sacrilege to abuse mythical characters like these either, since stories such as the one about Jason existed in many different variants before they were "written down".
Still - and it probably feels that way because the game has to set up so many things at the same time - the beginning of the game seems forced.
Game- writers everywhere should note that you don't write in the beginning of the quest like this:
Hero: But how to cheat the will of the gods... I mean, death? How! I really wanna do it, so I must!
Assistant: ...um what about the Gol..
Hero: I have it! The Golden Fleece! I must find it at once, though I don't know where to look!
Assistant: ...maybe the oracle of De..
Hero: The Oracle of Delphi! She will know! I will set sail on a.. a..
Assistant: ..the Argo, sire...
Hero: The Argo! Then seek out the Oracle of Delphi (which I don't know where is), and claim the Golden Fleece!
But, other than a few slips like these (unstrategically placed at the beginning and the end of the quest), the dialogue and monologues are very well written. The language is if not simple, then at least carefully used - and it fits well with how the scenes develop for the most part. Incidentally, now I know what "umbrage" means as well.
It might be that I'm not used to seeing this in video- games - but when narrative, voice- acting and the different animation comes together in the scenes as well as it does it this game, it's worth mentioning. That the game has directing.
At one point in the game you end up in a dead- lock with Achilles, after a long fight in the Arena. Instead of ending the duel in a sequence where the game- designers brag about hogging all the best moves to themselves - you're treated to a small sequence of dialogue in the middle of the fight, just when all attention is focused on the final outcome. Something that plays well on the most engaging part of the whole chapter. (Cheers and gasps in the arena booths).
In the sequence, like throughout the rest of the game, you can choose your dialogue choice with the thumb- stick in terms of short descriptive explanations, such as: "He's tiring..", "I will finish this!", "Alas, what is the meaning of life", "I rather have a cup of wine"), and so on. Which then Jason expands upon (at length, without fail).
The choices you make this way tend to be aligned with one of your four guardian gods. Which apart from granting you favour with one of them when chosen, will serve as a helpful pointer to what sort of general direction the conversation is taking. Athena- aligned choices will favour piety and virtue, Hermes' choices will be witty towards sardonic, Apollo's will be considered and patient, while Ares will favour aggressive and self- centered responses.
You cannot influence the outcome of the dialogues too much - but when playing through, it's difficult to spot where you have a chance to impact the story and where you can't, so the mechanism does work well. And, since Jason's motivation and reasoning for seeking the Golden Fleece is a central plot- driver, encouraging the player to reflect on this is not out of place.
But to keep mulling on those very good aspects of the game, you must also be able to ignore Medusa the giant monster with eels for limbs, and the last boss- fights. Which all are.. pretty and well done, but also the point where it all turns into complete farce. So you might say: "ok, the entire thing is a butchering of greek mythology from tail to head - and you're complaining about the boss fights?" Yes. And what makes this irritating is that it obviously wasn't impossible for the one who wrote the generally very good transport- stages, to also put in a more satisfying ending to the chapters. So even though Medusa falling for her vanity is absolutely acceptable in the myth - somehow it all eventually ends in tentacles and purple glowing tattoos.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the game, Jason continues to dole out humility and justice wherever he goes, and recieves favour with the gods he is most aligned with. This is how Jason receives god powers - or aspect points to choose powers with. You can also dedicate deeds (in this game, such as "Heard the people's petitions") to a god of choice, in the same way Jason can dedicate a blessing or a sacrifice on occation. In this way Jason will gain aspect points more quickly with the god he is most aligned with, without locking you out of the skill- tree the other gods provide.
Which brings us to the combat - Jason carries with him a shield, a mace, a sword and a spear (each corresponding loosely to one of the gods' domains). The weapons have a strong attack, and an even stronger attack. As well as a "switch- attack" - which means you can end a quick sword combo with a finishing spear- stab. In addition you can dodge and block, or power block incoming attacks to stun the attacker. Then there are the god- powers, which will be everything from slowing time to throwing people into a tear leading to hell, turning your enemies to stone, or healing your teammates.
Since each of the weapons correspond to one of the aspects, this makes the combat more interesting than it would've been. Because you are encouraged in many ways to play through the game with your own technique, whether it is breaking down your enemies' defenses head on (Ares' domain), or resorting to decoys and tricks (Hermes). Or, enhancing your teammates and your shield (Apollo). Or focusing on the accuracy and timing of the spear- attacks (Athena's domain). In other words, the narrative creeps into the combat as well. And it actually works because of the damage system, since you can kill any monster with a single hit as long as it connects with a vulnerable spot. So as long as they block your attacks, or their shields hold, you will not do any damage to their health. The same applies to Jason - which encourages you to add some strategy to the otherwise generic combat, if you want it. In addition, enemies can hurt each other if they're reckless (which is probably a reference to the dragon's teeth in the original story.. and then again, I suppose it could be pure coincidence). In the way that being surrounded by ghouls does not necessarily mean your death.
So while the combat is not quite as strategic and flowing as it possibly could've been, it's not entirely shallow either.
Apart from this, the game is a port, developed over the Unreal engine. Needless to say, there are glitches, slow- downs and the camera is difficult to control at times. The effects are sometimes cheap. One of the weapons even causes slow- downs when it's equipped. Shirts and armour has skin painted on top of them. Your avatar, while very graphically complex, has serious trouble with walking down a stair without jumping - since the model can't actually crouch the legs, and the stairs are really textures draped over a large wedge. On the other hand, it's a pretty game with beautiful environments, even if they are a bit limited. The game also has believable and real characters, with lots of well- timed natural expressions (it's done so well and with such attention to detail you rarely notice they are there). Even if the characters themselves are an abomination unto the gods, of course.
The voice- acting is also suprisingly good - Jason (both voice- actors..?) does an excellent job of being King and Hero. And somewhat small characters like Pan the Satyr and the Captain of the Iolchus gard are easy to remember. An example of how well this is done is the voice- actor chosen for Atalanta. Atalanta was supposed to have been orphaned when she's very young, and would live in the forest by herself before being raised by centaurs (she's "nursed by bears" in the myth, but..) - and from all the details in that performance, you instantly accept this from the beginning. Again, actual directing in a game, which is refreshing.
Rise of the Argonauts is not a brilliant game, and it has some horrible faults. But it's still satisfying to play because of the things it does right. The aspect system is original, and ties the game together when it comes to combat, dialogue and narrative. Which makes it in many ways much more interesting and infinitely deeper than for example the dark and light scale in Knights of the Old Republic, or the dialogue development in MASS Effect. But unfortunately, the quality of the writing is not consistent, and drops down to the usual and unwelcome "hit either choice except the bad one to continue the speech" towards the end. Which is a shame, because building up the world and the dialogue- choices in the way it is done has a very positive impact on the flow of both gameplay and narrative. So in the end it's easy to recommend a play- through of this game sooner or later.
Maybe it's possible to accidentally pick up a few correct things about greek mythology as well.
Sound: Music is high quality, and as with the rest, carefully directed. Some technical flaws, bugs, and mixing problems. Effects are in the category of "kitchen utensils falling down the stairs". But voice and chatter- effects are extremely well placed in the game- world.
Gameplay: Very smooth bridge between the narrative and gameplay mechanics makes the game interesting. It has flaws, such as repetitive battles, or difficult controls in certain situations. But the lack of "lock- on" functions, status bar and and hit points, is more successful than you would expect. Very satisfying to time an attack just right and break through the armor in one hit.
Story: The game is, apart from allowing you to choose which order you will visit the islands, completely linear. Instead the focus is on Jason's motivations and thoughts, and how Jason aligns with his guardian pantheon. It alternates between complete farce and actually very well written narrative. Greek mythology is incidental, but helps sneak in philosophical questions and grandiose speeches.
Technical: The Unreal engine has seen better incarnations than this. I played the ported ps3 version, and could wander through the entire game without any game- breaking glitches. PC people have not been so lucky, and you need a monster of a PC to run it on max details. Loading of new areas in game are hidden behind slowly opening and closing doors - but it is not always successful. There are slow- downs on certain effects, and it's entirely possible to stare into the back of a wall through a torch at one frame per second, while you're getting blasted to Tarturus. The physics in the game simulates the gravity on a space- installation when wearing magnetic sandals.
Appeal: The story is short. Three days is more than enough to get through the game. I am not sure if that's a good or a bad thing, since the story couldn't comfortably have been made much longer - much like a good film if it drags on endlessly. In a sense, each island lasts about the right amount of time - so perhaps there are too few islands? The player tends not to engage in senseless *cough*.. entirely senseless violence. Unlike in Ovid, there are girls in ancient greece now - but they still don't like sex. The character designs are brilliant, even though they no doubt offend the greek gods.
Overall impression: Original - not too bad, at all. Sometimes it's even brilliant. Rise of the Argonauts defies a normal number- score completely.
Community review by fleinn (March 06, 2009)
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