The fusion of elements from the role-playing and action genres isn't new. It's part of the foundation of the ancient Greek epic poetry on which Liquid Entertainment's Rise of the Argonauts is based. Heroes like Jason and Odysseus roamed unfamiliar lands, encountered bizarre and powerful creatures, and often received rewards for their trials and tribulations to help them vanquish enemies or otherwise make their travels more convenient. Such a concept beats at the heart of a wide range of modern storytelling mediums, and its success relies on observable character advancement through increasingly powerful items and improved statistics or abilities. Liquid chose to take a more streamlined, action-focused track with its hybrid title, which, along with a few other factors, tends to limit its appeal.
Trimming the number-crunching aspects in which the obsessive-compulsive and RPG hardcore so ravenously revel while keeping in lengthy, fully-voiced conversations between characters and an accessible real-time combat system seems to appeal to the mainstream. By removing the typical RPG genre complications and adding a simple combat engine with a heavy emphasis on passive abilities and the mechanical repetition of light and heavy attacks, block, and dodge moves, the game can't fully satisfy action or RPG appetites. It feels like Liquid sacrificed too much for the sake of its genre fusion.
Propelling the game's action forward is an interesting story featuring a combination of heroes roped in from Greek mythology and emphasis on content from sources like Apollonius' The Argonautica. Jason and his companions, the Argonauts, aboard his ship, the Argo, still seek the Golden Fleece, but this time to revive his fallen wife, Alceme, who at the game's beginning is assaulted by a shadowy organization. Since the plot and appearances by famous characters from Greek mythology are some of the best bits of the game, we won't get into many more specifics, save to say you'll encounter plenty of magical beasts and demons, and the tale includes Titans, Tartarus, centaurs, satyrs, and, of course, a prophecy.
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Fleshing out the characters and their motivations is accomplished through a Mass Effect-style conversation system where you're given several choices for a response while the conversation is still ongoing. This leads to a more natural flow of character speech, as instead of pausing every time it's your turn to respond to read your options, you can do so as an NPC is still talking. The responses are presented as general states of mind (suspicion, anger), so you'll never know exactly what Jason is going to say until he says it. Unfortunately, unlike Mass Effect, the majority of the conversation chains don't alter the outcome of situations, so it feels less like you're role-playing and more like you're moving along an only slightly varying linear path, and a large number of conversations just aren't that interesting and serve little purpose. Considering how frequently the dialogue sequences occur, easily encompassing about half of the approximately 10-hour experience, more variety would have been appreciated.
As much focus as there is on conversation, you'll also be doing quite a bit of combat. The game does away with experience points in favor of a deed system, where completing side quests or netting accomplishments similar to Xbox 360 achievements (kill X enemies, shatter X number of shields, use God Powers X number of times) are compiled in a list, and that list can be dedicated to Ares, Athena, Hermes, or Apollo at shrines. Dedicating deeds and choosing conversation options aligned with the gods then earns you favor points that can be used to purchase new abilities. A large portion of the abilities are passive, giving you bonuses like health regeneration or more damage against shields, and some are active and can be slotted for use on the battlefield, though their long cool down times prevent rapid use.
The main issue is there just isn't much reason to use anything other than basic attack combos. Each of Jason's tools of battle, the shield, mace, sword, and spear, can be powered up in various ways, but even at the end of the game on the hardest difficulty setting, it was a matter of using the simple two and three button press combos to vanquish pretty much everything rather easily. Part of this is due to a large number of enemies having almost exactly the same behavior in battle. There'll be guys with weapons and guys with shields, a few larger guys with weapons and shields, and that, with a small number of exceptions, is it. Combo and repeat, and they're dead. The handful of bosses in the game play out in a familiar fashion, with progressive attack patterns that in some cases require you to sit up and pay attention to timing, movement and blocking. They're certainly a nice break from the sloppy and simplistic battle arenas the game throws at you throughout each adventure area, particularly during the final stages, but they do little to elevate the overall battle system doldrums.
Over the course of the game Jason will gradually become more powerful, a result of better weaponry and armor types, but it's difficult to actually gauge how powerful. So while you'll be comfortable with the knowledge that you're enhancing Jason's abilities simply by virtue of activating larger and larger numbers of passive abilities and finding the occasional sword, mace, spear, or armor, which represents the entirety of the game's equippable loadout, you never get a good overall sense of how much you're improving. The game does provide a range of effects, from enemies moving more slowly when hurt to blood dripping from wounds to indicate what's going on during a fight, but these don't really address the ambiguity.
An element that could have added some variety to the fighting which goes totally untouched in the game are your companions. Famous figures such as Achilles, Hercules, and Atalanta accompany you into battle and they'll fight on their own, but you have no control over what they're doing. So instead of being able to, say, direct Hercules to beat up a specific foe or assume a specific type of battle behavior, he just runs around and does whatever he likes, adding more confusion and randomness to the button mashing of battle. It just seems like a real missed opportunity here to deny players the option to interact more meaningfully with characters of this stature during a fight, aside from the light proximity attack elements the game presents.
The repetitive combat and overly static dialogue sequences take a back seat to the game's performance, which on the PlayStation 3 turns out to be quite poor. Very frequently you'll be noticing dropped frames while exploring environments, something that seems to spike often when turning the camera to view surroundings or in the midst of larger battles. It's nothing that's going to render the game unplayable, but it's something that pretty much everyone's going to notice and be unhappy with. Such performance problems are really too bad, considering some of the areas are quite pretty, particularly Hermes' shrine in forested Saria and the setting for the Oracle at Delphi. Item, armor and character models also tend to be quite good, though in some cases almost humorously stylized, something that grates against the game's overall severe and serious tone.
As far as the audio goes, the focus is on voice acting. Liquid forces you to sit through quite a few dialogue sequences where the acting is serviceable, and occasionally on levels above that, but unfortunately the content of many interactions tends to be rather bland. There are stronger points, however, like a philosophical debate regarding the nature of the Golden Fleece, but they don't save the overall package from being mired in mediocrity. The soundtrack feels fitting given the setting and is generally well done, and the sound effects help to enhance the smacks and groans of combat.
All this combat, dialogue, and graphics is wrapped in a minimalistic interface that does more harm than good. We strongly recommend you turn on your health bar and god power readout, since otherwise it's difficult to tell what's happening in combat. The lack of a minimap is also a nuisance, as you'll be frequently pausing and accessing your map through a menu to see quest goal locations, something that could have easily been rectified with in-game indicators. Though the immersive elements of a HUD-less game can be powerful, there's still a certain amount of information that's useful for players to have.
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