Forsooth, legend doth tell of an RPG most ragged of frame rate and cumbersome of tongue. 'Twas Two Worlds, and 'twas a mess. Enough of that – Reality Pump has removed the medieval vocabulary for the sequel, going as far to poke fun at it with one verbose village idiot, as part of an attempt to instil greater technical polish this time around. But while Antaloor is more stable (though prone to frame dropping and pop-in) and even occasionally striking – overegged lighting bloom inadvertently bathes the world in a soft Arabian Nights mysticism – this is a fantasy vision that still doesn’t convince.
Your arrival in Antaloor is not smooth. A scripted dungeon escape leads to a bitty introduction of ideas, self-contained mechanics that never weave into a satisfying player character. The idea seems to be to ape Mass Effect 2’s success – a hands-on third-person action hero occupying a deeper RPG world – but lacks the elegance, or streamlining, to pull it off. The control scheme magnifies this distancing effect, crowbaring a keyboard’s worth of functions onto a straining 360 pad. At any one time, the left trigger dictates no fewer than 12 moves. At best the hero handles like an ability list with legs, at worst it feels like steering an abstract interface around the countryside.
Although a worthy hero never emerges from this tangle, there’s something to be said for the focus on practical abilities. As in Mass Effect 2, skill points are invested in tangible, real-time moves – kicking a rival duellist to the floor, for example, or firing multiple arrows at once – that promote the here and now over the statistical calculations whirring within. Stealth, for one, feels far more viable than in similar open world RPGs. The right point allocation lets archers creep round encampments, marking multiple foes like Sam Fisher in burlap pantaloons. Improbable as it is, it’s a step beyond Oblivion’s sneaking options.
Practical experimentation powers a rich alchemy, loot and magic system. Any item can be broken into raw materials and used to reinforce others. So even when looting fails to turn up rare items you’re still left with something to build from. Likewise, all herb combinations guarantee a potion of some sort, from healing balms all the way to water-walking elixirs. The notion that a barmy concoction is but a bush rummage away is intriguing. More importantly, the discipline gets you into the countryside, where armies of hostile baboons, rhinos and – inexplicably – ostriches make for a more compelling landscape than cities roamed by voiceless NPCs.
Reality Pump’s most rewarding ideas are found in Two Worlds 2’s magic system. Spells are syntactically constructed from verbs (shield, summon, shoot), nouns (fire, ice, zombie) and adjectives (bouncing, homing, detecting), allowing for an incredible wealth of tailor made chaos. Fireballs can be programmed to bounce, split and home – or all at once. Rocks will rain down and tornadoes are whipped up. Cast in succession and the tornado can sling rocks into a swirling battering ram. A more confident game could be built on magic alone. Here, however, the fun is delayed by a steep difficulty curve that favours close-combat early on.
In fact, this exemplifies Two Worlds 2: fun concepts brought low by crummy execution. Hand-to-hand combat can benefit from skill-based flourishes, but rarely goes beyond crude whomping. Large plains hide crannies galore, though you navigate them atop a horse with the handling of a bus. 150 or so quests sounds like a great deal, until you realise that there’s little beyond fetch X or kill X of that.
And the voice acting? In return for shedding its olde worlde affectations, it has developed an irritating propensity for Americanisms. Would a necromancer really call a fellow wizard an ‘asshat’? There is a sense of Reality Pump edging towards a complete, comprehensible experience. And we hope they one day take the next step. If only to hear what madness tumbles from Antaloorian mouths next.