11 Years to Localise
You might be familiar with Nihon Falcom, the developers of the modestly successful Ys franchise. While Ys has had moderate success in the Western world, its deep history, JRPG mechanics and lack of accessible naming conventions have limited it to a niche audience. Names like Ys Seven and Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim donít exactly jump out at the average player. Which made a case for Nihon Falcom releasing Xanadu Next exclusively in Japan. Other than an N-Gage port by developer Script Arts or a fan translation there was no way for westerners to get their hands on the game officially... until now.
Enter XSEED, a game publishing company that specializes in localization, known for bringing titles like Onechanbara and Corpse Party to English markets, as well as the aforementioned Ys series. Thanks to their efforts, Xanadu Next is now officially localized for North America. So you can continue to forget about the N-Gage port because the real game is here. A lot has changed in the world of gaming since Xanadu Nextís original release in 2005. Which begs the question whether the game is interesting enough to warrant a playthrough in 2016?
Slow to Start
If you donít make it past the gameís introduction I wouldnít blame you for it. Xanadu Next is quite slow, even for 2005 standards, let alone 2016. In a year where gamers had F.E.A.R, Resident Evil 4, and Shadow of The Colossus, Xanadu Nextís opening feels dated in comparison. Thatís not to say I donít appreciate a build up, but that would be giving the opening series of events too much credit.
The game opens on a boat as it heads to an island across a great lake. A girl and her knight bodyguard are being shuttled over by a friendly and prying boatman. You play a knight in a world where knighthood is no longer accepted due to the outcome of a prior war. Youíre aiding a young girl by the name of Char as she aims to research the ruins on the island. Itís all a fine set up, and the old gamer in me even enjoyed the dialogue boxes over voice acting. Once you arrive at the island, youíre tasked with talking with all the island folk about the going ons of the village.
Itís here Xanadu Next channels its old school RPG spirit. The first 1-2 hours of the game involves the aforementioned boat sequence, running around town, exchanging pleasantries with the residents, learning how to shop, learning how to level etc. In a way itís great: itís rare for modern games to give you some room to really take in the locale. However, it all comes down to pacing and for less patient players it takes a while to get the ball rolling. Itís tutorial after tutorial until you wind up into the ruin a merchant told you about. Inside the ruin our hero finds an item that triggers an interesting story event and subsequently a new gameplay mechanic that I wonít spoil for you. Itís all interesting, but prepare for another dialogue and tutorial dump. Once youíre through with that the world of Xanadu Next opens up to be something different and to my surprise I was rather charmed by my time in Xanadu.
Into the Dungeons
Outside the main village are dungeons upon dungeons that mostly double back to the village via shortcuts. It feels very Dark Souls-esque, which is saying something since this game preceded the series. Itís here the game comes into its own. Itís a unique blend of Diablo, Zelda, and the intimacy of Dark Cloud that ticks the right boxes for fans of the genre.Youíll solve simple environmental puzzles, find better loot and level up. Similar to other games developed by Nihom Falcom each weapon has unique skills that grow the more you use that weapon. The minute to minute combat is a point and click similar to Diablo, but I found it to be more action and timing oriented. You have to avoid projectiles, lunging strikes etc. and by doing so you can run around and attack an enemy's side or rear for extra damage. This requires you to be more deliberate and strategic in your approach to a battle.
When one considers the level of precision required in the combat, the controls arenít too great. Dodging projectiles and trying to position yourself correctly by an enemy is not the easiest task with point and click controls. Boss fights, while fantastically stylized and mostly fun, can feel frustrating when you canít control as precisely as youíd like. Often youíll be getting hit by a projectile you shambled into while trying to get behind the creature. I opted to play with the controller, which allows you to directly control the protagonist with the stick making dodging easier. The downside of this is that inventory management and spell select becomes really cumbersome. You can customize the control scheme to your liking, but I was unable to find something that felt consistently good. But, the poor controls aside, I quite liked the combat.
I am a huge fan of dungeon looters. I love seeing my skills and gear improve and Xanadu Next satisfies that itch. Making the choice to be more action and strategy oriented pays off as the gameís combat remains fresh, challenging and rich with options, unlike your standard point, click and kill dungeon crawlers. Satisfying combat is combined with satisfying exploration.
Much like the aforementioned Dark Cloud youíre constantly returning to the starting village zone. At first this seems limiting in scope, but as you explore outwards of the village, the way everything works back to this hub is very inspired.
Youíll be needing to go back to the village to sell your loot, level up and buy new dungeon keys. You need these keys to access locked doors and the village merchant fashions them out of monster bones you get. Leveling up is unique here as you can also level down to change your stats to open up a different strategy if a particular area is giving you a hard time. Remember that interesting gameplay mechanic I said I wouldnít spoil? Iíll still try not to, but that offers another layer of customization and personality to the combat in Xanadu Next.
Filled with Personality
Exploring the island of Xanadu is engaging in many ways. When youíre not finding loot or battling enemies, the cartoony visuals bring the island to life. For the intimate setting the locations are surprisingly varied, and considering this is a 2005 game it holds up pretty well. The aesthetic lends to the gameís sense of humor, whimsy and charm. Itís not every game where you have an adorable young sidekick pack you a lunch before you leave the village.
Personality is a huge selling point for Xanadu Next. While it isnít the most original action RPG dungeon crawler out there, it does just enough to be an interesting addition to the genre. If youíre a Nihom Falcom fan, chances are you may have played the fan translation. However, for the rest of us this is the version to play. In the year 2016 Xanadu Next stands out for being a refreshingly Japanese take on the genre that offers enough new ideas to bring a degree of freshness to a largely stagnant genre. The visuals hold up in their own unique way, with a decent amount of configuration for a 2005 port. Thereís support for 1080p and a controller! In a crowded Fall Xanadu Next might easily be glossed over once again, but those who give this title a chance may find themselves hooked despite the gameís flaws.
Brings enough interesting additions or variations to the dungeon crawling genre to warrant a playthrough; Fun combat and progression; Best version to play; Cartoony visuals hide the gameís age.
Less than competent controls hamper an otherwise engaging combat system; Slow introduction relies on a plethora of text tutorials; Old-school design doesnít necessarily invite a new audience.