I first became aware of Chinese/Taiwanese RPGs around fifteen years ago; a few names tied to a smattering of barely-explained screenshots was all it took to spark an interest that eventually snowballed into a mass buying and playing spree thanks to a combination of Yesasia’s great selection of PC titles (as it was at the time), a deeply patient Taobao/Tmall proxy willing to deal with endless emails full of shopping links to random old games, and quite a lot of luck. They were a lot of trouble to buy, even more trouble to get running due to some nasty cases of highly aggressive always-online DRM, and should I somehow successfully navigate the install process I’d then find myself playing an RPG in a language I only have a very basic grasp of, a scrappy little notebook filled with freshly-scribbled new words by my side.
Happily some of these games are now available on Steam, in English, meaning the ridiculous hoops I used to have to jump through have been replaced by a few easy clicks on just about any PC on the planet – and that means Xuan-Yuan Sword 7, the latest in Softstar’s thirty-one year old series of RPGs, is something anyone reading this can buy and play right now (system requirements permitting, as always). There’s no need to worry about jumping in several decades late either as the series’ tangle of mainline releases and various side-stories are mostly self-contained adventures taking place across a wide range of historical eras and locations rather than a single plot thread that hinges on you remembering something or someone present in one game, first sold twenty years ago. Xuan-Yuan Sword has never been keen on wallowing in nostalgia, and for all the recurring characters and themes over the years – most notably the legendary blade of the title – the series has had many substantial graphical and mechanical changes over the years, the all singing, all dancing, RTX-enabled visual extravagance of this new release a world away from the limited colours and quaint pixel art of its DOS-based debut.
And Xuan-Yuan 7 is eager to show you as much of everything it has to offer as quickly and as painlessly as possible, streamlining and speeding up the traditional RPG rhythm of towns, dungeons, and oversized bosses to an incredible degree: This is a game that will always show you exactly where to go, always visually mark the one dialogue choice that’ll move the plot along, always keep track of all active subquests for you, and always show on-screen where the nearest save camp and quick travel guard stone are. This makes it very easy to hare from one plot trigger to the next; all unnecessary NPCs ignored, all towns rushed through in a minute. Enemies are visible and wander in fixed areas, some of which are avoidable – and those that aren’t you fight in seamless action-style battles with AI-controlled teammates, the cooldown timer on items and skills the only real nod to the series’ RPG roots. Dungeons may have a few chests tucked around a corner if you care to go and look, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. Vast chunks of character-building dialogue is delivered as you run along the simplified path from one main quest marker to the next, Xuan-Yuan 7 always making an extreme effort to avoid any downtime, empty air, or resistance to your progression.
And I think I’m supposed to tell you this means the game doesn’t have enough content (whatever the heck “enough” is supposed to be) and that you couldn’t possibly connect to a story that doesn’t consume every waking moment of your life for the next three months, but honestly this quickfire style only reminded me of the mighty Hudson Soft‘s extreme Saturn makeover of Falcom‘s classic RPG, The Legend of Heroes III – an RPG famed for its rich plot and memorable cast. In that particular reimagining of the tale you’re whisked from one place to another, never encounter any time-wasting random battles, and in many respects it’s barely an RPG at all. The important thing is for all that’s “wrong” with the port it’s still a good story well told; a story that lets you get to the bits you came for, that makes sure when you do fight it’s for a reason, that lets you experience events at the same pace the storytelling tells you the cast do.
To put it another way: the Saturn port of The Legend of Heroes III is the Alien Soldier of RPGs, the designers in this case concluding that if the best bits of an RPG are the plot and overcoming cool enemies in meaningful battles, then why make one that wastes a player’s time with anything else? I can only see Xuan-Yuan 7 as a game with a very similar approach to RPGing, merrily throwing away everything we’re told the genre should be (including long – you’ll easily clear this in under fifteen hours) and only keeping the bits people actually like.
And so the hours pass by quickly because the next exciting plot point is always just around the corner, because if you’re in a dungeon you know you’re minutes away from participating in another dramatic battle, because whichever way you turn you’ll soon find yourself embroiled in anything from mortal political machinations to personal tragedies to events featuring magical swords capable of cleaving the landscape in two. You’ll do optional quests by choice because you know you aren’t going to spend the next hour killing ten wolves or picking mountain herbs somewhere you’ve already been if you pursue them. For all that’s “missing” Xuan-Yuan 7 doesn’t feel like an RPG that’s lacking or in a hurry, just a game that would rather show you two fantastic things than twenty ordinary ones. It still has the time for quiet moments by the fire, friendly teasing, heartfelt tales of revenge, references to (much) earlier games in the series (I’ll stress again that knowing who came from where is a nice bonus, not a necessity), sub plots, small details, and page after page of ever-expanding character notes. It is flawed in some unfortunate ways: The combat system may have flashy moves and special effects in abundance but they can’t disguise the noticeable lack of depth to the fighting (on any of its four difficulty levels), the QTEs feel like a relic from another era, and the English translation’s liberally scattered with basic grammatical errors and odd inconsistencies – luckily the whirlwind nature of the game prevents them from sticking around long enough to register as much more than mild disappointments, but even so there’s no doubt they could have been handled better.
There’s always going to plenty of enjoyment and immersion to be had from finding your own path through an unforgiving landscape or getting caught up in a whole city’s worth of optional content, and Xuan-Yuan 7 doesn’t try to take anything away from those glorious black holes of gaming that hoover up all your free time and take twenty hours just to get going. What it is is not a better path that all modern RPGs must follow but a welcome alternative to standards that have become so entrenched we’ve forgotten the genre could be anything else, as well as an excellent reminder that any series born thirty years ago doesn’t have to live there forevermore.