Xuan Yuan Sword: Mists Beyond the Mountains

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Xuan Yuan Sword: Mists Beyond the Mountains review
Samuel Corey

Review

A Classic Chinese JRPG

Under Eastern Eyes


Currently, it is popular to castigate any cross-cultural misunderstanding as a manifestation of intolerance and bigotry. However, I find that in the vast majority of these cases, the offender is less a bigot and more someone genuinely excited about the history and culture of a place they are less than familiar with. After all, a period of clumsy confusion naturally precedes a genuine understanding of a topic. Indeed, I find this kind of enthusiastic ignorance downright charming.

Xuan Yuan Sword: Mists Beyond the Mountains is a great example of this, as it is a classic Chinese RPG set in the semi-historical Dark Ages of Europe. The developers seem to be a bit unclear about what this period looked like because we see a Venetian Republic that looks straight out of the Renaissance beset by Templars (an order that wouldn't be founded until 400 years after the game ends) who cosplay as legionaries from the Roman Republic a millennium earlier. Still, I have to give points for the attempt as it's not every day that I run into a game that has P├ępin le Bossu as a significant NPC.

The most gut-busting cultural misstep that Xuan Yuan Sword makes, happens when a satanist conjures a demon using an unholy symbol. I was expecting a classic five-pointed pentagram to appear, figuring that Doom had at least managed to make that aspect of European culture ubiquitous among video game developers, but instead, the game uses a six-pointed Star of David. It's a great example of a serious scene made unintentionally hilarious because of a small detail being wrong. What a difference a single point of a star can make!



When the scene shifts to the Middle East, I can only assume that there are similar cultural miscommunications but unfortunately I am as ignorant of the medieval Middle East as the game's developers were of Medieval Europe so I doubtlessly missed some unintended hilarity in these sequences. That said, it would be wrong to say that Xuan Yuan Sword's appeal is strictly in unintentional comedy. The game tells a compelling and interesting story that spans great distances and periods and features a cast of memorable and occasionally compelling characters. The fact that it is normally so serious makes the moments of levity all the more amusing.

A Not-Japanese RPG


Fans of older JRPGs will find themselves instantly at home when playing Xuan Yuan Sword. This is very much the standard turn-based combat with time meters that anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game made in the 1990s will be familiar with. There are a couple of nice additions like the inclusion of powerful Ultimate Abilities that you can use on a cool-down, and a monster-capturing mini-game that you can use to buff your stats, but nothing that will leave fans of the genre and period confused.

The visuals are lovely, looking like an especially polished SNES game or a lower-budget game from the PSX era that was still milking 2D graphics. Backgrounds outside of combat are pre-rendered and filled with lovely details. Care has been taken here to blend the pre-rendered graphics with the character sprites. Both the backgrounds and the characters have a slightly cartoony appearance, and while the backgrounds are more detailed than the characters there is none of the dissonance associated with seeing the super-deformed character model running around a hyper-realistic world a la Final Fantasy 7.

The graphics in combat are downright gorgeous, with the characters being given extremely detailed and fluidly animated sprites. The backgrounds here are all done in the style of traditional Chinese watercolors that give the game a unique and striking visual flair. While it may be a bit odd to see these Asiatic landscapes standing in for the Italian countryside surrounding Venice.

Despite the appealing visuals and familiar gameplay, there are a lot of times when parts of the game feel amateurish or bootleg. The difficulty curve in particular is all over the place. At the start of the game, you will one-shot every enemy you encounter, and this will go on for at least the first couple of hours of playtime with the only exceptions being the odd boss fights. This is really boring, making combat more of a chore you wish you could skip rather than an exciting challenge.

Difficulty will ramp up considerably after this introductory period, but it does so in an uneven fashion with enemies often behaving in odd ways. I ran into one boss who had a couple of moves that did meaningless chip damage, and one attack that could one-shot any one of my characters at full HP. Another boss spammed powerful magical attacks that kept me on the defensive until a few minutes into the fight when he presumably ran out of MP and had to resort to his wimpy regular attack. He still had plenty of health so the ensuing beat-down felt unreasonably one-sided even though it took ages to bring him down.

Lost in Translation


The Chinese-to-English translation is serviceable, but I can't escape the feeling that things are a little off. I have trouble understanding the tone of the conversation or the subtle moods of the characters. Certain developments in the plot initially baffled me, I assume because I was just unfamiliar with the cultural and storytelling tropes that the developers were drawing on. Some moments feel like they should be significant and dramatic but their delivery feels slightly off.

Still, one shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. In a world where we are still lacking a proper translation for the original The Legend of Sword and Fairy, among other classic Chinese games, it's hard to not applaud a fresh release for these otherwise unknown and inaccessible titles. I can't imagine that the demand for a fresh release of Xuan Yuan Sword was particularly great in the English-speaking world, but it's release here is valuable for simple archival reasons. It's also a great buy if you're craving a classic JRPG that was previously unavailable to anyone who couldn't read Mandarin.


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8.0

fun score

Pros

Appealing art style, Charming misunderstandings of European history and theology, A compelling story line.

Cons

Bizarre enemy behaviour, Uneven difficulty, Questionable translation.