Checks Out The Tenth Line

Well! It’s been a little bit since I last posted one of these, hasn’t it? My backlog hasn’t grown any shorter in the interim, but I figured I should get back to it. As such, I (somewhat arbitrarily) selected The Tenth Line from among those games that had been sent to me as the subject of this newest episode.

Per custom, I recorded the screen as I played, the results of which you can see below:

So: what did I think?

The truth is, if I were primarily interested in The Tenth Line as a platformer, I don’t think I would continue playing–it doesn’t quite achieve the polished “feel” that I expect in a dedicated platformer, particularly with regard to its jumping. But as luck would have it, I don’t especially care about The Tenth Line as a platformer! I’m much more interested in it as an RPG–and as an RPG, it certainly has my attention.

The Tenth Line boasts an interesting battle system that vaguely calls to mind Lab Zero Games’s still-in-development project Indivisible. Here, each combat turn is divided into an “attack” phase and a “defense” phase; in each, pressing one of three buttons will cause the associated party member to perform a selected attack or dodge. In the attack phase, this has the effect of letting you customize the order in which your attacks play out; in the defense phase, this gives you the opportunity to mitigate incoming damage in something approximating the Paper Mario style. As a battle proceeds, you’ll be juggling cooldowns on your characters’ various attacks while trying to maximize their effects upon a row-and-column battlefield, which lends the proceedings an agreeable level of tactical depth. The controls do take some getting used to, but I quite like what the developers have come up with here.

I also quite like “Quad Pro Quo,” The Tenth Line’s included Gratuitous jRPG Mini-Game. It’s very much a variant on FF8’s Triple Triad, but that’s hardly a flaw. (Unlike FF8, though, the game’s core combat system is good enough that I expect TTL will avoid attracting videos like this.)

The only core system that I felt was a little lacking in the first hour was exploration. To begin with, there’s the aforementioned floaty-ness in jumping, which makes it feel less satisfying to move about with your characters than it ought to. Worse, your other party members don’t automatically follow your lead character around during exploration; you must switch characters and move each manually, traversing the same exact terrain three times. I hope that at some point, this will be rendered at least minimally interesting by virtue of the fact that your party members all move differently, forcing you to come up with different ways of traversing the same terrain. During the first hour, however, the only reason I ever had to switch characters–aside from the fact that the game occasionally forced me to–was to interact with some aspect of the environment gated for one character or another. (That, and the fact that the game actively punishes me for entering combat when my characters aren’t sufficiently close by to one another, a trait I find more irritating than interesting.)

Despite these flaws, if we compare exploration in The Tenth Line to the experience of exploring environments in most other jRPGs, it comes out looking pretty rosy. With lots of interactivity and something like actual skill required to navigate the environment, it’s hard to get too irritated with its weak points.

I am not so impressed with the Tenth Line’s leveling system, however. Aesthetically, it has the look of FF12’s “license board” system–but unlike that system, TTL enforces a number of seemingly arbitrary limits upon your characters’ progression by requiring you to use miscellaneous items (a loaf of bread! an oil bottle! an icicle!) to unlock improvements. Each choice is further limited by connect-the-pipes mechanics, and effectively limited even further by a color-matching bonus (which you lose outright if you don’t have the right color item for the stat you want to improve). It’s a very gamey, in-the-moment set of mechanics for a system intended to bear more on one’s long-term strategy and vision for building one’s characters; it takes an interesting choice about which stats and skills best fit how you want to play the character, and interposes the sort of pedestrian considerations one finds in a mobile puzzle game.

Let’s switch gears and talk about narrative for a second. The world of The Tenth Line seems well-thought out, and the game seems to be gearing up to tackle heavy themes, not necessarily limited to (but clearly including) immigration, racism, and religious nuttery. Consider: the central protagonist–an as-yet-unnamed princess of the nation of Easania–is pretty damned racist at the start of the game. She persists in calling her companions (to whom she owes her life!) “beasts” even after they politely ask her to use their names. She tells them that they smell bad and refuses to sleep in the same room as them. It’s impossible to say for certain based on what little I’ve played, but I get the sense that the princess’s character arc will involve her coming to love and appreciate these so-called “beastmen.” The writing in The Tenth Line seems fairly competent thus far, which gives me hope that it will handle these themes appropriately.

On the visual front, The Tenth Line takes much the same tack as Celestian Tales did, with lovely painted backgrounds and heavily pixelated character sprites. As in CT, it’s an inconsistent style, but it still mostly works. The only nit I have to pick with this game’s aesthetics concerns the paucity of frames for character animations in battle; it’s a little odd to go from fluid movements out in the field to jerky 3-frame attack animations in battle. It’s not a huge problem, but it is noticeable. Meanwhile, another point to the plus side: the game’s character portraits are just lovely.

The Tenth Line’s music is not bad, and I’ve already encountered a couple of memorable tracks in the first hour. There is some voice acting, seemingly limited to victory barks at the end of combat and the occasional grunt while jumping. It’s a nice touch, even if I’m not wholly enamored of certain choices some of the voice actors made. (Tox, especially, practically begs for a more mature, less growly delivery.)

As always, my conclusions are tentative, and necessarily limited by the fact that I haven’t played through the whole game. All in all, though, this is a game I can definitely see myself continuing to play, and the game’s minimal $9.99 price tag makes purchasing it a particularly small risk. There are more details on how you can snag the game right here.

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