Even if something fails to become popular in a mainstream sense, there’s still a chance that it will develop a following. The term for this is, of course, a cult following, and that’s exactly what Piranha Bytes’ Risen franchise caters to. Despite never being a hit with the masses, and existing as a hardcore gamer’s RPG, the franchise has just seen the release of its third entry, Risen 3: Titan Lords.
Last time around, the Deep Silver-published entity let us live a pirate’s life as a nameless hero. Time passed, then news pertaining to its follow-up came out, and it was promised that the developers would return to the series’ roots with it. There was talk about a medieval setting (which sounded great to me), but it seems as if something got lost in translation between German and English, because the final product is certainly not a medieval experience. Instead, we’re presented with a quest that feels eerily similar to its predecessor and is full of not only pirates but sea creatures and nautical themes as well.
Despite its false advertising, though, Titan Lords is an immersive role-playing game that sinks its hooks into you. Yet, like Risen 2: Dark Waters — my entry into this digital world — it’s dated, buggy and unpolished. That said, there’s something inherently addictive about it, and those qualities overpower its many faults.
Set sometime after the conclusion of its predecessor, Piranha Bytes’ latest tells the tale of a new nameless hero, who’s murdered within its first hour. Death was not his destiny, however, because it’s not long before our hero is resurrected by a mysterious shaman named Bones. There’s a caveat, though, that being the fact that his soul has remained trapped in a disturbing plane called the Underworld, where it’s the focus of a demon lord. Said soul, and the hideous demons and shadow creatures that possess it, end up being the basis of what is a relatively lengthy campaign.
The overarching storyline and its dialogue leave something to be desired and fail to create a lasting impression. Those who are deeply engrossed in Risen‘s lore will certainly find hints, homages and information that will delight them, but I never became fully immersed within this narrative. Granted, that issue was likely the result of the vagueness that permeates throughout Risen 3: Titan Lords. There’s something to be said about a game that doesn’t babysit those who play it, but frustration is bound to sit in when gamers run around in circles as a result of vague and cryptic quest information.
Although I spent quite a bit of time with the game, I believe that I could have finished it sooner and liked it more if it weren’t for the design of the main quest line. While it deserves credit for offering players the choice of how they progress, by letting them pick which faction (Demon Hunters, Voodoo Pirates or Guardian mages) they’d like to join, the process of becoming a member can quickly become a pain in the ass. Why? Well, in typical Risen fashion, new quests are thrown at you all the time, and the included quest log isn’t all that user-friendly. There’s also the fact that the developers — for some unknown reason — decided that it’d be a good idea to give players access to end game quests early on in their adventure. Wasting time trying to get to an area that you won’t be able to access for another five to ten hours is always fun.
Things are set-up in a way that allows each of the world’s returning islands to have its own settlers, lore and quests. As such, you’ll often hop from island to island aboard a seafaring vessel. Many of the game’s quests require such trips, with examples being fetch and delivery objectives, as well as treasure maps. The most prevalent and important mission that you have, though, is joining your faction of choice and then creating alliances with the others, so that you can work as a team. That’s all I’ll say, though, in fear of ruining things for those who’ve yet to take the plunge.
Combat is, once again, predominantly melee-based, however, enhancements have been made and new things have been added. For starters, you can now roll away from enemies, which grants momentary invincibility. This is helpful early on, because there’s nothing easy about this experience. The idea is that, without your soul and without many skills to begin with, you’re a weakling who must find his cause. As such, you’ll find yourself cursing at basic enemies — like warthogs or evil ostriches — for the first several hours. I screwed myself over and made things harder than need be, though, because it wasn’t until I’d passed the five hour mark that I realized that I could have my friend Bones accompany me on quests. Something similar also happened with the game’s fast-travel teleportation stones, which need to be activated before they can be used. There didn’t seem to be any sort of a hint as to how to use them, so I had to look online.
Magic will also play a large role for those who choose to partner with the mages or voodoo-using natives, but I rarely took advantage of it. Instead, I focused on swordplay while offsetting it with the odd bullet from a ranged pistol. Granted, I chose to become a Demon Hunter, which gifted me with powerful armor and melee-focused skills. That, and a brief blink (or teleport) animation, which took over for my standard roll evade. I could still use magic if I wanted to, but I wasn’t particularly skilled or gifted in it. That was by choice, after all, due to my allegiance and the skill trees that I chose to upgrade.
Speaking of skills, it’s imperative that I make mention of Risen 3‘s glory points system. An experience system by another name, these points are awarded in different denominations, depending on what you’ve accomplished. Normally, you’d think that completing a quest would dole out the most experience, but that isn’t always the case. In actuality, certain monsters give more, making combat even more important.
Once you’ve amassed a certain amount of glory points, you’ll be able to upgrade a certain skill set, be it melee, magic, spirit, toughness or ranged weaponry, to name a few. You’ll start off low, at about 10% of a possible 100%, and will increase things at five percent intervals each go around. There are potions that can be brewed and utilized for permanent upgrades, but they only seem to be available for certain skills, melee not being one of them. It’s a system that complements the game’s crafting, smithing and voodoo magic specialties.
Glory points are accompanied by Soul points, which are a different thing altogether. Their inclusion invokes a new morality system, wherein dialogue choices induce positive or negative changes. It’s a pretty basic system, and one that I can’t say I saw a lot of benefits from. Perhaps that was because I was a good guy, though, as opposed to a bad person that people feared.
Spirit points tie into the whole missing soul idea, and they make sleeping a roll of the dice. With your soul being trapped in the Underworld, nightmares often occur once you rest your head. I’d say that approximately sixty percent of my sleep attempts ended in me waking up in a dream state, within a green-hued, desolate wasteland. I’d run around, sometimes finding spirit dust (for use in easing the pain of being soulless), and would then either find a familiar ghost to talk to or meet a demon. Most of the time, demons would appear, and they’d steal a soul point from me, which made me decide to avoid beds for the latter part of the game. Sure, I missed the healing benefits, but by that point I had more than enough liquor and provisions to heal myself with. Plus, I’d memorized the locations of water barrels, which would also fully replenish my health.
Despite playing on a low difficulty level and amassing lots of melee points, I still had issues with a couple of the game’s bosses, namely a titan and a spider. The titan itself shouldn’t have been very difficult, but the game’s technical limitations and imperfect aiming system led to a lot of missed throws when I attempted to tie him down with magical chains. Conversely, the spider was an absolute disaster of a boss battle experience, thanks to the monster’s ability to heal itself. It wouldn’t have been so frustrating if it weren’t for her constantly spawning other spiders, who would attack me as I tried to kill her. I’d constantly heal and try to forget about them, even though their attacks would cancel mine out, because if I focused on them she’d heal herself. Talk about bad design that shouldn’t have made it through quality assurance testing.
There were also some technical issues that kept me from becoming as immersed within Risen 3 as I’d hoped. To start, the Xbox 360 version’s dated visuals and animations are further marred by a hefty amount of pop-in. You get used to that after a while, but it’s impossible to get used to the game’s frame rate, which regularly stalls during battle. Near the end of the game, every hit would cause the game to pause, something it also did at random times during my travels. That was the most difficult thing to work with, outside of the shitty follower A.I. which prevented allies from following me across ledges or over stair-like cliffs, and caused them to become lost.
The writing is hit and miss and certainly won’t win any awards, but it’s better than the game’s voice acting. Some of the actors’ performances are downright cringeworthy, but with that said, it’s unlikely that people buy Risen games expecting more from them. Piranha Bytes is, after all, not one of the industry’s richest or largest developers. I respect their ambition, but am also dismayed by their choosing to restrict a (seemingly quest-filled) in-game island to day one pre-order DLC.
To conclude, Risen 3: Titan Lords is not an RPG for the masses. It’s a bit of a niche title, which appeals to a cult following of more advanced and experienced gamers, who are willing to overlook its faults. Even with its flaws, though, the series has continued to exist and has presented us with immersive gameplay that we can’t help but become hooked on. This most recent sequel is more of the same in that regard, for better or worse. It’s just too bad that it’s so similar to Risen 2, so much so that it almost feels like a lengthy expansion as opposed to an entirely new game.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which was provided to us.