Risen 3 is almost a really good game. It's certainly the first in the role-playing series that I've more or less enjoyed right from the start. It's just that, much like Risen 2, the minor advances in design and function are in service of a goal so characterless and bland that it's hard to muster the passion needed to turn mild enjoyment into outright devotion.
Picking up years after the conclusion of Risen 2, we're introduced to the son and daughter of Captain Steelbeard, the ludicrously named pirate legend from that game. Sadly, in the first of several disappointments, you get no choice over who will be the main character of the game. It's Steelbeard's son, yet another vanilla video game hero voiced by an actor whose range only stretches from "surly growl" to "angry sarcasm". You get no input into what he looks like and that remains true for the majority of the game. Much like the previous games in the series, Risen 3 hands out new kit grudgingly, so unless you've got the Adventurer's Gear DLC that grants you a change of clothes, the amount of control you have over your character is minimal and drip-fed. It's an RPG with very little in the way of RP.
Steelbeard's daughter, for what its worth, looks like she's wearing a Halloween costume from eBay called "Sexy Pirate" and promptly disappears after the opening tutorial sequence.
Instead, we're left to guide Steelbeard Jr as he fights to reclaim his soul, which has been stolen by an evil shadow demon whose malevolent forces are wreaking havoc across the world by popping out of portals. So it's one part Oblivion to one part Dark Souls, as our snarling avatar launches himself into a quest to first amass a group of companions and then put a stop to the evil infesting the land (and the sea).
It's as generic as RPG plotting gets and, given the untapped potential in the pirate genre, it's sad to see how readily the game clings to the same old tropes. There may be a thin veneer of pirate stuff on top, but there are still spells and monsters, mages and magic crystals. You get the same old fantasy clichés dressed up in tricorns and Caribbean sunshine.
Risen 3 at least gets off to a motivated start and quickly opens up its world. New quests are unlocked through conversation as well as from books, and you very quickly accumulate a healthy stack of things to do. Many are the expected fetch quests and menial chores, but there are enough interesting or different ones seasoning the mix to keep the experience from flatlining.
Crucially, since each of the game's islands functions as a self-contained gameplay area, you'll never have to journey too far to get from one objective to another. Fast travel is quicker and easier to access now as well, with plenty of teleportation stones dotted around locations, while the stone circles where they're used to activate travel points are well placed.
Sometimes this compression of the game world leads to facepalming moments - such as the recruitable party member who is hiding out from guards literally around the corner from the town where they've set up base - but it also keeps things moving briskly, which is a welcome change in a series that has been more than a little stodgy in the past.
One area that has definitely slipped in quality is the script and voice acting. The first game attracted an English voice cast that included Andy Serkis, John Rhys Davis and Lena Headey; not A-listers, but dependable character actors who brought much-needed life to proceedings. This time around, the standard has plummeted. Quite apart from the belligerent one-note performance of the main character, the supporting cast is utterly forgettable - with one notable exception.
Bones is the first companion you meet after returning from the dead, and he's perhaps the most bizarre character I've encountered in a game this side of Deadly Premonition. A witch doctor of sorts, he'll occasionally heal you - often when you least need it - but it's his voice that makes him so unique. He sounds exactly like comedian Matt Berry's bad actor character Steven Toast - all odd inflections and random emphasis.
It's so out of place, so distracting and yet so unmistakable that it surely can't be an accident. I even sat through five minutes of credits to see if Berry was actually in the voice cast (he's not - but David Rintoul, AKA Grandad Dog from Peppa Pig, is). Either Piranha Bytes took the bizarre decision to make the first proper character the player meets an outright comic performance, or some cheeky actor is having a bit of fun with the German developer.
Whatever they sound like, you'll be glad of your companions, since they're the only thing that keeps Risen's still-wretched combat from ruining the game. Pirahnha Bytes attempts a tactical block, parry and attack system but still can't get it right. There's just no rhythm or grace to the melee fighting, no logic to how enemies behave. The manual camera makes keeping everything in view while fighting a distracting faff, especially in enclosed spaces, and there's a crucial disconnect between the animations and the impacts.
Ranged weapons aren't much better, reliant on a flaky automatic lock for aiming and a crude dice-roll to determine whether you hit which fails to take distance into account, so you can miss even when your pistol is touching the enemy in question. Combat is bearable against low-level foes, but once you start coming up against gangs of tougher supernatural enemies, it's simply no fun. If Dark Souls is a delicate bloody ballet, full of nuance and style, Risen is your Dad, drunk at a wedding reception, lurching around to Status Quo yet somehow missing all the beats.
You quickly realise that the best way to emerge victorious is to game the system. Enemies automatically target the player but will switch to a companion or other NPC should they hit them twice. Let this happen and you can literally stand back - or stand right in between them if you like - and not get involved. If there's more than one enemy, you can roll around, evading the others until your companion is ready to take them on. Companions are more resilient and will even revive themselves should they get knocked out. Since you earn XP from a kill regardless of who makes it, there's no motivation to fight yourself unless absolutely forced to.
It's a rusty cutlass in the heart of a sequel that, otherwise, is progressive in small but welcome ways. The series still lacks a worthwhile identity of its own and is too quick to run away from its piratical setting in favour of more familiar fantasy archetypes, but for surprisingly hefty chunks of Risen 3 I was drawn in and entertained, at least until another clumsily staged battle soured me again. For those who have been able to cut through the clutter and clumsiness of the series so far, this may well be a small hurdle, and you'll discover a commendably deep and full RPG for your trouble. It's just a shame that such a fundamental feature as combat takes the shine off what could have been the sequel to make Risen popular beyond its small audience of devotees.