"I can understand why some people prefer Risen to The Elder Scrolls: it's about personality."
When Patty the pirate viciously called a gorilla a bastard in the first hour of Risen 3: Titan Lords, I knew everything was going to be okay. Risen 3 combines the somewhat self-aware absurdity of its predecessor with the functionality of... well, some game that isn't made by Piranha Bytes. Risen 3 feels like a transition; a rest stop on the path to something greater. And in that transition, Piranha Bytes has lost some of the essence of the series. The recycling of characters and locations, the larger budget, and, I daresay, the added polish give Risen 3 a touch of the mundane and ordinary. The series has lost some of its Risen-ness.
I experienced one glitch during my entire playthrough of Risen 3. For a moderately sized, open-world Western RPG with a modest budget, that's an almost unbelievable statement. But I almost found myself wishing for more bugs. No, I didn't want the game to crash every ten minutes and I didn't want to lose progress with corrupt save files. But I did want my character to fall through the world so I could see the jagged netherlands below or my sword to flail about — a fierce and frightening graphical artifact — and destroy my enemies from a mile away. I wished for destruction and chaos because I was yearning for something. For weirdness. Risen 3 isn't particularly weird, and by weird I also mean novel, idiosyncratic, imaginative, and free of modern entertainment clichés. If you're playing Risen, you're probably playing it to experience its silliness, its surreal lost-in-translation feel. People play Risen to experience its Risen-ness. There's something comforting about something that knows exactly what it is and isn't afraid to be just that. Risen 3 is far more functional than its predecessor, and it's also more fun and less frustrating, but it's not as idiosyncratic; one step closer on the spectrum to AAA perhaps. Piranha Bytes is in danger of alienating their audience.
Risen 3 features a sizeable and, more importantly, dense world with a high level of interactivity that lets you solve problems your way, although it isn't as open-ended as a game like Divinity: Original Sin. The options are limited, but amusing. Deploy a trespassing monkey to dash into a house and steal an item required for a quest (or just for fun). Cast a spell that turns you into a parrot and soar to previously unreachable heights. Beat an NPC with a mace and loot his unconscious body. Talk your way through a quest with your silver tongue or just go kill all the monsters. This is territory already covered by Western RPGs like The Witcher and Dragon Age and even previous Piranha Bytes games, but it all comes together into a fairly enjoyable experience.
I would have appreciated more unpredictability, and although some of the quests are amusing in their content (threaten gnomes to continue slaving away in the mines), their structures are familiar. Fetch things, kill things, persuade things. And I never felt connected to those things, to the setting or its inhabitants and their struggles. The writers and designers strived to create a battered world inhabited by miserable loners and pirates drinking even too much for pirates. And there is a permeating sense of loss, which creates a grim atmosphere fitting for a game in which your main adversary is a hoard of demons and undead, but I never found any reason to care. Perhaps this is because the characters are too wooden and false or because the stories the world tells are too muddled and hackneyed. The main character's story is among the most predictable and mundane.
The protagonist is a real piece of work: sociopathic at worst and annoyed at best. There's some room to roleplay, but his default persona suggests cruelty. It's as if the game wants you to join the demons, which seemed to be a real possibility during the game, but nothing ever became of it. The fetchy main quest ends abruptly and without consequence. There's even an alignment system and several quests surrounding the reclamation of your humanity, but nothing punished me for being a prick in the twenty hours it took me to finish the game. My alignment began to head toward the dark side (I went from "Neutral" to "Irritable" — not all the Risen-ness has evaporated), but there was no final decision, no dark epilogue or shadows popping up in the corners of the screen. Perhaps the effects were subtle or I wasn't evil enough. But no one seemed to react to my evil, even within the guild I chose to align myself with, which is one of Risen 3's big features.
I hate factions and guilds — they're vehicles for clichés and lazy story structures — and Risen 3 abuses the trope like many RPGs. There are three here: the pirates, the demon hunters, and the mages. Each has its own island and headquarters, its own struggles and style of magic. The main quest predictably makes you visit all three to obtain the help of the three leaders (who feature again later in another three-part fetch quest), and they all have very similar conflicts. You can only join one, however, after which you gain access to exclusive magic, equipment, and quests.
Though the associated quests are similar, each faction's island is fairly distinct. The pirates live in the warm tropics, the mages live in a blander and more temperate medieval zone, and the demon hunters reside on the darkest, grittiest isle. I was disappointed when I learned that the game shares its setting with Risen 2, but it's almost unnoticeable and there are a few completely new areas, which are fun to explore. Risen 3 is at its best when you're exploring its large and dense islands, preferably using magic to blow your enemies away rather than the clumsy melee combat. There are hidden items and enemies everywhere and the islands are so dense that quests can be begun and completed without your even realizing it. Avoiding civilization and heading into the wilderness often ends with a handful of quests already completed. All that's left is to head into town and talk to NPCs, to tell them you've already dealt with the pirates, you've already killed the crabs. Reap the benefits: gold, items, and experience.
Unfortunately Risen 3 shares its character development system with Risen 2, and it's one of my least favorite systems. Leveling up attributes gives you too little understanding of the actual effect of doing so, which dampens your appreciation of increasing stats. Special abilities must be paid for (after meeting prerequisites, too) at the appropriate NPC, and most of these are perfunctory and boring, merely increasing health or defense — more numbers to which it's difficult to assign an effect. You merely breach a wall of difficulty one day, and after that, all is easy. For me, it was after I obtained the ability to use magic. After that, I never doubted that I would rip through the rest of the game with nary a death.
I wouldn't have given Risen 3 more praise or a higher score had there been more glitches and bugs. But the content left me wanting, groping for something to make me feel alive. Risen 3 is enjoyable most of the time, and I was only truly frustrated once or twice, but after twenty hours I felt I had seen all the game has to offer. I could have kept playing for at least twice as long, but I didn't because Risen 3 isn't weird or wonky enough to be unique, particularly if you've played Risen 2 and experienced the "f*ck"-heavy dialogue and other Piranha Bytes delights. I can understand why some people prefer Risen to The Elder Scrolls: it's about personality. But if Piranha Bytes isn't careful, Risen 4 might be a AAA game. Or at least a AA one.