Stegosoft Games’ previous effort, Ara Fell, was a gorgeous love letter to 16-bit JRPGs that could only really be faulted by being too traditional. Now in the team’s second effort, Rise of the Third Power, they’ve brought the polish to match their enthusiasm. This is a well-made game, and there’s so much to like about it. It is still beholden to the retro-JRPG style, which means it can be hit-or-miss for some, but the narrative and world-building prove what makes the JRPG genre so beloved.
I’ll say this right off the bat – Rise of the Third Power is one of the best written JRPGs I’ve played in recent memory. The dialogue, the chemistry between the party members, the effortless switching between humour and political intrigue – it all just works so well. At times it reminds me of the best of Bandai’s Tales series or Falcolm’s Trails games, which is hugely impressive for a two-person indie team. Just a few chapters in I was genuinely invested in the characters, their personalities, and the dynamic of the group – and it does it without flashy cutscenes or voice acting. It’s rare that a JRPG gets me looking forward to the text-based story systems, but because the pacing and writing is just so buoyant and refreshing, I was pulled along the narrative effortlessly.
The premise is based on the lead up to World War 2, building upon ideas laid in Ara Fell which was loosely based on World War 1. In Rise of the Third Power, the Arkadyan Empire has just lost a war and was forced to sign a treaty that has left it weakened and power-hungry. The land of Rin lies in the middle of an uneasy truce between the powerful Cirinthian Kingdom and the Tariqqi nation, with a marriage between the prince of Arkadya and the princess of Cirinthia set to quell tensions. The game opens with ex-pirate Rowan and his spunky partner Corrina on the eve of the wedding. They’ve been paid a large sum of money to kidnap the princess in a mission to subvert the Arkadyan Empire’s underhanded motives for the marriage. From here, a band of adventurers forms to uncover the motivations of each superpower in order to stop war from breaking out and ravaging the land of Rin.
It’s a cut above the standard JRPG narrative. While it is still the story of a band of plucky heroes uniting to fight against an evil empire, the motivations go beyond simply saving the world (or cosmos, or whatever other Big Thing). There’s subterfuge and power machinations at the heart of the story, and players who are curious and attentive will have a lot to enjoy about the setting. Each town has various allegiances, and much of the game is set in that uneasy middle ground where each power is vying for control and influence. Parallels to real world concepts like the Treaty of Versailles or Operation Himmler lend the narrative a degree of solemnity, and the biggest strength of Stegosoft’s world-building is that Rin genuinely feels on the precipice of all-out war, in everything from the plot beats to the conversations with townsfolk.
But the real star of the show here are the characters. Admittedly they do fall into the standard JRPG cliches – the regretful alcoholic hero, the naïve princess, the benign healer, the morally-grey mage. But what makes them work is that their personalities remain well developed and consistent, and when the plot shifts, the characters react in a very earnest way. There are plenty of jokes that made me laugh out loud, but none of them were the sarcastic, immersion-breaking kind that cheapens the overall narrative – Stegosoft’s writers have created humour through their consistent characterisation, and it’s just an absolute delight.
I enjoyed the narrative so much that I sometimes forget that Rise of the Third Power is a JRPG. The gameplay side of the affair is as traditional as it comes, with a penchant for quality-of-life improvements compared to the SNES classics. Combat is turn-based, but each character has a carefully designed set of skills that require strategic thinking to use. Whereas most SNES JRPGs can be beaten with grinding and basic attacks, Rise of the Third Power encourages players to develop strategies by utilising each party member to their fullest potential and combining their skills in Chrono-Trigger-esque team-skills.
It means that every combat encounter becomes a slower and methodical affair – which on paper I thought I’d like, but in practice, I felt it to be too much of a good thing. It meant that each combat encounter (thankfully all on the overworld, no random battles here) takes more time and brainpower than usual. Across the longer dungeons, I found myself skipping battles just because they weren’t necessary. I didn’t need to have my skills tested, especially when all I really cared about was the next plot revelation. Thankfully there’s an easier difficulty which allows players to instantly skip any battle – though I didn’t feel too challenged even on Hard.
Dungeons are also lengthy and complex, reminding me more of games like Golden Sun rather than Chrono Trigger. There’s puzzles here – but they’re not well disguised or integrated into the game’s world. Often they’re obvious obfuscations of a straight line through a building; you know where you want to go but the door’s locked, so you need to find the key which is hidden in the opposite way to which you want to go. It’s all very artificial. I started to dread every time I examined a door and was informed that “I need the bronze key”, because this meant that soon I’d also be stopped by a door needing a silver key, and then a gold key. I felt like I was doing busywork to unlock the next portion of the story.
It was odd that all the internal (so, non-overworld) environments of this game were so enormous. I will say that the sprite art is consistently gorgeous, but there’s just so much of it. Each town has half a dozen houses which can be entered, most of which have upstairs levels, and there’s nothing to be found other than a bed and a bookshelf. The Cirinthian Castle is a veritable labyrinth, with over twenty separate rooms. It makes sense in the universe of the story – everyone’s got to have somewhere to sleep, after all – but the design is not utilitarian, and it’s easy to get lost. It meant that I stopped bothering to explore towns properly, because there was nothing for me to find – even if there was a sneaky chest in a basement somewhere, it would likely only have vendor trash.
I’m sure those who are in the mood for a traditional JRPG experience would more readily welcome these aspects of Rise of the Third Power. The combat is satisfying, and there are plenty of sidequests and optional bosses for players to hone their skills. The quality of life elements are fantastic – equipment and level-up skills are streamlined so there’s no chaotic inventory management or needing to study up skill trees; it’s all easily accessible from a single menu. The game’s length is also reasonable at around 20-30 hours – it means that Stegosoft Games can keep the pacing brisk while still delivering that sense of progression that’s so core to the genre. It’s not the most groundbreaking of JRPG systems, the difficulty is not high, and I’m sure there are those out there who would prefer more depth, but there is still lots of fun to be had.
I wonder if the writing enamoured me so much that it hampered my enjoyment of the rest of the game. The combat and dungeon crawling is fine, above-average even, but it often felt like an impediment to Rise of the Third Power’s excellent story. Nevertheless, I had a great time with Stegosoft Games’ latest offering. The team’s love for the JRPG genre is shining through, and their ability to spin a great narrative helps the work lift well beyond what you usually get from “RPG Maker”-like projects.