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Xuanyuan Jian 3 Waizhuan: Tian zhi Hen (Windows)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Cor 13 (171951)
Written on  :  Dec 11, 2005
Rating  :  4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars

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Incarnation of Chinese quality storytelling

The Good

Xuanyuan Jian series, the leading Chinese RPG franchise, has an interesting structure: except the very first game, every installment of the series is followed by a waizhuan (side story), which uses the same graphical engine and more or less the same gameplay system as its immediate predecessor, but tells a different story about different characters. It is only natural that such side stories, created with less stress and with more free time to think about creative aspects of the game, were usually more powerful story-wise than the game whose engine they were using. This is also true in this case.

The narrative is the absolute highlight of the game. For the first time in the series, the authors found the perfect storytelling tone. Experiencing the story of Tian zhi Hen is akin to watching a well-written, well-directed Chinese "historical romance" TV series: it speaks directly to our hearts.

The writers really knew how to push our emotional buttons here. The story is overwhelmingly sad in that particular Chinese way - it's melancholic, and the sadness never turns into world-embracing conflicts; it concentrates entirely on realistic human emotions. The narrative clearly demonstrates the fundamental difference between Japanese and Chinese approach to storytelling. While Japanese always tend to bring in metaphysical questions about humanity and the world, the Chinese narratives are less ambitious, but definitely deeper.

On a more philosophical level, the story is dedicated to the uselessness of kindness and good will, at the same time showing those are the only things with real value. The ethical aspect of the narrative is remarkably strong; this is one story you can really learn from. Suffering together with the heroes of the game is as important as admiring their feelings. The game is a hymn of love, friendship, trust, sacrifice, and other moral values; but it shows them in a tragic light, in a never-ending conflict with the essence of the world.

But don't think the story is just a melodramatic tearjerker; unlike many of its Japanese counterparts, Tian zhi Hen knows how to touch without becoming corny. Some of the scenes in the game have a very strong emotional impact, portraying feelings and subsequent events rarely encountered in the narratives of video games (such as for example a rather shocking display of a suicide attempt by one of the characters). The story is a testimony to the talent of the Chinese to create powerful stories without resorting to metaphysics and religion, by exploring the human soul and the versatility of its emotions.

The story is very cleverly told, and, typically for the series, contains some great twists and very unexpected events. Several times in the game the whole world will seem to be turned upside-down, and the heroes see how flawed their understanding had been. This is, of course, a part of the general concept of the narrative: fatal misunderstanding that causes tragedy.

The three main characters - the protagonist Chen Jingchou and the girls Xiaoxue and Yuer - are so memorable that you'll feel sad after having completed the game just because you won't spend time with them any more. Interesting characters such as the old master, the princess, or Yuwen, serve as a "supporting cast" to the three main heroes and do the job very well. The Chinese don't like portraying two-dimensionally evil, maniacally laughing world-dominators, so it's not surprising the game lacks such stereotypes. Each character has first of all a motive for acting this or another way; this motive is what you have to find out and understand. The game concentrates less on fighting evil and more on psychology, the nature of human feelings.

Graphically, the game looks very similarly to its predecessor, but is decidedly more beautiful. Tian zhi Hen is one of the most beautiful examples of the old "pre-rendered backgrounds" style of RPGs. Battle graphics deserve a special mention: being entirely 2D, they have fantastic animation and wonderful Chinese-style backgrounds. There is by the way a whole area in the game which has such hand-painted backgrounds instead of pre-rendered ones; it looks like a classic Chinese painting. Some locations are really breathtakingly beautiful; I guess after the perfect old-style graphics of this game there was nothing left to do but switch to 3D (which they also did, and surprisingly well, in the next game).

The music of the game has an interesting structure, a bit similar to that of Final Fantasy VIII, where one theme dominated the whole score and appeared over and over again in different shapes. Same happens in Tian zhi Hen, where there is one beautiful main melody which is used on many occasions, accompanying the game like a leitmotiv.

Gameplay-wise, the game is very similar to its predecessor, with the exception of the Fu Gui system. From the beginning of the game you have your own pet monster, who participates in every battle, and to whom you can assign general commands such as "heal the hero", "don't use spells", etc., or just let it be controlled by the AI entirely. This monster can be customized with the help of the monster-summoning system from the previous game. During random battles, you can use a special command to capture the monster you are fighting. This monster will be then available as item, which you can equip on your character, modifying his/her stats, or use in battles, summoning the monster and making it fight on your side. This was already available in the previous game, but now you can also feed those monsters to your pet monster, increasing its parameters. The monster has a "hunger" level which allows you to feed it a certain amount of other monsters. You can also make it learn spells from the monsters you've captured.

Beside this system, Tian zhi Hen is a fairly traditional RPG in Japanese format. There are lots of weapons, armor, and accessories in the game, as well as plenty of various healing, support, and attacking items and spells. You have spells of five different elements, and most enemies are immune to certain element and weak against another. The characters in your party also have elemental affinities, so you can outfit them with items that raise a specific elemental defense or increase their resistance.

The difficulty level is rather impressive, considering the time the game was released at. This is not an "old-school" RPG which forces the player to run in circles and level up for hours, but some of the bosses can pose quite a challenge and require a fair amount of preparation and strategy.

Like in most Japanese-style RPGs, story progression is linear in this game. However, the player is able to influence the ending by behaving differently towards the game's two main female characters, Xiaoxue and Yuer. During the "camp" scenes, the player can choose with whom to talk first, etc. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that there will be some tough decisions to make here, which will change the entire final part of the game.

The Bad

The gameplay system is hardly original; except the addition of Fu Gui, it is the same as in the previous game, but with more omissions and annoyances. They reduced the amount of active party members from four to three, following the meaningless trend of the time. The AI-controlled party members are gone completely. Those were just minor omissions, but what I really hated was how the game managed my party. You cannot choose any party members by yourself and are stuck with those the game gives you. The problem is that the game takes party members away from you so frequently that you feel you are being laughed at. To Having your best healer suddenly taken away in the middle of a dangerous dungeon or fighting a difficult boss battle with onlytwo characters is not uncommon.

Another thing to mention are boss battles you cannot win. Such battles should usually end after the enemy's first attack. But here the game once again laughs at you, forcing you to think you can win every boss battle, so you make efforts, waste tons of healing items, only to be hit by an instant-kill spell just when you think you've nearly won, and then find out you were "supposed" to lose anyway.

The Bottom Line

When a company makes a game with an already existing engine, you can expect more creativity in design and storytelling. Certainly not a "blockbuster RPG" in terms of gameplay mechanics, Tian zhi Hen conquers the hearts of the players thanks to its fantastic narrative and unique art. Until now, it remains the most popular and beloved game in the series.