new experiment in informal writing: the following is an assemblage of disconnected reflections on rise of the third power (2022) by stegosoft games. it’s stitched together from notes i took while playing, mostly between sessions since my laptop was not available during them, eventually arranged by subject and lightly edited for clarity and readability. the end result is a partial survey of different aspects of the game, neither comprehensive enough to be a consumer review nor focused enough to be an essay, but still touching on all my strongest feelings. i wrote these mainly for myself, but i’ve tried to add detail after the fact to make everything legible for those who haven’t played rise; spoilers are marked at the top of sections that contain them.

surprised at how much i liked the character writing. the cast was mostly based on stock archetypes, but despite the jokey-joke vibe in so many of their interactions, the writers used kind of a light touch. arielle’s sheltered and imperious princess shtick was going strong 15 hours in, but as much as it defined her comedically, it wasn’t what defined her identity, her relationships, her drives… and the same is true across the main cast. aden might be my favorite. his brooding edgelord persona even feels a bit put on in-universe, but everyone can see through it a little bit and keep pushing his buttons, which is great for comedy, but it’s also fun to see him relent a bit and connect with people. his scenes with arielle are fantastic, especially for her (i love that she immediately gloms onto this asshole who wants nothing to do with her), but my single favorite aden moment might be him agreeing to go to the bar in everheart with corrina. i also like how much his outfit goes against type for his class. a dark wizard with bright blue hair and all blue clothes… aden’s design and portraits have a lot of “just a guy” energy and it’s a big part of why the character works for me.

i didn’t like the illustrated character portraits at first, they felt a bit out of place with the pixel art character sprites and map tiles. but they grew on me quick, and now i believe they’re a big part of why i’m so into the character work. they do so much to guide how i read these characters, generally more in subtle ways than outlandish, comical ones, which i think was my unconscious fear when i first saw them. the reception seems to have been a bit divisive, but i think they were 100% the right call, especially since the game makes all kinds of conscious deviations from retro constraints anyway.

impressed how much i’m drawn into a story driven by rowan’s heterosexual relations. they’re full of real and interesting tensions. he’s a huge mess of a man, but he’s got a good heart, which makes the combination of warmth and distance reyna shows him resonate. scenes with brooke feel like little oases of peace and relief for rowan (brooke herself feels little like, straight guy wish fulfillment gf, but they make good use of that), always over too soon. and the way his relationship with selene, rowan’s pirate queen ex-girlfriend, starts off bad and just gets worse and worse is all the more tragic because it feels like it didn’t have to go down like this (her being ambiguously black-coded makes some aspects of her arc uncomfortable, like her main personality trait being unbridled, vengeful rage). all these relationships are helped by the game’s being pretty firm about not babying rowan or letting him off the hook for past harm and present shortcomings. i didn’t find him especially likable (in fact i liked that he was a little pathetic and embarrassing, especially wrt reyna), but i did find him sympathetic, and i was at all times curious to see where these relationships would wind up. i like that rowan never had any romantic tension with corrina or arielle, the women introduced earliest in the game and with whom he got the most shared screentime.

in fact, part of what i like about the reyna relationship is that although she’s rowan’s primary love interest, it’s like his fourth relationship with a major female character that they start exploring. they start alluding to reyna (and rowan’s feelings for her) long before she appears on screen, and long before it becomes clear that she’ll ever join the party. though incredibly important, she’s not the female lead like yuna (ffx), shana (legend of the dragoon), or selan (lufia 2). so it was a bit of a surprise when they started seriously exploring the romantic tension, and were so firm about it being one-sided. het romances between male and female leads that form over the course of an rpg journey aren’t too uncommon, but i haven’t seen it nearly as much that a male lead navigates unreciprocated desire, and indeed multiple “unsuccessful” or unrealized romantic relationships, across the length of a journey. the failures and vulnerabilities are part of what makes it possible to identify with rowan, and that’s rich ground. i hope he has a big zidane crisis in the third act.

it’s a shame they didn’t give rowan any past/present male romantic interests because he has disaster bisexual written all over him. not that i would have added any more romantic interests to the story, and i’d hesitate to genderswap any of rowan’s existing ones, except maybe reyna whose archetypal priestess healer thing is probably less subversive than brooke or selene. of course, i wouldn’t want there to be any fewer female party members - this is one of three rpgs i can think of where there’s more than one possible all-female party you can make (the other two being mystic ark and sailor moon: another story).

one thing i do appreciate is that the game is really consistent about including women among soldiers, guards, knights, veterans (as well as blacksmiths). i'm always bumping into female soldiers in town or hearing about npc’s war hero grandmas’ and going "huh? oh right, duh." i haven't looked too closely at enemy squads, but it wouldn't surprise me if the gender balance was about 50/50. weirdly, despite this, the distribution of combat roles across gender lines is pretty traditional, with both healers being women and all three tanks being men, and only arielle (princess with a huge cannon) really playing against type for her class.

i don’t like skill trees in general, but the ones in rise were so short and so simple, i was actually really into it. the brilliant part is that skill points are shared between all party members, so the focus was less on suping up individual characters (to do so means depriving the others) and more on making sure that everyone has the minimum needed to perform well. new characters demanded an infusion of additional skill points to get a feel for what they were really capable of, prompting me to shuffle points around and see who could get by with less. i felt corrina only needed her first skill to perform well, so i reset her tree so she only has deathblow and gave the excess points to aden so i could explore his skillset more. meanwhile, i felt really firm on the big point investments i made in reyna and rowan. in the endgame i wound up with a glut of skill points that let me have everything i wanted on everyone and more, which made this aspect of party-building a little flat - but at its high point in act 2, i found it really inspiring.

the asymmetries of the skill tree system are self-created. instead of suggesting that the characters are balanced equally, rise makes no claims and leaves me to decide how much investment i think each character needs. who’s good as is? who most urgently needs investment to keep up? who’s not worth it no matter how you pump into them? (thankfully no one so far.) the current distribution of skill points across my five party members feels like a way stronger and more concise reflection of my personal, functional understanding of the game’s rules and parameters than it would, i think, if i had 5 characters who advanced evenly. (actually, i think this kind of equity-not-equality approach to party building might be rise’s most radical idea)

another consequence of the small skill trees is that each character apparently only gets 2 new combat moves over the course of the game. i respect the minimalist approach here, i think it really works, there’s a bigger focus on relationships with individual skills, which often have the potential the vary in power or utility quite widely depending on how you build a character, and the small individual movesets are offset by switching characters in-battle and between battles. in a way, my party has a huge and comprehensive movepool with no unnecessary redundancies - i just can’t access it all at once, and have to be tactical about what portion i have available at any one time. another consequence of continuously reevaluating your skill point investments is that characters sometimes lose skills they previously had. this happened for me a couple times in my party, especially with corrina’s “coup de grace” which disappeared and reappeared in my repertoire three or four times. perhaps only in rise have my relationships with individual tools experienced so much flux - that’s a kind of intentional relationship i really value.

take this with a grain of salt. lurking on the and forums as a teenager (c. 2006-10, maybe) and reading a lot of hobbyist devs’ rpg design opinions, there were some ideas i saw repeated frequently: that randomness (especially random failure chances) were antithetical to fun and skill, that imperfect or incomplete information about the effects of certain decisions undermined strategic play, that skills should stay usable forever instead of being made obsolete by new ones (think tiered fire magic, etc.). underlying all of these was this idea that the heart of fun in rpgs was in intense “strategic” battles, the kind you get sometimes when you eke out a win against a really tough boss battle by leveraging your resources effectively instead of taking a grinding detour. you can take this characterization with a grain of salt because my memory is both fallible and selective, and i don’t have any concrete references to support that this was ever a widespread idea. but this wave of strategy fetishization was definitely one that i noticed and associated with people who seemed important and influential in that scene (vaguely familiar from my days lurking on competitive pokemon forums, too). i was and still remain sympathetic to this line of thinking (who doesn’t love a really engaging boss battle?), although i love all the things they criticized and i recognize more and more value in them all the time.

rise’s combat design feels continuous with this body of thought, although it’s of a moderate strain. randomness hasn’t been eliminated entirely, there’s still damage variance and critical hit rates, and many enemies choose targets at random. unlike into the breach or fire emblem: three houses, you don’t know exactly what enemies are going to do, and that remains a big source of tension (especially in boss battles). but there are no miss chances, and turn order is deterministic and clearly displayed on the screen. precise ranges for randomized damage are displayed before you commit to an attack, with a visual indicator showing you how much of the foe’s health bar will remain after the attack, and a handy status screen tells how many turns are remaining on each status condition affecting an actor. along with the small pool of abilities per character, which are meant to stay relevant through the whole game, the overall vibe feels consistent with this old rpg forum philosophy. you could say it’s been chessified, at least to a modest degree: the game wants you to feel like you can clearly see all the pieces on the board and be reasonably certain of how each one’s doing and how different courses of action will play out. it’s not all the way chessified, and certainly nothing like playing chess, but it’s a step in that direction compared to (say) dragon quest 3, where managing uncertainty is at the heart of play. i mean this as a neutral evaluation - i don’t think it’s a bad way to make an rpg, although i don’t think it’s necessarily more “strategic” than games with lots of randomness and opacity. it’s just a different mode of strategicality, one that puts players in kind of a god’s-eye seat and, in its extreme forms, concedes that anything they can’t see from up there is unfair.

the danger with fetishizing player control is that if you can see the pieces on the board clearly, and you have way more power than your opponent, you can basically play out the whole fight in your head before it starts - but you still have to play it out in the game, too. this gets especially tiresome if you have to play out the same fight multiple times. this was an issue i had with rise’s combat early in the game: its non-boss battles could get extremely rote. especially in the first act, i could act out the same strategy over and over again with little resistance from the enemy side, because the game gave me all the information and security i needed to know that things won’t go wrong. miss chances, randomized turn order, unknown hp and damage values: the conventions rise most conspicuously rejects are all ones that would stop me from lazily acting out the same tactics battle after battle with assurance that it was the quickest and most effective way through.

it took about half the game, but the exhaustion system finally got my attention. the premise is that characters accumulate exhaustion in battle by expending mp, dying, or running away, and if they reach 100% exhaustion they experience a debilitating status effect for the duration (i’ve never quite gotten there, so i don’t know exactly what it is). the more characters you’ve recruited, the faster exhaustion accumulates. meanwhile, characters recover rapidly from exhaustion by sitting out of battles, so the idea is that if someone gets exhausted, you swap them for someone else for a few figto recuperate. in theory, this mechanism forces you to regularly change your party line-up, helping to disrupt inertia, provide variety to repeated encounters, and encourage engagement with the full range of characters, strategies and mechanics.

this was the missing piece for me. after spending the first act repeating the same battle plans over and over again, without much need to adapt or reevaluate, the party switching encouraged by the exhaustion system added some much needed variety to the combat experience. as the exhaustion system came to play a bigger role, i wondered if it could have been leveraged sooner: exhaustion accumulates faster the more party members you’ve recruited, and prior to the fifth character joining, it was basically a non-issue. with five, six, seven characters in my party, some characters gained enough exhaustion per battle that it was immediately clear that i couldn’t sustain their use through a whole dungeon (and dungeons were always long). thereafter i would rotate my party regularly as a precaution, and became very conscious of mp expenditures (reyna’s 80-mp celestial flare, previously the bread and butter of my offense, shifted to an occasional treat). with seven characters in my party, including multiple tanks and healers, distinctions deepened (particularly between those who are good at fighting single targets and those who fare better against multiple), preferences crystallized, and i was able to enjoy the tensions that arose between wanting the right person for the job and not wanting to tax them too much, and so exploring second-best ways of doing things. so the exhaustion system was great for getting me to engage with the full range of the party, and to help vary the action of each encounter, with my lineup constantly changing. a big success in the end - i just wish it didn’t take 15+ hours for it to start paying off.

rise’s world-building is really light so that the focus of its world can land on politics and international relations instead of fantastical elements. this makes the world rapidly intelligible: there are there are few new rules to learn; nations are defined mainly by their system of government and role in the geopolitical narrative. the particulars of what theses place and their inhabitants are “like” aren’t that important to the larger story, so they get pretty simple answers. temperate cirinthia is vaguely like western europe, while the desert nation of tariq and snowy arkadya take their cultural details (food, dress, naming languages) from the middle east and russia respectively. a few things about this left me uneasy, although for different reasons in different places. without much of a sense of identity in its own world, tariq felt like little more than a collection of generic signifiers of “the middle east” - arabic names, kaftans and headscarves, coffee and hummus, sand, sand, sand - even some pyramids, although they were at least in tariq’s southern jungles. despite these symbols, none of them singularly or in combination was deployed in a way that felt particularly insensitive or orientalist, and in fact rise shows an interest in avoiding or subverting stereotypes (like emphasizing tariq’s democratic governance and making it the accepting home of canonically gay party member rashim). with my limited insight in this regard i’m tempted to say its depiction is basically benign - yet i think there’s still something disappointing about it all: the gap between the highly localized aesthetics and skin-deep cultural identity, the use of the middle east not even as inspiration but cosmetic prefab, the segregation of most of the game’s dark skinned population to the desert (and a handful of integrated pirate communities outside). my discomfort comfort here is lowkey, i don’t have a strong argument to make, but i feel the need to at least acknowledge it. more concretely upsetting is the amount of time spent mowing down squads of dark-skinned combatants with my mostly light-skinned party, the better part of two consecutive dungeons. of course, you kill a ton of light-skinned people in cirinthia and arkadya, probably a comparable number in each - but that doesn’t really make the taste copper road and nadim left in my mouth any less sour.

in arkadya the invocation of the real world poses a different problem. arkadya plays the role of nazi germany in rise’s inter-war allegory, but its wintry geography, culture and nomenclature are all meant to evoke russia. the story cleaves closer to the inter-war allegory at some points than others, but when it comes to arkadya, it always returns to third reich parallels (it’s right in the title), with the odd sovietism (like gulags, of course) thrown in for good measure. it’s made me uneasy the whole game through: there’s a long history of equating and conflating communist russia with fascist germany by reactionaries of all sorts, from horseshoe theory centrists and capitalist propagandists to holocaust deniers and outright neo-nazis. whatever the authors’ intentions (and again i assume the best), the story they’re telling with arkadya plays into this ugly narrative. there are valid criticisms of soviet russia to be made, but casting them as the villains of a war in which they were instrumental in defeating naziism (and paid a staggering human cost to do so) is an ahistorical fantasy that undercuts the game’s nominally anti-fascist theming.

(notice: there are vague endgame spoilers in this section)

the whole game is behind me now, but i’m still wrestling with rise’s political storytelling. it had some genuine strengths. narratively, i liked the openness of the ending, in which the big bad survives to fight on and events continue to escalate into the epilogue, but which still feels like an ending point because the main characters’ personal stories have reached their conclusions. and while arkadya comes off a bit cartoonish as historical allegory, it is effectively used as a foundation upon which to ground each character’s complex and varied feelings, relationships, and motivations in their lived experiences. these narrative victories stand out when so many other rpgs of epic scope struggle to muster the storytelling chops to match their ambition and imagination. politically, i appreciate its basic revolutionary sympathies: unlike villnoire, which shares a number of similarities, rise assumes you’re already sold on the legitimacy of liberatory violence and builds from there.

but i wish that spirit penetrated a little deeper into the subject matter. arkadya is full of allusions to nazi germany and classic signifiers of repressive dictatorship: nationalism, purges, ghettos, eugenics, work and/or death camps - but the specifics have little bearing on the world or the story. they’re just shorthand, meant to communicate that emperor noraskov is evil by evoking the third reich (or, ambiguously, stalinist russia). noraskov’s persecution of people of “lesser Fate” mirrors hitler’s aryan nationalism, but in rise’s world it has no origin, no purpose, no consequence. it comes from, and points back toward, noraskov as the locus of tyranny in arkadya. in this way rise’s depiction of fascism doesn’t feel like commentary on a highly relevant real world phenomenon. it’s just window dressing - another flavor of ancient demon lord to defeat.

at best this engagement with fascism feels sloppy and hollow, all signifiers and no substance. i expect a story so inspired by europe in the 1930s, firmly on board with revolutionary violence, and released amid surging american (etc.) fascism to have a little more to say about these things than just “dictatorship bad”. at worst, i think it reinforces narratives that undermine anti-fascist resistance, equating nazi germany and stalinist russia under the flattening charge of totalitarianism and framing it as something that could only happen under the institutional backing of a wartorn foreign autocracy - never someplace like america today.

above all, it’s frustrating. i want a story that deals with deeply urgent real-world themes to be better grounded in reality. i want games about history and politics to themselves be invested in history and politics beyond the bounds of high school history class. and, in the present political moment, i want art about resisting fascism and imperialism to give me something - clarity, perspective, conviction - to help equip me for a shared battle. a work that obscures more than it illuminates, adopts unhelpful old perspectives, and doesn’t challenge me to do or think anything more than i already do, is not a meaningful contribution to that cause. to do all this while waving the flag of antifascism just pitches a mist of despair on me - is this really what we’re doing right now? rpgs have a long history of exploring anti-imperialist themes, and it’s great that rise is drawing on this tradition. but with so much room still to expand, complicate, and renew the exploration of resistance, i wish rise had taken the opportunity to deepen its lineage’s political consciousness instead of its political aesthetics.

you can purchase rise of the third power on steam, switch, or ps4 for about 25 canadian dollars.