Risen 3: Titan Lords

Risen 3: Titan Lords is the sixth big PC RPG by Piranha Bytes, the German developer known for immersive, old-school experiences.  Their games are highly ambitious affairs, created with relatively small teams and targeted to a niche audience.  This combination of high ambition and low budget usually produces games with a lot of interesting features, but also a lack of polish.  You never know what you are going to get with a Piranha Bytes RPG.  You might get a masterpiece like Risen, or you might get a glitchy disappointment like Risen 2.  With Risen 2 almost universally perceived as a subpar product, Risen 3 is being marketed as a “back to our roots” type of game where freedom, exploration, hand-placed loot, and choices and consequences emphasized.  The million dollar question is, does it deliver on that promise?

It doesn't take long to figure out the answer.  Before the game is an hour old, it firmly establishes itself as Risen2.5.  If Piranha Bytes held a meeting to make the game more like Risen 1 than Risen 2, there is little sign of it here.  The old fashioned, traditional magic from Risen 1 is back in the mix and the story is less linear.  There are also minor improvements and more polish here than in Risen 2.  For the most part though, it feels like the same game.  It has the same beasts and reuses a lot of the same areas and assets. Areas are designed the same, the equipment is largely the same, and many of the big problems persist.  Series veterans  hoping for a return to form will probably be disappointed.  That is not to say the game has no strong points, however.  As a pirate-themed RPG, it offers a unique setting with a lot of interesting game mechanics that fit that setting perfectly.  There are tons of quests and NPCs, and the game has an interesting, albeit confusing, character development system.  There are worse ways for you to spend $50, but with the bumper crop of RPGs coming out this year on a variety of platforms, the real question is whether this is where you should spend 50 hours.

If you are new to this series or have never played a Piranha Bytes RPG before, then an introduction is in order.  You play as a nameless and initially unskilled hero.  Nobody likes or trusts you at first, and most of the beasts that populate the land can kill you easily if not careful.  The games feature a large amount of exploration and freedom, but the worlds are much smaller than those in Elder Scrolls.  Theoretically, the games make up for it with the world being deeper, more fleshed out, and crafted in a more interesting manner.  Loot is hand-placed, not randomly generated, and enemies don’t scale to your level.  Wander into an area with creatures that are too strong for you, and you will die quickly.  Combat is challenging and somewhat unforgiving, and requires picking your battles carefully.  Over the years, this developer has gathered a loyal following of RPG enthusiasts who are turned off by the Elder Scrolls approach of building a huge world and stuffing it with procedurally generated content.

In some ways, Risen 3 keeps this same approach.  The world is relatively small and doesn’t feel like a copy and paste job.  There is a lot of character to it and exploration retains a sense of adventure.  Most NPCs have some function in the game and have day and night routines.  Some areas are only accessible with special abilities, like a trained monkey or the ability to transform into a parrot.  Charm and Intimidate dialog options offer alternatives for completing quests.  Like previous Piranha Bytes games, Risen 3 forces you to make a choice at some point to join a faction.  This choice as critical, as certain powerful abilities, like the powerful magic of the mages or the voodoo of the natives, is only available to members of that faction.  Learning every ability in the game in one playthrough is impossible.

Unfortunately, Risen 3 has issues with its world design.  Like Risen 2, its world is a series of small islands.  Most islands have two or three areas of interest, like a temple or a town, connected by narrow paths.  These paths usually have some short branches and by exploring off the beaten path you can sometimes find a cave or a chest.  For the most part though, there isn’t much space to move.  Settlements are usually small villages (at best) that are limited to a dozen occupants.  Jumping and mantling is a context-sensitive action that you can only do in pre-arranged spots.  All of these problems feel like concessions that had to be made in order to game to run on the XBox 360, whose outdated technology is now nine years old.  This series desperately needs an upgrade to the next generation of hardware.  The tight, constricted areas were arguably the biggest problem with Risen 2, and they are here for Risen 3.  Some of the islands still have enough playable area to make them feel very large, while others are disappointingly small.

Risen 3 is a game that screams “low budget” and there are numerous warts to remind you of this.  Shortcuts abound, like the way that the game fades to black when you use a ladder before magically placing you at the top when it fades back in. Animations, especially for conversations, are crude, repetitive, and primitive.  Lip syncing in conversations is almost nonexistent, making those conversations painful to watch and less effective in building a connection with the characters.  The character design is inconsistent and some of them, especially your pirate sister Patty, look downright silly.  The visuals do have their moments.  The monster designs are impressive and the more dangerous beasts look appropriately scary or disgusting.  Some of the outdoor scenery looks really nice.  Visual features like lush vegetation, bright, sunlit beaches, exotic flowers, and crystal blue water are all perfectly suited for the game’s tropical island setting.  Technically, Risen 3 is a slight upgrade over Risen 2 (which isn’t saying much).  The technology is obviously the same, but little glitches like flickering textures and objects popping into view a few feet in front of you have been fixed.  I still wouldn’t call Risen 3 a beautiful game by a long stretch, but at least it isn’t an eyesore.

For better or for worse, Risen 3 has a few changes that were made to make the game a bit more accessible for newcomers.  You no longer have to buy maps – you start the game with a map of every area.  You can also take a companion with you pretty much everywhere from the beginning of the game, as opposed to previous games, where you were alone most of the time.  Having a friend with you makes the early parts of the game much easier.  It is still a challenge, but not the meat grinder that you got in Risen 1 and 2.  For the most part, the interface is a very good one.  There are frequent tooltips that are helpful without being insulting.  There is a minimap on HUD that helps you keep track of what direction you are going, and the logbook allows you to place and remove quest markers.

In traditional Piranha Bytes fashion, the combat in Risen 3 is an awkward and quirky mixture of skill, timing, and role playing stats.  You start the game knowing how to string together a powerful three-hit combo that you can unleash with the correct timing of your mouse clicks (or button presses).  You can also do a quick attack with your off hand (with a pistol or a throwing knife, for example).  Later in the game, you learn more complex maneuvers.  Combat animations are slow and can be interrupted, allowing for quick foes to endlessly spam attacks you can’t fight back against.  This problem is especially frustrating against multiple enemies. Hit detection is poor and enemy attack patterns are wildly inconsistent.  It seems as if enemies are prone to standing in one place and take their beating.  The problems don’t ruin the game though, as you'll eventually learn how to work around the shortcomings.  Combat is tolerable, but expect to be annoyed by the experience now and then.  It also gets pretty repetitive, since most enemies are animals or monsters, and they all use mostly the same tactics.

Like Risen 2, the strengths of Risen 3 lie in how well it realizes its “Pirates of the Caribbean” setting.  The game has a romantic, jovial atmosphere to it.  Traditional mechanics like swordplay exist, but it is mostly one-handed fencing.  In your off hand, you can hold a flintlock pistol for a short ranged attack.  You can also use a musket as your primary weapon.  Garb is not limited to traditional armor and extends to fancy pants and tricorn hats.  Buried treasure abounds and once you have a shovel, all that's needed is a map to find the red “X” marking the spot.  In addition to buried treasure, books and scrolls all over the world telling tales about legendary items, like a ladies man’s special quill or a famous rogue’s severed finger.  Strong attribute bonuses are awarded for collecting these items.

All of this exists in a place similar to 16th century Spanish colonial America.  The islands have names like “Tacarigua” and the towns have names like “Puerto Sacarico.”  Rum is the game’s most popular commodity (and health potion).  The new world natives use voodoo, so naturally, you will find all kinds of goodies in the world like voodoo dolls and monkeys’ paws.  Some influences from Greek mythology, like Titans and a bleak underworld, have also been sprinkled in.  There are also some traditional Tolkien-esque fantasy features, but these feel like token gestures to try and evoke memories of Risen 1 and the Gothic series.  In that regard, they are largely ineffective.

Risen 3’s character development system fits the setting very well.  It has a lot of traditional abilities that have been renamed, e.g. charm is now “silver tongue,” experience is now “glory,” and health is “blood.”  It also has some very non-traditional abilities, like monkey training, voodoo, and musket use.  These features might be refreshing to newcomers, but they can also be very confusing.  Risen 3’s system is thick and complex, and not well explained.  Glory points (i.e. XP) are used to level up attributes like toughness, dexterity, and cunning.  In addition, there are talents that you can learn by paying NPCs to train you, provided you have the required minimum attribute.  So, you can learn new swordplay techniques if your swordplay attribute is high enough, you can pay somebody to train you in lockpicking if your dexterity is high enough, and so on.  Skills require 500 gold or more to learn, but a typical quest reward might be 100 gold.  Finding somebody to train you and coming up with the money for the training requires some patience.  Even if you have the resources, you will probably find yourself scratching your head at how some of the talents work.

As with any typical RPG, you will do a lot of travelling, and it seems as if everywhere you go, somebody needs your help.  “Please get me back my stuff,"  “Please kill these monsters for me,”  “Please deliver this message."  For the most part, the quests are standard RPG fare, but there is a substantial amount of variety in how you complete them.  Most quests that involve getting an object from someone include some sort of charm or intimidate option.  If talking isn’t your thing, then stealing is usually an option too.  One addition over the previous Risen games is a karma system that adds or takes away “soul” points for good or evil actions.  Like a Bioware RPG, intimidating or being rude to NPCs causes you to lose soul points.  Sucking up to them or being charitable causes you to gain soul points.  The system is somewhat simplistic and undercooked.

During your travels, you get to meet dozens, if not hundreds, of fully voiced NPCs.  Some of these NPCs will join you on your journey, residing at your ship as you explore each island.  Some of the companions are quite interesting and offer some good quips during conversation.  In stark contrast, the main character is a dull, gravelly-voiced, uninspired stereotype.  The main character from the first two Risen games was an amusing smart ass, but the nameless hero in this game is just plain boring.  There are some interesting mini-stories in the game, but for the most part the main story is forgettable.

How much you will like Risen 3: Titan Lords will mostly depend upon how much you liked Risen 2.  It has more freedom from the outset and you can travel to pretty much any island at any time.  It is a little bit more refined and less clunky.  It is a better game, but probably not by enough to move the needle for people who were deeply disappointed by Risen 2.  To judge Risen 3 on its own merits, it is a pretty good game.  Its challenge level, loot, character development system, and volume of quests are very satisfying and the setting and gameplay are substantially different from the other RPGs on the market.  I enjoyed my time with the game, even though I am disappointed that it didn’t really deliver much on the “back to our roots” marketing rhetoric.  In a normal year, this game would still be an easy one to recommend, but with 2014 being the strongest year for RPGs in at least a decade, there is a lot of competition.  It might not be one to set aside time for immediately, but it might be one worth revisiting later once you have a lot of time available to put into it.