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Xuanyuan Jian Waizhuan: Cang zhi Tao (Windows)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Cor 13 (171997)
Written on  :  Nov 01, 2005
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Power of Chinese storytelling

The Good

If you want to play the entire game from the beginning just after having finished it, you can be sure there is something special between you two. This is exactly what happened with me and Cang zhi Tao.

Fifteen years ago, Softstar released the first Chinese-made RPG, Xuanyuan Jian. Those fifteen years were a time of continuous creative work. Sequels to this pioneer of Chinese RPGs were released regularly. Each Xuanyuan Jian game (except the first) also had a waizhuan, a game that was made with the same gameplay mechanics and graphical engine, but had a different story. Cang zhi Tao is the latest of those side-stories.

I'm not sure I can explain this properly, but there is a remarkable unity in the game's design. Every aspect of the game - story, graphics, music, gameplay - fit each other in such a way that you cannot imagine one without the other.

Being set in 4th century China is not just a matter of convenience or an additional "exotic" coloring. The developers grew up within the Chinese culture, and they depicted a credible, authentic historical environment, basing their story on concrete political events. The transition between reality and fantasy in Cang zhi Tao is extremely smooth and natural. Monsters, supernatural beings, time-traveling, cosmic battles are as convincing as complex political intrigues or everyday life of Chinese towns. It's like a mixture of Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West, with the political background of the first and the supernatural, philosophical elements of the second.

Hands down, Cang zhi Tao has one of the best narratives in the history of video games. This game should be put on a pedestal and taught in schools for story-telling. Purely from a technical viewpoint, the architecture of the narrative is impeccable. The vast, complex mystery that incorporates dozens of themes, including historical and political situations, patriotism, loyalty and betrayal, etc., has no plot holes despite the overwhelming amount of plot twists; the pacing is perfect: in every area there are dialogues, cut scenes, more events, more mystery, questions and answers; they come at you steadily, but never overload you. There isn't even one dull moment, and always something to look forward to. When I was playing the game I had the feeling I had ordered this story and now received my order.

It is even more astounding when you think this narrative had to fit somehow the format of a Japanese-style RPG, known for its formulaic nature. But even though the story still follows the broad general formula ("the heroes go from one place to another, eliminating their opponents until the goal is achieved"), you won't notice it. This is a drama full of clever twists and intense emotions, and it doesn't matter what form it uses to express itself.

I also give Cang zhi Tao the first prize for the best ending. I'm absolutely serious when I say that watching this ending was an emotional experience on par with the most moving moments familiar to me from literature and cinema. It is hard to understand how they managed to craft these touching scenes without resorting to the usual cliches of RPG storytelling.

The story is of course powered up by characters, and once again the Chinese developers beat the Japanese at their own game. The characters interact with each other constantly, playing their roles in the narrative with such an intensity that it almost resembles Shakespeare's drama. The three main heroes - Che Yun, Ying Shi, and Huan Yuan Zhi - belong to the most memorable game characters I have come across; in particularly the latter is wonderfully complex and ambiguous, one of those characters who have a rich inner world which is gradually revealed to you without implementing pseudo-Freudian psychoanalysis or supernatural metamorphoses.

As much as the protagonists are memorable, the antagonists almost steal the show. Every "villain" has totally understandable motives, a cause to fight for, an own vision of the world. There is something very majestic and noble about the battles in Cang zhi Tao; there are no evil world-destroyers and brave world-saviors, everyone is fighting for what he (or she) thinks is right, and in every struggle there is place for deep feelings and respect for the enemies. Also, instead of the usual "us against them" structure of most RPG narratives, there are people with different and unique agendas here; it becomes increasingly complex in the final part of the game, with the antagonists' camp splits into several independent factions.

The presentation is as good as it was possible with the limited engine. Camera work and direction are nearly immaculate. Close-up, slow motion, and other effects are generously used to complement the inner drama of dialogues and events. While hardly "cutting-edge", the graphics enchant you with their aesthetic quality. Character animations are detailed and sometimes endearingly goofy; just look how Che Yun covers her face with her hands in child-like fear when her wooden fox Yunhu is hit, or how Ying Shi grimaces in pain when sustaining damage. Just setting the battles on auto and watching the animations is fun. Some special attacks are quite spectacular; for example, Yunhu's strongest techniques are presented as full-blown pre-rendered animations.

The music is delightful. Broad, heavy melodies reflect another side of Chinese music, very different from the more popular percussion-heavy, shrill sounds. Many melodies reminded me of North Chinese and Mongolian folk songs. The battle music, which is in fact a modified main theme, is certainly among the best of its kind.

The entire gameplay system was pretty much ported from the fourth game, with all its innovations, including the "knocking back" feature that added more strategic depth to combat, and, of course, the excellent Heavenly Book system. You can capture monsters you encounter in combat into your "Book"; then you build shrines in which you put one central monster surrounded by four others, who enhance its statistics in various ways, and can later summon this monster to participate in battles as a playable character. You can also open your own weapon and accessory shops, in which you can buy unique items only if you put monsters in them, raising the statistics to the necessary level. This is very entertaining, and you'll probably find yourself experimenting with various types of monsters every time you enter a new area.

An interesting new feature is the non-linear leveling up of Yunhu, the wonderful fox created by the game's protagonist Che Yun. Yunhu is your actual first combatant in the game; since he is a wooden mechanical creature, you cannot heal him with conventional means and have to use special items or Che Yun's repairing techniques instead. When Che Yun levels up, you gain special points, which you can then distribute to learn any of Yunhu's techniques in any order you want. Che Yun can also use unique techniques on machine enemies (there are two distinct types of enemies in the game, organic and machine) to lower their attack, speed, etc.

The Bad

The core gameplay here still follows the old Japanese RPG routine. The game knows how to utilize its strengths, but its weaknesses are impossible to ignore. I wish it could be more brave and at least get rid of the random battles.

Cang zhi Tao is not as disastrously linear as some of the more extreme modern Japanese RPGs, but it is nevertheless quite straightforward. The dungeons are particularly disappointing; trying to make them less maze-like, the designers forgot that exploration was an essential component of dungeon navigation, effectively reducing many of them to long walks from one point to another.

You can only control three characters in the game. That wouldn't have been such a problem if the game didn't have the annoying habit of taking away characters suddenly, sometimes leaving you with just two or even one. Also, the third character joins very late; the first one sixth or so of the game is played with a party of two characters only.

While the artists did everything they could with the graphics, it cannot be denied that the engine is outdated. The game looks slightly better than its predecessor in the series, but the engine shows its age.

The biggest problem I had was running the game in the first place. It crashes on newer computers, and the latest patch must be downloaded to make it work.

The Bottom Line

I care for gameplay much more than for the story, so it took a particularly good narrative to make me accept what is essentially a simplistic, linear RPG of the Japanese kind. Cang zhi Tao is exotic, but also moving and entertaining thanks to its fantastic plot and memorable characters. If you play Eastern RPGs primarily for their stories and don't mind rusty, archaic gameplay, this Chinese product is one of the best examples of its genre, beating the Japanese at their own game.