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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (402)

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The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
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Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5
Soulcalibur VI 4.5/5
Owlboy 3/5
Battletech 3/5
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The Legend of Zelda: A ... 4/5
Hob 3/5
Assassin's Creed Odyssey 4.5/5
Ittle Dew 2 4.5/5
Luigi's Mansion 3 4/5
Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Ga... 3/5
Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5

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Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament   PC (Steam) 

Yin, Yang, Yu    3/5 stars

As Globalization sees China and Western Civilization interacting more frequently than the world has seen since the height of the Silk Road era, both sides have ample opportunities to swap not only Filthy Lucre, but cultural materials. While Mainland China and its totalitarian rulership in the Communist Party have very little interest in such exchanges, former Western colonies like Hong Kong and Taiwan emphatically do.

While gaming was officially banned in Mainland China for over a decade, during that same time period, it seemingly flourished in Taiwan, where a distinctly Chinese RPG series, ‘Xuan-Yuan Sword,’ arose in an effort by the developer, DOMO Studio (now owned by publisher, SoftStar) to create a Chinese competitor that could hold its own against the likes of Japan’s ‘Dragon Quest’ and ‘Final Fantasy,’ which proved to be dominant gaming forces at home and abroad.

DOMO actually started working on this series way back in 1990, whilst the Mainland was still recovering economically from the fall of Maoism. Over the decades, the ‘Xuan-Yuan Sword’ series has accumulated 6 main numbered entries and a plethora of side-stories, totaling over a dozen discreet releases, ranging from 8-bit-style to 16-bit-style to fully modern polygon-engine-driven titles… yet, until recently, no one outside of Taiwan had heard of the series.

That changed when SoftStar made the decision to create a multi-language version of the spinoff title, “Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament” (“TGoF”) and release it worldwide on Steam in 2016 (with a later port to Xbox Live). Thus the wider world was exposed to ‘Xuan-Yuan Sword’ for the first time. I was excited about the prospect of a new RPG series that could, allegedly, compete with ‘Dragon Quest’ and ‘Final Fantasy,’ yet without the corrupting influences of modern J-Pop culture. Unfortunately, “TGoF” does little to show off what the series might be capable of, instead coming off as a janky, middling experience across the board.

“TGoF” is all over the place with regard to its presentation. Parts of it look and sound fantastic, parts of it look and sound lazy and/or incompetent, while parts of it are downright malevolent.

Visually, “TGoF” is mixed. Certain aspects, like the monster designs and the designs for the main cast of characters are truly excellent. The creatures the player will face off against are ripped straight from the bamboo scrolls of ancient Chinese mythology, and are beautifully modeled and animated (some of the death animations, though, are ridiculous, like the frog monsters whose tongues turn into massive erections at the moment of death). The main cast of four heroes and the handful of villains are likewise garbed in fantastically authentic regalia and are ridiculously handsome/beautiful. However, while some of the main characters’ animations are clearly motion captured, others look like they were poorly hand-animated, leading to numerous puppety and unintentionally silly moments. Even worse, during the game’s many, many (MANY) long, slow-paced cutscenes, characters transition between canned animations very choppily and jerkily, giving these scenes a palpable sense of jankiness.

Unimportant characters, on the other hand, don’t receive the same lavish attention as the monsters and heroes, but instead look like recycled lower-resolution polygon models from the PlayStation 2 era. Lip synch is even more notably disparate in quality between the heroes and NPCs, as the heroes have immaculately animated lip synch that matches their lines perfectly, while NPCs just flap their jaws like ventriloquist dummies while lines are delivered over the, with no attempts at ‘matching the flap.’

Environments, like NPCs, seem to use older art assets as well. While the game’s many environments are quite large, sprawling, and visually unique, the lack of bump mapping to bring small textural details to life makes everything feel kind of flat and washed out when compared to the more detailed visual assets in the game.

Then there are the minor annoying technical issues that plague the visuals. There’s perpetually a line of color around black loading and placard screens due to the fact that nobody bothered to adjust for overscan. While most of the cutscenes are in-engine affairs, there are many pre-rendered ones scattered throughout the game. Not only are they stylistically inconsistent with the in-engine cutscenes, but they only run at 30fps, while the game runs at 60fps, making these cutscenes feel choppy and sluggish by comparison.

Audio is “TGoF’s” high point. From the excellent opening theme, through the wide variety of location themes, to the ending theme, “TGoF” has a truly excellent soundtrack. The use of sound effects is also quite well-done, with a number of iconic noises. The game is also fully voices… but only in Chinese. I don’t understand a lick of Chinese, but the performances seemed to be well done… except for the excruciatingly slow pace of dialogs and the corporeal pauses between different characters’ lines during cutscenes, which dragged down the pacing even further.

Technically, “TGoF” is, surprisingly, quite solid for a janky Chinese knock-off… at least in the fact that it didn’t crash on me and the load times were acceptable while playing of an older SSD. However, “TGoF” has two major technical issues that drag the overall Presentation score down into mediocrity. First, and least egregious, is the half-assed controller support. While the game does support Xinput out of the box, NONE of the button prompt throughout the game have Xinput icons, instead showing nonsensical typewriter keys. DOMO Studio actually had to put a link to a controller layout JPEG in the game’s Steam forum so people could figure out how to control the damned thing! Second, and irredeemably, “TGoF” features an insidious form of always-online DRM, despite already having Steamworks to keep people from pirating it. In order to save or load a game data file, “TGoF” must phone home first. I don’t know if this is like Microsoft’s old Games for Windows Live system where an encryption key is grabbed from a server or if it’s just a simple connection check, since the game’s error message is anything but helpful in this regard. Regardless, without an active network connection, it’s impossible to save or load, meaning that unless DOMO patches out this DRM, when the authentication server goes away, this game will be unplayable, unless a masochist wants to slog through the entire thing in one sitting. Without these two major technical shortcomings, the Presentation score could go up 1-2 points.

“TGoF” is, like so many other things despised by the Communist Party of China, steeped in ancient Chinese history, folklore, and mythology. Every entry in the series is based in an allegedly-authentic version of China’s mythological past. We’re not talking the Oriental equivalent of Sparta, Delian League Athens, or Imperial Rome; we’re talking analog to the Trojan War and the Quest for the Golden Fleece – truly ancient pseudo-histories enshrined in myth dating from the first half of the first millennium B.C.E.

Unfortunately, due to both the Communist shutdown of cultural exchange, the massive language barrier posed by the Chinese alphabet, and simple Eurocentrism, we in the West have ample opportunities to learn about mythological Greece and Rome (and even Egypt and the Middle-East), but few opportunities to learn about mythological China. Thus, as a Classicist, I can dissect the anachronisms, bowdlerizations, and outright mistakes in a game series like, say, ‘God of War,’ with impunity, but with a series like ‘Xuan-Yuan Sword,’ I have absolutely no idea where to start.

“TGoF” is set during the era of the Shang Dynasty, which, like most of Chinese history, involved political instability as disparate tribes tried to seize regional control for themselves, whilst the Shang government constantly struggled to keep the population safe from natural disasters: Specifically flooding. Our hero in “TGoF” is one Sikong Yu, a member of a small, wandering tribe descended from the prior ruling dynasty who all live in isolation to avoid persecution by the Shang.

Sikong’s life is turned upside down, though, when he meets a mysterious (and ridiculously beautiful) woman whilst rescuing his sister from a gang of bandits. This woman, Muyue, is lost and far from her home in Huaxu, which nobody is Sikong’s tribe has ever heard of. As punishment for bringing the wrath of the bandits down upon their settlement, Sikong’s chief assigns him to leave the village and not return until he has escorted Muyue home.

This seemingly small task turns out to have world-shaking consequences, as Sikong ends up joining forces with both the Prince and Princess of the Shang Dynasty after learning that Huaxu is a legendary kingdom situated between heaven and earth. The Shang Prince wants to visit Huaxu in order to receive the Mandate of Heaven – something the pre-Communist Chinese governments were obsessed over, as – much like Western kings and their Catholic ordinations – they believed their divine ancestors – specifically a mythological entity known as the Yellow Emperor – could bless, and thus legitimize, a given bloodline’s right to rulership.

Of course, getting to Huaxu is no mean feat, as the titular Gates of Firmament were closed a thousand years prior, separating heaven and the mortal realm forever.

I’ve tried to research the historical accuracy of both the game’s underlying mythology as well as the portrayals of events and characters within its actual plot. Unfortunately, that darn language barrier makes the process overwhelmingly difficult in a variety of ways, not least of which is the fact that proper names, when transliterated into the Latin alphabet, aren’t spelled phonetically, with numerous weird uses of uncommon Latin letters like “Q” and “X” to approximate Chinese word sounds that are NOTHING like a Latin, Greek, or English “Q” or “X.” Complicating things further, characters often address each other with modified nicknames – I think similar to Japanese honorifics – that make absolutely no sense without context… and the “localization” team really put the bare minimum of effort into the script.

That is to say, “TGoF” wasn’t actually “localized.” It was just “translated”… and quite poorly at that. There are numerous typos, egregious abuses of grammar, missing spaces, tortured hyphenations, and weird spellings that make the script feel half-assed. But the fact that these issues aren’t even consistent indicates that at least two different translators worked on different parts of the script, and nobody bothered to compare their work and give the entire thing a final gloss for consistency. The end result is a story that is, while still comprehensible, is about as much fun to read as a garbled message board post by a first year Chinese ESL student.

“TGoF” is also a fairly long game, clocking in at 50 hours for a fairly complete blind first-run. Unfortunately, the way side-quests are structured makes it quite easy to miss things. “TGoF” also is desperate to force replay value, locking a couple of things required to complete the achievement list behind a slog through New Game+ (which, unfortunately, doesn’t carry over character levels). Overall, though, the excruciatingly slow pacing and overabundance of cutscenes are what both really stretch out the runtime and make the prospect of a second playthrough sound more like a punishment than a reward.

“TGoF” is, ultimately, very similar to other modern Active Time Battle-based RPGs. Unfortunately.

The player controls a part of up to four characters who come and go throughout the course of the story, with Sikong Yu as the permanent leading man. The player can freely swap which party member is visible while running around environments, and each character has a unique skill that does something different when entering combat. Enemies are all visible in the world, and touching one triggers a fairly standard RPG battle transition. However, triggering a character’s unique skill can give an advantage in battle, such as stunning all enemies for a few moments, reducing all enemies’ hit points by roughly 1/3, or allowing the party to acquire extra loot upon victory (the most useful one). The last unique skill allows the party to turn invisible and prevents enemies from giving chase, allowing the player to avoid unwanted battles.

In battle, the player controls one character in a system that feels a bit like a fusion of the “Xenogears” combo system with the ‘Final Fantasy’ ATB system. Each of the four controller face buttons is assigned to an action, with a standard attack on A, a weaker (but self-buffing) attack on B, a healing item on X, and a magic restoring item on Y. The player can toggle to a similarly-styled magic menu by holding down the right bumper, allowing them to access up to four magic skills for each character (assigned to each button on the skill menu by the player). The player is free to switch characters in battle at any time by hitting the d-pad direction assigned to each party member. When not directly controlling the other three party members, they act according to a non-customizable AI.

The problem with this battle system is that it is highly repetitive and the AI companions tend to act inefficiently. Throughout the game, I found that spamming the same 2-3 combos with the A and B buttons was really all Sikong needed to do, occasionally tossing in a cast of his party regeneration spell. Unfortunately, AI companions do not input their actions nearly as quickly as I did, plus they love to waste their magic points casting buff spells in every battle, completely unnecessarily. The only way I was able to make Muyue, the party’s dedicated healer, act like a dedicated healer was to never teach her any attack or buff spells! As a result, she was able to keep the party going through every battle and never ran out of magic. Unfortunately, the Prince and Princess of Shang are buffing characters by nature (offensive for the Prince, defensive for the Princess), and were perpetually running on empty… I even had to disable their use of magic-restoring items in the game’s options to keep them from gobbling all the magic powder and continuing to cast pointless buffs.

I also have it on good authority that one of the key features of the ‘Xuan-Yuan Sword’ series has always been a ‘Dragon Quest’/‘Persona’-style ability to capture enemy monsters/demons and fuse them together to get better creatures, which could then be summoned to fight alongside the human party members in battle. Unfortunately, the *ahem* ‘localized’ version of “TGoF” completely nerfed the monster system, transforming monster allies from battle companions to summon-style attacks which deal pathetic damage and operate on a long cooldown.

The fact that the monster summoning system was so badly mangled in the non-Chinese version of the game is really disappointing, as the core components of it are all still within the game: specifically, a magical bronze urn that acts similarly to the Alchemy Pot in recent ‘Dragon Quest’ titles. Not only can the player use this urn to craft weapons, armor, and accessories from raw materials (most notably, the player can craft magical versions of the same armor found in shops and treasure chests, but with universally better stats than the vanilla versions), but they can infuse monster souls into unique artifact items to improve their capabilities… and still fuse monsters together to make new monsters, who only provide crappy “battlefield” buffs and access to the afore-mentioned weak summon attacks.

Because of the focus on (dumb) AI companions and the massive nerf of the monster fusion/summoning systems in the non-Chinese version, “TGoF” just comes across as rote and repetitive. Sure, characters learn more skills and combo options as they level up, but most of these skills are useless and just serve to slow down AI companion attacks even further as they waste actions casting unnecessary buffs. I was slightly concerned that the removal of monster allies would make the game feel too difficult, but the non-Chinese version was rebalanced to take the change into account. The result is a bland, repetitive slog through copious encounters with trash enemies, and semi-interesting boss battles that feel roughly identical to trash encounters because allied AIs never change-up their behavior and there’s no way for the player to effectively devise strategies on their own. “TGoF” would GREATLY benefit from a more in-depth ‘Tactics’ menu or something like “Final Fantasy 12’s” Gambits system to open up both allied AI behavior and to give enemy bosses a bit more variety.

“Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament” is about an even mix of good and bad, yin and yang. Parts of the visuals look fantastic, other parts… not so much. It sounds great, but is a technical disaster riddled with lazy controller support and evil DRM. The story is rooted in ancient Chinese myth, but that just makes it unapproachable for a Western audience, as do its long-winded cutscenes, plodding pace, and questionable translation. The best part of the gameplay was heavily dumbed-down for the non-Chinese version, leaving what remains repetitive and mindless, yet still functional. I can’t in good conscience recommend this game to anyone, but at the same time, I can’t flat-out hate it either.

Presentation: 2.5/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 3/5



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