The Good, The Bad, and The Janky
HIGH Fresh, cheeky dialogue and interesting companions make for an entertaining romp across the high seas
LOW Unavoidable naval combat missions with huge difficulty spikes and no checkpoints
WTF The boss fight vs. an enormous cave spider who spits eggs out of her giant, unnecessarily realistic spider vagina
Recently, film director James Gray astutely noted, "A work without flaws is a work without ambition."
While he refers to Francis Ford Coppola and the writings of Horace, this sentiment holds true for a vast number of video games as well. Many could argue that by simply including the player's input as a necessary device to engage the medium, the experience will necessarily be flawed, and often, games are at their best when they embrace this inevitability.
Whether consciously or not, perhaps no group of games endeavor to breach this divide as audaciously as the sub-genre affectionately known as Eurojank.
More an ideology than a category, Eurojank is best recognized by its adoption of Western tropes and mechanics by predominantly Eastern European creators whose translation is often as full of wonderfully bizarre and compelling moments as it is fraught with technical mediocrity. For better or worse, it creates a uniquely provocative experience by leveraging passion against execution—it hits the ceiling by aiming for the moon, and the third-person RPG-brawler Risen 3: Titan Lords resides firmly, if not comfortably, in this camp.
Upon beginning the adventure, players will quickly discover that most of its playtime is spent on foot, which affords the greatest chance of sidequest encounters and booty plundering. There are two scales of map: one for each island and one for the entire chain. The world map is limited to direct island-hopping. Fast-travel points on island maps are unlocked by collecting teleport stones and using them to unlock teleport pads semi-conveniently located outside major, minor, and occasionally non-existent points of interest.
Having played (and mostly enjoyed) Risen 2, my return to the same slightly-tweaked faux Caribbean islands in Risen 3 lacked the sense of scale and possibility that defined my first experience exploring these waters. Geographically, this sequel contains few surprises compared to its predecessor, and by extension, it appears to lack ambition. It feels small. It registers as overly familiar.
As I again sailed from Antigua to the Crab Coast and up through the Northern islands, I was repeatedly met with familiar faces lurking where I had seen them before. Sebastiano's army of Inquisitors remained entrenched in the bunks of Tacarigua. The native villages of Risen 2 have now been consolidated to a single island with recycled landmarks and architecture, but the inhabitants are still caricatured voodoo worshippers (sans Chaka Khan jokes this time around).
A few reappearances, like the companion Bones, were welcome. I found his encore performance to be especially capable, charming, and exemplary of the kind of unpredictable writing one looks forward to in Eurojank. But so many others, like the abrasive, foul-mouthed gnome Jaffar and the disappointingly one-dimensional pirate Patty, would have been better off left to fend for themselves on an island far off of Risen 3's map.
On one hand, I appreciated the effort to bring back the old gang in an attempt to build on the canon established in the last game, and to have a chance to explore these characters more deeply.
On the other hand, the execution falls short—encounter after encounter felt more like awkward do-overs than nostalgic reunions.
Despite these flaws, perhaps the most egregious character assassination is perpetrated by the game's lead on himself—I did not enjoy the main character one bit. An odd, Christian Bale-alike with a gravelly, overreaching Batman impression to match, the "Lost One" was so unappealing to listen to I found myself skipping most of his dialogue in favor of reading the subtitles. Most conversations devolved into F-word write-offs of honest questions, such as when Patty inquired to the whereabouts of a certain buried treasure. "I don't f—ing know!" he retorted, setting the hilariously juvenile tone of many conversations to come.
Instead of building on the last game's legacy and illustrating the main character's status as the son of famous pirate Steelbeard, I was offered a convoluted story about retrieving a lost soul from the underworld sprinkled atop what essentially boils down to the plot from Dragon Age: Origins. Monsters have invaded the world led by a great evil. The hero gains the support of various factions to aid in the fight. Then they fight. I will not spoil the ending, but I'll say there's hardly anything there to spoil.
While the world is predictable and much of the writing disappoints, I can say that Risen 3 makes a number of mechanical improvements over its predecessors.
The sketchy, Arkham-lite melee combat makes a return, now bolstered by improved animations and finishing moves that add much-needed variety to the swashbuckling. Additionally, more effort has gone into the use of magic, an aspect of the combat design that was easily ignored before. Here, it plays a more vital role and is connected to the story when our hero is tasked with joining one of three magical factions (Guardians, Voodoo Tribe, and Demon Slayers) as part of his main quest.
Another positive I found was that quest structures seemed to be less broken, which was a problem that notoriously plagued Risen 2. I was able to complete all sidequests that I started without issue (no small feat for Eurojank!) and it's also worth noting that swimming—something I usually avoid like the plague in open world games—is no more inconvenient than traveling on foot. It's a nice option to have when trying to get to outlying areas unreachable via fast travel.
Speaking of water, I'm sad to say that the naval combat encounters spliced between missions at certain intervals are abhorrent. They come in two flavors: sea monster hunts and pirate ship battles.
The ship battles aren't so bad when the player is prepared for them. (Spoiler: level up!) The problem is that they're introduced abruptly, they begin automatically, and they provide no way out until they're completed. These intense multi-stage battles also fail to offer checkpoints or forgiveness, and there's no way to know whether they're do-able beforehand.
The sea monster battles differ in that there is absolutely no way to prepare for them. Taking care of these giant beasts becomes a matter of steering out of harm's way while gunning them down with cannons. It's an anomalous form of combat that feels ripped from Assassin's Creed 4 with no attention paid to the intricacies of what made it enjoyable. Instead, sea hunts become forced, clumsy assaults while keeping fingers crossed that the ship doesn't meet an unseemly demise. After more than twenty attempts at the third monster encounter, I tried aiming the cannons at my own deck to see if I could put myself out of my misery.
It's these types of technical shortcomings that make Eurojank like Risen 3 inaccessible, but the playful, honest atmosphere and unique cast do much to mitigate the negative experiences. Ambient dialogue and companion quests involving complex characters like Horas (the black sheep Guardian with a severe chip on his shoulder) or Mendoza's ghost (the ever-insulting equivalent of KOTOR's HK-47) simultaneously ground the ridiculous main story arc and elevate the mundanity of the most insignificant distractions.
However, in the end, I felt that much of what made Risen 2 such a charming adventure was missing from Risen 3—it has fewer flaws overall, but the ambition has diminished as well. As a result, it's simply less interesting, and the return trip isn't as enjoyable as the previous journey.
–by Jay Pullman. Want more from Jay? Listen to him at The Josh and Jay Show, Featuring Rowan Kaiser!
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: blood, drug references, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol, and violence. The language and mature themes are the main reasons why children should absolutely not play this game. Don't let the innocent, cartoony aesthetic fool you. Characters, especially the main character, drop more F-bombs and innuendo than probably any other game I've played. Hide this from your children, especially if you keep rum in the house.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: While subtitles and in-game prompts may be enabled to enhance visual cues and dialogue comprehension, staying frosty in combat relies fairly heavily on changes in background music and sound effects emanating from enemies. Since combat is often initiated by your character being ambushed, players with hearing challenges may find this aspect of the game more difficult.