I've had this idea floating around in my head for a while now, and I now have plenty of time to kill (especially before CSIV), so why not do something mildly productive with that time?
Rean's a pretty polarizing character in the Western fandom. He has his fans and detractors, with plenty being written about why his character does or doesn't work. And to be honest… while I've mostly been okay with the latter, (barring instances of people exaggerating or misrepresenting parts of his character to make a point) I've never really been satisfied with the former. Too much reading into the text and downplaying of legitimate concerns with his character for my taste. So I figured I'd offer my own take on the subject.
I won't belabor you with a point by point retelling of the character's entire journey, but I'd like to run down what I think Falcom did right and wrong with his character, starting with each game.
Rean is basically introduced as a blank slate type protagonist. He comes to Thors to "find himself" and doesn't really have much in the way of clear wants or aspirations. Perfect for players to project onto and start their journey at Thors. This isn't inherently a bad thing (see the Persona games), but Falcom trips up because of one fundamental truth; Rean isn't a blank slate, he's a textured character with a backstory, clear insecurities, and a place in the world that goes beyond being "self-insert for the player"
This is a problem because those aspects of his character aren't properly communicated to the player in the first game. He's a practitioner of the 8 Leaves One Blade School technique, but the game is perhaps a bit too subtle about it. It initially comes across as a somewhat incidental part of his character (ala any other character's specific fighting style), but it's actually extremely foundational to his character and overall growth. It's this typical "learning martial arts to get a better understanding of yourself." but unfortunately, CS1 barely devotes any time to that, instead, sectioning off crucial character development to a drama CD. This has a severe effect because his primary goal of mastering the Void style isn't conveyed in-game to the player until Cold Steel III. Oof.
His backstory is slowly introduced as you progress through the story (similar to Lloyd) but I don't think it works nearly as well, for a number of reasons. Ogre mode just doesn't come across as frightening due to how the game presents it (not helped by the rocking song that accompanies its first appearance). It's a legitimately good concept for a main character, but the game fails to sell the utter terror of it. So when Rean expresses the fear of his power and his constant holding back, and finally reveals it to his friends in chapter 5, it comes across as a cool anime powerup rather than some dangerous and frightening he's had to wrestle with most of his life.
With all that said, I don't think Rean is unlikeable.
He's milder than Estelle or Kevin, but he generally plays off pretty well with his peers and isn't completely humorless.
Rean: Alas! If only my evil step-teacher would stop dumping a bunch of work on me and let me go to the ball.
One scene that stands out, in particular, is when he chews out team B for getting a failing grade in their last field study and telling them to do better. It's arguably a symptom of Cold Steel's overreliance on Rean, but it does convey that he's not some passive nice guy who takes everything in stride and is one of the few moments where he explicitly steps up as a "leader".
Overall, I think CS1 Rean far from a bad character. He's got his fair share of good moments in the narrative, memorable lines and decent-to-good chemistry with everyone (Crow being the standout). But even as a fan of his character, it's hard to deny that he isn't frustrating in some key ways, that his obsession with adhering to politeness and modesty can be grating when it's uncompromising, and that his disregard for his own life isn't particularly compelling or relatable. Cold Steel II
I'm sure folks are bound to disagree with me, but I think Rean is greatly improved in Cold Steel II, even if the overall writing quality has arguably degraded compared to CSI. CSII fixes up one of his issues present in the previous game by giving him more of an emotional range. There's some anger, depression, and even pettiness to go with his usual friendly and modest demeanor. He's able to verbalize his feelings of discontent at the very beginning of the game, and even though his scene with Elise is a vehicle for dumb fanservice, it does serve the purpose of immediately establishing his insecurities, wants, and aspirations in a way the previous game never bothered. Even if it's as cliched as "getting my friends, sister and Crow back + learning to accept unconditional love" Rean is consistently being driven by something clear throughout the game, instead of listlessly progressing from chapter to chapter which makes it easier to connect with his character.
Where his character suffers is his relationship to Crow. Crow becomes foundational to Rean's character, similar to Estelle & Joshua. In fact, i'm positive they're deliberate parallels here. The only issue here is… Rean's relationship with Crow is nowhere near as properly established, and a good deal of his interaction with him is optional. Which can trip people up when they wonder he's so damn obsessed with this one dude. Granted, I don't think it precludes the relationship from being enjoyable. The irrationality of bringing back a terrorist and making him graduate can raise eyebrows (and is, on the surface of it, really stupid), but the game does a good job of selling that Crow matters
to Rean. Their rivalry,
lunch date on the pantagruel
, promises to each other and Crow continually guiding him, even as an enemy, culminating in Crow's death
. Whether it's because of some unintentional subtextual romance or a deep connection to his senpai, there's no denying that Rean has a strong connection to him. And that strong, canon connection separates him from the nebulous relationship with love interests.
But honestly, you can take what I said about CSII Rean and throw it in the trash, because he goes from being "pretty good" to a legitimately great one, come the Divertissement chapter. Where do I even begin? For the first time, our perspective is completely divorced from his, as we see him become a provisional officer offscreen and outright have to deal with him being a minor antagonist. Gone are the days of just being a typical anime student; he works for an imperialist regime, lamenting his lack of ability to make choices as he willingly becomes Osborne's pawn for the greater good (and top of dealing with the general loss of Crow
. Sure, his actions lead to far lesser casualties and that's a "good thing", but we see his operations are clearly starting to take their toll on him. While Estelle and Lloyd had moments of insecurity and doubt, they ultimately never wavered in their beliefs. Rean ends the game losing that sense of freedom. Which both makes him stand out more as a kiseki protagonist, but more importantly, it makes him easier to sympathize with his depression here since a lot more people can relate to being forced to grow up too quickly and work at a job you dislike, and the pressures that come with that. It nicely culminates in his duel with Lloyd and Rixia. No more modesty or empty promises. He's cold in performing his objective. It makes for a nice contrast to when he comes back to his friends during the epilogue, where despite his best attempt, things are different and they'll never go back to being the way they were.
Overall, I like the changes made to Rean's character in CS2. While he still suffers from cheesy speeches, an overcentralization of his character, repitition and harem hijinks, Falcom got a good deal more ambitious with his character. Whether it's his freak out with Osborne, fully breaking down in front of Towa or his characterization in the Divertissement, I feel pretty confident in saying CS2 Rean (while still flawed) is a good character. Cold Steel III
Now we're talking. This time around, we're treated to a protagonist with stronger, weightier character interactions, sweet emotional range, character development and a nice amount of personal tragedy. Rean's base personality plays well with his occupation, since he's now a teacher, and going out of your way to help people hits a bit harder when it's your job (instead of being a nice student who's a part of the magical student council.) But most importantly, it finally feels like Falcom landed on an identity that could really work with Rean, similar to how Estelle, Lloyd and Kevin were able to effortlessly work as Bracer, Detective and "Priest'' respectively. There's also the matter of how they handle his baggage. He comes across as someone who legitimately has trauma over his involvement in the Northern War, and even directly verbalizes his own distaste for the direction his life ended up going in after becoming the Ashen Chevalier
That doesn't mean he's completely devoid of the issues holding his character back. His self-sacrificial nature still feels a bit too cliched for my taste (though it at least actually works pretty well in the game's ending), there's still the harem issue (which has intensified) but for the most part, we're dealing with Rean 2.0 here. The repetitive character beats that hurt the character has been downplayed here, and he comes across as consistently more direct and "adult" in his interactions with others. I think where he shines the most are with his interaction with his students. They just come across as really genuine to me, as he's equally likely to praise them and help them as he is to harshly criticize them for their recklessness
. You can see how there's genuine weight when talking to his students, rather than the straightforward (and let's be honest, kinda bland) conversations he usually had with his classmates in CSI-II. One moment I really like is his quest with Jessica. In it, Jessica expresses her insecurity with her level competency in martial arts, and Rean can relate. And it doesn't feel like the usual modest baiting we're treated to in the previous two games; it's a grounded insecurity he's worked to overcome through his experiences with Laura and his master.
Overall, I really like what they did with Rean in CSIII. Falcom went out of their way to really improve on what worked with his character and address (some, though not all) of his flaws in CSIII. His character development as a young adult and a teacher is compelling, and even something as minor as getting drunk with Randy for the first time just adds a bit more humanity to the character that was lacking in the previous games. Rean's development is protracted, but they managed to nail being a teenager full of potential and growing up into an adult with tons of responsibilities and obligations. Overall... I don't think my assessment has changed much from the beginning; Rean is demonstrably a flawed character, and it'll ultimately come down to you whether his good traits don't make up for those flaws. But I think, as of CSIII, that he's one of Kiseki's more emotionally resonant characters, even if he stumbled quite a bit to get there.
I wrote a lot about this character and it's likely that the people reading this won't change their mind either way, but I figured I'd be nice to get this all on the table before CS4 comes out.
If you've read this far, thank you, truly. And have a nice day.