Whenever someone talks about the European PC RPG scene and its rise to notability (if not temporary dominance) in 2001, you’ll often hear them bring up Piranha Byte’s very first game, Gothic. While it was a rough looking game for its time, it was nonetheless good enough to go toe-to-toe with the juggernaut that was Morrowind and come out mostly unscathed. Though it didn’t attain the broad spectrum appeal that Bethesda’s Dark-elf-fueled magnum opus did, this plucky little German-crafted CRPG went on to create an entirely new subculture within the industry and became a legend in and of itself.
Soon after, the floodgates opened and the European CRPG renaissance began. Though you had the occasional garbage title (Mistmare, Metalheart, Restricted Area), the subgenre thrived thanks to quality throwback games that dared to make their systems deeper at a time when shallowness and simplicity were the norm. Some of these smalltime European developers, like Arkane Studios, became famous from their independently developed niche games and went on to mainstream success with big name western publishers who supported their work. Slowly but surely, as the decade went on, the standards adhered to by these gifted European game designers began bleeding over into the rest of the genre’s titles until finally we came to an age where a game like Original Sin can not only exist but thrive.
Though many might think I’m heaping praise onto them that they don’t deserve, I credit all of the advances that the CRPG genre made in the last 10 or so years to Piranha Bytes. With their emphasis on suspension of disbelief and NPC reactiveness, Piranha Bytes has become my favorite developer and I know I can always count on them to meet my notoriously high standards when it comes to open world RPGs.
Which brings us to their latest foray into the roleplaying realm, The Risen series.
One unfortunate side effect of having created such a celebrated game series like Gothic is that your future titles are constantly being compared to it. While the first Risen was moderately well-received, 2012’s Risen 2 was not. As a matter of fact, it was hated so much that even the usually positive and appreciative Gothic “community” rejected it.
While not a terrible game by any measure of the word, it did lack many of the features which made Piranha Bytes’ previous games so memorable and unique. Gone was the large world, the varied factions, the dialog-based quests, reactive NPCs and razor sharp combat…and in their place was a hacked-up title that seemed to make several concessions to gameplay in an effort to have more mainstream appeal. Needless to say, it didn’t work out too well.
The question everyone asked both on the forums and in developer interviews was if Risen 3 would continue this downward spiral into mediocrity. Thankfully, Piranha Bytes applied the brakes and did an abrupt U-turn before careening into the abyss.
If you’re a hardcore Gothic and Risen fan who wondered if Risen 3 was a return to the depth and open-endedness of Piranha Byte’s older titles, then you can stop reading here and buy the game, because it most certainly is. So much of a return, in fact, that I’d even go as far as to call this their second best game after Gothic 2. Nearly every little gaming quirk that gave PB such a devout cult following is stuffed into Risen 3’s massively long story. The large world, the fast-paced (and easy to exploit) combat, the emotive NPCs, the multiple quest solutions…it’s all there in its pirate-themed glory.
Of course, you wouldn’t know this if you listened to the rest of the internet. Though I won’t mention names, several key figures in the online gaming scene have been less-than-truthful in their assessments of the game. Many of them claim that Risen 3 is rife with copy-pasting and that most of its world is merely carried over from Risen 2. They also facetiously claim that the game’s combat is cumbersome and frustrating to the point of unplayability. Both of these claims are absolutely false…
…unless you’ve only played it for only 5 hours.
Yes, the first two islands (Antigua and Taracigua) are almost exactly the same as they were in the previous game, but those islands are two of the smallest in Risen 3’s world and only exist to link the game’s plot to its predecessor. The rest of the game world, which I spent over 60 hours in, happens to be completely new both model-wise and map-wise.
There is very little reuse of content other than the fact that the native people, who were a big part of Risen 2, once again live in the same type of primitive camp. Even the monsters are new, with a large part of them being re-designed versions of the original Gothic series baddies whose inclusion will be sure to bring back a lot of memories to those who fought them back in the old days.
As for the claims made about the game’s combat, let’s start this review off with a serious dissection of that first.
In an action RPG, the combat can be a deal-breaker. Piranha Bytes’ games have always been a bit hit-or-miss in this category, and while there are those of us who enjoy the brutality of the melee systems in their games, many do not.
Piranha Bytes tried to placate those unhappy players with the combat in the second Risen, adding a rolling dodge and a parrying ability that they hoped would not only create depth within the game’s battle system, but give the player more power over the game’s sometimes cheap AI. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.
With Risen 3, Piranha Bytes decided that instead of scrapping the system and starting over the way they usually do, they instead took the system present in Risen 2 and bashed it with a developer’s coding hammer until it worked. Though the core combat is still essentially the same as the previous game, its rules have changed to make it much more flexible and forgiving. How so, you ask?
A common complaint was that Risen 2’s combat often ended in “stun-locking”, where you were pinned by enemy attacks that wouldn’t stop and there was no way to get out of that constant flurry of enemy strikes. The developers, in a genius move, managed to fix this by adjusting the timing and window of opportunity for the riposte and power moves.
Not only do enemies telegraph their moves much more plainly now, but the window of success for the parrying ability is considerably wider. Factor in the new slower pace of combat and its much slower animation speed and you get a much better “flow” of melee fighting that doesn’t have the same frenetic pace and confusing implementation that turned everyone off in the previous game.
Even magic, which makes its true and triumphant return after having been cut in Risen 2, is retooled and improved. Magic is separated into three different spell schools, each of which has its own skills and bonuses that govern its power. These magic schools, which are tied to the three factions that dominate the game world, do not rely on a mana pool to be cast. This means that instead of constantly chugging potions and wasting money and time obtaining the ingredients needed to brew them, you merely wait for a cool down timer before you are able to cast a spell again.
This cool down time is reminiscent of Borderlands, in the way that it’s brief and can be made even more so by investing in the skills that lessen it. The system works remarkably well and makes combat much more interesting by always making magic spells an option regardless of the class you play as. Even a magic-hater like myself who normally plays strictly melee characters (especially in Piranha Bytes games) found himself falling in love with the magic system. It wasn’t just a small change, but a complete and total overhaul.
Magic isn’t the only thing that returns with a change though, since gun use has had quite a few tweaks applied as well. In keeping with the changed speeds, guns now reload noticeably faster than they once did. Instead of taking nearly a minute at their lowest level to cool down, guns are now almost rapid fire at high levels, making them a very viable end game specialization.
This is also a big part of the reason why my friend re-rolled his character after a couple dozen hours so that he could further “spec” in their use. Even though later he would drop them for that oh-so-addicting and easy to use magic.
So is Risen 3’s frequent real-time combat the abysmally horrible and painful practice everyone seems to make it out to be? No, absolutely not. Speaking as a Gothic fan who has split keyboards over my knee from anger caused by the constant unfair deaths I suffered from Piranha Bytes’ previous games, I was very pleased by the fact that I went through the entire game and very rarely died from enemy attacks. Now, dying from falling off cliffs due to my open world curiosity is another story.
Before this review becomes an essay about real-time combat, I think we need to examine the actual story. Piranha Bytes’ games have always had a certain unconventional layout than most and it’s the sort of thing you either really love or ardently hate. This carries over into Risen 3 as well, and doubly so with the inclusion of a new main hero.
You play as Patty’s brother, one half of the duo born to the infamous pirate Captain Steelbeard. With the main hero from the first two games having struck down two of the Titan Lords which are waging a war on mankind, the seas have become relatively safe again and you and your swashbuckling (and well-endowed) sister are searching for forgotten treasure.
As you would expect though, things don’t go exactly as planned ™. The map you were given ends up leading you into a trap, whereupon you accidentally discover a portal to the underworld and get to breathe one final breath before a shadowy being rips out your soul and carries it with them to hell. After being buried and left for dead by your grieving sister, you find yourself being resurrected by a gangly-looking white native man who claims that you’re now basically a zombie.
A zombie pirate.
All joking aside, the story is one of the better laid out plotlines Piranha Bytes has done. What begins as a simple mission to get your soul back becomes a Lord of the Rings style quest to create alliances and form a war council that can beat back the quickly spawning forces of the underworld. You’ll sail from island to island in a quest manipulating faction leaders to join your cause and gathering a crew worthy of being led by the son of the famous captain Steelbeard.
This may be the most enjoyable aspect of the game, since your crew is far more vocal and responsive than they were in Risen 2. Similar to BioWare’s old games, you are encouraged to speak to them during intermissions between voyages. Consistently pleasing them in conversations will eventually open up companion quests that will further cement their loyalty to you and your cause. It’s a nice little touch that makes you feel closer to your crew and care more about their survival. Naturally, this is helpful during the moments when you get boarded by enemy ships and have to depend on them to fight by your side.
One thing to note, however, is that while a great many characters from the previous two games return in various ways, only three (Bones, Patty and Jaffar) can be recruited. While I was disappointed that I couldn’t put Hawkins or Chani on my boat, I was pleased to see them in more prominent and visible roles in the sequel.
There are a lot of callbacks and references to the other games and those seeking connections to the plot after the removal of the main Risen hero need not be worried…you’ll get them. Especially when you see Moe guarding the tavern and a man named Mudd clinging to your backside. You might even be lucky enough to see old nameless himself.
Risen 3 is all about variety and exploration, and even though the islands look small on the world map, their actual size is bigger than you are led to believe. Not counting the two DLC maps, the two “recycled” land masses and the starter area, there are three very large islands that when combined are about twice the size of Risen 1’s *entire* overworld. Caldera, Taranis, and Kila are almost large enough to be the entire walkable world of an RPG all by themselves and offer up hundreds of side-quests that often times are more about conversation trees than swordplay.
…and that’s what really made me feel like Piranha Bytes had returned to their old ways. Like the Gothic series, Risen 3 has a lot of non-combat quests that have multiple resolutions and outcomes, many of them affecting your social standing in one of the game’s three factions. So many, in fact, that the achievement for completing 300 side-quests dinged across my screen 30 hours in, even though I would continue playing nearly twice that length and doing double the amount of quests. The game is every bit as large and varied as I had hoped it would be.
I can sit here and make a meticulous list of features that they’ve improved or added upon, but it all comes down to one thing: fun. The game may start slow and begin in a so-called copy pasted area, but if you push past that first five to seven or so hours, you’ll be rewarded with a richly detailed world that feels alive and full of potential.
The little touches are what I loved so much about Risen 3. The way your clothing flutters against the wind, the sway of the palm trees towering over the Kila plateau, the amazing looking water that foams and splashes around your body as you swim, the debris scattered along the beaches, the creaking of wooden planks beneath your feet… It’s so incredibly easy to lose yourself in Risen’s tropical world that I often caught myself playing so long that it was almost morning again and I was ashamed to still be up and on my computer. That’s the mark of a great game, and an event that doesn’t happen very often.
Between the tweaked combat mechanics, the larger and more varied overworld, the longer storyline with more non-combat objectives and the chattier party members, it’s hard to believe that so many people are unhappy with the game. I’ve seen a lot of angry posts about Risen 3, but I just don’t know where that disappointment is coming from. As a raging Gothic and Piranha Bytes fanboy, I am by far the hardest to please when it comes this series.
Yet I found this sequel to be the best of its trilogy, if not the best thing this developer has ever produced. The next generation visuals (Just look at these screenshots I’m posting on the review), the dozens of skills you can train in, the three distinct paths you can take through the story…it’s like playing the very best of Piranha Bytes’ games all rolled into one RPG. Only someone who gave up on it after the first few hours could possibly deny all of this.
As utterly addicted to it as I am, and even with me excited at the prospect of starting a second character and becoming a gun-toting voodoo pirate (As opposed to the sword-swinging Paladin I was in my first trip), I’ll admit that Risen does have its fair share of faults.
Risen 3 isn’t exactly the most stable game. While your experience may be different depending on your luck and system configuration, I know one friend of mine who bought the game and was constantly reporting hard locks and crashes. I was a bit luckier myself, since out of 60 hours of play I only crashed about four times, and they were due to what I believe are memory leaks in the program itself.
Another small gripe is the quest log. Though it’s sorted very nicely and is easy to navigate, the descriptions of some quests are incredibly vague. There was one quest where the log told me to look in one place and the NPC told me to look in another. Oddly enough, both were wrong and I had to find a post on the official forum that revealed the solution to me.
This seems to have caused a lot of confusion amongst people who aren’t used to this sort of thing, which is disturbingly common in European CRPGs. A good example of that confusion is a post I saw about the infamous “Reactor” quest and how people were mad they couldn’t finish it…when in truth it’s not able to be finished until the 3rd chapter of the game. Of course, the journal doesn’t clue you in to this.
Lastly, I have to admit to missing the bleak feeling Piranha Bytes used to put in their games. Risen 3 is not the same depressing, dark gothic RPG that its aptly named Gothic series ended up being. It used to be that in a Piranha Bytes game, as well as most other European RPGs, you were a hated hero who never truly became a god or earned respect. You were always beat on, abused, and forced to live in a world where you had to fight just to get even the smallest bit of respect.
Even the worlds these games took place in were dark, with decaying structures, rotting soil and battered people who all had one foot in the grave. Risen 3 is a much more upbeat game though, and makes you feel very powerful and respected with all of its highly political faction play. I suppose making the new character a child (and a brother) to a major Risen character is the reason for that, but it still felt unnecessarily “positive” to me.
In closing, I will say that if you were a big fan of Piranha Bytes’ earlier games, then you will more than likely enjoy Risen 3 – possibly more than any game they’ve made since 2003’s Gothic 2. While it starts a little slow and lasts a bit longer than it probably should, the game as a whole is fantastic. It’s a great looking, great playing, full featured open world CRPG with that familiar European rough-edged feeling that helped create this new sub-genre of CRPG over a decade ago.
As for the game’s noisy detractors who have rampaged through its forums: One of the problems with Piranha Bytes’ games, especially nowadays, is that so many “under 30” types walk into them expecting Skyrim 2.0 and get upset when it lacks the ease of use and player forgiveness that Bethesda’s games are so chock full of.
Risen 3 might have a much more relaxed combat system and a cleaner interface, but it is still every bit the hardcore CRPG that its European brethren are, so if you’re expecting a more laid back American style open world game, you’d be doing yourself a favor by ignoring Risen 3.
For the rest of us, however, Risen 3 is a triumphant return to Piranha Bytes’ golden age and a fantastic CRPG in its own right. An open world epic that is guaranteed to get better with each passing hour you put into it and won’t let you go until the end. With its long 60+ hour quest, well over 300 side-quests and a very easy to grasp combat system, it’s by far and away the most approachable of Piranha Bytes’ games – and perhaps its most enjoyable one as well.
Risen 3: Titan Lords was reviewed on using a code purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.