Just as movies and music have intros and preludes, many games offer the player a gradual immersion at the start in the form of a masked tutorial or an on-training wheels segment. But some elect to give the player a figurative five across the eyes, as if to taunt them, daring he or she to press on past an initial challenge. A fine example can be found in Demon's Crest, where the very first moments are spent in a boss battle against a dragon. Those who have played the game probably have no issue with his pattern now, but the first time through, you have no experience with Firebrand's controls, and it's basically sink or swim. I died twice before I even made it past the introduction - cruel game design or brilliant maneuver? I suppose it depends on the player, but I couldn't put the game down.
But this article isn't about Demon's Crest. We've all likely experienced a dragon at the gates, especially those who have played their share of 8 and 16 bit games. But there is another form of sucker punch a game can throw in early on that doesn't involve a harrowing challenge. Seiken Densetsu 3, the Japan-only sequel to Secret of Mana, boasts six playable characters, each one with their own story arc. At the start, the player selects who will be the lead, and which two will be the assisting characters. Each lead plays out entirely different to set up their main quest, and eventually ties into the others as all characters end up searching for the same thing. As mentioned previously, the challenge issued isn't one that tests a player's improvisational button skill, but a jab at the heart.
Most of the characters contain a punch to the heart, but players who chose Kevin the beastman as their primary character in Seiken Densetsu 3 get a little extra. Kevin is a half-man, half-werewolf child who was conceived by his werewolf father and human mother, the latter of which is gone at the start of the story. He happens on an orphaned wolf pup, and his heart opens up. At the start, the player assumes control of Kevin, and just bombs around the moonlight forest with his best buddy Karl. That is until Deathjester, who becomes one of the antagonists in Kevin's story, bewitches Karl. After a short fight, Kevin is unable to stop Karl from attacking him, and his beast form awakens.
Once in full beast form, Kevin has no problem in overpowering the berserk wolf pup. Sadly, he isn't able to control himself, and he beats Karl to death. The player is actually controlling this action, making it that much more affective. In his final moments, Karl crawls away, Kevin runs to him, and he dies in Kevin's arms. As if that wasn't enough to loosen the faucet, the music that starts playing is that same that plays when the party is either sleeping at in inn, or after the party dies (this was the same in SoM). Hearing the gameover music as Karl dies, and Kevin's cries of anger always puts me over the edge. I'm getting teary just typing about it!
The relationship of Kevin and Karl closely mimics that of a person and their pet. When you have a bond with a cat, dog, or whatever, you develop this sense of protection, and do everything you can to keep your companion safe. Aside from human loss, I can't think of anything more difficult to cope with than the death of a dear pet. Karl's death becomes the motivator for Kevin's quest, which some have criticized for being such a basic reason. But if I was told of a way I could bring one of my lost pets back to life right after they passed away, I'd have set off to do so too.
Some games take half their length, or even the entire run to culminate in a tear-jerking moment of Disney-like quality. SD3 manages this in the first ten minutes, and I'd rank it up with Celes' attempted suicide, Nei's death, the Metroid Hatchling, or any others that so relentlessly shock and awe our emotions. I have yet to play a game that began with such a heavy heart, making the opening of Kevin's story the most emotionally challenging of any title. It's like a bully who just made some cutting remarks about something you hold near and dear. You fight to keep yourself together, but eventually the dam breaks, and he or she stands there with a superior grin. Cruel design, or brilliant maneuver?
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