Great games are fundamentally built on great ideas, first and foremost. If the ideas are great then, in theory, the rest should follow. Risen 3 shows how much more is needed to become a great game. Risen 3 has some excellent, perhaps even genre-defining ideas. Unfortunately, many of these are held back, tied down by an engine inadequate to the ambitions of both designer and gamer.
Risen 3, unsurprisingly, is a sequel to Risen and Risen 2: Dark Waters, and continues the series' theme of swash-buckling fantasy adventure, otherworldly enemies, and monstrous glitches. While exploring an abandoned temple structure in search of treasure and glory, your hero is trapped by a Dark Lord who steals his soul before disappearing back into the underworld, very much leaving our man for dead. That is, until he is revived by a shaman named Bones – part-Stephen Fry, part-70s James Bond racial slur. A surprisingly rollicking grand narrative follows; Risen 3 does well to embody the possibility of greater events while closely following the hero and his myriad of head-spinning side-quests.
Following the example of other nautical-based free-roaming worlds, the gameworld of Risen 3 consists of characteristically and ethnically different islands full of characters, quests, and potential adventures. Although most of these quests devolve into seek-and-find missions, at no point is the gamer not aware of the overall aim. Quests are completed because you want to improve, not because you feel you must. A skill-tree system is in place, cleverly and uniquely implemented. When your character earns enough points, you can choose which area has the potential to level up.
Potential is the key word here. To actually increase your stats, moves and improvements must be paid for and taught by a teacher. You can't just become a perfect sneak by jamming a rubber-band around your controller, walking into a corner and leaving the game on all night in order to level up (just me?). Exploration is key to finding these teachers, while equipment can be scavenged, traded or stolen.
Risen 3, at times, can be daunting. This is not because there is a lot to do – although there is – but because you must frequently question why exactly you are doing it and putting up with the huge amount of frustration present in the game. And my, are there a lot of annoyances.
The game appears half-finished, such are the amount of glitches, pauses, slow-down and pop-up that plagues what could be a beautiful Caribbean playground. Characters emerge through walls, enemies disappear into invisible holes, mountains appear suddenly while entire cut-scenes pass with headless protagonists (my personal highlight of the game). Of course, this could be deliberate, such is the wildly varying quality of the script, which appears to have been created by stashing words in a tumble dryer and then repeating them in whatever order they appear. The voice-acting is no better, with every character sounding sarcastic. Yes, even the sarcastic ones.
Combat is nonsensical. Magic, ranged and melee options are all available, but they really bear little relation to what is a deeply flawed system. Your output is limited, but an enemy with a sword can speed-swipe from 20 yards away and duck away before you can move; why build a distance related system if it is not going to be adhered to? Likewise, a dodge roll is the only effective way of dispelling enemy attacks so it is used constantly; battles end up playing out like God of War doing Olympic gymnastics.
All this gives the impression that Risen 3 is a bad game. It is not. Far from it. Risen 3 could, and perhaps should, have been a great game, but it is too dogmatic, too tired, too downright lazily put together. In short, this game was not ready to be released. Take the graphics, for example - with an extra six months of polish they could have been outstanding; lush vistas, wild volcanoes, haunted citadels - the imagination and lore is certainly there. Risen 3 still has its moments – more than once the graphical potential is made clear with an exquisite view or neat detail. But for every moment like this, there are ten instances of lag, as the aging Xbox 360 fails to load a tree.
There is so much potential in this title that it really is all a crying shame: it has the story, imagination, and several great ideas that could improve any RPG. But rather than being a chapter in the history of great open-world games, it will be a mere footnote; better games will use these ideas and implement them properly.
And yet, for all that, I think it is a perfectly reasonable and enjoyable game. Go figure.
This review is based on a retail copy of Risen 3: Titan Lords for the X360, provided by the publisher.