A Step Forward From Risen 2, But Not the Return to Form That Was Promised
While I'm something of a Risen 2 apologist, I'm not going to sit here and say it was a great game compared to the fantastic first Risen, let alone the brilliant Gothic series. The combat was something of a mess, the factions and politics therein were dumbed down, there were fewer choices overall, magic was dialed way back, the Caribbean pirate theme caused visual variety to suffer, and exploration was hampered by roughly half of the locations being designed like corridors. Personally, I found that there were enough classic Gothic hallmarks within Risen 2 to make me not completely hate it. Needless to say, many fans were less charitable than I. Because of that un-charitableness, Piranha Bytes made a lot of promises in the lead-up to Risen 3. They said they were 'going back to its roots'. That this was going to be the true follow-up to Risen, which was previously the true follow-up to Gothic 2. Having beaten the game, I can say that they haven't exactly delivered on their hype. What they have done, however, is taken Risen 2, spruced it up a bit, and adjusted most of its issues for the better.
Like Risen 2, you play as a pirate tasked with taking down some evil force by exploring a Caribbean-themed fantasy world. It's an open world game, but instead of one giant landmass there are multiple semi-large islands available. This is a smart enough idea, as the islands are much denser than they would be otherwise. Unlike Risen 2, all of the islands have different themeing and all of them are mini-open worlds. Furthermore, every island is open for exploration from the minute you finish the tutorial area. The only island locked behind a progress gate is the endgame. While there are areas on these islands that are gated, it's usually pretty reasonable.
Combat in the Gothic series, and to an extent Risen 1, was clumsy but technical and rewarded mastery in chaining together different types of attacks. Risen 2 was less clumsy but amounted to little more than hammering the mouse button and praying that you win. Risen 3 attempts a middle ground. It's thankfully not as crappy as in Risen 2, and requires some finesse, but is still very simplistic. With a sword you have a standard combo from mashing the mouse button, but at any time you can hold the mouse button (even in mid-swing) to charge your next attack. The enemy AI is quite good at dodging and blocking, so it becomes a timing game of using the charge attack to break through blocks but not leaving yourself open. I'd recommend playing on Ultra difficulty only, as otherwise your dodge roll is full of invincibility frames that totally break the game.
That's not to say the game doesn't break itself already. Piranha Bytes games have traditionally been hard, and Risen 3 certainly starts out pretty hard, albeit in a somewhat less satisfying way than its major predecessors. Fans of the classic Gothic games will know that at times they were almost survival horror as you balance the necessity of killing each random bird monster with the risks involved. Not so in Risen 3. Although I died a lot, I never felt a strong urge to leave and come back to a tough spot later. It's hard to describe the difference between satisfyingly brutal difficulty and beating your head against a frustrating wall. Perhaps it's because the game was designed to be super easy for casual fans and I was playing on the optional challenge mode and it was an afterthought. That seems likely as many early quests lead you straight into dangerous warzones without much regard. That all being said, about halfway through you naturally just become a steamroller. And then near the end you become a steamroller so big you are capable of steamrolling over a steamroller. Part of this comes from character growth, the rest is because the timing-based combat is pretty easy to master. There's very little enemy variety and therefore very few patterns to learn as well, and from the outset you have a stable of companion NPCs ready to tag along and pull aggro for you in tough spots.
Lack of magic options was one of the biggest complaints about Risen 2 and is apparently the one Piranha Bytes has focused most on addressing. There are three schools of magic in the game, and each faction represents a school. The Demon Hunters use runic magic, the Mages use crystal magic, and the Tribes use voodoo magic. Since joining a faction is mandatory at a certain point, every player will have access to a wide variety of magic. Furthermore, runes, scrolls, and voodoo dolls are available to provide one-time access to even the schools you haven't joined. Joining one of these factions boils down to which set of spells you want to have unfettered access to. These spells operate on a cooldown system, there is no mana to mitigate use. This is where the game starts to break. As a demon hunter, I had access to a shield spell that all but made me invulnerable while it was active. And since there's no mana pool to worry about managing, I was always able to cast the shield spell and was therefore invulnerable for the last 1/3 of the game. If I had joined the faction earlier that could have been 2/3 of the game. And then the demon hunters handed me a pair of magical lightning gloves. These gloves shot unblockable lightning short range and in a wide cone, or if I held the right mouse button I could aim balls of lightening to be fired at long range targets. The damage output of these gloves scaled with my Magic stat. Suddenly, in one fell swoop all of the swords and guns I had been collecting, and all of the exp and gold I'd been putting into my swords and rifling skills, had become completely useless. And since the lightning is unblockable, the combat become a mash-fest once again.
The factions are tied very closely with magic. There's no real narrative reason to pick one over the others as there's no conflict between them. In Risen 1 you could side with the bandits or the inquisition, and since each one hated the other it created a temporary bit of grief and roleplaying opportunities. Not so much here. It's all about which spells you want. So you'd think the different school of magic would be distinct, right? Like, the mages teach you traditional elemental magic, while voodoo is all about necromancy-style summons and poisons. Not so much. Instead it's a bit of a hodge podge, and a bit of a missed opportunity.
After you join a faction you get access to a big ship. This unlocks several special events, such as boarding enemy ships or battling sea serpents. The battles against the sea serpents are not just complete fucking garbage minigames, they are mandatory complete garbage minigames. The ship is slow, the serpent shoots faster than you can maneuver, aiming the cannons sucks, and sometimes you just take damage for no reason. It's the worst thing in this game. You only have to do it three times, but it sucks.
Hardcore fans of the Piranha Bytes classics will likely bristle at the inclusion of stuff like a quest compass, fast travel, and detective vision. These aren't a big deal, though. The quest compass is opt-in, the fast travel is purely for convenience-- fast travel points must be found and unlocked with a potentially limited resource before they can be used (although I found more than enough). The "astral vision" will highlight things like enemies, items, or gold in the environment, but only if you buy into a respective skill or drink a potion. It's generally useless. Speaking of useless, there's a paragon/renegade meter where being nice will get you Soul Points and being mean will lose you Soul Points. The only effect I ever found is that one of the companions was a bad guy (actually the bad guy from Risen 1) who left because I was too nice. Whatever. There may be greater consequences, but you'd have to really game the system to find them and it's not a system worth gaming. One more thing of note is that the game crashed a bit. Not an overbearing amount, and not a negligible amount, but a little bit more than it should be. Especially since it released around a year before I played it and was patched several times. The game still carries over the horrible UI from Risen 2, which was built for gamepads and feels absolutely clunky with the mouse and keyboard. Come on, Piranha Bytes, figure out where your bread is buttered already!
I feel like I've been down on this game, and it is pretty hard to talk about it without itemizing its faults. I did enjoy my time with Risen 3. Exploring each island was fun and doing quests was fun. It's a charming enough game. The combat wasn't terrible-- I'd recommend playing on Ultra not joining a faction until the last possible moment to keep it from becoming way too easy. It's not bound to go down as a classic like Piranha Byte's best (and increasingly distant) work. I'm an apologist for Risen 2, and this is Risen 2 but fixed up a bit. It's very probable that if you played Risen 2 you didn't like it, but ask yourself how much didn't you like it. If your distaste was mild, maybe give Risen 3 a shot.