Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Risen 3: Titan Lords Doesn't Suck

It's been over a decade since Piranha Bytes released a game worthy of praise and recognition. Gothic 3 was a bloated, broken mess that required extensive community patching to make it remotely tolerable; Risen showed some promise but was essentially only half of a game; and Risen 2 was so thoroughly mediocre that I couldn't even write a proper review of it. Gothic and Gothic 2, on the other hand, were such phenomenally outstanding, perception-altering experiences that I'll continue to play every Piranha Bytes game until the day I die, just on the chance that they'll make another masterpiece as good as the original Gothic games.

I'm pleased to say that Risen 3: Titan Lords is the most fun I've had playing a Piranha Bytes game since Gothic 2. That's not to say Risen 3 is as good as Gothic 2, but it comes close. Indeed, there are times when Risen 3 feels a lot like Gothic 2, and it captures the spirit of the original Gothic games better than any other game since. Risen 3 even goes so far as to (finally) fix nearly all of the major issues that afflicted both Risen and Risen 2, making it the most polished and thought-out PB game of the "modern era." At no point did I ever encounter any glaring oversights or questionable design decisions like the things that pissed me off in the other games.

Unfortunately, Risen 3 is not without its problems. The combat is too easy, the progression lacks focus, and the story never really gets going, but compared to previous PB efforts, these problems are minimal and don't actively take away from the game's enjoyment. Rather, it feels as though Risen 3 simply missed some of its potential. It's disappointing to realize how much better the game could have been with some simple tweaks and a little more time in development, but the game itself, as it exists now, is a respectable effort by the small German team that deserves some success. If you like action-adventure-RPGs with immersive worlds that are genuinely fun to explore, then Risen 3 is definitely worth your consideration.

After Risen 2 veered off into some rather murky waters with its heavy (and yet not fully realized) pirate theme, Piranha Bytes wisely chose to distance itself from Risen 2 with Risen 3, proclaiming in a lengthy trailer that they were going "back to their roots." Though technically a direct sequel that shares the same general setting and characters of Risen 2, Risen 3 is basically a fresh start for the series with a new protagonist and a new story that forgets about the threat of the titular Titan Lords almost entirely. It's odd that they would choose to abandon everything they'd been building towards in the previous two games, but the story has always played second fiddle to the gameplay in these games, so it didn't really bother me.

The story this time centers around a new Nameless Hero trying to reclaim his humanity after his soul is taken from him by a lord of the underworld. That's the entire extent of the story -- you join a faction, prepare a ritual spell, gather three powerful mages, reclaim your soul, and fight the bad guy. It's a bit anticlimactic, really, because the "reclaim your soul" objective always feels like a preliminary objective to some greater goal, but the game just kind of ends without much buildup or resolution. The fact that Nekroloth, the undead sorcerer, happens to be a titan lord is nothing more than a convenient plot contrivance to tie Risen 3 in with the established premise of Risen 1 & 2; he doesn't feel like a titan lord, and the threat of the undead armies being unleashed on the world never escalates.

In the beginning you're warned of a fleet of ghost ships prowling the seas, which triggers a main quest (which spans most of the game) to gather enough allied ships to face the ghost fleet. Once you've finally done this, the fight just kind of happens, it plays identically to the dream sequence you already played in the opening tutorial, and you don't even use the other ships you spent all that time recruiting. Meanwhile, you're supposed to close a bunch of portals to prevent the undead armies from overrunning the land -- the supposed main threat of the game -- but nothing really comes of this, either. Rather than building towards the climax, the tension in Risen 3 starts at its highest and progressively dwindles down to nothing by the end of the game as you knock off shadow lords for no practical effect.

The second half of Risen 1 may have been disappointing with its endlessly copy-pasted lizardmen, but at least there was something happening to show that the stakes were actually rising towards the end. Gothic 2 did this same thing even better by introducing a new threat after accomplishing your main goal of defeating the dragons; the lizardmen invade the main areas of Khorinis (which were previously safe), thus creating a brand new dynamic for familiar locations with opportunities for new quests, before sending you off to a brand new location for the final stretch. Risen 3, in contrast, gives you a lot of content upfront but doesn't replace completed content with new content, which left me with a somewhat unsatisfying "that's it?" kind of feeling as I worked my way through the game.

That's not to say Risen 3 doesn't have some pleasant surprises in store; there just aren't enough of them. I got really excited when I was working my way through what I thought was an ordinary temple, fell into a giant underground spider nest, and had to explore its labyrinthine tunnels and defeat a pretty nifty boss to escape. It's really cool that you now get to engage in sea battles when traveling between islands, steering your ship to shoot serpentine monsters with broadside cannons or boarding an enemy vessel to defeat its captain -- the kind of stuff that was sorely missing from Risen 2. On one of the islands you encounter a fortress with rotating platforms that you have to arrange a certain way to progress, which is kind of a neat little puzzle that I haven't seen in a PB game before.

Exploration -- one of the most important and most satisfying elements of PB games -- is at the top of its game in Risen 3. The first Risen was pretty good in this department but suffered from taking place entirely on one relatively small island; Risen 2 increased the explorable landmass dramatically, yet felt incredibly simplistic and straightforward. Risen 3 features a comparable landmass to Risen 2 (supposedly slightly larger), yet it feels almost twice as deep thanks to the removal of those damnable invisible walls and the reinstated swimming and climbing. That adds tremendous freedom for you to explore every nook and cranny of the finely detailed maps, and even to explore off the confines of the map. True to the precedent set by Gothic 2, you're free to figure out for yourself whether you're venturing out of the intended playing space or not, and you'll find yourself surprised more often than not by the places that you'll find cool loot and hidden rewards.

Even with all that praise, however, the exploration still isn't as good as in Gothic 2. I miss the old days when the maps were hand-drawn approximations of the terrain, as if it was something drawn by a cartographer walking around and observing the landscape. The maps in the new games are so detailed that they show every little thing before you even have a chance to discover it for yourself with your own eyes, which makes exploration more like going down a checklist. I also miss having to find a merchant to buy the maps before you could even consult them; here, you automatically have maps for every single island before you've even visited them, and you even get a constantly active mini-map by which to guide. I tried turning the mini-map off and was kind of annoyed when it was replaced with a useless over-sized compass that still occupied the same amount of screen space.

It could be said that Risen 3 offers the largest world to explore of all three Risen games, but that would be a bit misleading because a certain percentage of its landmass is reused from Risen 2. The reused landmass is not a carbon copy, however; everything that returns from Risen 2 has been given a total facelift, which inspires nostalgic memories of time spent exploring those locales in Risen 2 while also allowing you to enjoy a fresh twist on a familiar location. A greater portion of landmass is entirely new, and the areas that are new to Risen 3 are more complex than the old stuff from Risen 2, so it's an all-around win-win situation. The size of the world isn't large enough to compete with likes of The Elder Scrolls or Gothic 3, but that's actually a blessing because the world in Risen 3 is a more manageable size that's actually worth exploring in fine detail.

The world suffers from being a bit too large and open at the very beginning, however, which is compounded the overly vague, directionless main quest line. While it's great to have the freedom to go wherever you want, it really hurts the pacing of the game to essentially meander across five or six islands with no clue what you're actually striving to accomplish or how things on each island are supposed to relate to the main quest. Plus, if you're like me and always do everything possible before advancing the main quest line, then you'll find that you've basically completed the game before you even start the main quest. It would have helped, I feel, to have restricted the beginning areas a little more to give the story more momentum up front and to allow the world to expand as you play.

Gothic 2 gave you a pretty large open world to explore from the very beginning, but you had to be careful where you went because you were likely to be killed by any number of extremely tough, high-level enemies. This technique effectively blocked off certain areas of the map, thus making the world seem smaller and more manageable while also making the world feel genuinely dangerous. A lot of the fun in Gothic 2 stemmed from leveling up and watching the world seemingly expand as your options grew, while also being able to challenge yourself to tackle stronger enemies for greater rewards. Risen 3 features none of these good qualities because its combat is so easy that you can go anywhere at any time and defeat any enemy without fear or even that much difficulty.

Risen 3 uses the same combat system from Risen 2 but with a few key improvements: you can now block and riposte monster attacks, and you can roll-dodge to avoid damage (this was later patched into Risen 2). Melee combat isn't very deep or complicated, with you having the same three-hit combo (plus a charged power attack) for most of the game, but it employs a satisfying timing element for every single action. You have to click at the right time in the sequence while attacking in order to chain attacks together more quickly, and you have to watch enemies for subtle cues to know when they're about to attack so you can dodge or block in time, which is satisfying and engaging in and of itself.

Combat is much more fluid and functional now than it was in Risen 2, but the physics behind it don't feel quite as elegant or punchy as I would like. The game uses a lock-on system that has you focus your attacks on one enemy at a time, and it feels as if you're always attached to your target via a rubber band that automatically pulls you in to your target and vice versa. Directional blocking is practically non-existent because both you and your enemies will automatically turn to block all attacks from whatever enemy you or they are targeting. It makes positioning feel kind of pointless, because all you really have to do is left-click and right-click at the right times as if you're reacting to a series of QTE prompts.

The roll dodge, meanwhile, is so overpowered that it practically breaks the game. You are totally invincible while roll dodging and you can spam the dodge continuously, so you're practically never in danger of dying. Even if a strong enemy backs you into a corner where you're completely unable to move, you can just roll in place and avoid all the damage until they back off or until your companion gets their attention. Likewise, you'll miss attacks against enemies that dodge directly into the path of your sword, completely defying the laws of physics and making the combat feel extremely one-dimensional. Ideally, there would be no "rubber banding" in the targeting system and the roll dodge would be useful only to move yourself out of range of an attack with a brief moment of exposed vulnerability. This, I feel, would make the combat more challenging and more organic.

I set the combat difficulty to "hard" before I even knew what the combat was like and never felt challenged; I was able to kill nearly any enemy I faced at level one, and was tackling obvious end-game objectives in the very first chapter. Leveling up therefore felt somewhat trivial to me, because you don't actually need to level up to face stronger threats or to gain access to new content -- leveling up just makes the things you're already doing faster and easier. Melee combat doesn't change all that much as you level up, save for adding an extra hit to the basic three-hit combo, attacking faster, and adding the riposte ability; most of what you're paying for is to increase your damage by small increments. Consequently, it takes a while before it feels like you've actually improved by any significant amount, because less total progress is spread out over a long(er) game.

Like any real RPG, better stats are rewarded in combat, but Risen 3 also values player skill, since well-timed attacks, blocks, and dodges, spatial awareness of the battlefield, and knowledge of your opponents' attack patterns give you a tremendous advantage. As fun as it was to be rewarded for my own skill, the satisfaction petered out because there wasn't enough statistical challenge. In addition, it was way too easy for me to accumulate wealth, experience, and resources. In Risen 2, these were all in short supply, so it felt like you never had enough of what you needed and you therefore had to spend your resources wisely; in Risen 3, I was rolling in money, experience, and crafting materials without feeling like I'd even lifted a finger, and was able to max out virtually all of my stats and skills by the end of the game, which really should not be happening in an RPG.

The combat system opens up tremendously once you join a faction, however. As with the original Gothic games, you must choose to join one of three factions -- the Guardians, the Demon Hunters, or the Voodoo Pirates, all of which come with their own unique form of magic and special abilities. The guardians of the exiled mages cast traditional fireballs and ice bolts, the demon hunters summon allies and buff their physical skills, and the voodoo pirates cast necromancy and mind control spells. New features like melee magic and free-aiming over-the-shoulder ranged magic attacks are a lot of fun, and with the magic system now running off a cooldown system, instead of mana, you don't have to deal with chugging potions after every fight or constantly running back and forth to the nearest bed.

Whichever faction you choose will permanently alter your character's appearance while determining your armor, weapons, and general playstyle. Each faction has its own quests that you must complete in order to become a member, which helps familiarize yourself with their roles and backstory, and each faction has a couple of exclusive quests once you've joined. This allows for some decent replay value, since you can play the game three times with each faction having its own unique gameplay "flavor" and quests.

Risen 3's quests aren't terribly sophisticated, but they give you enough narrative reasons to care about what you're doing. Even when you don't care about the specific objective, the quests are integrated with the world and its characters to such a degree that you often solve quests just as a result of exploring the world, so it never feels like you're doing errand-boy busy work. Many of the quests allow for alternate paths to the solution (if you find a shortcut, if you have a certain skill, or if you've already done some favor for person B) while also allowing you to decide the outcome (do you give the item to person A or to person B, do you turn the wanted man into the authorities or do you release him for a different reward). Though the game is spread out across multiple islands, quests frequently overlap between islands, which makes the world feel much more alive and complex, especially since new quests spawn in familiar areas after completing certain chains.

"They aren't ducks. They are servants of death, my friend."

The content of these quests is usually pretty interesting, too. In one quest, you meet two hunters who're paranoid that a group of ducks is going to murder them in their sleep, so you agree to help put their minds at ease; while investigating the ducks, you find one that looks a little bit like a turkey, which then turns into a demonic soul eater. In another quest, you discover that one of the demon hunters accidentally turned himself into a soulless minion, and so you have to help reunite his soul with his body by completing an alchemical recipe. In another quest, you help a lonesome pirate search for his buried treasure before being confronted by a ghost with a series of riddles. In another quest, you get to use voodoo magic to posses a native tribesman in order to convince the tribe's leader not to go to war.

Like Risen 2, you can also enlist the services of several crewmen who will help out on your ship and follow you as you adventure across each island. These companions come with their own quests that unfold over time, and they each have something important to say about the places you visit and at various times in the main story, so they feel like genuine characters that each add some unique flavor to your adventures, instead of tacked-on features like they were in Risen 2. Unfortunately, this is another gameplay element that feels at odds with the core design, since a companion makes combat laughably easy and kills any feeling of vulnerable tension you might have of being by yourself in a dangerous area, like how you felt all the time in Gothic 1 & 2.

It might be obvious to you by now, my dear reader, that I have mixed opinions on Risen 3. It's a good game, certainly, but it doesn't aspire to be anything more than serviceable. Still, "good" and "serviceable" are much better than the adjectives I would use to describe Gothic 3, Risen, and Risen 2, and I genuinely enjoyed my time with Risen 3. It's easily the best Piranha Bytes game of the past decade, though it pains me that PB are finally taking steps in the right direction and yet remain still so far away from their potential. The combat is merely "ok," but it's just one or two small tweaks away from being solid; the story has some intriguing elements but doesn't comes together until the very end, and by that point it feels rushed; and the game is just way too easy, even in hard mode.

Risen 3 fixes all of the major problems of the last few games but does very little to expand and improve upon them. Fixing problems is absolutely necessary, but it feels as if PB set a very low bar for themselves and ran out of time to do something more interesting and substantial with their materials. Risen 3 feels more like what Risen 2 should have been, rather than what Risen 3 could have been, and that's what's most disappointing of all. I should mention as a bit of a disclaimer that most of the criticisms I mention here did not impact my enjoyment of the game while I was actually playing it; the world, atmosphere, exploration, and quests were so fun and captivating that I didn't notice or care about many of the game's shortcomings until I sat down to review it in retrospect.

As a bottom line, is Risen 3 worth your time and money? For fans of the original Gothic games, the answer is a resounding yes -- this is the closest Piranha Bytes have ever come to replicating the success of Gothic 2, and you will not regret it. If you didn't like Risen 2 (you're not alone), then you should know that Risen 3 is basically more of the same but in a definitively better package. For everyone else, the answer is a more tentative "maybe" -- I think Risen 3 is worth your time, but maybe not at full price. Keep it on your radar and give it some consideration once it's had a few price drops; hopefully by then there will be a patch to at least balance the combat a little like they did post-release with Risen 2.


  1. I've started recently Risen 3 and I'm having a lot of fun. It is very similar to the old gothics and that is an unexpected and very welcome surprise. For now only bugs me the complete change of theme. What happened to the titans? Anyway, I find it pretty good (without automatic saving and without minimap).
    I don't know yet the ending but apparently PB has ended the risen games... Will they come back to gothic? hard to say...
    I enjoy very much your reviews, thanks for your work ;)

  2. I think "good" and "serviceable" games are the best we can hope for lately. A bit like trying to find a movie you won't be blown away with but at least won't make you feel like slamming your head against a wall after 5 minutes.

    It is sad to the missed potential but hopefully its a step in the right direction. Thanks for the review

    1. So true, good and serviceable are really the best we can expect now.