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SummaryPowerful Chinese storytelling; weak Japanese gameplay
The GoodVery little is known about Chinese RPG-making in the West. Development of computer role-playing games in Chinese-speaking world started in Taiwan in early 1990's and has been since completely dominated by the Japanese take on the genre. In other words, these are mostly simple, linear, intensely plot-driven games with little freedom and limited customization.
While several companies rose and fell again (especially as online games were conquering the minds of Chinese players to a degree unseen in Japan), one powerhouse remained standing amidst the ruins of single-player gaming: Softstar. This Taiwanese team has produce the two longest-running and best-known RPG series in the entire sinophone area - the romantically inclined Xianjian Qixia Zhuan, and the more historically minded Xuanyuan Jian, created by their in-house studio DOMO and offering slightly more fulfilling gameplay.
Mostly unrelated to each other by plot, those games transfer us to various periods of Chinese history, generously mixing real characters with made-up protagonists and explaining the mechanism of historical events with supernatural phenomena and heavy doses of local mythology. Like most Eastern RPGs, those games have fairly schematic, predictable structures, and are similar to each other in tone and gameplay - if you've played one you've pretty much played them all. In my opinion, Cang zhi Tao is the most polished and fulfilling of them.
The game's warmly Chinese visuals and gameplay system are copied almost verbatim from its immediate predecessor. Traditional turn-based battles are slightly peppered by the tactical element of pushing enemies back, which makes speed the most crucial attribute for the characters. There is a good variety of magic and special attacks, and enemies are divided into organic and mechanical types, making things a bit less stale. The game's actual main protagonist in battles is, curiously, a mechanical creature itself, which requires different methods for healing and upgrades. For the first time in the series, there is some rudimentary freedom in customization - you can choose the powers you want to learn for Yunhu, wooden fox extraordinaire.
The most interesting innovation of the preceding game, the Heavenly Book, has been thankfully carried over. One of the game's playable characters can trap enemies with the help of a magical device; afterwards, these enemies can not only be recruited as playable allies in battles, but also put to work in virtual factories producing items, weapons, and armor. In order to craft all these things you also need to collect raw materials scattered around the game world. All in all, this feature can capture your interest for a while - otherwise, the game is pretty much a vanilla Eastern RPG all the way through.
The nice, vivid graphics and the beautiful, soulful music create an exotic, yet culturally very homogeneous atmosphere rarely seen in Japanese games; unlike their much more successful colleague from the Land of the Rising Sun, Chinese developers prefer to set their games within their own long history. The "chineseness" of the game is authentic and unmistakable, pleasantly contrasting with the impossible stylistic mixtures and fake cultural recreations of many other games.
Undeniably, the game's chief appeal is in its story. Modern wuxia novels and popular Chinese television dramas fall back to countless tales accumulated throughout the monotonous, yet certainly not uneventful Chinese literary tradition. Cang zhi Tao is also firmly rooted in the storytelling of its homeland. It is a complex tale of political intrigue interspersed with vague pseudo-philosophical musings about time, destiny, and alike. But it is also imbued with strong and endearing emotions, the likes of which I have rarely seen in a video game. I don't think it would be an exaggeration on my part to state that Cang zhi Tao presents one of the very best narratives available in the medium.
If you are a fan of Eastern RPGs and generally play games for their stories, look no further: this modest Chinese game beats their Japanese mentors at their own game. Instead of corny, cheesy, rehashed world-embracing plots with stereotypical heroes and villains, Cang zhi Tao paints a multiplex panorama of historical and mythical characters, each with their own stated goals and hidden agenda. The story unravels gradually, in a relentless pace and ever-mounting tension, until the completely unexpected climax crowns it with a grandiose, emotional tearjerker of an ending.
The BadOnce we disengage ourselves from the enchantment of the story and cast a farewell glance onto the lovely Chinese backgrounds, the broadly orchestrated melodies still ringing in our ears, we begin to see that, with all its beauty and storytelling power, Cang zhi Tao is just an ordinary Eastern RPG.
Suffice to say that Final Fantasy games of yore appear to be significantly more complex and varied than this product. Undeniably lovable and charming, the Taiwanese creation is tame and timid, slavishly clinging even to those genre conventions some of its progenitors have meanwhile thrown overboard.
Essentially, Cang zhi Tao is a linear journey through towns and dungeons, with a rigid main quest that does not deviate an iota from its prescribed path, formulaic and predictable to the bone. The dungeons are, thankfully, short and painless - a more maze-like design would simply increase the boredom of random encounters. However, they are little more than lines connecting A and B - the exploration is severely limited, with an invisible hand guiding you at all times. At least they haven't removed normal world map navigation.
There are only three characters you can control in this game, the third and most interesting one joining after you have already been forced to perform considerable treks through parts of China with two lovely, yet gameplay-poor ladies. Granted, all the three characters are wonderfully appealing and crucial to anything that happens in the game; but that is yet another instance of narrative considerations triumphing over the gameplay.
On top of that, the game is very easy. The fun gimmick of the battle system, with the characters' speed determines the turns, allowing you to "push back" enemies, is wasted on combat that poses almost zero challenge. Only the last couple of bosses put up a bit of a fight.