The Tenth Line (PC/PS4/Switch): A High Hurdle to Clear, but Well Worth the Price of Admission (Detailed Review)

I’ve been meaning to try and bring back my JRPG Update series for quite a while now. It was one of the few things I did that was more than just spouting my opinion, and helped provide people with useful information, but it just wore me out and was too hard to keep up with. If I were to bring it back, I’m thinking of doing so with a different focus seeing as how a lot of the appeal was just showing off all the various different sections of the JRPG market.

Chances are, a lot of my reader base will be familiar with even the niche middle market titles localized by Atlus, XSeed, Namco Bandai, NISA, and Aksyss, but there isn’t a lot of attention paid to the notable JRPG influenced titles in the indie gaming scene. Unless something is entirely unique like Undertale or LISA, it’s usually not going to get much attention. After all, what even is there, RPG Maker Fantasy Quest VII (Featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry series & Knuckles)?

It is precisely because of that reason that I mostly banned RPG Maker games from JRPG Update, and only focused on ones that were not made in RPG Maker or that at least are good enough for me to not know if they are RPG Maker from first glance. Given how many indie RPGs are claimed to be “inspired by the classics” and the fact that, contrary to what dumb people say, JRPGS are still being released regularly, it is only natural that a lot of traditional indie RPGs tend to go unnoticed even by JRPG fans. One of these games is The Tenth Line, a game that I likely would have never played had its director Eliot Mahan not provided me with a copy for review purposes.

The Tenth Line | context sensitive hints.
Tell me I have context sensitive hints when they are cut off on my TV. Way to rub it in game.

The Tenth Line is a good game. It may not be “greatest of all time” territory, but just about every game is someone’s “greatest of all time,” for some reason or another. There were some flaws with The Tenth Line, but as a whole, it is a game that you can’t go wrong with as a JRPG fan.

The game opens up with the player taking the role of a woman simply referred to as “The Princess,” who is on the run from members of a deadly cult trying to kidnap her, like what happens with all princesses. She comes across Rik and Tox, an anthropomorphic fox and dragon respectively, who rescue her from the cultists, and agree to protect her from the cult in exchange for money. What starts out simple starts to unravel more and more about what is going on with the cult and the world around them while also spreading out character and plot development at a fair rate that keeps the player interested.

The Tenth Line | Emotional Individuals
Wall Washer Horace’s previous title was Breitbart Writer Horace.

The pacing in The Tenth Line is handled notably well without any over exposition or plot dumping but also doesn’t feel too rushed or show too little. There are a few issues here and there such as the fact that the map progression is Final Fantasy XIII levels of linear and that a few moments in the later part of the plot has some forced epiphanies and multiple characters acting assholish (also kind of like Final Fantasy XIII), but for the most part, the storyline is solid and not too difficult to follow (unlike Final Fantasy XIII).

What is worth mentioning, is the fact that The Tenth Line is noticeably heavy on political allegory, and a sizable amount of the game will look very familiar to those paying close attention to modern politics. I was almost going to say they were heavy handed, but I decided not to go that far since it’s only noticeable if you’re actively paying attention, and because all of these themes have showed up in games before; just not all in one game. We have a religious text being used to spread fear and hate of an entire race, having a wall built to keep out members of other races, and even a character needing to deal with feelings of disgust anguish caused by their own body and existence as recurring themes in The Tenth Line, and they are all implemented pretty well. The only way that The Tenth Line’s themes will offend someone is if they are actively trying to interpret it that way and I dare say that if that’s the case, you DESERVE to be offended.

The Tenth Line | 2nd wall
And the beasts are going to pay for the wall!

Chances are, I would not be viewing the story of The Tenth Line as a political allegory if this game had been released prior to 2014, but gaming has become so politicized by ideologues who view games more as tools for spreading influence than as entertainment that now EVERYTHING has to be a fucking political statement. So just to make things clear, The Tenth Line is only a political commentary if you want it to be, and I don’t really see it as that much of one despite all the jokes being made.

Our characters were likable and entertaining, but they didn’t get attached to me in that special way that most of my favorite games did. Granted, they are good characters nonetheless, but there is much more of a focus on plot and pacing than on characters. I did always find Rik’s comic relief routine and Tox’s snarky comebacks to have given them more character than just being straight up stereotypes. I also think The Princess is a great example of a female protagonist who does not simply feel like a stereotypical stoic male character with tits or an incompetent, weak idiot that needs male characters to rescue her, and is instead remotely competent while also amusing with her princesstual attitude. Each of the assist characters were alright and served their parts well, but also didn’t impress me.

Artistically, The Tenth Line looks great. There is a decent variety of character portraits for different expressions, and even the character sprites have some expressions. Granted, it does seem odd that the Princess’s sprite doesn’t have a mouth (and she must scream) but the pixel art is good and doesn’t fall into “muh retro pixel art” territory. Additionally, the scenery is also very nicely drawn and is immersive. Sound effects are all well placed and achieved their desired effects, and the voice clips in battle do add a bit of extra flair to the game. Unfortunately, I had to go through the whole game with the screen zoomed slightly in, which cut off a bit of the text in the menus. This was supposedly because of the TV I used, but hopefully this is something that is fixed in a later patch. However, it should be noted that this did not get in the way of me enjoying the game.

The Tenth Line | Muh Retro Pixel Art

As for the music, I thought it was decent but it didn’t stick with me as much as some did. Music is mostly orchestral ambient movie score material, but some of it did grow on me over the course of the game, and there were some standout tracks. A lot of the battle music seemed a bit too soft for battles, but I found that the track that played against the cultist leader and the strongest superboss (which unfortunately hasn’t been uploaded nor is it on the OST) to have been very effective atmosphere wise, and the same goes for Lux’s battle theme. However, I would like to give special note to the final boss theme that complete goes against the game’s established musical standard.

A major selling point of The Tenth Line is its unique battle system that can be difficult to grasp at first, but allows for some pretty intense fights later in the game that require a lot of planning and strategy (meaning you can’t simply brute force your way through). I took issue with the way the tutorials were paced in that they were just dumped on the player haphazardly instead of being spread out in a way that the player can properly understand everything. A game should teach the player about its mechanics through its design, not just regurgitating instructions that the player likely won’t understand without knowing the context in which they apply.

Regardless of what doofus game reviewers say, a tutorial should NEVER be designed as if the player cannot think for themselves; otherwise is becomes intrusive and annoying, see Egoraptor’s Mega Man X video for more on this. The Tenth Line attempts to bypass this issue by giving the player the choice between three game modes. You get to choose between normal mode, which is self explanatory, have light mode, which is a typical easy mode but with core gameplay mechanics surgically removed, and you have story focused mode which literally removes every enemy in the game except for story related boss battles (which are all neutered difficulty wise).

The Tenth Line | Questions about organs
Count your blessings Tox, at least they aren’t asking you about your genitals.

I can see what they were going for with this system; they decided to create separate modes to accommodate players with different levels of experience. The problem is that balancing an RPG to be at just the right level of challenge is hard and will require a lot of testing. This means that when you try to increase or lower difficulty in an artificial way such as removing core gameplay elements or using a set formula to alter every enemy’s stats without regard to how much it alters the intended experience, it creates a vastly inferior end result. These types of artificial alterations may work in action games, but turn RPGs are based primarily on planning and strategy over reflexes and memorization. As such, any turn based RPG will feel like a completely different game depending on the difficulty setting, and most of the time only one of them is properly balanced; leaving the rest feeling cheap or artificial.

I talked about this briefly in my review of Yooka-Laylee in how it is difficult to create a game that accommodates multiple different play styles. The best approach to design is to bring the player up to the game’s level; not to dumb it down so that even Darksydephil can play it. It is clear that the game was designed with its normal mode in mind, so why not simply design the game in a way that teaches the player through its design rather than wasting time on two separate game modes that make for infinitely worse experiences? I cannot understand the appeal of the story only mode in the slightest either. You would literally have a more satisfying experience if you just watched a let’s play or even just a video playthrough without commentary! At least with those, you won’t have to drag three characters across an empty dungeon, and you can skip ahead in the video.

Thankfully, if you ignore the two easier game modes and prefer to do things the old fashioned way, you are in for a pretty compelling gameplay experience if you can firmly fully grasp it. The battle system is turn based with you controlling the same three party members throughout. However, you will regularly have to face over 15 different enemies in one regular encounter. The reason for this is because more enemies start entering the battle every turn, but there is always a limited amount of them, and because every enemy on screen being killed does not mean that you win just yet. Of course, to prevent things from getting too hectic, there is a limit of twelve enemies allowed on the field at once.

The Tenth Line | Battle guards

Most of the difficulty in The Tenth Line comes from the sheer amount of enemies on screen, and many of the toughest bosses dispose of them each turn and replace them with new ones at max HP. One would naturally think “oh just focus your attacks on the boss then” but you can’t because all enemies attack on the same turn in a specific sequence. There is a system in place similar to the Mario & Luigi series, Mega Man Battle Network, and Time and Eternity where you can block or dodge oncoming attacks depending on the character. The Princess can only block and reduce damage, while Rik and Tox dodge. The catch is that these commands can only be used once per turn and they will only last a short bit (but that short bit will get longer the more you upgrade yourself on the power flow board, and Rik can even get a second dodge).

Furthermore, each character has a special guard ability that takes 3 turns to recharge, but last longer and will heal the party if used against the right type of element. The Princess’s special guard will heal if used against melee attacks, Rik’s will I used against ranged physical attacks, and Tox’s will if used against magic.  Knowing when to use these can easily turn the tide of battle in your favor, but it can also greatly screw you over if you misuse it during the more difficult boss battles. The reason for the latter is that Rik and Tox’s special guards leave them wide open to attacks of the attribute they don’t specifically defend against.

This was a mechanic that took a while to get used to for various reasons. The first is that, similarly to the Mario & Luigi RPGs, these dodges are mapped to specific buttons. The Princess, Rik, and Tox’s guard/dodges are mapped to the triangle, X, and square buttons respectively. The problem is that on the battle screen and menu, the character order displayed is, from top to bottom, The Princess, Rik, and Tox. This means that the lowest button on the PS4 controller is mapped to the character in the middle, while one of the buttons in the middle is mapped to the character in the lowest vertical position.

The Mario & Luigi series had the Mario’s moves mapped to the A button and Luigi’s to the B button; and order that matched their positioning on the battle screen which made it a lot easier to jump right into. In The Tenth Line the order that one’s mind naturally expects is screwed with, meaning that the player can’t jump right into the battles without practicing until they got the order down by instinct. The fact that you only get one per turn and the precise timing needed both ensure that the battle system will feel chaotic and confusing when the player starts out. Furthermore, I didn’t even fully comprehend how the special guards worked until towards the end of the main game, which just goes to show how poorly executed the in game tutorials are, and that this game could have really used the option to review the tutorials from the options menu.

PS4 controller
Not Pictured: The controller that was used to play test the PS4 version of The Tenth Line.

Thankfully, the game is well balanced enough that most veteran JRPG aficionados can get the hang of it on their own before it becomes absolutely necessary that they know the battle system inside out (that mainly referring to the post game bosses and a select bosses in the main game close to the end). However that’s not even close to a full explanation of the battle mechanics. Each of the player characters attacks is also mapped to the same buttons as their defensive actions, and they all attack on the same turn. Depending on the attack selected, one may need to press the button more than once, and the amount needed will be prompted on screen. I mostly decided to just press all three buttons at the same time since it did not seem like the order of attacks made much of a difference even though some mechanics in the game alluded to that being the case and other sources saying similar things. If they do play a major role in the mechanics, then I certainly didn’t notice any because I platinumed this game without paying any mind to them.

Of course, order DOES seem to have some effect because there were multiple instances where the game would not let me complete an attack or when a special attack meant to hit all enemies on the screen hits NO ONE. I can easily tell that these are not glitches or bugs; they are, in fact, mechanics that were intended to be included in the game that I STILL did not understand despite having completed everything in this game. This game, along with Gungnir and The World Ends with You, demonstrates that it is often important to take a step back and not go too overboard on gameplay mechanics. Of course it does not mean much significance to the player if the game can still be played without them, but from a development standpoint it wastes time and resources that could be used for extra polish or even additional content.

Anyway, my method was to simply not care about which order the attacks happened in during easy battles, while having each character attack one at a time during important ones, and it didn’t seem to matter as long as I got them all off. We are not even halfway through the battle mechanics though so get comfortable.

The Tenth Line | Patience remaining
Pictured: The result of a JRPG noob trying to play The Tenth Line’s normal mode.

Each turn, all three characters will choose either an attack, or to rest. Resting will have that character regain some HP and they also will not lose any SP from attacking. Each of your attacks are represented by cards and will require varying amounts of SP to use. This means that you can’t simply use your most powerful attacks right at the start, and you need to build up SP over the course of the battle to use said moves. All three party members will gain SP at the end of each turn, but the amount they regain depends on fury/forgive meter, which is yet another mechanic that needs explaining.

The fury/forgive meter is based upon what attacks The Princess uses in battle. The more the fury meter is filled up, the more SP your party will gain each turn, while the forgiveness meter will cause restore more HP to your party each turn. The catch is that increasing one meter decreases the other, and you cannot have both filled at once. This means that the player will need to prioritize whether it is more important to have enough SP to use strong moves, or to keep everyone healed up, and seeing as how it takes multiple turns to push the mater one way or the other, this is NOT something to be taken likely. What makes things even trickier is that the moves that will increase forgiveness the most also require a hefty amount of SP, meaning you can’t simply stay in one lane the whole battle (this is especially true given that the meter starts out empty on both sides unless items are used outside of battle). On top of this, the stronger bosses in the game will also require you to take out several smaller enemies at once so you have fewer attacks you need to withstand.

That isn’t even the entirety of battle system in this game, but I’m still going to stop here because this is a review, not an instruction manual. The point is, this shit can be very hard to wrap one’s head around, and it could have really used some more streamlining. Note that “streamlining” is not supposed to mean “dumbing down” so I don’t consider light mode a good alternative. I will at least grant that I only played up to the first boss in light mode, but the problem is that the game’s design makes it obvious that it was intended with all these mechanics in mind. For example, Tox’s breath ability is normally changed by eating foodstuffs, and depending on the item, it will change his breath to fire, ice, light, or nox. In addition to affecting Tox in battle and temporarily increasing or decreasing damage or defense against those elements, his breath will also need to be changed around for various puzzles.

The Tenth Line | Black Dracons
The Black dracons did 9/11.

What complicates things in the main game is both A: the fact that a majority of items are dropped by enemies so it can be easy to run out of the type you need, and B: Tox has a stomach capacity meter, which discourages experimentation, a key element of puzzle solving. This means that the player will have no choice but to grind out enemies unless they know all the puzzle solutions from the start. This is only a major problem when attempting 100% completion thankfully.

Light mode decides to do away with any character specific mechanics in battle, meaning that the princess has no “fury/forgive” meter and Tox no longer can eat stuff for increased affinity for elements. Without the latter, you can simply switch Tox’s current breath at will without any other requirements, which makes any puzzles requiring them completely pointless. Yes, it is still preferable to running around like a flaming chicken with its head cut off that also wants to cross the road to find the right item drops to continue with the game, but it still makes it completely obvious that this was not how the game was intended to be played. This is also present with how the cards that you select for attacks still have the icon listing their fury/forgiveness effect, or how Tox still needs to take an entire turn just to switch to a different element even though he can now switch between them at will.

Anyway, I have hammered on the Light mode enough at this point, so the rest will apply solely to the main game. Another advertised feature is the powerflow board, which is similar to Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, except you use regular items to fill in each slot. What makes things interesting is that some items will boost your stats stronger than others, and that it is possible to go back and replace weaker slots with better items. This means that even if you reach max level, you still won’t be close to maxed out stats. Given that the strongest stat boosting items are only given from the game’s strongest superboss, it would likely take over 100 new game plus playthroughs to completely max out all three character’s stats. Thank god there is not a trophy for that.

The Tenth Line | Powerflow

Dungeon design is pretty solid as it makes use of a most of the character’s overworld abilities. Unlike most turn based RPGs, you control all three characters individually and switch between them. Each character has different abilities that need to be used for puzzles and to reach certain areas. However, you also need to be careful about where you leave each character so they don’t get ambushed by an enemy. This adds a surprising amount of depth to the simple act of fighting random battles.

Lastly, just because it deserves mentioning, The Tenth Line also has you automatically kill weak enemies on the overworld by striking them first like in Earthbound and… maybe like 2 other games. This feature should seriously be a standard by now, so why the fuck isn’t it? Granted, The Tenth Line still botched it because only the character you killed the enemy with gets the experience and you don’t get any money or item drops either (which are far more valuable than exp anyway) but it still gets a point for even having something in the first place.

All in all, The Tenth Line’s biggest hurdle is its interface, because otherwise, you have a solid RPG. The story is engrossing, and the gameplay holds a lot of depth and challenge. Granted, I some of the super bosses and the penultimate boss felt unfair at points, but they can be overcome with enough perseverance and it feels incredibly rewarding to conquer them. If you are a fan of traditional JRPGs that would like to play an indie RPG that isn’t made in RPG Maker, this is the game for you.

The Tenth Line | Hatred
Amen bro, amen!

If you would like to play The Tenth Line for yourself, it can be purchased here (Steam version) and here (PS4 Version).

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