Everything has gone to Hell on the Southern Seas. There's a ghost pirate smashing up ships, demonic Shadows are terrorizing the islands, the local leadership is scared shitless, and you... well, you're just some poor bastard whose soul was stolen by a Shadow Lord. Can you get your life back and save the world in the process? It'll take skill and patience, but Risen 3: Titan Lords has rich rewards in store for those who are willing to take a chance on it.
Risen 3 is an open-world action RPG--think Skyrim but with a more structured combat system, more moral choices in its quests, and a higher difficulty level. Its rich, tropical world is one of its greatest assets. Your nameless swashbuckling protagonist (not the same Nameless One who starred in the previous Risen games) has access to most of the Southern Sea's islands from the start. Although these seem small at first, most are quite expansive. Each island is packed with quests to complete, hidden treasures to loot, and puzzles to solve, but they're also home to people with surprisingly well-realized languages and cultures. You can wade into tribal politics on Kila, learn to speak some cheeky Gnomish slang, backstab snooty mages, and banter with lackadaisical pirates. Everybody has an opinion about their own culture and the current crisis, and it’s fun to get to know them.
These colorful characters bring plenty of flavor to the world, and provide both pathos and humor to the story. They're all fully, strongly voiced and have human flaws, which your character responds to in a relatable manner. Dialogue options give you a chance to be kind, even to jerks who don’t deserve it, or just act like an ass to everyone. Thanks to a Soul meter, you’ll see these choices either increase your humanity or slide your soulless butt towards becoming a demonic minion, which allows you to befriend Underworld denizens but causes humanity to forsake you. Making immoral choices can be tempting, especially when dealing with unlikeable characters, making for interesting quests and compelling role-play.
Though the moment-to-moment questing is excellent, Risen 3's overall plot feels disjointed. Despite having other characters talk regularly about your precarious position, there isn't a real feeling of urgency in the quest to regain your soul. Although your soulless state technically drives the plot forward, it doesn’t have any major gameplay implications unless you purposefully veer towards evil, so it’s hard to feel like you’re in a race against time to retain your humanity.
It's also a bit too easy to do things out of their intended order, resulting in confusing dialogue, or events that pop up without the proper context. Sometimes a character will suddenly shift from hostile to friendly because you accidentally completed that person’s quest before even meeting them. Other times you’ll have an important enemy encounter before you’ve been told why it’s important. These issues can be jarring, but the occasional inconsistency is worth it for the amount of freedom you’re given.
You can see the positive side of that liberty in the multitude of character development options. Your central character choice is deciding whether to join the Voodoo Pirates, Demon Hunters, or Mages, which alters the kind of magic you can use, gives you access to a few unique quests, and shapes your character’s look and build. A Voodoo Pirate gets some cool face paint and spells that concentrate on weakening enemies, a Demon Hunter uses rune magic and looks like a bald badass, and a Mage wields a glowing crystal glove and tosses elemental spells around. I don’t feel like faction choice changes the game’s main quest lines enough to merit a second playthrough, but it’s a fun frill.
Whatever your faction, there’s a skill trainer lurking around every corner to help you further customize your experience. You’ll find many expected non-combat skills like potion brewing and persuasion, but the unusual abilities like monkey training are the most fun. Want to be a hunter who lives off the land, a savage who recovers health by eating raw meat, or a home brewer? It’s all possible if you have the cash to pay the trainers, and impressively most of the skills prove to be useful throughout the game. They give Risen 3 the sense of free play that makes open-world gaming so much fun
Sooner or later you’ll need to stop mucking about in town and bash some bad guys. Risen 3’s combat system is challenging but fun. The basics of attacking and defending are simple to pick up, but your foes are more than equipped to take you down. Enemies are aggressive, are smart enough to flank you, and know how to dodge. It’s crucial to learn to read their cues and properly time your attacks and defensive moves to survive. Button mashing will get you killed and give you the impression that the controls aren't responsive. They absolutely are, but like a fighting game, you need to get to know your attack animations and avoid being interrupted by enemy strikes. Do that, and you'll find combat to be weighty and satisfying.
Not even the best combat system can hold up to the sheer number of enemies that populates the Southern Seas. Every inch of the islands is packed with foes, and you'll probably tire of the game's lesser creatures--sea devils, scavenger birds, spiders, and hellhounds--halfway through the campaign. The full experience would be better with fewer encounters, allowing the player to remember the most interesting and challenging battles rather than the hordes of weaker beasts that are only a threat early on.
Unfortunately, not everything about Risen 3 is so well-polished. Perhaps there's been a bit too much inbreeding on the Southern Seas, but it's jarring when NPCs with unique personalities have the same faces over and over again. Other issues, like the occasional texture seam, party member pathing problems (fixable by using fast travel when a follower gets lost or stuck), and clumsy dialogue transitions fray the experience at the edges. Still, the overall game is good enough that most players will be able to overlook these flaws.
Thanks to its unique sun-splashed world, fanciful characters, and engaging combat, Risen 3 gives players a warm invitation to save its oceans and islands from the ghosts and demons that plague them. It may suffer from some narrative blips, an excess of small bitey critters, and the attack of the clones, but at its best it gives you the ability to control people with Voodoo dolls, rob people blind with a pocket monkey, and feel the satisfaction of smashing a particularly nasty Shadow Lord in the face. The Southern Seas are waiting for a hero, or at least an asshole with the power to hack up demons, and becoming that savior is a very fun trip.