Chinese mythology and history are some of the most interesting source materials for adapting into works of fiction. Weirdly, other than Journey to the West, there are not many games in the west that attempt to adapt to the region's mythology or history. Enter Xuan-Yuan Sword VII, the latest entry in a venerable Taiwanese RPG series telling various stories from China's mythical elder days. For the first time, the series is making its way to the west, but will this be a triumphant arrival or more akin to Dasani's launch in the UK?
Xuan-Yuan Sword VII tells the tale of Taishi Zhao, a young boy who becomes the only guardian for his sister after the tragic murder of his family. Years later, when his sister becomes badly injured during a raid by monsters, Zhao must journey across the war-torn land to try and restore his sister's body to full health. Along the way, he must contend with the warring factions of the nation, as well as the political machinations of emperors and generals so that he and his sister can return to the peaceful life they always wanted.
The main thrust (pun intended) of Xuan-Yuan Sword VII's gameplay should be pretty familiar to anyone who has played an ARPG before. You have a sword, you have bad guys, and you have a bunch of stats that keep going up as you play. Your main attack method is a combination of heavy and light attacks and a couple of magic spells. Unlike many other ARPGs, Xuan-Yuan VII doesn't go in for complicated magic systems. You start the game with two spells, and you end it was two spells, so you can focus on the business of swinging your sword like someone who knows what they're doing.
The combat is mainly pretty enjoyable and has something of a Dark Souls edge to it...sort of. What I mean by that is that you have to keep an eye on your stamina as if it runs out, you can't attack or dodge anymore. Unlike in Dark Souls, though, you don't get punished for running out of stamina. There's no decrease in recharge speed from an empty stamina bar, and your character doesn't slow down or anything. As long as your timing isn't abysmal, you can run down your stamina attacking enemies, wait for half a second for your bar to recharge slightly, then dodge away before you take a hit.
During your journey, you're also accompanied by your little sister, temporarily inhabiting a clockwork body, and a childhood friend. These companions provide their own special abilities that you can call on during combat, but otherwise, they act entirely on their own. They also have their own stats and equipment, and they can be a lifesaver in tough combat situations. Most of the time, if I were struggling to damage a boss, I'd use my companion abilities and find they melted through the boss' health like a hot knife through butter.
Overall, the combat in Xuan-Yuan Sword VII lacks nuance. As you go, you unlock some 'stances' that change your heavy attack and give you access to a special move. This sounds like it would add some nuance but realistically, you'll just hit the enemy with every special ability you have, then dodge and attack normally. At the same time, you wait for those abilities to charge again. Besides that, the Bear and Demon stances are completely broken. The bear stance can stun-lock almost everything, and your demon stance is a nuke that'll take out anything without a boss's health bar.
While the lack of nuance isn't ideal, it doesn't stop the combat from being fun. The thing that does make gameplay annoying a lot of time is the lack of balance. You can breeze through most of the game without much worry, but occasionally there'll be a huge difficulty spike completely out of nowhere. It's most of the time because an enemy gives you a status ailment that drains your HP at an astonishing rate. That wouldn't be an issue if your basic healing items didn't heal you so damn slowly. Any boss or enemy that set me on fire or poisoned me basically resulted in me spending my time dodging and letting my companions take over the combat.
Luckily for me, Xuan-Yuan Sword VII's lack of balance swings back in the other direction too. One of the secondary systems you have access to is the Elysium. In-universe it's a magical plane of existence, but for the player, it's a place to craft things. If you use this often enough, you can equip some stat-buffing souls that can not only completely grant you immunity to status effects but actually heal you when you get hit with them. At that point, most of the enemies might as well give up when they see you coming.
Since Xuan-Yuan Sword VII is the first game of the series to be released in the west, there are some translation issues. There's a lot of incorrect pluralization, but it never really gets in the way of the story. I understood everything that was happening, or at least most of it. I even managed to get the gist of the different characters' personalities and laughed at several scenes. In particular, the main character has some truly awful jokes that I got a massive kick out of, mainly because they were even worse than mine.
Aside from the translation, the story is mostly just fine. The narrative is very basic, and you're unlikely to get anything particularly exciting out of it unless you're really into Chinese history and mythology. There are plenty of minor references to mythological or historical figures, but if you're not clued up on the subject, they'll fly right over your head. The biggest failing for a game that's trying to bring the series to the west is that it feels like there are lots of references to earlier games in the series, or at least that to get the most out of the story, you'll need to have played the previous games before.
If there is one thing that really stands out, it's just how brutal some of the game's stories can be. While it's avoided by most of the main plot until the end, at least one or two of the side stories was a complete gut punch. Normally side-missions try to have some positive take-away at the end in my experience, but here everything could be ruined, and the mission would be over, never to be referenced again. There's also one particular scene that had much the same effect towards the end of the game, but it didn't stop the rest of the main story from being underwhelming.
Despite the slightly weak story, I was at least invested enough to want to make it through all the way until the end. Overall I think it was the visuals and music that saved it. The graphics and really solid, but various environments and vistas are the real standout feature. It just looks beautiful, and the music does a perfect job of setting the scene most of the time. There was once or twice where intense music would play during a peaceful moment, but that happened infrequently enough that I wouldn't call it an issue.
Overall, I enjoyed Xuan-Yuan Sword VII enough to recommend it. It lasted me about 12 to 13 hours, including most of the side-missions and some resource grinding. If you enjoy a solid action RPG and you don't mind a game that doesn't push the boat out in the story or gameplay department, then there's a lot of fun to be had here. The strong visuals and sound are a great draw, and despite the spotty translation, I found myself being endeared to the characters along the way. Just make sure that you break the game before it breaks you.
TechRaptor reviewed Xuan-Yuan Sword VII on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developers.
- Fun, Simple Gameplay
- Stunning Visuals and Sound
- Underwhelming Narrative
- Poorly Balanced Combat
- Occasionally Dodgy Translation