Late Character Syndrome

In video games where your characters forms parties, you'll often be able to fill up the party relatively quickly, and then receive characters that are better than the ones you started out with or who fill different niches. The characters are well-developed and receive neat sidequests that allow you to get extra treasure or other bonuses.

Then this character shows up. He may have great abilities, but he's already missed out on most of the game. In practical terms, this means he's missed out on all the grinding you did earlier, assuming the game doesn't have some sort of automatic catch up mechanism — and even if he does, his default stats for that level may be lackluster compared to the carefully hand-leveled other companions. He may have also arrived after a character who already fills his niche pretty well.

But even if the power divide isn't too bad and the character is really quite awesome at what he does, there's another factor. You've already played most of the way through the game with the characters you're currently using, so you're already emotionally attached to that party and comfortable with the current group dynamic. In addition, a character that comes to the party this late is less likely to have as much of an impact on the plot, or any cool sidequests to go on.

And, as a final straw, these guys might end up coming in at the same time for any New Game+ runs you might be allowed to do. Chrono Trigger's Magus might be fun to nuke the enemy with in the late part of the game... but hit New Game Plus, and he's gone until late yet again.

This is particularly a problem in games with Loads and Loads of Characters, where "late" can actually be quite early, leading to a lot of Overrated And Underleveled situations. Games with Final Death may make these characters more useful, if similar characters gained earlier have died. This might also happen with optional party members, especially if their recruitment sidequest takes place late in the game.

Differs from Can't Catch Up in that the characters were possibly never caught up to begin with.

Examples:

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    Beat 'Em Up 
  • Super Smash Bros. Brawl gives you a quickly expanding cast of fighters to work with in the adventure mode and you get lots of share time between each fighter to get used to their play styles. You also have the opportunity to boost the powers of characters through stickers. At the Final Battle, Sonic the Hedgehog appears to weaken the final boss' ultimate attack and becomes playable for that one fight. You have no opportunity to boost his abilities and no time to practice with him, making him practically useless for the final battle.
  • Warriors Orochi suffers from this problem constantly. When you unlock a character, even if said character is said to be a major badass like in the case of Lu Bu, said character starts at level 1 with their basic weapon and none of their abilities. This is a case of Gameplay and Story Segregation, of course, but it does seem a bit strange, not to mention frustrating when you can't take the cool new character you just unlocked in Stage 7 of the campaign on to the final battle. However, the games allow you to level up the characters instantly with collected XP so that you're not forced to grind every single character you meet.

    RPG — Eastern 
  • In .hack//G.U., you get Shino at the end of Vol. 3. You get Tabby after getting halfway through the Forest of Pain, a 100-floor dungeon. Finally, you can get Natsume at any time during the game, but you have to find and defeat her and all the other Chaotic PKs in order to get her Member Address, and she's around level 130, which is the average level to end the main storyline at. By the time you've gotten them, you've already cleared the main storyline and most side quests, and Shino and Tabby's roles are already filled by Atoli and Pi. Natsume's role would be filled by Alkaid, but you temporarily lose Alkaid in the middle of the second game (shortly after getting her) and when you get her back, she's half the level of everyone else you have access to, making her pretty much useless. You might could also count Haseo as filling Natsume's role, since he also has access to Twin Blades.
  • In the original Breath of Fire, your last party member is Mogu a mole-like creature you have to save from being trapped within his own nightmare. The only reason you need Mogu is to make use of dig command to find treasure and transformations (for Karn) on the world map and once to perform a vital plot function. Dig doesn't need to be leveled in battle.
  • Magus in Chrono Trigger, especially if you get him for the first time on your second or later playthroughs. At the time you pick him up, your staple party members are likely getting near their endgame skills, while he only has three mid-level spells that you already have access to through other party members.
  • A far bigger problem in Chrono Cross. With 44 playable characters and only three fighters in battle (and one of those slots has to be filled by Serge until New Game+), most late-game characters never see use. Especially since early-game characters Glenn and Razzly can slaughter anything they see with ease.
  • Terry joins the party pretty late in Dragon Quest VI. It's good that he mastered Warrior and Martial Arts jobs and wearing strong equipment. After Terry joins, you can recruit Lizzy, the Dragon Hacksaurus who is very useful in the party.
    • In the original, Terry didn't have anything mastered and he was 5 levels lower to boot. Thankfully, the remake gave him a few buffs as described above.
  • Can crop up in Dragon Quest VII, which features a strict Arbitrary Headcount Limit and rotates a couple of members in and out according to the plot. The player can't actually select who journeys with them until right before the Final Dungeon. This can lead to one of the later characters falling behind, depending on how you developed them during their time in the party. Specifically, Aishe/Aira was the most often ditched - she is the last one to join the party.
  • Final Fantasy franchise:
    • Most fourth party members in Final Fantasy II even Leon get this, due to your main three getting most of the benefits of grinding.
    • Debatably Edge from Final Fantasy IV. Especially in the DS remake, which requires a lot of grinding.
    • The new Jobs introduced in the GBA remake of Final Fantasy V are only available at the end of the story. One of them, the Necromancer, gets new abilities by having the Necromancer personally kill certain enemies, meaning the only way to build them up is to backtrack and grind, and even then they'll only see real use in the final dungeon. Necromancer is probably the ultimate example, because you have to complete the first of the 2 post-game bonus dungeons just to unlock it - a dungeon much harder than the final dungeon of the regular game, obviously - basically all that's left after unlocking it is a boss rush (the OTHER bonus "dungeon")
    • A problem with Strago and Relm in Final Fantasy VI. They show up just before the end of the world, meaning by the time you have them, everyone else has a considerable amount of Magic already built up. They're not given much time to catch up before you lose your party members and have to retrieve them. Strago's also a Blue Mage, meaning all the monsters with useful skills are behind you when you get him. With high natural magic stats and good equipment options, both are potentially very useful party members, but you have to go out of your way to level them before they become worthwhile.
    • One of the factors that mitigated the potential awesomeness of Cloud Strife appearing in Final Fantasy Tactics is the fact that he joins the party at Level 1 in the fourth and final chapter of the game. On top of this, his unique abilities require him to use a pretty weak sword, and the more powerful ones have insane charge times, meaning the player will have to grind Time Mage (because of its Short Charge ability) to make him viable.
    • Amarant in Final Fantasy IX joins your party late into the second disc, and there are party members who fill his niche quite well. It takes quite a bit of grinding to set him up with the utility skills that your staple party members take for granted.
  • Golden Sun
    • Golden Sun: Dark Dawn Also has the same problem with your last three party members, who join in after three quarters of the game is finished. By the time you get the final party member, you're already on your way to obtaining items you need to tackle the Final Dungeon. This is lampshaded when the Big Bad shows up before the Final Battle and the party reacts angrily to him while lately acquired party member has no idea who he is since she wasn't with your group from the start.
    • Golden Sun: The Lost Age has this for the last quarter of the game with Isaac and his party when they join your party after you complete the Jupiter Lighthouse. By the time you get them, you're already on your way to the Mars Lighthouse. Your new party members aren't very different from your main party ability-wise, so you will have little reason to swap out characters unless they start getting knocked out in battle unless you transferred your clear data from the first game to the sequel to bypass the grinding process for Isaac's team.
  • Applies to Komachi, Touma, Seraphina, and Kristofer from Infinite Undiscovery.
  • Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch includes Marcassin, the Prince of Hamlin and Swaine's brother, as a playable character. He joins during the last portion of the game when everyone discovers that there was a Bigger Bad behind Shadar. Unfortunately, not only does he join at a low level (depending on how extensively the player grinded the others), Marcassin turns out to be an inferior Oliver in gameplay, only surpassing Oliver's physical attack stat, which is useless for a wizard character. His spells aren't much better; they have a shorter cooldown timer compared to Oliver's, but they're also the same as Oliver's, barring the story specific ones that only Oliver can use, meaning Marcassin lacks the most powerful spells in the game. Worse still, since the other three party members already have roles (Esther for taming, Swaine for stealing), and you can't switch out Oliver, Marcassin's usefulness drops almost to nil. His main benefit is that he's about to boost the stats of certain species of the game's mons, ones that the other party members don't have an affinity for.
  • Ken and Koromaru run the risk of this in Persona 3 due to being (relative) latecomers who are not as deeply integrated into the core storyline as the others, and in Ken's case is a little unfocused when it comes to his spell selection - he tries to cover lightning and holy elements, persona-based physical attacks, improving his regular physical attacks, and healing, all with only 8 skill slots. He can cover some gaps, but the Player Character is far, far better at filling in for the rest of the party's deficiencies than Ken could ever be.
  • Persona 4 has Naoto Shirogane, the last member to join, and one of the more difficult members to integrate into the standard party dynamic. The fact that she comes in more than a month later than you would expect from the previous pattern of new party members is bad enough, but you've likely gotten pretty far into the social links of your friends, if not outright completely them, by the time she joins the party. More important is that she joins right before the biggest Wham Episode of the game, Nanako's kidnapping. And while your other party members have had months to get to know and love the victim, Naoto had only just gotten to know her and so, emotionally, it's almost difficult to justify placing Naoto in the rescue party. To top it off, while her stats are good and she has the widest range of attacks outside the Player Character, all of her attacks are single targeting and rather expensive, so taking out even a single group of enemies can take a serious chunk out of her SP.
    • Almost as if to convince you to use Naoto in the dungeon immediately after she joins the party, an abnormal amount of enemies in that dungeon are weak to light, dark, or nothing at all. Naoto is the only party member outside of the Player Character who has access to light, dark, and almighty spells, making her much more useful in that dungeon than in any other.
  • This applies to Pokémon, because although they may have a similar level in the last cave or whatever, the Pokemon you catch up there do not have the Effort Value points that your other Pokemon have, meaning you have to train them from the start to boost their stats.
    • Wild Pokemon tend to be underleveled compared to your squad.
    • Every legendary pokemon as well, unless you put great effort into catching them as soon as possible, a difficult task.
    • This problem is at its most severe in Pokémon Gold and Silver where you're only able to access most of Kanto once you've beaten the Elite 4 and Champion. The wild Pokemon that can be found in Kanto are about the same level as the wild Pokemon in Jotho were, which compared to your own party, would now be severely weak. Made even worse when a lot of new Pokemon that would have been great to use are only available in the post game, and grinding in Gold and Silver (and even the remakes) is a terrible slog.
  • The better you score in The Reconstruction, the worse your problems with this trope will be, since getting your score high enough will provide significant stat bonuses to all characters you've so far recruited. Play on maximum difficulty (with the highest score multiplier), and there's a decent chance you'll get all possible bonuses before you've even recruited the last three characters.
  • Alef, Torasu, and Adam from Shining Force join you within the last seven battles of the game underleveled and unpromoted. While they can be good if trained properly, doing so could take hours, and you already have characters that fit their niches.
  • Several characters in the Suikoden series.
    • Eresh in Suikoden V is outclassed by the mages you already have when you finally get her.
    • Shoon and Hazuki, also from Suikoden V are great fighters, but arrive so late in the game that you'll probably already have others in their roles that fight as well as they do.
    • Sonya Shulen in the original. You recruit her, and then go to war over The Very Definitely Final Dungeon. Could also apply to Gremio, as he only comes back if you recruit everyone (even Sonya) before starting the battle for The Very Definitely Final Dungeon
  • Regal in Tales of Symphonia joins earlier than most final recruits, but it's likely that you already have a party setup you like. It doesn't help that unlike every other party member besides Zelos, you are never required to use him.
  • Suzu Fujibayashi in Tales of Phantasia (except in the SNES version) is a very good example of this for optional party members. She cannot be recruited until very late in the game via a sidequest. By that point, she'll likely be underleveled.
  • To some extent in Valkyrie Profile 2 Silmeria. Although the characters who join in the last chapter are all more plot-important and have better stats and equipment, they all start knowing very few skills, if any. And because they're at a fairly high level, it's harder to teach them skills (skills get learned faster when fighting monsters at a higher level than you).
    • Reversed in the first game's hard mode. Every character you pick up starts at level 1, but if you have the right items, you can level them up carefully to be ridiculously strong. Even better, some of the most advantageous Skills are only available in late game, meaning you can get started on those right away with the new characters and only give them the best skills, rather than use up skill points on lesser abilities that your other characters have.
  • Two examples in Wild ARMs:
    • the remake of Wild ARMs 1 has secret character Zed, who to unlock you have to go halfway into the final dungeon, grab an item and head back out. Subverted in that while he is gotten so late, and his skills all have Necessary Drawback, his stats are astronomical and he's very useful for fighting all the Bonus Boss that unlock the same time he does.
    • Played straight with Chuck in Wild ARMs 5, he joins well after all the others, doesn't really stand out stat-wise and the skills he comes equipped with are very situational. He doesn't even factor into the story all that much, his subplot finishing before he joins.
  • In SaGa Frontier, most characters can be recruited very early, and it's always to your advantage to do so as quickly as possible. Characters that join late are usually very weak in comparison to characters you've fought with from the start of the game.
  • Emeralda in Xenogears suffers from being a very late joiner and is only really there as a replacement for Elly. The fact that she joins in the penultimate dungeon in the first disc (and can't be used after that) doesn't help either. That said, she can still be very usable.
  • The final party member in Xenoblade Chronicles can be this. Despite that you do have them around for quite awhile (This is a very long game), by the time you get them your party is probably already in their 50s and has likely filled up one or two of their skill trees, whereas this one will only be into their first. That said, you are rewarded for taking the time to build them up.
  • The Legend of Dragoon has Sacred Sister Miranda, who doesn't join the party until Disc 3. Gameplay-wise, she's no different from Shana, so a bulked up Shana transfers to Miranda just fine, but Miranda doesn't have much character development, and the party has already been with Shana since the beginning of the game.
  • Averted and then later played straight with the same character in Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars. Feene is the last character you get and is the only character who has the shadow element, which is strong against everything but non-elemental and light, making her good for earlier dungeons. However, later in the game, every enemy is either non-elemental or light, leaving her weak to everything, as opposed to the fire/water/earth/wind elements the other six have. Since non-elemental is weak to the basic four elements, Feene is the only one that's weak to everything you encounter.

    RPG — MMO 
  • Several classes in Star Wars: The Old Republic have to deal with this. While many classes, such as the Jedi Knight, Smuggler and Sith Warrior, get their fifth and final companion at the end of Hoth, the last planet in Act II (out of three total acts), some classes only get them partway through Act III. The Imperial Agent, for example, only gets SCORPIO after Belsavis. Easily the worst example is the Sith Inquisitor, who only gets Xalek, their official apprentice, after completing Voss, which means there's only one planet left before the end of the main storyline. The expansions released after launch have at least given the player more time with these late companions, but since after the completion of the class quest they become all but irrelevant story-wise, one feels as though Bioware shouldn't have even bothered giving you some of the late arrivals. Until that is SCORPIO becomes The Dragon and new Big Bad.

    RPG — Western 
  • Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura had dozens of NPCs who can join the party- but their static levels mean that if you happen to miss them or didn't have room for them the first time around, they'll never have the chance to catch up with the rest of the crew. There's also a few NPCs who make themselves available near end-game, but by the time you get them they are not nearly as beefed up as your current roster, and sport lackluster weapons and badly allocated skills.
  • Baldur's Gate
    • Sarevok in Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. You get him at the beginning of the expansion pack, true, but if you're importing a saved game you probably already have a developed party that you'll prefer over him.
    • Possibly Imoen in Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn if you've gotten used to using a character with a similar party function by the time you get her back. This is also one reason why the game pushes Yoshimo into your party so heavily, because he'll automatically leave you at the point she joins you.
  • Dragon Age: Origins
    • Oghren suffers from this because Orzammar, the area where you recruit him from, is one of the toughest areas in the game and thus most players don't complete it until late in the game. It doesn't help that as a two-handed melee damage dealer he occupies exactly the same role as Sten. The developers have admitted that the reason why he's the only companion who returns as a playable character in the Awakening expansion pack is to make up for this. However in Awakening this ends up being inverted, where most players tending to replace Oghren with the Spirit of Justice, the final party member.
    • Loghain can only be recruited after you've completed most of the game. That said, he's specifically meant to replace Alistair and gameplay-wise serves the same purpose as the Stone Wall.
    • That said, depending on the route one takes in Awakening, it can still happen with the last character you recruit. Despite having a moment where they are put into your party, the character who you recruit last will easily be ditched since their niche may already have been filled either by the earlier joiners or the Warden themselves.
  • Sebastian Vael in Dragon Age II only joins the party in Act II, by which time you have probably settled for Varric as the ranged rogue of the party (if you need one at all). For the reference, every other party member joins in Act I. This may have something to do with Sebastian being DLC-only...
  • Party members in Neverwinter Nights 2 level up automatically to match you when they join your party. There's still a problem; their automatic leveling doesn't allow you to select skills, feats, and spells known for them. They'll always take the same bad feats or useless spells known. Ammon Jerro suffers the worst, as he joins very late in the game and automatically chooses some truly terrible invocations. He's a Required Party Member for much of the final act, but you get almost no chances to customize him and fix his invocation choices. Fortunately, this can all be corrected with a player-made mod.
  • Legion in Mass Effect 2. Whereas all of the other characters are recruited in the first half of the game, Legion is a surprise recruitment made almost immediately before the final mission for most players. The only power he has which Tali doesn't is Geth Shield Boost (temporarily boosts his shields), and she has a more useful equivalent (Energy Drain, which drains enemies' shields and boosts her own). He's a talented sniper... but so are Garrus and Thane (however, he does get unique access to the Widow, the most powerful non-heavy weapon in the game that only Infiltrator and Soldier Shepards can wield otherwise). He's a good choice for the tech specialist...but so are Tali and Kasumi. He's good at taking down synthetic enemies... but there aren't any synthetic enemies in the final mission. You can recruit him earlier in the game if you choose... but that locks you out of the Golden Ending. (None of this stopped him from becoming one of the more popular party members.) It helps that you are still able to allocate all of his skill points and that most players still have DLC set after the end of the game.
  • In Planescape: Torment, Nordom, Ignus and Fall-From-Grace are only available from about halfway through the game, with significant sub-questing required to add Nordom or, to a lesser extent, Ignus to your party. They mostly make up for it by being highly memorable and entertaining characters. However, Vhailor is only discovered even later in the game, when you've probably got your party line-up well finalized, and can actually be missed entirely. As a result, he often doesn't make the cut.
  • Wasteland features a few great characters in the late game, from Darwin Village and even in the Final Dungeon. By then your base rangers are engines of near anything-killing and you've got either decently-leveled NPCs or clones to pad out the ranks.
  • The first Marvel Ultimate Alliance was a bad offender, because of its auto level-up option that was turned on by default, for all of characters. There's no global function to turn it off. The AI does such a horrible job picking up skills for you that you'll end up with ruined characters. The later a character joins your party, the more skill points they'll waste.
  • Psylocke is a playable character in the first X-Men Legends, but she doesn't appear in the game until you're about 2/3's of the way towards completion. She has several powerful moves and abilities, but by the time she is acquired, the vast majority of bosses and mooks are resistant to mental attacks. As a result, There's little point in using her when most of the other characters lack said disadvantage. On top of that, the other psychic party members are Jean Grey and Emma Frost.

    Turn-Based Strategy 
  • In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, late in the game you unlock the ability to test soldiers for psi potential. Unless the Random Number God smiles on you by revealing that your existing veterans are psychic, you're likely to be babysitting at least one psychic newbie while a more-experienced but non-psychic vet sits on the sidelines.
  • A lot of these appear in the Fire Emblem series:
    • For the "pretty good already, but lacks time to level up", Ena in the ninth game and Stefan, Oliver (although he's more of a Lethal Joke Character), Bastian, Renning, and all of the dragon laguz in the tenth game apply, as do Karla in the seventh game and her brother, Karel, in the sixth. The latter is an especially interesting case—he serves the effective role of the Gotoh, but unlike most examples of that archetype (except for the laguz royals in the Tellius games), he's a weapon-user, not a magic-user, and he's also not at the maximum level. He shows up one level after the final level of a non-perfect run and can only be recruited by Fir or Bartre, who are his niece and his brother-in-law, respectively, his stats are very good (in some stats, likely better than the characters of his class that were raised from a low level, especially in normal mode), and he averts the usual "pre-promoted units have horrible growth rates" by having the best growths of any character in any of the games. Oh, but he's already Level 19 in a promoted class, so those insane growth rates will only trigger once.
    • In the seventh game you can recruit Renault in the 3rd to last chapter. He has a very interesting backstory and comes with a Fortify Staff, but it's so late at this point that he's only usable if all of your other healers have died.
    • Gareth from Radiant Dawn is a perticularly hilarious example. He has some of the best physical defence in the entire series, and he's probably the best phyical meatshield in the game. He joins two chapters before the end, and every single enemy from that point on uses magic attcks. There is exactly one physical attacker fought after he joins, and said foe greatly preffers using magic attacks. His enormous Defence is thus practically useless.
    • In general, characters that join on the last five or so chapters of a Fire Emblem game will suffer from this unless they're a Game Breaker or something.
    • Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates allows the player to invoke this with the second generation characters. They will wait for you, ergo it is fully possible for you to wait until you're at the final chapter to recruit them - by which they will be underleveled (Fortunately Fates allows second generation characters to be instantly usable with the "offspring seal") and there'll only be a couple story battles you can use them on.
      • Unique in Fire Emblem Awakening is the Spotpass Six. Regardless of when you have them downloaded, you cannot recruit them until the final chapter is open, and they cannot support with anyone but the Avatar. Ergo there is very little to use them on.
    • It is also worth mentioning that several games invoke this with a bit of Magikarp Power - you get some units who apparently have little to no purpose being on the battlefield this late in the game and seem to be set up to invoke Late Character Syndrome... but you are rewarded quite well for babying them along.
  • This happens in the remake of Tactics Ogre due to the fact that a character's level is dependent on their class, rather than their individual level. Sure, you do indeed get rewarded by recruiting some late-game characters like Caitua, Ozma, Azelstan, or reclassing Denam onto a Lord... but their levels are set to one.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LateCharacterSyndrome