The bad old days of “Oh, you mean like that bootleg NES Final Fantasy VII?” whenever you mention Chinese and Taiwanese games aren’t quite behind us yet but things are looking brighter than they’ve ever been thanks to Softstar’s very welcome albeit unexpected push into foreign publishing with Sword and Fairy 6, Empire of Angels IV, and The Gate of Firmament, (do Xuan Yuan Jian 3 next, please!) as well as the international release of titles like Hidden Dragon: Legend, Rain Blood Chronicles: Mirage, and Detention from a variety of other publishers. To have all of these games and more available at our fingertips and translated into English – even if the text’s a little rough at times – all helps to plant that little seed of an idea in the collective gaming consciousness that there are creations of worth that exist outside of the usual English-speaking/Japanese spheres, whether these specific examples are your cup of tea or not. With Steam now taking things one step further and hosting full-blown foreign-language-only releases on every regional storefront the publisher wishes to have them on even something like Gu Jian Qi Tan 3 (Simplified Chinese version only) is now just a few clicks away for almost anyone on the planet and not the sole preserve of domestic fans and the most ardent of importers.
I’ll happily admit I’m more than a little bit biased when it comes to this series: When I bought the first one back in 2010 it became the official floodgate-opener for me, the driving force behind a thought that started out as “Looks like there are a lot of neat games in that part of the world, I should try them out.” and swiftly mutated into “Well, I guess I have to buy every last one I can get my mitts on right now.” once that game was in my enthusiastic hands. I was besotted with its beautiful setting and wonderful characters and absolutely ecstatic to see it spawn a prodigious amount of merchandise (I have literally been there, done that, and got the t-shirt), a TV adaptation, and some of the most incredible art and design books I’ve ever spent money on. Three years later we were graced with Gu Jian 2, another excellent title that proved the development team (Aurogon) were in no danger of being thought of as another one hit wonder – even if it did run terribly at launch.
Five years and an MMO after that Gu Jian 3 shows up – only this time instead of rushing to preorder yet another sumptuous RPG alarm bells start ringing in my head. It’s an action RPG? That sounds a bit… different. The “problem” was the original mostly followed traditional turn-based RPG rules with a Grandia-like turn order bar, while the second would whisk you away from your current location so you could unleash an MMO-ish system of hotbars and cooldown timers on enemies in an attempt to find that bridge between typical RPG depth and the visual thrill of active combat – both approaches felt like they fit within usual RPG guidelines while still having enough of their own little twists to keep things interesting. Now I’ll accept that I’m not terribly fond of ARPGs – they tend to look like you could A[ction] your way through them but the reality is everything’s still bound to those all important RPG statistics, making any honest reaction-based attempts on your part feel like a wasted effort and the whole thing comes across like a big fat lie. Gu Jian 3 avoids this typical genre issue by being one of few games to try and sincerely meld these two opposing halves together into a complete whole – here if you want to dodge you will have to physically move out of the way in time, not hope your EVD stat’s high enough for the job. Looking to block an incoming attack? There’s a dedicated block button for that and it’s up to you to press it in time, not pray a character’s DEF buff is enough to force it to activate. Statistics and equipment are still present and important – you’re not going to get far swinging a stick around in your tattiest clothes at a slobbering demon, but by the same token wearing the best equipment in the game means little unless you know how to fight well. This is the kind of ARPG I like – you do need to plan ahead and mustn’t skimp on your team’s build but your personal skill also has a direct influence on the outcome of every battle and you’re not there jabbing buttons while the game does its best to hide its innate RPG-ness behind some fancy graphics.
This commitment to meaningful action and player input extends beyond the usual “Hit things until they die” aspect of RPGing in many fascinating little ways – find yourself frozen by an enemy spell? You’d better waggle the analogue stick to break free then! Battles seamlessly merge with standard exploration with no formal start and end points bar a brief tally of any experience earned (you don’t even stop for a standard-issue victory pose) – all enemies are visible on the field and will react to your presence, and as in a typical third person action game starting a fight means running over and hitting something in the face (or carefully luring it away from a group), just as escaping a battle means literally removing your team from the enemy’s territory as quickly as possible. To keep this potentially constant and all-encompassing combat manageable there’s a lock-on system if you want to automatically keep a specific target in view (the right analogue stick allows you to freely rotate the camera if you need to look around), and if anything to the sides or behind is about to strike directional yellow and red markers allow you to quickly prioritise and react to any dangers outside of your current field of vision. The game’s design takes full advantage of this freeform combat system – right from the start you’ll find monsters hiding in an ominous and unnatural mist and from there it just keeps expanding upon this inter-genre fusion with scenarios including thugs who can only be reached via a rooftop leap and a desperate attempt to protect an entire city from monstrous invaders, the local guards fighting by your side as enemies rain in from the darkened skies above. Far from being the change for change’s sake I assumed this shift would be it’s instead been used to remove as many barriers between what you’re told is happening and what is actually happening as is reasonably possible. Never to the extent of impinging on personal convenience though – you can save at any point (and the game frequently auto-saves for you too) and at the end of the first dungeon, a relatively lengthy and ever-downwards trek through monster-infested platforms (thoughtfully automapped to spare you from any “Didn’t I already go this way?” stumbling around) I had a bit of a panic as the casual “I guess we’re done here – we should head back to the city” dialogue didn’t end with a fade to black that whisked us back to the entrance – they weren’t going to make me walk all the way back, were they?! Luckily there was nothing to worry about – the end of that little chat revealed a thoughtfully placed a warp right next to where my party were standing and from that drop-off point my team were literally a few steps away from the entrance.
If we must find one downside to this true action combat (I feel like I’ve just Kojima’d myself there), it’s that even as a game designed exclusively for PCs an Xbox One-like controller is a necessity if you want to play the game as intended. You can technically use a keyboard and mouse – as I had to once when the game, as PC titles are wont to do, just decided that today was not a controller-recognising kind of day – so long as you don’t mind your fingers hurting all afternoon after contorting them into all sorts of painful shapes. To be fair there’s nothing to stop you rebinding every single key to your liking if you want to spend the time doing so, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a default control scheme to at the very least not leave you with physical discomfort after an hour’s play either.
The storyline is a tale of unwilling duty, rejection of destiny, family, and that classic RPG staple – heart-rending tragedy. Two brothers, the elder who embraces his mystical powers and all of the hardship and responsibility that brings is estranged from the younger, who rejects them and would rather live as casual a life as possible amongst humans. No, I haven’t tricked you into reading yet another Devil May Cry article (honest!), it’s clearly just the sort of story that naturally offers a lot of personal as well as large-scale fantasy conflict in one neat package. It only takes a few hours for the story to move away from this opening set-up and spread its wings in any case and before long you’ve got a magical and occasionally flying mouse-spirit comedy sidekick (no, really) in tow and find yourself chasing bandits through a forest maze hoping to find a descendant of Huang Di before they do. The small main cast are all likeable and interesting, falling into distinct personality types without being so bound by them they become caricatures. Leading man Bei Luo is faultlessly heroic should anyone deserving need his help but has little love or time for his magically-inclined heritage, even going so far as to subconsciously suppress his (un)natural abilities: he ends up as the sort of character who can confidently carry all of the demon-based drama the setting throws his way while still believably taking the time to kneel down so he can talk to an injured boy, a real gem of a hero I always look forward to seeing react to the many challenges the game puts in his way.
Gu Jian 3’s narrative spans the worlds of humans and demons as well as all sorts of century-spanning promises, feuds, relationships – and makes direct references to both of the previous games in the series as it goes too (I feel safe in assuming the MMO as well, but as I’ve not played it I sadly can’t confirm either way). There’s a lot going on, which would usually mean an awful lot of exposition as the story oh-so-cleverly wallows in its own lore, suffocating you with lengthy info dumps as it tries to prove how important and unique it is. That’s what usually happens, anyway – and that’s what did happen to Gu Jian, just one game before this one. Unlike Two’s endless parade of well done but patience-testing events Gu Jian 3 is pleasantly keen on keeping you, the player, at the heart of the experience at all times – cutscenes are usually short, to the point, and directly relate to the immediate plot instead of dragging you through a side-character’s private thoughts or a B-grade thread that really doesn’t deserve it’s own thirty minute fully-voiced cutscene. This doesn’t mean action sequences aren’t still visually spectacular when they need to be or that the game doesn’t dedicate some time to those “small” moments that breath life into the cast as a functioning group of individuals when they’re not struggling against the shackles of destiny, but that this time around Gu Jian has been designed first and foremost as a game, and every moment feels like the staff were concerned with making sure that more time was spent playing than passively watching things happen to characters you’re supposed to be in control of. Outside of the designated storytelling segments the game still feels alive and full of energy, with NPCs audibly chattering away in private conversations as you walk past and in places where people are aware of Bei Luo’s unwillingly royal nature, stopping to bow respectfully as you walk by. It’s not much but these little details, like the small birds found perched on fences and the fish you can pull out of lakes and streams all go a long way into making Gu Jian 3’s world a place you can feel is worth exploring.
To keep things moving in the right direction the extremely useful in-game map always shows where you need to go next – whether that’s a specific character to talk to, an area to visit, or something you need to do in a particular place. As this tiny marker only appears on the map and refuses to show the location of anything you’re supposed to be searching for yourself it feels less like mindless hand-holding and more like making sure you know where you’re going – even if you’ve been away for a while or didn’t give that last conversation your full attention (one of the unfortunate side-effects of having all important dialogue dispensed via properly acted and fully voiced cutscenes is no longer having the ability to advance the text at your own pace). What this means is you are given the power to plan your next move for yourself, either wilfully avoiding the next scenario trigger so you can take your time soaking up some side stories or deciding that the main plot’s far too exciting and making sure you only do what needs to be done so you can find out what happens next as swiftly as possible. I can confidently say that I could leave this game for six months and I would still know where I’d been, where I was, and where I needed to go next when I came back thanks to this system as well as the helpful notes section found in the main menu. Obviously playing straight through to the exclusion of all else is always going to give the best experience, but Gu Jian 3 does enough to make me feel like I can keep playing it because I want to, and not because I have to. It’s an important distinction that greatly relieves a lot of nagging pressure as you’re playing and if you do put it down it means nothing more than you’re taking a break, not abandoning all of your hard-won progress.
Gu Jian 3 is a clear departure from previous games in the series but never so much that you would question its authenticity – this is more a natural evolution of everything that’s gone before and there’s nothing lost that hasn’t been replaced by something Three does better. It takes a special sort of confidence to make two well-received games and still insist on messing with your own winning formula but Aurogon keep doing it and it keeps working for them – I’ll definitely make sure I’m there day one for the inevitable Gu Jian 4, no matter what unexpected genre shift they go for next time!