January 14, 2009
Rise of the Argonauts walked a rocky road to its eventual release. After being delayed, and many of us not expecting the game to release until spring 2009, the game released quietly amid the torrent of quality games making up the 2008 holiday season. Could Rise of the Argonauts emerge as a sleeper hit amongst such competition, casting a siren's call over gamers, or is the 2008 release just the curtain opening on a Greek tragedy?
The game tells the story of Jason, King of Iolcus, and his quest of love and revenge. In the middle of exchanging vows, an assassin's arrow strikes down Jason's beloved Alceme, bringing their wedding to an abrupt and tragic end. Enraged, Jason cleaves his way through the ranks of mercenaries invading his palace, finally reaching and executing the assassin responsible for Alceme's death. Feeling abandoned by the gods, Jason refuses to accept the reality of his bride's death, and vows to find a way to restore her to life. Along the way, Jason will meet up with several other well-known figures of Greek mythology, and become renowned throughout the land for his heroic deeds, as he unravels the mystery surrounding Alceme's death. Rise of the Argonauts tells a story every bit as epic as one would expect, given its mythic origins, with plenty of interesting characters, each with their own world view and take on Jason's quest. Your interactions with fellow Argonauts may be, surprisingly, some of the most memorable parts of the game.
The sword, mace, and spear are Jason's tools of the trade when it comes time to dispatch enemies to the underworld, with each weapon having its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the mace is a powerful weapon, which is great at destroying shields, but it is slower than the sword or spear. While it is possible to plow through the game using only one weapon, knowing how to best use each is the key to success. Each weapon is tied to one of the game's four patron gods (Ares, Apollo, Athena, and Hermes), and increasing favor with a god will allow players to select one of their aspects, which act as stat boosts or special powers that can be called upon in combat. It's therefore advantageous to decide early on which god or two best suits your combat style, and do everything possible to gain favor with them. While the action isn't as fast and furious as games like Devil May Cry 4 or Ninja Gaiden 2, it's entertaining enough, with a few nice touches, like selective use of slow-motion to highlight particularly brutal kills.
When not in battle, Jason needs to converse with others to complete side-quests, confront or persuade certain characters, and learn more of his journey. Dialogue revolves around a conversation wheel system, somewhat similar to that used in Mass Effect. When Jason is called upon to respond to someone, multiple possible responses will appear, with each with the potential to increase your favor with one of the patron gods. Unlike Mass Effect, where player choices had a real effect on how the game unfolded, choice is largely an illusion here, regardless of how Jason responds, the outcome is disappointingly almost always the same. Instead of really choosing what kind of hero a player wants to be, the system boils down to merely picking which god you want to gain favor with. There are a few instances where players get to decide someone's fate, but these choices are pretty inconsequential, with no lasting effect.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Rise of the Argonauts, but it's not without problems, including its pacing. The beginning of the game makes a great first impression, wasting no time in setting up the epic tale and throwing players into the action. After fighting off the attack on the palace, play transitions from action to territory familiar to RPG players, as Jason makes his way around Iolcus, helping the locals and fighting a few more battles. Iolcus had what felt like the correct balance of action and conversation. Unfortunately, the rest of the game lacks that same balance. After leaving Iolcus, I went for several hours without fighting anything. For a game that bills itself as an action RPG, it's surprising how little action there actually is. While the excellent dialogue and story kept my attention, there were several instances where I was getting impatient to fight something, and desperately longing to be attacked to break up the monotony of unending conversations. While some RPGs get criticized for the use of long cut scenes, a few more cut scenes may have done Argonauts some good, since they allow players to sit back and enjoy the story. The setup here is arguably worse, as players are required to tread back and forth across islands from one conversation to another, for periods of 30 minutes to over an hour without a single fight. Late into the game, the balance shifts to become much more combat heavy, largely to the expense of dialogue and storytelling. It would have been nice to see a more even and consistent balance between the two aspects of the game.
It's also a bit of a challenge to pin down Argonaut's target audience. As previously stated, the amount of action is too little and too scattered to appease action fans, while the relatively limited customization options for Jason, and the fact that dialogue decisions have no effect on the story, probably won't satisfy RPG enthusiasts. The level design throughout is pretty linear, so there isn't much exploring to do, either. Rise of the Argonauts falls short of par in both genres, but that doesn't necessarily make it a terrible game. The dialogue to combat ratio for the majority of the game makes Argonauts feel more like an interactive novel than an action game. Anyone playing the game to enjoy the story and characters will have a good time, while disappointment awaits those who can't sit through the long stretches of dialogue.
Installing this game to your xbox's hard drive is the best way to play, if you can spare the space. When playing from the disc, I sometimes experienced some major slowdown in gameplay, where the frame rate temporarily dropped way down, and the load times were a bit on the long side between major areas. Installation drastically improves the load times, and eliminated slowdown problems. Even with the game installed, there are still a few weird instances where characters are speaking, but no dialogue can be heard, or you'll find yourself conversing with someone who somehow became invisible for the duration of that conversation. These problems are annoying, but hardly game breaking.
The Unreal Engine 3 has certainly seen better use than what's displayed here. While environments are well imagined, the level of detail here is below standard, with stiffly animated characters, who seem incapable of much facial expression. Most of the cities feel dead, with a good number of citizens who can't be talked to and don't really do anything, but seem to exist as visual filler. I also noticed instances where characters will pop in and out of the peripheral edges of the screen. When turning the camera, characters who should still be partially visible on the screen suddenly wink out of existence. It should also be noted that there seems to be a limited number of character models in the game, as I saw the exact same female model used at least 4-5 times over the course of the game, only differing in the clothing she wore, and that smells like laziness to me.
Thankfully, the audio is far better than the visuals, with excellent voice acting that carries the story and manages to make up for the stiff and unexpressive character character animation. Tyler Bates, who composed the music for the movie 300, also did the music for Argonauts, and it perfectly sets the atmosphere for an epic adventure. Combat sound effects, from pulping enemy heads with the mace to slicing enemies in half with the sword, sound every bit as satisfying as they should.
The achievement list is fairly predictable, with many coming through playing the game, combat accomplishments, or completing side-quests. The side quest achievements can be fairly easy to miss if you're not careful. Even with a strategy guide, I managed to miss two of them by going in the wrong order, or missing one small thing. Argonauts does feature achievement tracking, of a sort. For the achievements related to completing constellations, it's easy to go to the pause menu and look at each constellation to see the requirements for completing it. Combat related ones are even more helpful, with objective messages like "Kill 25 enemies with thrown spears. You have killed 21." The list will require multiple plays to complete, and even though switching which Argonauts you use will provide a somewhat different experience, the game doesn't really have much replay value, so those extra plays will probably feel like a slog. "Heroic Patience" is easily my favorite achievement on this list, as you'll either be laughing out loud or crying at how bad Bolo's singing is; it's truly a test of patience.
While I loved the story and characters of Rise of the Argonauts, I can only recommend the game to others looking for a great story, and willing to forgive several shortcomings; including too little action and character customization, linear levels, dialogue "choices" having no effect on the story, periodic graphical slowdown when playing from the disc, a lack of interesting side-quests, and stiff character animation. If you have the patience to put up with these shortcomings, Rise of the Argonauts is an enjoyable mythical journey. Anyone looking for frequent action or deep character customization should probably look elsewhere.
Great voice acting carries the story along, while the music perfectly captures the feeling of an epic adventure.
Unreal Engine 3 has seen much better use than this. Characters are stiffly animated and don't offer much facial expression. The level of detail is below standard, many of the cities feel dead, with useless NPCs added as visual filler, and they even blatantly recycle the same character models multiple times.
The combat system is smooth and easy to use, but slowdown and long loads when playing from the disc are annoying. Weapon switching in combat could have been a little faster.
Rise of the Argonauts tells a great story, but fails to utilize Greek mythology to its fullest. The pacing between dialogue and combat doesn't quite feel right, and there simply isn't enough action. Side-quests are mostly uninteresting, and none of them involve much action. While a couple enemies are epic, most feel too standard.
Heroic Patience is a great achievement, while the rest of the list is pretty predictable. The game requires multiple plays for all the points, but there isn't much replay value to be had here.
Rise of the Argonauts tells a great story with interesting characters, but fails to utilize Greek mythology well enough to reach its full potential, falling short as both an action game and an RPG.