|Release Date||March 17, 2017|
Review code provided
Review by Patrick Welsh (@scruvekano)
Sungazer Software’s The Tenth Line comes so close to doing something interesting. I just wish they’d taken another pass at it.
The Tenth Line is a 2D action platformer/RPG hybrid that’s presented as a throwback to the golden age of 90s JRPGs. The setting is in a typical but imaginative and gorgeously realised fantasy world, whose human inhabitants live alongside the various species of anthropomorphic beastmen. The plot begins with an unnamed princess on the run from an evil cult (we’ve all been there) who is saved by a pair of beastmen: a self-centred kobold thief named Rik and his (adoptive) dragon-mage brother Tox (imagine the dragonborn from D&D and you’re almost there).
The brothers agree to help the princess despite her haughty airs, on the condition that she rewards them when she comes into her kingdom. Along the way, the three pick up a cadre of companions that act as support characters in combat while evading the attentions of the cult and facing the prejudice of a society that hates and fears beastmen. And just to add another wrinkle, the world is coming to an end, as the apocalyptic prophecy of this world’s holy text— the ten Lines— appears to be coming true.
The story is familiar, but there’s enough to go on: the leads and their support characters all have their personality quirks, their failings and secrets that they’re holding close to their chest. It’s enough to keep the action moving along, and there’s always another question that demands an answer. Why does the cult want to recapture the Princess? What is her real name? What happened to Rik and Tox’s parents? Are the Lines coming true? The world building is imaginative, and if at times is occasionally clichéd and the in-game dialogue is a touch anachronistic, it’s hardly the first time that a fantasy game has leant a little too hard on what’s gone before.
The core gameplay relies on 2D platforming— it’s a straightforward left-to-right structure, with the added twist of three characters to control. Each of the three moves differently and has their suite of skills: The Princess can move blocks to create platforms; Rik is fast, nimble and able to sneak into tight spaces; Tox uses a range of elemental breath attacks and a short-range teleport-jump that gives him near-Luigi height. On paper, it’s a bit like Trine or Lost Vikings: three characters with distinct yet complementary skill sets that specialise in different roles.
But the concept never feels fully realised: there are no character-swapping puzzles, and all the characters can (and, indeed, must) get to the end of the screen on their own. It’s not enough to just choose your favourite and power through to the end since every character must make their way separately. Moving three characters individually through the same stage gets tedious fast, and the frustration is not helped by the fact that if a character slips up and falls into a bottomless pit, they’re exiled to the beginning of the screen. It’s all the worse if the party should fall in battle and all three are forced to try again.
It doesn’t help that it’s pretty easy for the whole party to die in the first turn. Once they’re engaged in combat, the screen shifts to a typical RPG setup. The obvious touchstone is the Mario & Luigi portable games, with rhythm-based defensive prompts and a selection of offensive moves to target the enemies. The bad guys attack in three rows, forming columns, so tactics involve selecting which enemies to target and when, and whether to use the best attack as often as possible or save up and unleash a more powerful but expensive attack.
It’s a straightforward setup but it lacks depth, and it feels balanced towards defence: often, you’ll win battles by repeating the same moves over and over until the enemies are gone, with little room for tactical finesse. So long as the party wasn’t wiped out in the initial volley, combat usually became a matter of time. Defending against enemy attacks rely on timed button presses, and the specifics of how it works are never clear: often, it felt like the timing was out of my hands.
Even when it works, it’s a headache trying to keep track of three characters under fire from a dozen attacks at once. The upshot is that combat tended to either drag out for minutes at a time or end in a total party kill by the second turn. It reached a point where I was starting to dread the possibility of combat that either dragged out or saw my guys massacred right away.
That’s before we get to the random and unexpected spikes in difficulty, where the enemies are suddenly able to flatten the party in the first few turns even though they’d breeze through the rest of the stage. I never felt like I could overcome these roadblocks with new tactics: in the end, I had to resort to grinding. The grid-based upgrade system provides a lot of space for customisation in the character development grid, but even maxing out defence and hitpoints never seemed to stop the party from being overwhelmed.
There’s a lot in The Tenth Line that feels a little undercooked. The whole experience feels like it could have used another pass. From the writing that could have used another line read, to a difficulty curve that could be smoother, to a combat system with a better and more decisive pace.
Maybe it’s unfair to expect so much of an indie game, but taking the experience as it is, the game still feels unfinished. If you’re in the mood for a charming story and a well-realised world, and you have the patience to endure the marathon combat sessions, then it’s a serviceable throwback to a bygone era of RPG greatness. Just don’t expect a smooth ride.
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