You have to tip your hat to Piranha Bytes: if nothing else, the German developers have cajones so big they are always aiming for the top of a mountain they cannot hope to climb. What’s harder to salute is Piranha Bytes’ inability to recognise their limitations. Ambition is always a good thing, but it has to be tempered by an honest knowledge of what you can and cannot do.
For instance, Piranha Bytes can obviously make a fantasy RPG. They’re been doing it for a while now, and they appear to understand the genre and its fans fairly well. What they still can’t do, however, is successfully make something with the breadth and scope of an Elder Scrolls game. It’s a shame, because in Risen 3: Titan Lords – as in Risen and Risen 2: Dark Waters – there are flashes of utter brilliance that make you wish they’d focus more and aim just a little lower.
Maintaining the Pirates of the Caribbean vibe from Dark Waters, Titan Lords casts you as a new protagonist (still nameless) who begins the game in fairly good standing. A pirate captain of some renown, you are attacked and shipwrecked along with your sister Patty on a mysterious island, and then, well, killed by an unknown force of evil. So the good standing doesn’t stand for very long. Resurrected some time later by a Voodoo witchdoctor called Bones, you set out to mend old alliances and forge new ones in an effort to understand what happened to you – and just what the hell is going on.
The story is nothing hugely original, but it’s not terrible, re-introducing characters from earlier instalments and making a decent hash of standard fantasy conventions and pirate mythology. Sadly, the script is average at best, replete with gratuitous, awkward swearing, anachronistic slang, and stunted dialogue. It’s not helped by the voice acting, which swings between not bad and woeful. The main character talks in a horrible gravelly drawl what sounds like he’s been gargling nails, and makes everything he says sound laughably intense.
It’s also incredibly ugly. Graphics do not an RPG make, but Titan Lords is one of the worst-looking adventures the 360 has seen in a while. Inconsistent textures and low environmental detail conspire with jerky animation and amateurish special effects to make you wonder how this even exists on the same console as Skyrim. Obviously Piranha Bytes don’t have Bethesda’s budget, but Risen 3 could have been better. Combat animations are slow and ponderous, and if there’s too much going on the action slows down or textures disappear completely. At times, it’s horrendous to look at.
The gameplay puts in a gallant effort to redeem the overall experience – but this too is similarly hindered. Risen 3 tends to give with one hand and take away with the other. Combat is a prime example. It furnishes you with a huge array of options, such as the ability to use a sword or long rifle as your primary weapon and a pistol or throwing knife as back-up mapped to RB, as well as various supernatural talents utilising the elements, crystal magic or Voodoo. You can use potions to enhance your stats, fashion explosives to tip the scales in your favour – and you’ll almost always have the option to take a companion with you wherever you go. Sounds great, right? Well, it’s not.
Combat is horribly unresponsive – particularly for the first six to ten hours as you find your feet. None of your blows feel weighty or dangerous, and you’re constantly knocked clean off your feet and sent back four or five yards by a seemingly light enemy attack. Breaking an enemies block requires a charged attack, which leaves you open – and because you’ve usually got more than one baddie to contend with at once, you’ll find yourself vulnerable an awful lot. The protagonist moves with all the grace of a drunk, pregnant cow, which, coupled with random slow-down, makes a lot of the longer fights a bit of a chore. As with previous titles in the series, you can quite easily wander into a new area that looks the same as the area you were in and get one-shot killed by something huge. Luckily, the autosave feature is very protective.
The AI is almost non-existent, so out-witting enemies is fairly simple, but there are times when a simple action could potentially hinder progress in a given quest almost indefinitely. One side quest tasked me with stealing transfer papers from the Commandant of an island garrison. After failing to sneak up to his office several times, I instead opted to Zorro my way in, snatch the papers off his desk and leap from his balcony like a maniac. Despite the quest-giver (and, thus, my turn-in) being in plain sight of the balcony, he didn’t follow me. Instead, he just swore and threatened me every time I returned. Had I not worked out that sneaking up on him and initiating dialogue before he could draw his sword would allow me to hand in the quests he had given me before hand, I might have ended up stuck.
So, combat, NPC interaction and movement in general aren’t great but, while they do make up a great deal of your game time, they’re not all Risen 3 has to offer. There’s an impressive selection of gear to find and make, and an absolute bounty of character progression options. You can dabble in Voodoo, alchemy, blacksmithing, rune or crystal magic; you can join various factions to undertake side quests and find rare gear; you can even blow it all and go treasure hunting, digging up big red X marks to uncover buried chests like a proper pirate. Alternatively, you can spend your nights robbing people as they sleep – though they will follow you from room to room if you enter their homes uninvited, which is bloody annoying.
Reagents for crafting can be found everywhere, harvested from dead bad guys, plucked from the ground, mined with a pickaxe or snagged from a foamy beach. Once you open up the crafting side of things Risen 3 becomes very interesting, and combined with the different factions, secret areas and side quests, it’s unlikely you’ll see everything Piranha Bytes have crammed in with just one play-through. A large and diverse collection of locations provides enough visual variety to stop Titan Lords from ever becoming too samey, but it throws quests at you like wedding confetti and it’s easy to lose track of what you’re doing. The quest tracker is competent this time round, and the teleporter-based fast travel is simple and efficient. Also, you can turn into a parrot, which has to sell Risen 3 to someone, right?
VERDICT: Risen 3: Titan Lords has a lot to offer any RPG fan, as long as you’re fairly easy to please. Crude aesthetics, irritating combat and lousy voice-work are at least partly off-set by a wealth of character-building options, tons of gear, and a large, diverse game-world. There’s a lot of fun to be had once you find a combat set-up and style that makes the game work for you, while exploration and levelling up your various skills is as fun here as in any of Risen 3’s genre-mates.
If Piranha Bytes spent less time and energy on cramming ideas into this franchise, and more time on improving the mechanics as they already exist, they would eventually strike gold with Risen. The potential is actually staggering, but the reach exceeds their grasp, and in the end they’re left with a game that, frankly, underachieves in almost all the ways that matter.
AVERAGE. The epitome of a 50/50 game, this title will be unspectacular but inoffensive, charmless but amiable. We aren’t condemning a game by scoring it a 5, but we certainly aren’t championing it, either.
Review code provided by publisher.