I am, as ever, a moth to folly’s candle.
The Tenth Line is an RPG by the creator of The Reconstruction and I Miss the Sunrise, and represents the developer’s first foray into commercial gamemaking. It is better than its predecessors in some ways — it has a self-contained plot with an actual ending, for one thing — and worse in other ways.
Here there be spoilers, so if you want the abstract: The story is an absolute disaster. I routinely found myself getting lost from line to line in cutscenes, because nothing anyone said or did made the slightest bit of sense. I really hoped that the poor character writing in the last two games was just because there were too many characters to manage, but here there’s a much more condensed cast and scenes still consist of characters chirping out their one character trait and then bending over backwards for the whims of Plot. I’m finally starting to understand people who say game stories take themselves too seriously. This is very much a video game plot, with the story being little more than a vehicle for cool fights and shocking plot twists with little vision for any coherent whole, yet the game clearly seems to be trying to say some deep things about prejudice, religion, and fatalism, despite not being able to deliver. Conversations also go on forever — I’m someone who normally eats up every line of dialogue, but here I routinely found myself saying “Yes, we get it, can we move on please” when talking to NPCs. But even aside from that, the story just felt… really bland, ultimately. The Reconstruction and I Miss the Sunrise may have executed their ideas poorly, but they did have interesting and original ideas. The Tenth Line does not — it’s a very standard fantasy world and fantasy RPG plot, and none of it really stuck with me.
Is it still worth playing for the gameplay? That depends, I suppose. I personally found the system simultaneously overdesigned and lacking in strategical depth. Battles tend to be extremely repetitive and drag out just a bit too long, with most of the strategy revolving around pre-battle setup and very difficult action commands. You can burn items to give your characters bonus strength that slowly degrades, and the game seems to expect you to keep them topped off after every battle but I just can’t be bothered. The platforming puzzles were generally nice; every character has their own jump physics and special abilities they can use to do stuff in the world, and this usually leads to there being multiple ways to progress through the area for each of them. However, there are tons of environmental hazards that serve only to waste your time by knocking characters all the way back to the start of the (rather large) areas. I definitely found it getting pretty tedious by the end, and I didn’t bother with the postgame grinds despite normally being a completionist. My recommendation would be to look at a let’s play and see if it’s something you think you’d enjoy.
The premise of the story is this: a princess of a remote kingdom is on the run from a cult who want to sacrifice her to their god. While running through the sticks, she encounters a fox-man, Rik, and a black dragon, Tox, who agree to protect her in exchange for riches when she is returned to her throne.
The holes start right away. We quickly learn that the real plot revolves around prejudice against animal-people and black dragons in particular. The king of the region declared what was essentially a writ for genocide against the beastfolk, though none of the characters seem to recognize it as such. Hatred against black dragons is even more widespread, as they are prophecized to end the world in the titular Ten Lines; many NPCs demonstrate that they have been demonized even further in popular culture and myths, to the point most people believe they are literally soulless monsters who exist only to bring destruction everywhere they go. Yet the Princess has no reaction to encountering Rik, and only the barest moment of shock at seeing Tox. The story desperately needs to establish early on what are the standard beliefs towards these people and the history behind them, but it doesn’t do so until very late, and what we do get is very patchwork and contradictory. What does the Princess think about beastfolk? Does she agree with the common prejudices and only tolerates their company out of desperation, or is she a more enlightened thinker to begin with? And surely she should be concerned about the ending the world thing, yet she doesn’t bring up the subject until quite a ways in, and Tox is needlessly cagey about the subject. In the end it turns out he doesn’t know anything either.
One of the things I noticed early on is that character flaws never seem to affect or impede the characters in any meaningful way. The Princess is arrogant and haughty, Rik is a shameless thief (and supposedly a coward, though I don’t really see it), and Tox is incredibly prickly and aggressive whenever anyone acts racist towards him. Yet this never matters. The Princess yields whenever her arroagnce would actually make her lose something. Everyone excuses Rik’s behavior except the one time it’s not his fault, which I’ll get to. Tox never actually starts any fights despite baiting people relentlessly, because all town NPCs are the chillest of chill bros. (There is serious whiplash there, in general; outside of towns and in cutscenes you routinely encounter hunters who are literally killing beastfolk for sport, yet in towns everyone just so happens to be totally fine with beastfolk or adhere to a sect that doesn’t believe black dragons are evil. WHICH IS IT, GAME.)
The first one is eventually explained as the Princess not actually being a princess, just a con woman who used the lie to sucker Rik and Tox into helping. While this fixes some plot holes, it opens others. Namely, why is a random street urchin so good at fencing? Like not just any kind of swordfighting, fencing. Other characters remark on how good she is in the story itself, and she explicitly has a passive skill that makes her do more damage to other fighters because she’s so good at it. How??? Where did she get the chance to learn this??? There are also several points early on where she does put up a lot of fuss and generally endangers her position with the others for absolutely no benefit, which is nonsensical if this is actually just a calculated con. Did she think they doubted her and she therefore needed to play it up? Was she purposefully trying to shake them before they caught on? I don’t get it.
The next area is where it really falls apart. I don’t even have words for this, just watch the scene yourself.
What even was that? Nothing Sonya says is in line with anyone else’s viewpoint on this. Everyone else agrees it’s fine to kill black dragons on sight, and she herself repeatedly threatens to kill Tox anyway not just in this scene but in future ones (because she becomes a party member he can talk to at any time, in which case they banter like they’re petty rivals and not like SHE WANTS TO KILL HIM). She says the hunters aren’t supposed to kill for sport, yet in party banter she constantly threatens to kill Rik if he makes a single wrong move and is generally super racist, so I doubt she’s done much to moderate her compatriots. Even if she has to kill him “fairly” or whatever, why does she need to wait until the end of the journey? She later claims she can cripple him at any point, and threatens to if he hurts other hunters “without due cause”. Why. Why doesn’t she do this. Why doesn’t she try to kill everyone when they are totally complicit in keeping Tox alive?
And even assuming the author has some idea in his head of how her motivations make sense, there is no reason for anyone else to go along with this. She just explicitly said she is going to kill their friend as soon as they reach their destination, and the Princess’ only reaction is “New party member? Cool!” Tox’s own brother acts like she’s just a minor nuisance, and Tox himself has no reaction whatsoever. NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE. In theory I could see how a belligerent character contributes to the character dynamic, but not only is this overdoing it way too much, she doesn’t even do that properly! She’ll occasionally whine at beastfolk for existing, but does nothing to actually impede the party or add tension in any way. Everything about her is brain-breakingly stupid and she completely ruins every scene she’s in.
Sonya really compounds all the problems with the plotting, especially in the first half of the game. She continues being violently racist, but still has to stay in the party, and the game makes no attempt at coming up with any natural reasons for this to be so. The party goes on to recruit another dragon mage who’s a clear expy of Moke; he’s a powerful poison mage but a very nice person who ends up poisoning a town’s water supply by accident. Sonya wants to play judge, jury, and executioner as soon as he confesses; Tox stops her by saying there’s no justice in killing him before Tox, at which point she just meekly stands down instead of just killing them both. Why? Why is she so invested in keeping him alive? The townspeople also immediately forgive him when he says it was an honest mistake, because random people being totally reasonable doesn’t muddle a racism narrative at all, nope nope.
Then it turns out Sonya’s not even an accurate representation of black dragon hunters in general, because Lux, a crown-sponsored dragon who acts as an ambassador between humans and beastfolk, proceeds to have no such scruples about attacking Tox immediately. (Why didn’t the party see this coming when they know black dragons are widely hated? WHO KNOWS. Some characters remark that his hatred is unusual, but it seems pretty on par with other NPCs we see.) Sonya tries to handwave the plot hole by saying revenge and wrath are cardinal sins in their religion so it’s wrong to strike Tox down in anger… except another one of their cardinal sins is PREJUDICE and that’s the entire reason Sonya is hunting Tox in the first place! The plot has to tie itself in so many knots to justify why Sonya stays in the party, but the justifications still don’t make sense. She’s not even an effective viewpoint into mainstream religious/racist society, because she has to be distorted so much that she no longer bears any similarity to the other racists we see.
So the party keeps traveling. They pick up a fire dragon who’s atrophied his powers in the hopes humans will be less afraid of him, and the poison dragon finds a remote swamp where he can settle down without bothering anybody. They encounter Tox’s sister Nix…
…who clearly has lizardboobs. You may remember that female lizardfolk did not have boobs in IMTS, so this is very weird. The dev outsourced the art for this, so perhaps he just didn’t specify.
Nix confirms that the black dragons do indeed plan to end the world, and imminently. Tox says he doesn’t wanna because he likes his friends. It turns out that, apparently, black dragons taught humans magic and language, and Nix is really pissed that they’ve used those gifts to turn on black dragons and, y’know, I think she has a point? The humans we’ve seen so far have been horrible genocidal monsters with very few exceptions. My only objection would be that regular beast people would also die.
Nix gets pissed and knocks out the party with magic poison, so Tox has to carry them to safety. He picks his old home, where he explains that he and Rik were raised by humans. Back when the beast genocide started some people showed up to lynch them, and Tox killed the attackers in a rage. This made him so ashamed that he just… took off without even trying to explain things, because he “just knew” his parents were horrified and would never forgive him. Yes, really, we have descended to bad fanfic levels of writing here.
Rik was understandably traumatized by all this, so when he wakes up in the house he flips out and runs off on his own, accidentally leading a hunting party to them… and NOW we’re taking the genocidal racism seriously all of a sudden. The Crown soldiers joke about killing beasts for fun. The red dragon stays behind to stall and insists he’ll be fine because dragons are respected and he has a good track record with humans. Instead they kill him and torch the house. Why did he think it would go any differently? It seems like this is supposed to be unusual behavior, but the earlier hunters behaved the exact same way, and everyone seems well aware of the racism of the human kingdom.
Tox completely loses it over this and blames everything on Rik, casting him out of the group and forcing him to traverse the desert beastfolk were exiled to during the first genocide, which is just utterly baffling to me. The idea is supposed to be that Tox was really upset at seeing a fellow dragon get gunned down… except he has absolutely no reason to feel any kinship with the guy. We’ve seen no evidence they’ve encountered other dragons before this, and the prejudice against them is totally different than the prejudice against black dragons — even the other dragons are quite cold and suspicious towards Tox. Nor does it make sense for anti-dragon prejudice to be this widespread in the first place — not only is Lux highly respected, but again, why did the red dragon think he could talk them down if that never actually works? But yes, Tox values a stranger over his own brother, because no one is allowed to have consistent characterization.
Tox tries to further justify it by saying he was the responsible one who was trying to teach Rik how to survive on his own, except everything we’ve seen has confirmed Rik’s paranoia. Rik is the one who seems like he has life figured out, Tox is the idealist who can’t survive in the real world. Throughout the early sections Tox repeatedly lectures Rik on appease humans and finding wisdom in their religion that BRANDS HIM AS A DEMON — meanwhile in the background, Sonya is constantly threatening to murder him and state-sponsored hunters keep showing up.
Tox is totally unfair, on top of that — Rik ran away while delirious because Tox broke his promise and was too busy SPILLING PAINFUL SECRETS TO STRANGERS to look after him, take some responsibility of your own! I also just don’t see how this was supposed to be a fatal flaw of Rik’s in the first place. He’s kinda self-centered, but never to the point that it actually gets people hurt. He never betrays or steals from the party, and he complains when they help people out but always goes along anyway. None of this makes any emotional sense.
This then proceeds to have no consequences anyway. Rik spends like five minutes in the desert learning to be more selfless and then he immediately rejoins because this game does not have the gall to actually split the party. It would have actually hurt if we had to spend a whole chapter without him, especially because the battle system relies so strongly on the synergy between all three characters, but no. This is the kind of thing Final Fantasy VII was parodying 20 years ago. Even if his selfishness was a real flaw he needed to overcome, one scene of being sad followed by NOW I SEE THE ERROR OF MY WAYS isn’t a character arc. It’s all way too sudden.
This whole thing is really such an idiot plot. Everyone knows their destination is violently anti-beast. They act like this will just be a minor inconvenience and have no plan, then they’re shocked when they get attacked and killed. Then despite all the build-up, the border guards just let Tox through, because of course the people guarding the Genocide Wall are suddenly reasonable. Like it is super obvious the reason so many dragons are on the move is because they’re gathering to end the world, but I guess Lux is the only one who cares enough to actually try to do something about it.
Then the party runs into Lux, who has been killing black dragons en route to their gathering place. For some reason he insists that black dragons are the reason men and beasts can’t coexist, because… why… exactly? If anything Tox has been treated way better than the random beasts the hunters keep mowing down. Once again, we needed to know what everyone thinks about black dragons and why for this to work. There is absolutely no way for me to tell if Lux is right or not.
There is also a SHOCKING TWIST: Lux saw the king begging the black dragons to spare them from the apocalypse, and was so enraged by his cowardice that he killed him. That sure would have been a great reveal if I had any reason to care about the king or his death had any impact on the plot, but I don’t and it doesn’t. NPCs mention him a bunch, but the political situation is totally irrelevant the main characters’ journey. The only relevant thing he did was to start a genocide when he was alive, so if anything I feel he had it coming.
Then there’s a dramatic boss battle because there must always be dramatic boss battles, and Lux is suddenly the most superpowered mage ever despite being previously established as a sickly weakling. Everyone is totally gung-ho about protecting Tox, but Tox himself is just really sad because he wanted to be Lux’s friend, apparently. Why? His only interactions with the guy have been extremely violent. I can see how Tox might have seen a dragon in a position of respect and derived hope from that, but it was so obviously a doomed hope. I’m just utterly baffled by how Tox seems to think he’s in the exact same boat as other dragons when his situation is so clearly worse — it’s just so totally backwards. (And Tox continues to be an idealist who really has no right to lecture Rik about surviving in the real world.) Then Lux gets swept away in an avalanche and Tox lets him die because he suddenly decides he’s going to be the monster everyone thinks he is. Because, I dunno, he had a crush on Lux and can’t handle rejection?
The Princess then gets captured by the cult, who apparently have crap guards because Rik and Tox break her out in five seconds. It turns out the cult has been worshipping an eldritch abomination made of “white energy” that counters black dragon magic, so they think the abomination will save them from the prophecy. But the characters just know the abomination is actually evil, so it’s a good thing the black dragons are going to kill it by poisoning the world. The Princess tries to kill the abomination another way but fails, so the apocalypse happens just as predicted… but Tox sees Rik is dying so he gets very sad and reabsorbs all the poison into himself, which kills him. (It is later implied he could have survived if all the dragons had done the same, so why was this option never on the table?) Then the long-lost prince shows up and says they’re going to be nice to beasts now and all problems are now solved forever because Rik becomes a knight (read: gets co-opted by the system that oppressed him).
Yes, that’s the ending. A whole bunch of deus ex machina show up that completely change everything, and we’re just going to paper over the very difficult reality of reconstructing a deeply racist society.
The story and particularly the ending didn’t feel emotionally satisfying to me at all. I have no emotional investment in fighting this random faceless monster that just popped up out of nowhere, and the whole plot has been such a bizarre roller coaster that I had no reason to have any expectations or feel any tension. I presumed events would contrive to get whatever ending the plot demanded, and lo, they did. But it feels particularly wrong for Tox to sacrifice himself, just… the entire story has been about prejudice against dragons and particularly black dragons. He was forsaken by his birth family, his adopted family, and society at large. He constantly had his life and happiness denied to him and was alienated by everything and everyone. It feels incredibly unfair to say he has to make this noble sacrifice so all the ungrateful genocidal monsters can maybe have a change of heart. Nix even goes on to say the black dragons all feel hopelessly lost now, and GEE THE HUMAN-RAISED GUY MIGHT HAVE BEEN ABLE TO HELP YOU WITH THAT. On so many levels, the story would have worked better with someone else sacrificing themselves to give Tox the life he was denied so he can lead people into a bright future.
So yeah, that’s the story. I know you may think I cut out a lot but believe me, it’s even more incomprehensible in full. The developer made an honest attempt at making a singular, complete narrative this time, but he did an even worse job of connecting the pieces into a coherent whole. Everything is just shocking twists for the sake of shocking twists and cool battles for the sake of cool battles. No one’s motivations made any sense and I felt no emotional connection to any of them. I did like the green and red dragons because they were nice people, but of course they’re barely in the game and only one gets a happy ending. :/ In particular, I was very disappointed by the reveal that the princess was just a con woman. I actually thought the premise was really clever — I liked how it seemed to be subverting the entrenched video game trope of the princess as the useless damsel in distress by having her be so competent and commanding. Individually, both “princess that actually does stuff” and “the protagonist isn’t who they say they are” are great ideas — but together, they kind of cancel out. Sometimes less is more, and sometimes it’s worth giving up a shocking twist for the sake of maintaining a good narrative.
…And, this is nitpicky, but perhaps related: I rather strongly object to SUDDENLY ROCK’N’ROLL for the final boss music. I actually like it on its own, but if your soundtrack is otherwise standard fantasy classical stuff it’s just really jarring to suddenly change genres, even for something as significant as the final boss. (For reference, this is the battle music for the boss immediately prior.)
Thinking on it, I rather strongly suspect the problem might be that this is an author who hasn’t read very many novels. As I said, this is absolutely a “video game” plot, where everything bows in service to a few cool setpieces. Things just kinda happen without much cause, propelling the characters from place to place while characterization warps to enable this and to keep the party together. What’s particularly odd here is that I think the plot may have worked better if it was a novel — so much of my confusion was because I couldn’t understand characters’ inner motivations and chains of reasoning, despite them evidently being obvious to the author. We desperately needed more windows into characters’ heads, and more time to explore their thoughts on the situation. So much of the late game involves Tox going super introspective and clamming up whenever anyone tries to get information out of him, and that doesn’t work when your only way to show characterization is through dialogue. I’m sure the author was thinking “So during this period he’s thinking this, and here he’s ruminating on this, which is how he comes to the decision he makes here,” but we don’t get to see any of that. Characters say one thing, go quiet for a while, then do something that seems to contradict their earlier actions, and it’s not clear how they got from point A to point B.
Also… I don’t know why the author insists on writing about prejudice so much when he’s so bad at it. This is the third game with prejudice as a major theme and it’s just gotten worse every time. The Reconstruction at least had a fairly realistic depiction of oppression even if the characters weren’t allowed to do anything about it, but here everything is such a cartoonish exaggeration of racism, where all the bad guys are over-the-top genocidal monsters yet the beastmen only seem to care about having snappy comebacks to microaggressions. Humans literally hunt beastmen for sport and are pushing them further and further from their homeland, yet beastmen don’t seem to have developed any defense mechanisms or psychological damage from this at all, they just act like put-upon normal people. This reads like a really privileged author just putting in stuff he hears black people complain about and thinking that’s all racism is. No! It isn’t! You added in genocide! This is a completely different situation! It honestly reads like misery sue stuff — the oppression is only used to show how awesome the characters are in spite of that, and to show off how witty and snarky they are with their comebacks to the dumb racists. Except when it’s time to get dramatic, at which point everyone acts shocked about the basic principles of their own society. I don’t get it.
And it’s also just really undercut by the fact that your beast party members have to be allowed to talk to everyone in every town, so none of the NPCs can actually be dangerous or express opinions in line with the society we see in cutscenes. You know what would have been great? If the Princess was the only one who could enter towns and talk to people. That would have been such an effective way of showing just how dire and awful the situation is for the beasts, while also giving her a clear reason to be around — she’s honestly a really extraneous character, which you can probably tell from how little she’s mentioned in my summary. I think the plot would have been stronger if it had been retooled with Tox as the protagonist and the black dragon gathering as the main plot hook — that’s what the plot is actually about, after all.
But I’m not going to do a rewrite or think about how to fix it this time — there’s just no interesting ideas worth salvaging here. These are same themes jRPGs have been discussing for literal decades, right down to using anthros as stand-ins for oppressed races while the humans are mostly white, right down to the slapdash conclusion that carefully avoids taking any difficult stances. It says nothing bold or insightful. I think we can start expecting a little more from video game plots at this point.
I will say this, though: I’m starting to think I was too harsh on the dev in my conclusion of I Miss the Sunrise. I think I was judging him on the same grounds I would judge myself, and perhaps that was unfair. I think I’ve got my own philosophy pretty much figured out, and when I write, it’s to express my views in very firm terms. I don’t think that’s where the dev is coming from, though. This is the third game from the guy with the same themes of apocalypse and fatalism, but it’s been expressed through different angles each time. I’m starting to think this is just a fixation of his and he’s trying to explore his own feelings on it — but in that case, geez, he kinda worries me. This may not have been I Miss the Sunrise, but there is still such an overwhelming tone of resignation throughout this. There’s even a point where Rik convinces a runaway black dragon to rejoin the apocalypse gathering, because hey man, you should trust your family! Whatever will happen will happen! Meanwhile, everyone who tries to actively avert the apocalypse is crazy, evil, and hopelessly misguided. This developer looks like he’s in a really dark place.
I’m not going to keep pursuing his work, though. I wanted to hope that now that he’s gone professional he would shape up, but that wasn’t the case. It’s become clear to me now that the things that interested me about these games originally aren’t the things he’s interested in, and he doesn’t have the writing chops to pull it off regardless. A shame, but it happens.