Xuanyuan Jian's foray into greatness
"Feng zhi Wu" is the first waizhuan
, i.e. side-story, within the Xuanyuan Jian
series, the oldest and greatest one in the world of Chinese RPGs. The idea of such waizhuan
was to rely entirely on gameplay system and graphical engine used in the previous game, to make space for a better story. This game started a tradition: after it every single Xuanyuan Jian game was followed by such a waizhuan
. And every waizhuan
was indeed much better story-wise than its immediate predecessor.
"Feng zhi Wu" is in many ways the first Xuanyuan Jian title worthy of its name. In this game, the series has reached its maturity. In a nutshell, "Feng zhi Wu" introduced everything that made the series great.
The biggest achievement of "Feng zhi Wu" is its historical context
. The previous two games were also set in China; but there was no indication as to what time period of Chinese history was exactly the stage for the game's events. "Feng zhi Wu" is a real historical RPG
. It is set during the Warring States period (the historical characters who appear in the game make the time pretty exact: 5th century BC), and it introduces a typical Xuanyuan Jian theme: war. Basically, the game's story is about a war; for the first time, the series departs from purely mythological adventures and introduces a realistic theme.
Of course, there are still plenty of mythology around, all kinds of magical beings and items, and the whole plot is unthinkable without fantasy elements; but by setting itself in a precise, concrete time period, "Feng zhi Wu" was a major step forwards for the series' originality.
The Chinese like telling stories about martial arts; in nearly every Chinese video game, you'll control young apprentices who study some fearsome sword sorcery by old, long-bearded venerable masters. In "Feng zhi Wu" you also control a pupil who learns magical techniques. But instead of being just a boring swordsman, the hero learns the secret art of "wooden shield": building mechanical robots. His teacher is Mo Zi, the famous Chinese philosopher whose followers, the mohists, made great contributions to the world's philosophy and science. Of course, Mo Zi's ability to teach construction of robots is purely fictional. I don't know whether it was the developers' idea or they took it from somewhere else; personally, I never encountered it when reading books about Chinese culture. In any case, the concept of wooden shield technique became one of the most original stylistic elements of the series.
The story line of "Feng zhi Wu" is simple and rather modest. This modesty is what makes it different from Japanese RPGs. It doesn't feature ultimate world domination or psychological conflicts. It deals mainly with the question of using science for evil purposes, particularly wars. This is not a new theme, but in conjunction with the Chinese setting, it makes a fresh impression. Don't expect anything world-embracing, but also anything corny and overly unrealistic.
The characters of "Feng zhi Wu", while not as highly developed as in later installments, are very likable and much more interesting than the stereotypical heroes of the first two games. Supporting characters are in fact the most successful ones. The parrot Ji Peng, whom I already knew from playing Xuanyuan Jian 4
, makes its first appearance in "Feng zhi Wu" and is always ready to reduce the tension with some amusing remarks. With Ji Peng on the protagonist's shoulder, a wooden robot in your party, and a bunch of historical characters around, "Feng zhi Wu" delivers a rather original cast, avoiding Japanese stereotypes. The conversations with NPCs are also very detailed: in every town, you'll want to walk around and to talk to people just for the sake of talking.
Graphically and musically, the game is really top notch. The musical score is remarkable: every piece is atmospheric and has a distinct melodic and harmonic style; it is Chinese at heart, but it doesn't resort to cheap imitations of Chinese folk music. The graphics are as delightful as is the music. Towns and dungeons are very detailed. Character animations are really excellent, both in battles and by NPCs. Seeing how peasants work on a rice field, you notice how realistic their movements are. Battle graphics deserve a special prize, with cool animations, impressive spell effects, and beautiful backgrounds. In terms of production values, "Feng zhi Wu" is one of the most appealing RPGs of its time.
The gameplay system of "Feng zhi Wu" is nearly immaculate. No wonder it didn't change much in later installments. Although it did become more interesting with the introduction of real-time element in the third
game and the "speed combat" in the fourth, the basics were already present in this game. I actually had more fun with the gameplay here than I did with the next two games. The gameplay is remarkably balanced, the difficulty level never too high, but also never too low to let you just attack physically all the time. There are tons of spells and techniques to try out. The concept of stamina is really great, and I wish later games also allowed you to heal both health and stamina at once. Then there is the cool monster-summoning system, which leaves a lot of room for experimenting and adds to the replay value.
The dungeons in the game are almost perfect in length, neither too confusing nor too simple. There are loads of treasure chests in "Feng zhi Wu": I don't recall another RPG with so much stuff to loot. The equipment system allows you to outfit your characters in a very detailed way; in addition, you can equip monsters and special items that teach you different abilities. Also, the leveling up is absolutely smooth: it's never too frustrating, and for the most time you needn't just aimlessly walk around gaining levels. You level up rather easily, and are completely healed when gaining a level, which is a feature I wish every RPG had.
The game's remarkable solid gameplay system leaves almost nothing to be desired. Some players might find the battles too slow-paced, but this is not a programming limitation, but a gameplay element: the idea was to have battles that can't be won by simply setting everyone on auto-attack.
"Feng zhi Wu" is not a very long game, and the story development is proportional to the gameplay at all times; but sometimes I would almost wish the game were a bit longer, and the story more detailed. The plot, while much better than in the two previous games, is still fairly simple, and cannot be compared to the emotional tales of later Xuanyuan Jian games. The ending was in fact one of the better parts for the story development, showing some dramatic scenes and revealing some feeling; but during the game itself, these emotions rarely came out to the surface.
The Bottom Line
Essentially, "Feng zhi Wu" is the first true
Xuanyuan Jian game. Its greatest achievement is being probably the first historical RPG ever developed. Famous characters of Chinese history appear in the game, and it breathes Chinese culture from the beginning to the end. There is a remarkable consistency of style, gameplay, and story. Even though the story lines of later waizhuans
, Tian zhi Hen
and Cang zhi Tao are more complex and emotional, "Feng zhi Wu" was the game that had the real Xuanyuan Jian personality for the first time, surpassing its two predecessors in every possible aspect. A definite landmark of Chinese RPGs, "Feng zhi Wu" is a classic every fan of Eastern-style RPGs should try out.