Xuanyuan Jian embraces the world
The GoodXuanyuan Jian 3
occupies a special place in the longest-running Chinese RPG series. Since the first installment
, all the games in the series were dedicated to Chinese history and mythology. I can imagine the astonishment of die-hard Xuanyuan Jian fans when they put the new shiny game CD into the disc drive and were greeted by the sinister singing of a medieval church choir, and shortly afterwards found themselves on the streets of Venice, in control of a European Christian knight.
The game is divided into three parts, the first one taking place in Europe, the second in the Islamic world, and the third bring us back to China (the Tang dynasty era) with the capital Chang'an, allegedly the largest city in the world at that time. Despite the limited role of China in this game, it contains some of the most famous Chinese locations (such as the Shaolin monastery), and talk to historical celebrities like the emperor Xuanzong, his famous concubine Yang Guifei (one of the legendary Chinese beauties), and the poet Li Bai.
The story focuses on the protagonist's continuous search for wisdom, the inability to find it either in Christian or Islamic world, and the inevitable pilgrimage to China, which leads him to new spiritual heights. The story is spiced by "anime-ish" elements such as a sexy messenger of Satan and rivalry between two men who were once friends. Your regular party members are all spirits, which is an interesting touch. Near the end of the game the hero Septem will be dragging along colorful mythological characters of pseudo-European, Hindu, and Chinese origins.
Visually, this game made a leap from hand-drawn 2D to pre-rendered backgrounds. As before, the graphics were obviously done by talented people. Quiet streets of Venice, white-stone buildings of Damascus, detailed decorations in Chang'an attract the eye immediately. For those who were unable to say good-bye to the unique visual style of the previous games, there are good news: battle graphics still feature wonderful hand-painted graphics. Although the battles use a two-dimensional view and there aren't many special effects, they come to life thanks to the artistic visual design. Backgrounds have a definite Chinese touch, some of them reminding Chinese watercolor paintings. In navigation mode, all characters become "super-deformed" sprites in nostalgic 16-bit spirit.
The game starts with a beautiful, atmospheric pre-rendered intro, after which the lovely Venice theme kicks in. The music is generally enchanting, with plenty of cultural variety in it; even the battle theme exists in three variants: European, Arab, and Chinese.
The gameplay follows a very solid Japanese-style RPG template. Once you have found your companions, you manage a party of four active combatants, which I prefer over a party of three any time of the day. It's simply more fun to control a larger party. What's more, some AI-controlled party members will join you. At a certain time, there will be four additional AI-controlled party members fighting on your side.
There is plenty of equipment in the game: you can equip not only various body parts, but additional items with special effects, scrolls, and even monsters. The monster-summoning system from the previous games returns; you can use a special command in battle to capture the monster you are fighting. Then the monster will appear as item in your menu. You can now either equip it on somebody, raising his/her stats, or leave the monster as a free item. In this case, it can be "used" in battles as an item to be summoned and fight for you. Of course, you won't be able to summon monsters for free. Each monster requires you to spend a certain amount of stamina. You can view your stamina bar the same way as health and magic ones. There are some tricky stamina-restoring spells, spells that require stamina and replenish your magic points and vice versa.
In addition to that, you can also mix any item you have with another one, including monsters. Sometimes you would get another monster, sometimes a new item; some of the more interesting and powerful monsters/items can only be acquired in this way.
The graphics are beautiful, but mainly thanks to the talent of the artists, not the technology they used. From that point of view, the graphics are in many ways outdated. The characters in navigation mode are rather ordinary "super-deformed" sprites. There are some pre-rendered animations, but most of them use the same character sprites, and the effect is simply not there. Most of those animations appear during the first part of the game, and afterwards there is a a serious "drought" which unfortunately lasts until the end.
The idea for the "multi-cultural setting" was great; however, there are noticeable anime influences in the game's depiction of Europe, which I found mildly irksome. Obviously, the developers knew about their own culture more than they did about the European and the Islamic one; but anachronisms and inconsistencies are nevertheless a bit annoying in a game that claims to have an authentic historical setting. I highly doubt an Arab girl of the 8th century would consider marrying a European knight. The language in the Syrian ruins is called "ancient Arabic" in the game, though the real ancient languages of that region would be Assyrian and Aramaic. And yeah, I'm nitpicking, can you tell?
The Bottom Line
The third installment of the series scores a lot of points for originality. The decision to abandon the "China-only" concept and introduce other countries and cultures was great. The fascinating journey of a young European knight through the world of 8th century appeals to a broader audience, making the game the first choice for those who want to get acquainted with the series, but prefer to start in a more familiar place.