Cinematic Action in Ryse: Son of Rome

At its inception, photography aimed to bring a unique image to bear. Yet, as the medium evolved, it started to work more towards emulating portrait painting; a method that had existed for centuries prior. While artists like Jabez E. Mayall added their own style to the portraits, they still leaned heavily on the teachings and methods of portrait painting. It wasn’t until nearly a century later that photography as a form of expression started to turn around, with artists aiming to use its unique traits to deliver art only it could produce.

In turn, film emulated photography until movies made by individuals such as Gregg Toland and Andrei Tarkovsky pushed the medium towards exploiting its unique features. Over the decades since the same has happened with animation, comicstrips; and now gaming.

A medium finds its ground, then slowly tries to emulate what came before, before settling on what it does best. Video games quite quickly found their ground, with arcade and early console titles like Space Invaders and Pac-Man, before trying to emulate existing board-games. Afterwhich games like Super Mario Bros. and Metroid pushed it further into a unique territory only videogames could offer, with the artform only experimenting further from there.

During the seventh console-generation however, video games saw a shift towards a more cinematic presentation. After games like Metal Gear Solid and Half Life popularized filmic elements, games like Uncharted, Heavy Rain or more hybrid games like Mass Effect pushed it further. From more scripted, but visually interesting, setpieces, to an intertwined narrative where gameplay was at best secondary. It seemed that gaming was, in an attempt to push itself further, again starting to emulate another medium.

These types of games often give the initial impression that they are just that: cinema with sprinkles of gameplay in it. Often lauded (be it correctly or incorrectly) as games that you can just “play on Youtube”; titles users feel don’t have enough gameplay in between cutscenes or are too scripted in their gameplay to be enjoyed. Games like Metal Gear Solid, The Last of Us, Death Stranding, The Order 1886, God of War, A Way Out and Observer – just to name a few current day popular examples. Most of them sport real life actors instead of originally designed characters and feature a bigger focus on narrative and plenty of cutscenes.

Ryse: Son of Rome, initially revealed to show off the power of the Xbox One and Cryengine, seemed to be such a title. With protagonist Marius being played by actor John Hopkins instead of being a wholly original character design. Marketing material consisted of a live-action movie and the first gameplay footage was filled with story interruptions to gameplay, mid-combat quick-time events and more. People were quick to give it a similar label as the aforementioned games and moved on.

Still from the live-action short, viewable here.

As mentioned, this label is sometimes correct, but often also incorrect. While outwardly cinematic, titles like Metal Gear Solid, Death Stranding, the classic God of War games and others all offer deep and unique gameplay. Perhaps, when analyzed, Ryse could offer a similar surprise?

After launching to mediocre receptions, both critically and commercially, one quickly starts to doubt that such a surprise is going to happen, and one could look to numerous reasons for such lackluster results. Launching exclusively on the Xbox One, a console with a dubious reputation at the time, did not help. The rising stigma against story based games, with titles like The Order 1886 and even popular titles like Uncharted 4 opening to less than anticipated results could be another reason. Or was it perhaps the underused Roman setting that failed to attract players? 

Set during the Julio-Claudian dynasty of the Roman Empire, Ryse: Son of Rome sees us controlling Centurion Marius Titus. After a short and skippable introductory cutscene, gameplay starts with Marius rushing to Emperor Nero who is under siege by barbarians from the north. 

Combat has Marius fighting off numerous enemies at once with a four-option system. Marius can Parry, Dodge, Attack and Stun; each with a dedicated button and specific usage.

Attacking is the most basic step you can take. If the attack hits, you attack again. When they dodge your strike, you proceed to Stun them with a slam of your shield so you can Attack them. If an enemy attacks you, you use the Parry. If the attack is red in color, you Dodge.

Due to being so clear in its rules and with very lenient inputs and ranges on Marius’s attacks, the combat very quickly becomes less about positioning or strategy but more about a type of rhythm you get into. Akin to a Dance Dance Revolution game, with the buttons on the pad instead visualized by what the enemies are doing; it can be quite hypnotic and addictive to play as a result. 

Though lenient, timing does play into the game as well. While Parry has a very lenient input, its precision determines its potency. Time it without a care in the world and Marius will just block the strike. Time it perfectly however and he’ll deflect the blow to stagger the opponent; opening them up for an attack. Likewise a perfectly timed parry can at least block an unparryable blow. This timing translates to Attacks as well, with perfectly timed inputs in a row putting Marius in “Burning Eagle Mode”, which boosts your damage output. 

At the end of each fight you’ll see your total score based on how well you kept your combo up, which is collated and transferred to experience points and can be used to buy very minor upgrades like extra health or the ability to hold more Pilums

Historically, Pilums are a type of javelin that Marius can throw in combat. Shield-carrying foes lose their defensive options immediately, their shield shattered, while regular enemies suffer massive damage, immediately putting them in an execution state.

Executions are short cinematics wherein Marius kills the foe in a brutal way, with numerous button pressed intermixed. Failing these inputs does nothing except lowering your score and there’s a nice rhythm and satisfaction to memorizing these inputs for a higher score between the different executions that are dependent on location, situation and positioning. 

In a fun twist, you can choose what your reward will be for these executions with Execution Rewards. This is a type of fighting stances where you can choose rewards such as Executions restoring health, giving you extra experience points or perhaps give you a boost to damage or Focus. Focus is a very by the numbers ability that can be activated at any time, during which enemies stand still and you’re allowed to wail away to make certain fights easier.

The flow of combat remains at the center though, and it’s pressed further by its lack of randomization. Regular enemies will always auto-dodge after being hit two times in a row, forcing you to switch targets or use your shield slam. A charged attack always counts as three hits in terms of damage and an enemy always goes in an executable state after 6 hits on Normal and 8 on Legendary difficulty. 

By slowly learning these numbers the flow of Ryse gets more and more clear and later fights against hordes of different enemy types becomes this dance of timing, resource management and risk assessment where you aim for that sweet “Perfect combo” and “Untouchable” bonus at the end.

Oftentimes during these fights you’ll make very minor decisions that keep them interesting. Do you throw a Pilum now to quickly clear some chaff, or save them for that shield-wielding barbarian? As you see a strike coming your way, do you go for a parry or switch targets to a faraway enemy – using Marius’s mobility to avoid the strike instead? Or do you attack, hoping to strike before your foe’s blow lands true? 

All these elements are a case of the player actively seeking out enjoyment however. Outside of the optional Legendary Difficulty, which boosts enemy aggression and damage output, the game doesn’t offer a reason to really dive into its combat flow. And while pressing some buttons can still offer a neat visual experience, it could very well be the reason so many players dropped it. They expected nothing to begin with and thus didn’t actively seek for what could be there.

When players do seek it out though, Ryse: Son of Rome can be a very enjoyable action game to play despite some grievances. Because of its DDR nature, you start as you end: with just your shield and gladius and a pilum as support. There are no other weapon types that influence enemies in different ways, such a longer ranged weapon or options to sweep, launch or knockdown enemies – making it more about the dance you do with the enemies than how you change their states like in titles like Resident Evil 4 or something as mechanical as Metal Gear Solid 2. Pair this with a very low amount of enemy variation, with perhaps only four enemy types in the entire game, and Ryse can be quite monotonous in long sittings with each fight sort of blending together in one big blur. 

Fights do offer some variation on replays, with some allowing you to choose where to place archers for example, which determine how a fight plays out. Maybe you’ll fight the horde of foes alone, but there are no arrows raining from the sky to avoid. Or there are arrows but you have soldiers helping you out. Other sections might see you hide behind a shield-wall or mount a ballista to break the minutia. 

Despite its obvious shortcomings, Ryse’s combat system does succeed in its initial premise; to offer a stylized, visually pleasing combat system that still has depth and nuance to it for those that seek it out. Ryse attempts to offer its own take on the cinematic adventure with no slow walking sections, no scripted fight sequences, no shoved in RPG-systems to give a false sense of depth: just a pure game with a high production value.

A mention should be made to that last element, as Ryse: Son of Rome looks quite the part. Artistically it tries to blend the Roman artstyle with a bit more futuristic and an almost alien cleanliness, making the classical Rome feel like a civilization from the future – which in some aspects it was. The game also doesn’t limit the scope to just those areas, instead aiming for a lot of visual variety in its levels, ranging from roman cityscapes to jungles, beaches and the colosseum itself. Probably as a result of it also being sort of meant as a showcase of what the new CryEngine was capable of.

In total we’re left with a game that, both technically and artistically, looks more like a title from 2022 than one that was released alongside Bioshock Infinite or Dragon Age: Inquisition in 2013. 

Pair this with a pumping soundtrack, collectibles ranging from unlockable concept art to a full-on unlockable comic book and – yes – a fully coloured (digital only) instruction manual, and you’ve got quite the package. Add in a co-op horde mode with unlockable armor sets and more, and Ryse seems like a game that keeps on giving.

Compared to where games have gone since and seem to be going in terms of balancing gameplay and narrative, Ryse stands alone as a niche little title in offering high budget, visually engaging gameplay with a lot of extra content, where the story is a pillar, not the foundation. Had things gone differently, perhaps it could have shined brighter and inspired others to follow suit. 

鑒 reflection style 鑒

In this short section I reflect on the article from my own viewpoints as a gamer and lover of the genre instead of a critic.

Ryse: Son of Rome was the game that sold me on GamePass. As a game, I never would’ve spent my money on a title that everyone was calling out for being so cinematic and bereft of gameplay. Yet, being part of the subscription and knowing Youtuber Bick Benedict loved it so much, I gave it a chance and found a lot more to enjoy than I originally assumed possible.

It shames me to say that often I also fall victim to the online word of mouth, and avoid titles I could very well have enjoyed. This kind of thinking led me to avoid games like Halo and Yakuza for years on end, only to find myself falling in love with their series for completely different reasons than some others might.

Those games, sadly, had a fanbase, while Ryse does not. While a sequel was planned, it was canceled and we’ll probably never see this series return. And to me, that’s a big shame as Ryse really nails that balance between a cinematic experience and just being a game. Combat is simple but fun, has depth, yet still looks enjoyable for the layman. The story is enjoyable, but can be skipped upon replays and isn’t intrusive with unskippable walking segments or other such moments. A lot of games could learn from Ryse

斬 postscript notes 斬

  • Special thanks to the Ultimate Ninja Patrons: Hedfone

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