With a history stretching all the way back to 1990 in China, the Xuan Yuan Sword series of RPGs are lesser known here in the West. With 13 games already released, the series can be seen to rival that of Final Fantasy in length and scope, and has also branched out into TV, novels and musical releases. With the wide range of games to choose from, it seems entirely logical that Softstar Entertainment Inc has chosen to release the twelfth game in the series onto the Xbox One. Can it compete with the juggernaut that is Final Fantasy, or will it be steamrollered flat? Come with me to Ancient China and let’s find out!
The first question that you need to ask yourself is how your Chinese is. To be more accurate, I should be asking how your Mandarin is, as the entirety of the game is voiced in Mandarin. There are subtitles, and it’s a good job too, because despite being married to a Chinese girl, my conversational Mandarin is shocking! Even more amusingly, the subtitles are quite often in the same kind of syntax that is normally reserved for the instruction manuals for Chinese electronic devices. On the plus side however, the voice acting is very good, with genuine emotional range being displayed by the various characters. Strangely, the stilted translations of the spoken Mandarin add to the charm of the game, rather than taking away from it.
The whole reason for people playing any RPG is to be swept away by the story, and here Xuan Yuan Sword doesn’t disappoint. From the traditional slow start, where you are a weak village boy who has trouble thrust upon him, you need to step up and rise above to become your end game character, where with the judicious use of skill points turn him into a card carrying badass, the story sweeps you along and the urge to see what is coming next is very strong.
The story revolves around the Gate of Firmament, unsurprisingly, which is the gateway between the mortal world and the Heavens. In the olden days, the Heavenly Emperor opened the Gate, allowing mortals free rein to enter the Heavens in order to gain divine power, as long as they promised to help look for the Emperor’s missing daughter. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as you’d expect, a few unscrupulous individuals took advantage of this opportunity to cause mischief, and the mortal world was quickly plunged into chaos. Some of the Gods and Goddesses took pity on the world below, and with the assistance of the people of the Land of Huaxu, the Gate was forcibly closed, at the cost of great sacrifice and the destruction of almost all the people of Huaxu. This was the rite of Juedi Tiantong, the separation of the Earth and the Heavens, and after this no God could come to the Mortal Realm, and no mortal could visit Heaven, but the chaos still reined on Einarth, with natural disasters and civil wars raging. At this time of heightened unease, a Heavenly entity descends, and the story launches.
As is usual for a game of this type, there are a number of characters that you can recruit and play as to allow progression. These are Sikong Yu, a young man from a quiet backwater village, whose sole motivation is to protect his home. In order of appearance thereafter, his companions are Zi Qiao, a young lady seeking to find her betrothed husband, the Prince of Shang, who also deals with her incredible strength and voracious appetite, Muyue, a lady trying to find her way home to Huaxu, but who claims not to be a divine being, and lastly Feng Yu, a jovial and cunning traveller with ties to the Royal House of Shang, who is trying to find a way to gain access to Heaven to have his bloodline validated. The last character is Aqi, a wild boar/spirit hybrid creature that carries an urn on its back which can be used to capture the enemies that you come across once you have weakened them a bit. Yes, it is just like Pokemon, except featuring a cute pig thing as the ball.
Together this squad have become caught up in a plot involving mad Water Gods, the use of Demons as weapons, resurrection and the mad avatar of the World Tree, which used to be the ladder to the Heavenly Realm. Confused yet? Well there’s a lot more, with double and triple crosses, hidden identities and even a pair of star crossed lovers. I think “roller coaster” would be an accurate expression to describe the plot of The Gate of Firmament.
The game itself plays a lot like Final Fantasy X, with a series of levels linked by a world map, and each level is started, ended and also quite often interrupted, by a series of cut scenes featuring exposition of why the characters are where they are at the time. These cutscenes are largely rendered using the game engine, with only very important scenes using the full CGI characters.
There is no interaction with the world map, short of choosing your next destination, and no monster encounters occur there either. Once inside the levels, each of which have evocative names like “Utopian Valley” or “Bilin Swamp”, the map of the level starts out as blank, and is filled in by running down each of the paths in the level. Each comes with an objective, or usually more than one, and upon reaching a specified point, a cut scene will play which explains a bit more of what’s happening and why.
Inside the levels, there are obviously monsters to fight, or to avoid, depending on your mood at the time. Especially in the earlier levels, I’m going to go ahead and advise you to fight everything you can see, to get your character levelled up and unlock stronger attacks, otherwise you may struggle against even the first real boss. A bit of running around and power levelling soon sorted him out though.
If you manage to sneak up on the monsters, it’s possible to get the character you are running around as (you can change character using the RB/LB buttons in the exploration screen) to hit the monsters first, giving you an advantage. Sikong Yu causes the enemies to be stunned if he hits them, Zi Qiao gets extra treasure at the end of the fight, Feng Yu injures them so they start with lower health, and Muyue’s special ability is to be invisible, so you can spring a surprise attack on the enemies. Obviously any advantage is a good thing, so getting used to hitting the baddies before they become aggravated is a good tactic. This doesn’t work against the boss monsters sadly, but these things are best avoided until you are much stronger. I tried to fight on when my guys were around level 15, and my party was wiped out in one attack. More of an end game enemy, I feel!
The fighting system is less traditional than Final Fantasy’s, with no waiting around for action bars to fill or moves to be queued up. This is an action RPG, and button mashing is very much the order of the day. The A and B buttons unleash physical attacks, with combos possible for mixing up the attacks. For instance, Sikong Yu can action a combo that is A > A > B, which smacks the enemy around with his big stick, before unleashing a special spinning attack. X is mapped to healing items, as long as you have them available, and Y is linking to magic point recovery items, again with the same constraints on stocks. Pressing the RB button brings up magical attacks, which are again mapped to the face buttons. Again using Sikong, RB + A does a kind of whirling wind attack, but RB + Y brings off a move that causes the teammates to regenerate health, which can be the difference between success and failure, particularly in the boss battles. The D-pad chooses which character to control, and can be changed on the fly if you notice an AI character needs healing, for instance. Finally, LB causes the team to change their formation, which is linked to the elements, so if you are fighting an enemy that is weak to fire, then using the “Fire” formation would be advantageous. Each element is linked to a direction on the D-Pad when LB is held down.
Crafting is another important part of the Xuan Yuan Sword experience, and here again is another top tip: when you visit a merchant in town, they obviously sell weapons that are probably better than what you have been using up until this point. However, if you go through their inventory, they will also sell recipes for weapons and armour, typically at 400 Bei each – Bei being the currency in this game. The recipes are usually stronger than the item that they have to sell, and as long as you have been fighting and opening chests, the resources required to make the weapons or armour should be in plentiful supply, and you can kit your team out better and faster. The crafting all takes place from the menu screen, in the “Cauldron” section. You first have to use the recipe to learn it, then can craft the items in the Cauldron.
Graphically, the game isn’t going to blow you away. It looks like an Xbox 360 title, with stilted animation and simple creature designs. Sometimes in the exploration screens, if there are are NPCs around, the robes that the female NPCs wear seem to develop a life of their own and zig zag all over the screen, which is a little disconcerting the first time I saw it. The sound is a lot better though, with some truly beautiful Chinese style music playing underneath the action to help set the mood. The voice acting is well up to scratch too.
All in all, Xuan Yuan Sword is a worthy addition to the RPG genre on the Xbox One. The game is long, with a very engrossing story and characters that you really come to care about. Sure, it’s not the prettiest game in the world, but that kind of misses the point: once you are caught up in Sikong Yu’s journey, the glitches and poor translation actually add to the game’s charm, rather than detracting from it.
If you are looking for a new experience in the RPG world, you could do a lot worse than give Xuan Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament a chance.