Xbox isn’t short of retro-JRPGs. That’s largely thanks to KEMCO, who have become such a massive operation across multiple satellite studios that they can offer a thirty-hour RPG every month. We even have a reviewer who is effectively dedicated to these games, and they see revive potions in their sleep.
The problem with KEMCO’s monopoly is that there is, effectively, a KEMCO template. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for those who eat their JRPGs up, but it does give a lingering sense of repetition, and – at least in our case – a wish that other studios would give the genre a crack, and that new ideas – particularly ones less focused on the grind and abstract, world-ending storylines – would percolate upwards.
Sound the bugles, then, for Rise of the Third Power. This is a retro-JRPG created not by KEMCO, but by Stegosoft Games, whose only other appearance on the Xbox was Ara Fell Enhanced Edition, another stab at a JRPG. And sound the bugles again, because it’s flipping brilliant. It has some whopping great issues which we will get to, but it has charm in spades – enough to grab a trowel and cover up some of its flaws.
Rise of the Third Power is one of those stories that starts small and then snowballs until it has global implications. You play Rowan, a retired-soldier-now-pirate, and Corrina, a plain old pirate. You’ve been drafted as mercenaries into a dangerous mission: to kidnap the princess of Cirinthia on her wedding day. She’s feisty and not willing to go quietly, and you’re soon on the lam with the kingdom’s guards after you. She was due to get married to a prince of the Kingdom of Arkadya, so you make enemies of a second nation too.
But the kidnap is not a malicious act. Without spoiling too much, you have been employed by a force who believes that the marriage will lead to a false alliance, one that will quickly get undermined and used as a turning point to war. And so the whole world gets caught in the whirlpool of your actions, finding themselves forced to choose a side.
What I love most about Rise of the Third Power’s story is how ground-level it is. You may be the trigger for this international game of thrones, but you are viewing it, town by town, as a small team of bemused individuals. You get to chat to the townsfolk and get their view on things, but you rarely get to spend time in the throne rooms and god-palaces of the world’s leaders. This is war on a micro scale, and Rise of the Third Power chooses to bask in it, spending hours and hours in it, rather than try to accelerate to all of the good bits.
That might sound like a double-edged sword: Rise of the Third Power likes the slow build, but is there emphasis on the ‘slow’? Not really, as it happens. Rise of the Third Power finds interest in the relationships between its main characters, loves the pleasures of a side-quest, and gets you interested in what makes each town, village and bandit fort tick. And all of these things are done exceptionally well. We’re not into the quality or richness of an Undertale here, say, but it’s likable, deep and detailed, and we found ourselves lost in it.
Arriving at upwards of forty hours of content, Rise of the Third Power isn’t short, but it’s also – by some form of miracle – not a grind, either. At least, not really. There are no randomised enemy spawns here in Rise of the Third Power. Enemies walk around and you can choose to approach them (surprise-attacking from the back, of course), or avoid them. Kill them and they disappear, giving you free reign to walk around without the fear of attack, which is a godsend as dungeons can be labyrinths, with chests to find and rinse. You can respawn the enemies at an Inn, but Stegosoft Games have balanced things so that you can easily complete the game without having to do so.
The result is a game where the only direction is onwards, and that’s a delight. We can’t tell you how heartening it is to play a retro-JRPG without the knowledge that we are going to loop around and around, auto-attacking slimes. There is an asterisk here: you can grind, and you will be hugely overpowered as a result, and some endgame ‘Weapon’ bosses need some grind, but we took those as a given.
It’s lucky that there’s no grind, as combat is unengaging. It’s one of those flaws we mentioned. Anyone who’s grappled with more than one JRPG will know immediately what’s going on: player characters and enemies take part in turn-based combat, where the turns are determined by a speed stat. Attacks are pulled from the character’s list of abilities, and they’re the usual roster of basic attacks, more mana-expensive special attacks, healing spells, buffs and debuffs. Attack and defend until one side of the battle is defeated.
There are some neat nobbles to note: the characters tend to have different approaches to their special attack bar, with some starting at 0 and building up a bar as they attack, while others have a full bar that depletes and needs replenishing with a ‘Reload’ action. Each character feels different, which is something. But there’s no avoiding how bare bones the combat is, and some repeated patterns of enemies make the repetition stark.
Successfully massacre your enemies and it’s the usual XP and item rewards. This leads to Rise of the Third Power’s second big flaw, which is that there aren’t a huge number of ways that a character can progress. There’s a small progression tree for each character but there aren’t more than a dozen nodes to unlock. Loot is extremely limited, surprisingly so, as chests will almost only contain potions and coins (or items to be sold for coins), making them unexciting to open. And weapons are purely crafted, and there aren’t many of them. You can only upgrade when you reach a specific blacksmithy, so Rise of the Third Power effectively throttles your progression and removes a bit of the fun.
In other games, these would be damning mistakes, but Rise of the Third Power accumulates such a wealth of goodwill thanks to the care in its characters, its world and it’s lack of grind that – at least in our case – we put up with them. You may want to check your priorities to see if you would give it a similar score.
We have a burning love for Rise of the Third Power. It’s a long, lingering cuddle of a JRPG, doing everything we want from the genre: rich storytelling, chummy characters and a large side-step of ‘the grind’. If you can forgive the lack of any combat, loot or progression depth, you may love it as much as we did.
You can buy Rise of the Third Power from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S