Rise of the Third Power

It is incredibly likely that this game will make a reappearance on my top 10 games of the year. I’m listening to its soundtrack as I type this out, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite games that I’ve played in some time, with so many elements working together that it almost feels unfair. Rise of the Third Power may not be a perfect game, but it comes dangerously close and some of its imperfections are what gives it more of a charm.

Gimme that classic JRPG goodness… and fights against magic frogs

It doesn’t take more than a screenshot or two to reveal what kind of game R3 is. There are a plethora of old throwback JRPGs out there, many of which use RPG maker to create games that sort of wallow in the average pool. I have played quite a few of those, and there are some elements of it present in R3 that may be offputting to some players.

Developer Stegosoft Games have been working to make a niche for themselves in this market already. They had previously released Arafell, which I had picked up on recommendation from a YouTuber I follow (David Vinc, who specializes in JRPGs). Both Arafell and R3 are beautiful sprite based games that draw on what it was like to play one of those Super Nintendo RPGs. It really does feel in some ways like finding a classic like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, or Lufia 2 for the first time (potentially blasphemous words, I know).

The story is incredibly mature and very well told. It follows a fantasy world, but instead of drawing influence and presenting another medieval fantasy setting, R3 utilizes a sort of piratical feel throughout. The actual plot presents something like World War I/II, where the political situation is delicate following a previous war (see screenshot). There are three countries that are vying for position in this new world: the kingdom of Cirinthia, the republic of Tariq, and the Arkadyan Empire.

The player starts working for the kingdom, or more accurately for an internationally based group known as the Resistance. This group has been keeping tabs on the Empire, and are aware that there is a conspiracy afoot to restart the war, likely using assassination, espionage, and other underhanded tactics to get things started. It does seem slightly strange that there’s some kind of nebulous Resistance formed when the countries are, at the start of the game, stabilized and not threatening one another, but it still mostly works, particularly given the support the Resistance has.

The plot kicks off as a few Resistance members are on a “suicide” mission to kidnap Princess Arielle of Cirinthia on the eve of her wedding to the heir of the Arkadyan Empire. It’s okay though: they’re there in order to get her away from the castle and show her what’s really going on, hoping she’ll be on their side and communicate the issues to her royal family.

The story progresses from there in several twists and turns. As a classic RPG fan, I appreciated that the story wasn’t just broken into the traditional town/dungeon/town/dungeon format that’s often the backbone of the genre. Sometimes you’d visit a handful of safe locations in a row, completing puzzles in certain areas or even just talking to the villagers and getting an idea of what’s going on. There are a handful of side quests, each of which is usually worth completing, as the rewards are rather impressive.

I found the story to be engaging and well told, with several twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. It kept me hooked throughout most of the playtime, and I don’t want to go too far into the details as to spoil anything. From my perspective, the only rocky bits regarding story are those around the eighth playable character, Prince Whatshisname, who didn’t have nearly as much development as the rest of the characters and gets a forced romantic engagement with Arielle, who becomes the most developed character throughout.

The characters all come across as engaging and fairly well rounded, though it might take a player time to see the complete character. They often start as various cliches: Arielle is the spoiled princess, Rowan is the drunken pirate, Corrinna is the street urchin out to make good, but they eventually develop and actually grow throughout the story, which is something rather unique. It feels like R3 takes the time to focus on them and flesh them out to have their unique personalities.

It even bucks trends at a few points. Rowan has an obvious crush on one of the leaders of the Resistance, and Corrinna teases that the only reason he’s along on missions is because this leader says so. Instead of fussing around about this or not talking about it, Rowan…

…just outright says it

I can also appreciate that the game doesn’t take the easy route when it comes to this relationship either. None of the character relationships go the easy route, whether it be romantic like the one outlined above or some of the friendlier ones that develop amongst comrades. I do wish that the game had allowed at least one romantic relationship to flourish, as I’m all about that in stories, but at the same time, the game leans harder on the political aspects and so forth. (Technically there is a romance that sticks: Rashim, the Tariq veteran has a husband from the beginning, and things turn out alright there, but we don’t see much of them together on screen).

The dialogue is also mostly entertaining to read. I ended up saving several screenshots because I found myself laughing aloud at the dialogue. Call me immature if you want, but it felt to me like a means of making the characters more likeable and real.

A personal favorite of mine

Gameplay is pretty traditional on the surface. You control one sprite on the map, which for some reason is locked to Rowan throughout the majority of the game (they state he’s taking point and he offers a reason for this, but considering that you control at least four other party members in other sections I don’t see why they locked us on Rowan). You explore the area, talking to people, solving puzzles and side quests, and generally doing JRPG things.

The exploration can be fun, as the rewards are often fairly persistent. Instead of finding, say, a new sword in a chest, you would find the material to create a sword for a character. Normally this would be annoying crafting tools, but for these materials are shared throughout the various party members. On top of that, instead of adding a weapon to equip, this instead grants a permanent increase in whichever stat the character relies on for damage: strength or magic. That encourages you to find the various materials to constantly update your characters, and you’re usually selecting who among the party to upgrade first, prioritizing characters that play to your style or are crucial for certain areas.

Sidequests and other deeds will sometimes grant artifacts as well. These grant a permanent bonus not simply to one character, but the entire party, which makes them incredibly worth having. It also means that if you, say, miss one in a relatively obscure location early or even at the midpoint of the game, then it may be in your best interest to go back and find it for that upgrade.

This happened to me at one point: I missed two optional sidequests in one location, despite being quite thorough in my exploration. I went back and did them, not just for the reward, but because by then I was invested in the story and the way the game worked. Plus these weren’t focused on combat, so I wasn’t just steamrolling some enemy.

Combat looks and plays traditionally on the surface. Your party of up to three characters is shown on the right, the enemy on the left. Everyone goes in a turn order that’s displayed on the top (that line was popularlized by Final Fantasy X, though I know there’s a handful of games that played with showing turn order that way first). There isn’t a “fight” option, but instead characters will utilize different skills. There is some variety there, as different skills will either combo into one another or be useful for different sections.

All characters share a team/party level instead of leveling individually, which can be quite useful. They’ve also added an “exhaustion” system. Characters acting in combat raise a percentage of exhaustion; gain too much and become “injured” which adds negatives to that particular character. This can be a little punishing early on, when you only have 2-3 characters who have to be fielded every time. However, later, it encourages characters to be switched in and out, experimenting with various combinations and abilities as you go. A player could technically avoid this by utilizing an item that restores exhaustion percentage, but switching feels more organic and rewarded.

That being said, I did find myself falling into various patterns and favoring various characters. Some abilities just did better than others, and some characters work better in other situations. I enjoy using Rowan, but he’s not great at taking out a group of enemies, or really dealing with random encounters at all. Poor Rashim has it even worse: he fulfills the tank role right alongside Rowan, but he never felt like he was all that useful in the position, having less HP and pathetic offensive capabilities. He got shelved more and more as I played.

The experimentation also plays into another aspect. Characters can team up with another character to unleash a particularly devastating attack. These teamups seem to borrow some from Chronto Trigger’s dualtech formula, but they also utilize a sort of “limit break” style bar, which various actions in combat raise. The issue is that not all of these abilities are created equal, and for some reason they cap it so that every character only gets two. Once you realize that, it means you’re likely to just pair off characters that have abilities that work well. I ended up using Arielle and Corrinna far more than everyone else for precisely that reason: their team up ability does a high amount of damage to all enemies and inflicts a damage over time effect that does even more damage. With how I built the characters, that resulted in killing most random encounters or devastating most bosses.

The combat is fairly deep, is what I’m saying here. The game also allows for at least some level of character customization. It’s not crazy, but there are about two to three “builds” you could create with each character, depending on what you’d prefer that character do. This comes from various “Talents” which are selected via a separate menu and are further upgrades (those unlock not just personal abilities, but also group ones, and, again, these seem to be unbalanced: one character unlocks a 20% exp boost for everyone… another just unlocks less exhaustion for dying; guess which one I pushed for first).

I’m probably overemphasizing the inbalance in characters some. I did feel that almost every character lived up to their assigned combat role. My issue is that there were three tank characters out of the eight, but they did at least try to differentiate those. I would say that even Rashid can pull his own weight and has some uses.

No, my big issues come in the form of a few poorly balanced encounters and one particular reoccurring puzzle.

Behold, the area that almost made me quit this game!

One of the “puzzles”/obstacles the game throws at you the most are these fireball situations. They come in two flavors: red, which take a chunk of your HP off, and blue, which send you back to a designated area. The idea is to avoid these by running and moving. The issue is that the game isn’t really designed for that. Your character moves in a sort of stiff, awkward manner at times, and doesn’t exactly have a dodge roll or variable speed built in or anything. Therefore these “dodge” mechanics feel forced into the game, and they just don’t work out that well. The blue flames in particular are incredibly annoying.

This is made even worse by a taunting accessory the game gives you. There’s an accessory that grants immunity to these fireballs, but I didn’t pick it up until after the game stopped using fireballs. It felt like it was mocking me.

My other major gripe comes from at least one unbalanced boss. About midway through the game, the characters are tasked with cleaning out a pirate fort in order to make it clear for ships to sail. Pretty standard stuff, but it turns out that the pirates have built their lair so that in order to reach it via the ground route, you’ve got to go through a haunted jungle area.

So naturally the boss of the haunted jungle area with a pirate base is a velociraptor.

No, I’m not kidding.

This boss monster can inflict heavy damage over time effects on your party, and his this “fun” little trick where he can take four actions in a row (reminder: you can’t field more than a party of three). So he would inflict quite a bit of damage, this DoT effect, and then, for his fourth move, would stun your entire party. This wiped my party out something like three or four times in a row. I got lucky in that on the last attempt, the creature didn’t use that ability. It completely came down to luck, and it was a poorly designed and balanced fight that was mandatory for progression.

I also agree with the fairly common complaint that the portraits that show up of main characters during dialogue are jarring. They almost look like the amateur art you’d expect to see in a decidedly less polished game than this, and they don’t really match the tone of the game, which goes for serious instead of the over the top anime look. I didn’t find them nearly as distracting as some players have, but it is jarring and doesn’t completely work.

Again, early Arielle takes some adjusting, but the portrait is about at its worst here.

Again, I overall thought R3 to be an incredible game. The characters are well done, the battle system is engaging, exploration is rewarded, and I found myself enjoying pretty well every aspect of the world. The music works quite well for what the game is going for, though apparently it’s mostly not composed for the game (which is surprising and disappointing for me). Yes, there are a few drawbacks, areas for Stegosoft to improve on moving forward (I will be shocked if they keep up the character portraits, given the extreme backlash), but it’s still an engaging experience and a great rendition of a classic JRPG.

9 that nearly perfect score marred by some frustrating areas, a bit of imbalance between characters, and a few faulty design choices

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