Out of the multitude of terrific genres out there, it’s fair to say that role-playing games have the potential to be the most ambitious and immersive experiences of the bunch. Unlike other genres, getting lost in the worlds of RPGs can be a ton of fun, which is a testament to their innate charm and allure.
Recently, I had the fortuitous opportunity to really get my teeth into some me time. While choosing what to play, I was at a crossroads. Should I play the latest, shiniest triple-A title? Or should I explore something a little off the beaten path? As I stared at my collection, my eyes locked onto a duo of mid-tier, budget RPGs: Pirahna Bytes’ Risen 3: Titan Lords, as well as Spiders’ The Technomancer. After spending a ton of time with them, I can safely say they’ve been some of the most unadulterated fun I’ve had in video games in a long while.
Mid-tier role-playing games often get a bad rap. Sure, they can be janky. Yes, they can be buggy. But the truth is, being swept up on a grand adventure in a lesser-known, double-A RPG can be equally as special as spending time with the triple-A RPG “big boys” of the gaming world.
Once you’ve gotten to grips with their slightly off-kilter control schemes (I’m mostly looking at you Risen 3), their worlds really do become your oyster. And, boy, the white sand beaches of The Southern Seas, and the Martian cities of Noctis and Ophir are not only a sight to behold, but are wonderful, bustling regions to call home for a few dozen hours.
Of course, 2014’s Risen 3 and 2016’s The Technomancer are hardly critically acclaimed blockbusters that have set the world on fire. But their single-player focus, combined with their unpretentious ability to whisk you away to a brave, new fantasy universe is refreshing in a gaming landscape bursting at the seams with games-as-a-service this, and battle royale that.
Much like the guilty pleasure of watching and enjoying a good ol’ B-movie, there’s more than enough room for lower-budget titles like Risen 3 and The Technomancer to not only exist, but to hopefully flourish. The problem, however, is that mid-tier RPGs like these are noticeably becoming rarer and rarer these days. Why?
The truth is, the middle ground between indies and triple-A is slowly being eroded away, to the point where double-A developers — like Spiders and Piranha Bytes — are struggling to keep a foothold in the industry. This may be thanks to ballooning game development costs, or the race to the bottom of the free-to-play market. Or perhaps it’s simply down to hype culture, and the way we consume games.
For the most part, unless you’re the best thing since sliced mushrooms, or the greatest thing since man discovered fire-flowers, it’s tough to catch a break as a developer caught in the precarious middle-ground between triple-A and indies. In an industry where crafting a solid game doesn’t instantly equate to financial success, and throwing fuel on the fire of the hype machine is paramount to your recognition, being trapped in a sort of mid-tier no man’s land can prove fatal.
Fortunately, there may be a silver lining. Austrian publisher THQ Nordic has spent the last few years buying up declining mid-tier franchises, ostensibly to resurrect them in the future. To this day, the company owns around 200 previously-owned intellectual properties and ten small-scale subsidiary studios. From Kingdoms Of Amalur to the Gothic and Risen series, THQ Nordic could well be the beacon in the darkness for the future of lower-budget, double-A RPGs.
In addition, there’s also GreedFall, the forthcoming follow-up to Spiders’ The Technomancer, which launches early next month. Like its futuristic, Martian-themed predecessor, this action-RPG will also take place in a pretty unique setting and era: a 17th century island paradise. Consisting of only around 20 employees, the French studio has made a name for itself crafting ambitious, underrated and absorbing action-RPGs stuffed to the brim with imagination and heart. We’ve got our fingers firmly crossed, as it looks like an incredibly promising project.
Ultimately, I guess what I’m trying to say is this: RPGs come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. However, perhaps the best adventures are surprisingly the unexpected ones. If you open your mind, and allow yourself to be whisked away to the whacky, fantasy lands of Risen 3 and The Technomancer, they may actually end up surprising you. Sure, they may be slightly janky. Yes, they may be slightly rough around the edges. But the charm, the heart, and the imagination of lower-budget RPGs can truly be refreshing for the soul. And that’s kind of priceless, right?
Now, if you’ll excuse me. Anyone seen my copy of Two Worlds 2 and Bound By Flame? I’m sure they were around here somewhere…