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Ryse: Son of Rome Review
Published on .
|Publishers||Crytek, Xbox Game Studios|
A decade after its initial release, how is Ryse: Son of Rome remembered?
Primarily as a launch title for the Xbox One, I would imagine.
And with that, all the other things people tend to say about launch titles: that it appears rushed and is mediocre play-wise, that, at the time, it nicely showed off the graphical capabilities of the hardware it was launched with.
One could even mention the game is set in the Roman Empire, a thoroughly underexplored setting for action games—antiquity in general really.
Assassin’s Creed discovering this setting for itself was still several years away.
But on replaying the game, I’ve found it not to be a pretty but mediocre launch title. While the game does use expensive graphical effects previously not seen on Xbox, the overall image quality varies heavily. Gameplaywise, Ryse can only be described as boring—pretty much the worst for an action game. I will concede that the setting and story are interesting, but not in the way one might expect.
The game is set in the Roman Empire during Nero’s reign in the first century CE. The game starts with our protagonist, Marius, the son of a renowned Roman senator, returning from his initial army training to his family’s marbled home in the imperial capital. But the family reunion is short-lived, as a group of Barbarians barge onto the scene and kill Marius’ mother and sister, and after some struggle, his father, too. Unbeknownst to Marius, this was a convoluted assassination plot by Nero, who wanted to get rid of Marius’ father for scheming to restore the republic. In the senator’s dying moments, he realises the true nature of the barbarian invasion but dies before he can tell Marius. Unknowing the truth, Marius enlists with a legion stationed in Britannia, the epicentre of the barbarian resistance, to get his revenge. Marius aids in crushing the rebellion, leading to the capture of the resisters’ king. But on bringing the captured man back to York, the Roman occupiers are shown to be merciless and cruel. Among other things, they publicly execute the king. In the ensuing chaos, Marius realises who is really to blame for his father’s death. On his return to Rome, he finds that the cruelty in the British colonies has come home as he sees the crucified fill the cityscape and Nero’s Praetorian guard slaughtering people in the streets. Marius has come home with one goal: to kill Nero.
Marble and mud
With Ryse being a launch title for the Xbox One, the first impression of the game is more like a tech demo with gameplay. This is also very clearly the intention with this game. For example, during loading screens, instead of expanding on lore or giving you tips for playing, the game uses even that time to show off its graphics—how dynamic shadows are cast and such. Indeed, Ryse, as one of the first games of that console generation, shows off visual effects that became commonplace on those consoles. Among them, the game uses subsurface scattering to more accurately render human skin. Or when one of the godly creatures of the plot dissolves into light, the game uses a complex particle effect for that.
As a tech demo, Ryse might be competent at showcasing individual effects that were now possible with the new hardware.
But it fails as a visual showpiece because the game’s visual quality is all over the place.
Depending on the location, the game’s visuals will range from decent to outright bad.
Like most big-budget titles, Ryse has serious issues with managing colour correctly.
Since this is such a common problem, I would usually not mention it, but unlike most games, with Ryse, the visuals are the core selling point—it is, after all, a launch title.
When Marius does his solo-infiltration mission in Britain, he goes through a forest—the perfect opportunity to show off the detailed vegetation the new hardware can render. Ryse does do this, but the bodged colour management ruins the overall picture. Too much of the dynamic range is dedicated to preserving the details in the bright sky and to not crush the mid-tones. The game instead crushes the dark tones, which makes for a terrible image composition for a forest, which features much contrast between shadow and light. The other end of the visual quality spectrum happens during the barbarian siege on York, sparked by the Romans’ cruelty. Here the image is grey, flat and unexciting. There really is no excuse for making a siege look as boring as this one does—not even English weather. However, there is one area in this game that does look good: the deep forest at night. The darkness here is regularly ruptured by fire. It makes for an even harsher contrast than the forest scenes during the day. So why does the overall image look so much better here in comparison? The brightness of the fire can’t be given too much of the dynamic range because otherwise, it would obliterate the image. And if the dark tones were crushed like elsewhere in Ryse, you couldn’t make out anything in this area. In short, the colour management in the deep forest is good because it has to be.
Swords and tubes
While the game’s graphics are all over the place, in the gameplay department, Ryse has a solid base in putting its own spin on the combat system found in the Batman Arkham games. The game’s combat system consists of four moves that nicely map onto the action buttons on a controller: attack, deflect, stagger, and dodge. And during combat, the chain counter tracks how long you’ve been brawling uninterrupted. The higher the counter, the higher the EXP multiplier during it. But in contrast to Batman, who effortlessly flies across the battleground, Crytek keeps things more realistic with Marius. So overall, combat in Ryse is much slower comparatively—individual actions initiated by enemies and the player are much more deliberate and hard-hitting. This gets to the one major change other than pace. By keeping the attack or stagger button pressed, Marius will initiate a heavier action of the same type. Such an attack does more damage, and a heavy stagger goes through defences like shields. This feels appropriate for this more deliberate interpretation of its combat system. But this is where the similarities with Batman and also my praise ends.
The level design is very reminiscent of Call of Duty—the levels are tubularly shaped throughout. And the game does heavily rely on this linearity. In one of the early levels, you navigate through a wood, and sometimes there is a great clearing that doubles as a combat arena. This does not mean that the level there is less linear. It just becomes hard to see where to continue. Occasionally there is a branching path, but this is always just for leading you to a collectable at a dead end very shortly. Just in general, the game is quite evocative of Call of Duty. Sure, you are running around with a sword in the third person, but when manning one of the many turrets and mowing down approaching hoards of Barbarians with quick-reloading spears and auto aim, it’s much easier to see the resemblance. More on that later.
Back to combat. A central component of this game’s fights is what it calls executions. After taking enough hits, enemies enter a vulnerable state. When this is the case, it’s time for an execution, which is a well-animated sequence, where after a few button prompts, Marius finishes off the opponent in gruesome detail. The buttons you need to press are indicated by the light in which the enemy flashes up—either blue or yellow. You can probably guess that even with many different execution animations, pressing two buttons over and over gets boring quickly. And you’d be right! So why not skip the executions and finish off the vulnerable enemy with a simple attack? Firstly, Marius is invulnerable during an execution, so it is a good way to switch up the pace during a chaotic battle. But, more importantly, finishing an execution gives you a reward of your choosing, be it regaining health, bonus EXP, and so on. So it is one of those technically optional but not really mechanics. It’s a pretty essential mechanic for a regular player, and it is super boring! And the fact that executions don’t vary much doesn’t really help. In fact, most executions are locked from the start, and you have to unlock them with experience points. With this, you can snooze through dozens of executions with the EXP bonus, which you can then use to get one additional execution! Depending on the situation, there are additional executions available, but this is still insufficient. Frankly, it doesn’t even sound like a good idea on paper, and the good animation quality simply cannot fix this.
Ryse’s story is, in essence, a commentary on the story of Damocles, except heavily adapted.
In this game, Damocles is a general that rose from the dead to punish those that betrayed him.
Halfway through the game, Marius similarly dies and returns as an incarnation of Damocles to kill Nero.
It changes the original anecdote about how people in power constantly live in fear for their lives to how if you abuse your power, people will be coming for your life, and rightfully so.
It’s a simple idea but serviceable for an action game.
But then, throughout the game, it becomes clear that there is a second layer to all this. At all the major narrative points of the game, there are two godly figures present: a young scantily clothed woman and an old man dressed in grey. The unlocked extra content of Ryse reveals that they are called Summer and Winter, respectively. Summer’s goal is laid out in the story to protect ‘Roman civilisation’. She does this by aiding Marius in his revenge plot. Thanks to her, Marius is resurrected as Damocles, for example. Winter, on the other hand, is intent on destroying civilisation, generally, but especially Rome. In important scenes, he appears next to Nero and his children, who wreak havoc on their subjects. Nero is the terrible ruler that he is because Winter wants to use him as a proxy to destroy the empire through his reign. This second layer to the story is acknowledged in the game’s final moments in which Winter says: ‘You mortals play your games, we gods play ours!’ Which, in effect, robs the game of even the simplest political message of killing a corrupt leader of a corrupt empire. Instead, the story turns into an asinine conflict over Ted Kaczynski with magical powers wanting to destroy civilisation. And, of course, the marble statue boasting Roman Empire gets to be the good side in this equation—the shining beacon of human existence. So then, Nero is not a corrupt megalomaniac produced by an expansionist and militaristic society, but the corrupting element itself. Killing him is equal to saving Rome. Contrast this with the Brittonic tribes defending themselves from an invading force who are reduced to uncultured cave people, unknowingly aiding Winter in his civilisation-destroying mission. Marius then is Summer’s counter in fighting for Rome, a glorious Rome, a Rome that never existed.
Imperialist propaganda 2000 years later
Let’s get back to Call of Duty for a second.
Saying that the franchise is imperialist propaganda isn’t much of a controversial statement among politically conscious people.
But, within gaming circles, it is barely discussed when considering Call of Duty’s massive presence.
For more than 15 years, the series has greatly amplified fears that reassure the US population in their country’s massive military and position as world police: from the instability of the Middle East, over terrorist attacks in densely populated areas, to fears of a Russian invasion of America.
And, of course, the protagonists of those stories are justified in taking any action to stop the Bad Guys.
And with the recent remakes of the Modern Warfare series, the developers turned things up a notch.
In the first Modern Warfare remake, the fictional story blames a US war crime committed during the Gulf War on Russia. And the sequel went several notches further, visiting all the theatres of the American reactionary mind. There is an allegory for the assassination of Osama bin Laden, blowing up drug cartels in Mexico, and crossing the US-Mexico border wall, supposedly showing how horrifying life behind the world’s largest border wall is. Not to mention the starting scene of the game, in which you guide a missile to assassinate totally not Iranian General Soleimani. Calling to attention just how blatant these games are is staggering. If the next game featured a Chinese queer-coded warlord that funds their operations by smuggling fentanyl to the West, and otherwise, kidnapped children to turn them into transgender communists, we’d have a completely filled bingo sheet. Then again, they probably don’t want to alienate their liberal audience too hard.
Being very charitable, maybe it is not the intention of the creators of these games to create imperialist propaganda. However, the repeated use of CoD in US military recruitment campaigns shows that they are picking up what Activision is laying down—intentionally or not. Now let’s get back to Ryse.
Ryse is Roman imperialist propaganda in the same style as Call of Duty, which, on its face, is somewhat curious since that empire hasn’t existed in centuries. The incentives for creating an imperialist game within an existing empire are clear, but by looking at this game’s propaganda, the why becomes clear quickly. So let’s have a look at this game’s propaganda.
The first instance of Ryse trafficking in overt propaganda comes at the end of Act Ⅱ, where, after the bloody landing of the Roman fleet in Britain, Marius’ commander, Vitallion, gives a motivating speech.
He refers to the Britons as a ‘race of bastards’.
Additionally, he plays into the game’s (anti-)civilisation theme by loudly proclaiming: ‘Rome is civilisation, Rome is order!’
With the portrayal of this ‘race of bastards’, Ryse effectively takes Vitallion’s side. Firstly, as mentioned previously, they are shown as violent cave people. During Marius’ solo mission country inwards, he frees an aqueduct occupied by the enemy under the leadership of the king’s daughter Boudica. Several times the game draws explicit attention to the brutality of the Britons. Dozen of legionaries suffered a cruel end in traps set by the Britons. And once you get to the aqueduct, there are mountains of mutilated Roman corpses.
Beyond this, the game makes its partisan character clear in how Britons and Romans are designed and act in combat. The Britons are hairy and only partially clothed, whereas Roman soldiers are always cleanly shaved and running around in their spotless shining armour. During combat, the Britons just aimlessly storm onto the battlefield and attack nicely one by one. This was doubtlessly done for gameplay reasons but makes them look incredibly inept. Contrast this with the Romans, that constantly arrange themselves tactically on the battlefield. Even when the Barbarians band together for a coordinated archer attack, Marius simply calls his soldiers into shield formation and picks them off with spear throws. You are to understand that nothing is stopping the might of the Roman Empire.
This is all very frustrating because, in a story like this, you would expect an eventual moment of recontextualization regarding the Roman Empire.
The perfect moment for this would be Marius’ return to Rome.
His realising that Nero killed his father would be ideal for him to see the empire in a new light—to see that the Barbarian’s savagery is merely a projection of the Roman Empire’s brutality and constant lust for conquest.
Ryse: Son of Rome does none of that.
It’s all Nero, and with his death civilisation is saved.
And the game does not build him up as a meaningful representation of the empire beyond his position.
He is an externally imposed aberration by Winter.
Beyond that, the other sympathetic characters do not eschew any anti-imperialist views either.
Vitallion questions the brutal campaign in Britain, but merely on a strategic basis.
Even Marius’ father, who exemplifies the game’s ideal of governance with his words, ‘Don’t come with your swords drawn but with open arms,’ fails to challenge Roman imperialism.
People will prefer an empire dealing with them peacefully, but of course, the nature of an empire carries an implicit omnipresent threat of violence.
And his advocacy for republicanism can hardly be called peaceful, considering that most Roman territory was conquered in the republican period.
But Ryse does not solely have a blind spot for Roman imperialism and glorifies the empire. The game downplays Roman violence on top of that. There is this popular notion that empire was simply the state of the world in antiquity. The argument goes that if the Romans hadn’t conquered their neighbours, they would have been conquered in turn. But remember, this game is set close to Rome’s territorial height, with the empire spanning from North Africa to Britain. The idea that the Romans just had to invade Britain for their survival or that the two sides of this were even close to evenly matched is ridiculous, and yet, Ryse plays into this idea. When Marius confronts the leader at the aqueduct, Boudica, he accuses: ‘You kill the innocent—women and children.’ Boudica promptly replies, ‘How do you think your empire was built?’, and attacks. The game draws a cowardly false equivalence here. On one side, you have a massive expansionist empire seeking to snatch up even more territory from the world map, and on the other, it is people defending their home from invaders. Boudica would be the perfect figurehead to explore this reality, but the game chooses not to. Instead, we get the generic villain ‘you and me, we are not so different’-spiel. The story might frame her in an admirable light for her determination, but ultimately she has to go down as she stands in the way of Roman civilisation.
The most glaring whitewashing of Roman violence is in how the game frames the Roman occupation of Britain itself. It tells that the barbarian resistance only started under the reign of the emperor’s son. The previous overseer and King Oswald got along nicely. Marius explains in a monologue that ‘Rome had brought peace, rich trade, and prosperity to these isles.’ The game directly says through its protagonist as a mouthpiece that the invasion of Britain was good and that it was, again, Nero, who, through the extension of his son, fucked everything up. At the midpoint, this son pretends to offer peace to Oswald. He asks for his embrace and, shortly after, brutally stabs the king to death. By having these cartoonishly evil villains, the game paints the imperial status quo as benign. It would be all fine if it wasn’t for Nero. After all, the previous administration in Britain did their job well—even the people who had to live under their thumb agree.
Circling back to the original question: why do propaganda for an empire that has been gone for many centuries at this point? Well, in many ways, it is still here. I’m not just talking about the remnants of Roman civilisation in societies today, like, for example, their legal system, or that we still use the calendar introduced by Julius Ceasar with some minor adjustments. It is about how the empire lives on in our own minds. Many nationalisms are in part based on claiming spiritual or literal inheritance over the Roman Empire’s legacy—be it Italian, German, British, or US-American. Most of these countries are the drivers of imperialism today or, at absolute best, are deeply complicit. From this point of view, it is easy to see how justifications for empires today are projected onto past empires, especially those with national connections. In fact, the excuses and rationalisations this game presents of Roman violence and conquest are eerily similar to those made for the violence and conquest of empires today. Take, for example, the destruction and looting of Iraq that started with the US-American-led invasion in 2003. The hollow pretext given at the time to justify the murderous violence is today broadly understood as the fabrication that it was. Accordingly, the narrative of the invaders shifted: they came to bring liberty, peace, and prosperity. These are the typical lies an empire tells of itself to justify its existence. It’s not particularly sophisticated because it doesn’t have to be. It’s much easier to believe the obvious lie than it is to recognise the moral burden of our complicity. And that’s how we get Ryse, a game that whitewashes Roman crimes because we whitewash our own.
On first look, Ryse: Son of Rome looks like a competently constructed mediocre action game—in short, it looks like a launch title.
But on close inspection, this facade melts away.
Sure, aesthetically, it sometimes manages to look good, especially helped by the game’s animation and actors, but in spirit, the game is rotten to the core.
Ryse’s story, which repeatedly glorifies Roman imperialism while hiding behind the preservation of ‘civilisation’, is deeply repulsive.
The blow is only dampened by the fact that Britons from two thousand years ago don’t exist anymore.
Could you imagine if they did this with a group of people from today?
Well, there is Call of Duty, so yes, I can.
On top of that comes the gameplay. Empire apologism is not unusual for this medium, but for most games like that, they are at least somewhat fun to play. Ryse doesn’t even manage that.