Epic games set in ancient Greece are nothing new to the video game market, but Rise of the Argonauts seeks to change that, with an equally epic story telling the legend of a crew of mythological heroes sailing for the fabled Golden Fleece to restore their leader’s wife from the dead. The combo God of War and Mass Effect gameplay is a sure-fire way to major success, but does Rise of the Argonauts actually achieve this lofty goal? Or is the trek through ancient history just a scroll of good intentions?
In a fit of extreme bad luck, main protagonist King Jason looses his wife quite literally at the altar from an assassin’s bow. Cutting his way through his protectorate, he finds out the secret of her assailants and vows to his five patron gods that he will bring her back from the dead. He later learns that the single way to do so is with the fabled Golden Fleece, and thus he travels to several isles of importance around Greece to search for the descendants of three of his deities (Ares, Athena, and Hermes.) Along the way he accumulates a legendary party of sidekicks including the muscled behemoth Hercules and the sage mystic Pan. The story definitely feels epic, using the wider spectrum of Greek mythology to create a tableau of grand journeys and even grander confrontations. The pace takes a deft leaf from its God of War origins, gradually building towards something grandiose and dropping several major boss battles along the way.
The story is definitely Rise of the Argonaut’s strong point, with an eloquent and smoothly paced script only occasionally tripping on modern colloquialisms. Each character is decently defined in terms of personality and temperament, and fit well into the general arch of the tale, one of the major selling points for the game being the myriad of back chatter each individual side character will disperse based on location, time, and plot point. The brilliance of the game’s story on paper, though, it’s how its story plays out in gameplay. Exposition is always dealt through inter-character dialogue, character models standing in stiff poses and offering very little physical differentiation. The mechanic is also overused as means of narrative expression, offering literally nothing else in regards to advancing the plot, and with the average conversation’s length and boring visuals, it makes the story feel better suited for novel form. Lifeless, middling voice work doesn’t add plot immersion either.
Despite being overused, those that can stomach the poor voice work and tedious lack of physicality will find a more than apt, and in some ways superior, branching dialogue system than Mass Effect. Like Bioware’s sci-fi epic, dialogue branches out into several optional responses, each one reflecting a temperament and different reaction from the NPCs. In addition to the multi-faceted conversations, Argonauts provides an immediate and long-lasting deity-tied responses and benefits. Certain answers, along with being curt or understanding in nature, are also connected to one of Jason’s five patron deities, and answering with them enough times will bestow points into upgradeable combat and special abilities unique to that god. Answer politely enough times and you’ll be granted the option of several new abilities from Athena, and so on. It’s a strong and easy to understand system that helps the player plot out their take on Jason’s character and how they want him and the story to progress.
All of the benefits and strengths of Argonauts story are dragged down to the abyss, however, as the rest of the game becomes playable. Although the plot, scope, and style resemble God of War, sluggish and repetitive controls quickly make battles more trying than challenging. Even menial players will get the hang of, and tire of, the weak battle system even before leaving Jason’s home aboard the Argo. The rarity of actually stumbling across groups of opponents, and their ease once you do, also don’t help the title surpass basic and flawed combat design. Boss battles are especially, almost insultingly easy, with weak points far too open and spamm-able and weak, easily dodgeable offenses. It feels as though combat was a shoe-horned, last minute design element, meant only to break up the pace between conversations. And when the plot shoe-horns you into grand battle segments like gladiatorial arenas, its lack of polish becomes even more confusing.
To its credit, Argonauts combat comes with multiple, unique weapons that all play and feel like they should. Heavy mace, swift but weak sword, cumbersome but strong-ranged lance, all function as one would imagine they would in real life. But when the core combat is an exercise in patience rather than skill, the aptly executed intricacies are meaningless. Sadder still is the pointlessness of the game’s rich god-based upgrade system, with most unique abilities just fluff atop Jason’s powerful base attacks. Even at the start of the game, Jason can clear a room with simply what he has in the inventory, making the only real reason to spend the time siding with a god long enough to gain abilities is to their different effects and visualizations. Side characters will also join in battle, but inconsistently range from useless to detrimental in some battles.
If poorly executed combat was not enough to sink this gilded ship, Argonauts looks like a hideous step-child of this generation. Detailed character and world design and strong environmental effects would suggest a powerful presentation, but blurry and low-resolution textures and bland, spacious environments drag it back to the previous generation’s capabilities. It wouldn’t be so bad if the game didn’t consistently force you to stare at its imperfections. The camera seems to gravitate towards the ugly portions of a stage, and cutscenes often feature the apt character models traipsing over un-finished looking backgrounds. It doesn’t help that Liquid Entertainment confused “exploration” with “back-tracking,” forcing players to hike across the various environments until each environment feels regurgitated.
You’ll want to love Rise of the Argonauts. Its story is well told and, while verbose, very well scripted and paced. If the character model interaction and overall presentation could have risen up to meet it, the game could have been one of the strongest story experiences of the generation. As it is, Argonauts is an ugly, boring, and tedious experience that will only serve to tease what might have been. For God of War-loving masochists only.