Pirate games seemed to have had a bit of a renaissance lately and despite being there when it was at its prime with Dark Waters, Risen 3 feels like it’s missing the boat a little. The world has moved on to massively co-operative shooters but here’s an action RPG where you play as a pirate and do generally piratey things. The things you’ll find yourself doing are somewhat generic for an RPG but there’s just enough humour and nuance to the combat to keep the whole thing entertaining.
When you start the game you play through a small prologue that ends rather badly for you. So badly in fact that you’re going to have to spend the next twenty hours trying to find a way to put your soul back into your body while brining together dramatically disparate political factions, assembling a pirate crew, saving numerous islands from impending doom, battling sea monsters and ghost ships and dealing with the petty problems that civilians like to have in RPGs. It feels a little like the developers couldn’t work out what kind of goals they wanted to have. Should it be an item hunt? Should we have villains to assassinate? Should it be about diplomacy? Should it be about carrying unimportant messages from one side of the sea to the other? Why not just throw all of them in there and see what sticks. There is an impressive amount of freedom in terms of how you approach your goals though, with each island being a semi-self contained story for the main part of the game. As soon as you hear about one of the islands, you’re free to sail there (this is handled by a map and you fast-travel, there’s almost no actual sailing) and start any number of stories. Often this will lead to you fighting enemies that are massively more powerful than you, but that’s part of the joy of exploration.
The combat is extremely challenging and even on the easiest setting we died repeatedly. This could be because for the first three hours or so we didn’t realise you could bring an ally with you so we were taking on massive enemies single handedly. This becomes a problem as combat revolves a set of timings. You can do fast or slow attacks and you can dodge and block. So can the enemy. This leads to an interesting dance where you want to block their light hits and then either dodge their heavy hits or strike. If they block you need a heavy hit of your own. Watching and learning the attack patterns of enemies is key and it’s immensely satisfying when you manage to take down a larger enemy without taking any damage. Unfortunately when there’s just one of you it’s easy to get stunlocked by groups of enemies and very few creatures in the world are pushovers. Once you have a companion with you (you can ask any of the named characters from your ship) everything becomes much easier as you can begin to stunlock the opponents. To make the combat more interesting there’s a range of spells and projectile weapons you can use too, and of course a bunch of equipment. Equipment is much rarer out in the world compared to other RPGs so you’re going to be buying what you can and maybe even learning to make some later on in the game. We ended up using the same set of armour through most of the central part of the game which was a little less exciting than we’d have hoped but at least the armour looks pretty cool.
Graphically there are some beautiful moments but these are marred by distinctly last gen technology. Some of the art direction is fantastic and the view distance is usually huge so it’s easy to notice landmarks and vistas from a long way away, adding to a sense of immersion. That immersion is ruined however when characters clip through the ground, or you realise all your armour is moulded onto your body, or you watch the same combat animation play over and over despite the weapon you’re carrying not being appropriate. Repeatedly we saw my character slit someone’s throat with a staff. The sense of place is very good, with each island feeling believable but distinct. The character models and scenery never stand up to scrutiny though unfortunately.
The voice acting is where the game really comes into its own. The Risen and Gothic games have always had an uneasy balance between grimdark fantasy and camp parody humour and in Risen 3 it’s no different. Many of the voices are outright hilarious, as it the script, but it’s hard to tell whether the game is being serious or not. Your sister is a major character and regularly makes wildly inappropriate jokes or comments, your character flits from light joke to deadly threat within the same line, the many NPCs you will meet (all fully voiced) will often be entirely one-dimensional and you can hear from their voice which archetype they will be. A raunchy maid? A cowering deserter? A mourning ghost? They’re as stereotypical as you can imagine.
While the overall plot is rather dull and uninspired the many sub-plots fare much better. All of the groups you interact with have needs and many are genuinely interesting. You often want to complete quests, not for the reward but for the experience. That is what all RPGs should strive for. Occasionally the incidental dialogue after you complete tasks is genuinely funny and well worth sticking around for. Despite the plethora of quests available at any given time, there’s surprisingly little filler and it feels like much has been cut to streamline the game. While there is some busywork such as playing postman for a pair of lovers or finding five mushrooms to make a healing potion for someone, these quests are few are far between. There’s also often some kind of choice along the way with some very real consequences based on your actions. One of the largest of these is choosing your ship. You can ally with a particular group (you’ll end up helping the others anyway) and you get a ship that’s styled to that group. We ended up with a voodoo ship and even thought it might not affect that much of the rest of the game, it changed our outlook and idea of who the character was.
There’s plenty of entertaining details that shine as genuinely good ideas. For instance the easiest way to recover health is to drink rum and grog, making it incredibly valuable and the first thing you search out whenever you reach a settlement. You never seem to have enough healing so the moment when you can learn to make it yourself feels like a breath of fresh air. Of course then you’re constantly on the hunt for sugar.
Overall Risen 3 is an entertaining RPG. It doesn’t innovate or set any new standards, but it is fun and much more challenging than the standard fare. Gold is hard to come by, skills often take a long while to unlock and combat is consistently difficult. If you like a challenge and an interesting story, you could do much worse.