SummaryMicius, friend of Confucius! Bwaaa-ak!
The GoodXuanyuan Jian 4 is the first Chinese RPG in 3D, an important technological breakthrough for the local game industry.
The locations of Xuanyuan Jian 4 look lovely and are crafted with attention to detail. You never feel you see a composition of polygons; whether depicting sinister castle basement, damp caves, the exotic bird kingdom, cloudy mountain passages or claustrophobic halls, the graphics serve you in such a way that you don't notice them - you notice the locations themselves. 3D character models are expressive and well-animated. Battles animations are also cool, from the Wooden Man's turning wrists to the skeletons pulling up their pants or demon kings waving fans.
Cutscenes are very impressive. The gorgeous pre-rendered intro puts most supernatural kung-fu movies to shame. I should also mention the wonderful music: very authentic, but without throwing at you countless cheerful pentatonic scales or percussion at every corner.
The story begins with the group of heroes fighting against the none other than Qin Shihuang, the famous "First Emperor" of China, the one who ordered to build the Great Wall and was buried together with the famous Terracotta Soldiers. He was also the architect of the first totalitarian regime on the Earth, complete with mind-controlling, book-burning, special forces to report any counter-activity, and Orwellian "doublethink". There isn't much concrete historical analysis in the game. Rather, the narrative tries to explain (mixing in supernatural elements) how Qin Shihuang became so powerful. As the story advances, you'll learn more about ancient legends of China, thousand-year-old spirits, power, and old teachings.
Like the previous games, the story focuses on the fictional secret technique developed by the Mohists (followers of the famous philosopher Mozi): construction of animated creatures from wood. It is a historical fact that during the rule of Qin Dynasty Mohism was prohibited, and its followers persecuted. This is the beginning of the game's story: following the adventures of a young Mohist pupil who tries to find out what has happened to the "wooden technique".
The narrative has a good tempo, and the plot twists are well-placed and convincing. It is interesting to discover step by step what happened many years ago, what was the meaning of the intro sequence, which is seemingly unrelated to the game's story. In the end everything is explained thoroughly, there are no plot holes. There are also many references to older Xuanyuan Jian games.
The main characters (the female protagonist Shuijing, the wizard Ji Liang, and the extraordinary thousand-year old parrot Ji Peng) have developed personalities and are interesting to hang around with. The writing is rather verbose, but the text reads well; even with my limited Chinese-reading skills, I didn't have much trouble to understand what was going on.
The game introduces a new element to the series: the so-called "Heavenly Book". Basically, you have access to a virtual valley where you can build various utilities. For this, you need money, materials, and monsters. You get money from battles; materials are acquired by searching dungeons and towns carefully; and monsters must be either summoned, using a special command in battles, or traded for special eggs you receive at save points. So, what do those utilities bring you? Well, you can build a shrine, put a monster into it, and then summon it in a battle. The monster will fight on your side, controlled by the AI. You can surround this monster by four others, to increase its strength. You can build factories for weapons, armor, and accessories. You have three kinds of factories for each category: low level, middle level and high level.
Of course, building a high level factory requires more money and materials. You also must put monsters into factories to reach levels in four different categories required for a weapon or an armor piece to become available. Then you spend money and materials to get the products. It is also possible to build flying pagodas where you can learn magic from monsters.
The stuff you can buy in various shops in the "real" world is of significantly lower quality than the one you can make yourself. I was unable to pass a certain boss late in the game, searched in vain for better equipment, and then realized I should pay more attention to my Heavenly Book. After hours of building, searching, and experimenting, I was able to produce better equipment, outfit my characters properly, and defeat the foe. I love such kind of challenge in RPGs. Not "I need to gain ten more levels to beat this guy", but "Should I try another way?"
Combat system has been re-vamped to include a bar that shows you the turns of the characters. The interesting part of it is the possibility to "knock back" enemies; since you can see whose turn it is, you can specifically target enemies who are about to have a turn. Hence, speed becomes your most helpful attribute, giving you more turns which you can use to repeatedly knock back the foe; naturally, if you are slow, the enemies will do the same to you.
There is a very interesting magic system in the game: in order to cast a high-level elemental spell, you must first cast another spell of the same element which "marks" the whole area. This way, not only you will be able to cast strong spells of this element, but the enemies won't be able to cast strong spells of the opposing element! Of course, enemies can also cast such area-dominating spells, and negate yours as well, so often you'll see water creatures frantically casting water-marking spells, and Ji Liang trying to out-cast them with fire ones. It's cool to witness such "battles for the field".
Beside these innovations, the game plays pretty much like its predecessors: you have the customary "blue" and "green" points for various techniques, heavy equipment management with diverse bonuses, monster summons, and other traditional Xuanyuan Jian elements.
The BadThe story, while interesting and captivating in its own way, doesn't quite reach the emotional heights of Tian zhi Hen, the previous Xuanyuan Jian game. The characters are noticeably more reserved, and the main conflict is perhaps less personal and dramatic than the one of the predecessor.
Like in Tian zhi Hen, you'll be pretty much stuck with the entire party for the duration of the whole game. Also, it takes a bit too long until you recruit Ji Peng; fighting turn-based battles with two characters is not a particularly exciting activity.
Battles against random enemies tend to drag a bit. Particularly the last few dungeons require constant usage of special technique to deal normal damage. Also, I wish Xuanyuan Jian would finally make a transition to visible regular enemies, like its "sister series" Xianjian Qixia Zhuan.
The Bottom LineI was glad to see that the series hadn't lost anything after its transition to 3D; on the contrary, in terms of gameplay, this is perhaps the most interesting and fulfilling Xuanyuan Jian experience.
Besides, any game in which you have a bearded parrot who is controlling a wooden robot in your party gets extra points in my book!