Review: Sword and Fairy 7

Sword and Fairy, AKA Xian Jian Qi Xia Zhuan, AKA Chinese Paladin, AKA The Legend of Sword and Fairy, is a Chinese RPG series that’s been running – almost exclusively on PCs – since 1995. It has found not only success within its own sphere of entertainment but outside of it as well, the stories weaved by these xianxia-styled games popular enough to be adapted into elaborate and lavishly costumed lengthy TV series on three separate occasions and also support the creation and sales of a multitude fabric-lined limited editions, prequels, manhua, novels, Nendos, MMOs, and card games. I say this partly to emphasise how under-discussed a series of this size and calibre is in English speaking circles, and partly as an attempt to impress upon you how significant Sword and Fairy 7’s release is: This is like getting a new Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy; it’s existence alone a newsworthy event and healthy sales virtually guaranteed regardless of whatever’s been changed or kept the same since the last one released to an equally receptive audience.

And Sword and Fairy 7, the latest entry in the twenty-six year old series, certainly looks like a game worthy of shouldering such a legacy: Sunlight hazily filters through vibrantly coloured trees onto the densely packed grasses and gently swaying flowers below. Still waters reflect delicate blossoms and voluminous clouds taller than the detailed mountains around them. Spells glow with an unearthly brilliance and ripple as they whirl around fantastical beasts or leap from magical spirits. It shouldn’t really be all that much of a surprise; blockbuster Chinese and Taiwanese RPGs from all developers have eagerly embraced laptop-melting graphical details in the past decade or so and Sword and Fairy’s “sister” series Xuan Yuan Jian most recent entry (and plenty before that) was nothing short of stunning, but this is really the first time Sword and Fairy in particular has been so clearly at the forefront, if not the absolute bleeding edge, of the technical curve. Every cutscene with even the slightest hint of combat is choreographed to a level the developers of other RPGs save for their final boss introductions, which is to say Sword and Fairy 7’s battle sequences are choreographed about as well as your favourite fantasy xianxia TV show/movie or any episode of the excellent Thunderbolt Fantasy. Outside of battles important cutscenes seem to be motion captured to a certain extent, and while their are some visible compromises (nobody lost any sleep worrying about water accurately flowing from a kettle into a cup or if an extravagant cape would clip through swords and armour from time to time) they’re the sort of thing you notice because you’re writing a review and you have to check for that sort of thing than because they’re especially egregious or mood-ruining. At the very least when characters hold items or physically interact with each other, whether with kindness or murderous intent, they do feel like two or more people standing in the same space at the same time, and I know enough about 3D animation to know that’s really bloody hard to convincingly pull off. The downside to this visual feast is that Sword and Fairy 7’s not especially scalable – while the minimum specs say otherwise (they always do) everything from character clothing to the fantastical areas they walk through is designed around a demanding level of scale, detail, and finesse and while their are always corners that can be cut the game’s been created under the assumption it’ll be running on a PC that can display someone wearing a delicately folded sheer gown over flowing robes running past dozens of trees and tiny ponds filled with flowering lily pads at 60FPS as the tiny silver decorations in their hair glimmer in the light – and preferably with real-time ray tracing and DLSS enabled as well (as shown in all the screenshots here, if you were wondering). I imagine if there’s a PlayStation 5/Xbox Series X release in the future (in the same way Sword and Fairy 6 appeared on the previous console generation) that’ll be a better technical compromise than trying to coax this already slightly temperamental PC title to work on more typical hardware (I experienced several unexplained crashes during my playthrough, and a quick internet search seems to indicate that’s unfortunately just part of playing Sword and Fairy 7), although I’m hesitant to consider this level of graphical detail a mark against the game – it does at least justify its demanding self with an endless array of breathtaking vistas and incredible visual flourishes.

As seems to be the case with all of publisher Softstar’s major new titles going forward an official English translation is present from launch day – an incredible step forward considering how even a mere decade or so ago just getting hold of these games by means fair or foul outside of their home territory took vast amounts of effort, and yet now they’re on Steam sitting next to all the other games as if there was never any point in spending my days fervently searching Taobao and then emailing an endlessly patient proxy service just to get these games to my door. Sadly the English text in here is truly atrocious, in a way that goes far beyond self-important “But I would have used a different word here” rants, passes by “So bad it’s good and/or funny” with a quick wave, and firmly embeds itself into the realm of actively harming both the plot and the gameplay.

Now I think it’s important to pause for a moment here and point out that I don’t know the circumstances that lead to the English script present in Sword and Fairy 7, and I know enough about the industry to understand that any and all issues found in the retail release are usually down to just about anything other than the personal skill of the staff member with their name attached to the job in the credits; however being grateful there’s an official translation at all doesn’t improve the quality of it in any way, and I can only review for you the game I’ve got – the game Softstar deemed acceptable to release in this state. In under an hour you’ll have seen everything from the same term translated differently twice (later on a single object is translated in three different ways in literally under a minute), inconsistent capitalisation, obvious misspellings, and sentences that genuinely don’t make sense. Carry on and you’ll frequently encounter replies that suggest lines were translated in complete isolation from one another (for example the reply to the straightforward question “What should we do about…?” opening with “Calm down.“, even though it’s perfectly clear from the voice actor’s tone and the character’s movements the speaker wasn’t getting worked up at all), as if two untrained AIs were trying to hold a conversation via a battered traveller’s phrasebook. “The amazing battle with the monster really is amazing” exclaims an NPC as you pass them by in repetitive reference to a boss you’ve just defeated. A high-ranking deity, when speaking in a formal capacity to another deity, utters the words – and this is a genuine quote – “I totally get you“. There’s toe-curling tonal whiplash found in single sentences: “Thou idiots” was a “good” one, and reading “Thou couldest only enjoy this snappy comeback now!” marks the first time text has ever caused me to feel physical pain. I even caught one instance of RANDOM ALL CAPS TEXT appearing in not some little side quest’s rarely-seen follow up chatter but mainline story text. I say this purely as a statement of fact: There are more lines with major issues than there are without, to the point where – and again, I relay this information simply as a record of a personally experienced past event and not the incoherent ravings of a nerd with an axe to grind – I had to reload the game and play in Chinese before I could understand exactly what one side quest needed me to do.

Why spend so long dwelling on this negative point? Because this is the main way the game communicates its ideas and ideals to those playing it, because this is how Sword and Fairy as a whole presents itself to people who have no knowledge of the series before the sixth entry (there are over a dozen Sword and Fairy titles in total if you include the MMOs – and that’s not counting all the mobile spin-offs); people who have no reason to believe the series has ever been anything better than the ridiculous farce currently playing out before their eyes. It needs fixing, and it needs fixing now (oh to have access to the text files…). I wanted to say “We can’t have premium plot-heavy games released in 2021 that read like they’re from the 1980’s” – but you and I both know there are better translated games from the Eighties out there. In an ideal world this would be a highly polished and accessible example of a series that’s been overlooked abroad for far too long but there are only so many bizarre linguistic own goals anyone can be reasonably asked to tolerate in a game where the story has always been the series’ guiding star – I wouldn’t blame anyone for seeing this and assuming everyone who ever spoke positively about Chinese RPG storytelling had never read a book in their life. It’s not a question of a lack of budget or technical expertise (unless Softstar deliberately chose to give one doomed person a shiny penny, an Excel file full of jumbled lines with no context, and told them to get on with it), it’s an unforced and avoidable error. The biggest harm this can do is make people assume – quite reasonably, seeing as their point of view would be based on the evidence they’ve been given – that this joke of a script is the very best this subgenre can offer.

Translation aside the plot follows the usual Sword and Fairy house style (think of the way Falcom’s Kiseki and Ys titles each have their own predetermined focus and preferences), and less than two hours in you’ll have fought demons on their home turf, seen a magical fruit turn into the most beautiful sword wielding divine being you’ve ever laid your eyes on, felt relief as grandpa was magically brought back from the brink of death, witnessed gods and demons have a gloves-off fight over a kid, and two main characters become spiritually joined until further notice – the cute little magic bird that can turn into a gigantic version of itself and shoot lightning at plant monsters somehow seems almost ordinary in comparison. Old hands will find the game hits all of the series’ trademark plot points: People will make sincere promises they can’t keep due to either divine interference or noble sacrifice, beautiful young couples oh-so-slowly fall in love (the payoff to these game-long bouts of shyness is that a gentle hug under the moonlight becomes the most heart-warming thing you’ve ever seen in your life), the good people might not be quite as good as they claim to be and the bad people have either been wronged and/or framed for something they didn’t do. While there are a few hazy references to major events and characters from earlier events in the series knowing anything more than what you’re (clumsily, painfully) told isn’t necessary to enjoy the story at all; Sword and Fairy 7 is, just as the games in this series usually are, a completely separate experience and nothing of any importance will be lost if you have no idea who Li Xiao Yao is or what Shu Shan looks like. I can however happily report that one of my favourite little Sword and Fairy things has carried through to this latest release: All four members of the main cast have once again been given more or less equal importance to the plot, and at times one person’s needs or troubles will supersede the others and become the focal point of the story (the active and ongoing story, not a reminiscing detour before the game gets back on track), and at every turn all of them, from the charmingly roguish young man to the dedicated disciple of her family’s dying sect, have some sort of unique knowledge or skill that makes their personal input worthwhile. Nobody is ever “done” here, nobody’s storyline gets neatly resolved so they can concentrate on being a silent healer/bland fighter while the rest of the “real” story unfolds. Amongst the stiff competition offered by the very best games in the series Sword and Fairy 7 isn’t the greatest tale the developer’s ever told but I was hooked from beginning to end, the main cast and many of the supporting characters were always either endearing or intriguing, and the main storyline had a momentum to it that felt like it was moving forwards with purpose rather than sending me off somewhere just to fill some time – and that sentiment still holds true even in the face of multiple minigames and several – brace yourself – mandatory stealth sections.

The most prolific minigame is a card-based distraction, playable against various beings found throughout the land (and the underworld too); and thanks once again to that awful English translation the finer points of the rules are largely unintelligible. Cards are grouped into one of three categories – heaven, earth, and human – and one defeats the other in the expected rock-paper-scissors way, causing damage to whoever loses… except when they get pushed to one side of the play field… and something else to do with special cards with numbers on them might happen because… I honestly don’t know. As you’d expect there are decks to construct, rare cards to collect, and tough opponents to track down and defeat, but in all honesty Triple Triad isn’t going to be losing any sleep over this latest competitor. As for the enforced sneaking I’ve probably sent your blood cold just for mentioning – they were honestly good fun (I’m as shocked as you are). Depending on where you are in the story the aim will either be to quietly crouch-walk past some guards or stealthily take them out from a distance, and in both cases it felt more like a quick bout of Tenchu-lite than tacked on for the sake of adding some box-ticking variety.

There comes a point in any RPG where blades are drawn and Sword and Fairy 7 is no exception – although it plays more like an all-out action game – jumps, dodges, combos and all – once battle commences with not a single menu in sight. The game makes no distinction whatsoever between the standard exploratory environment and battlegrounds, with fights occurring wherever you happen to be standing (there’s also nothing stopping you from simply running away from standard enemies, terrain permitting). All four party members are present and busy dealing damage and casting spells, with the AI handling whoever you’re not currently controlling. This computer-aided assistance isn’t configurable and there is no way to issue general “Conserve MP!” or “Play defensively!” commands but it is intelligent enough to consistently observe any specialist boss-related mechanics (more on those soon) without waiting to follow your lead and while allies can’t be relied upon to conserve their MP for that one life-saving party wide heal you really needed there’s nothing to stop you switching over to anyone at any time (certain circumstances excepted) and taking matters into your own hands. Everyone has access to eight individual MP-consuming special skill slots (these operate on a cooldown system) in addition to standard light and hard attacks (as well as aerial variations of these moves), with three customisable party-wide item slots accessed via the d-pad on top of a limited quantity of everything other consumable just a button press away (this restriction exists to prevent you from stocking up on a mountain of herbs and eating your way to victory). Dash-dodging is a core skill and an early part of your mandatory playable tutorial/introduction sequence, enabling you to at least in theory avoid just about everything that comes your way. There’s a generous period of invincibility built into this enjoyably kinetic manoeuvre, enough to dash through anything from magical flames to lumbering tail swipes, and when coupled with another brilliant rule – MP regenerating for free whenever you land a hit – you find yourself embroiled in thrilling conflicts that encourage a highly mobile and aggressive style of play, fitting both the setting as well as the pure-hearted bravery of the main cast like a glove. Later on playable “summons” expand your offensive skillset, enormous and invincible enemy-decimating mystical beings who replace the entire party for a short period of time, hacking away at the enemy and finishing with a spectacular display of offensive prowess. These segments are simplistic (hit stuff, don’t worry about dodging) but incredibly satisfying, and tactically calling them forth at the right moment (for example, after shattering a boss’ defensive shield and leaving them vulnerable or as they initiate a hard to avoid attack) brings clear advantages – it’s never a bad idea to bring them out, but there’s enough depth to the game to make saving these rechargeable specials (as if to prove how effortlessly beautiful Sword and Fairy 7 is, the gauge for this nestled in the top-left of the screen is a tree silhouetted by the moon rather than a simple rectangle) until the right moment is better.

Fighting against some half-mad beast escaped from “Heaven Prison” (another unfortunate example of the game’s at best “stiff” translation) or a traitorous mystic determined to send you to the afterlife is undoubtedly a highlight of the game, so I’m happy to report these climactic engagements happen fairly regularly and are always infused with real smile-raising personality; manifesting as anything from proud mid-bout boasts of someone’s might or the chilling sight of a divine being calmly walking across the arena towards you, visibly confident of their eventual victory. These fights tend to have some sort of “trick” to them too – maybe you’ll need to find cover behind a pillar before a boss unleashes an arena-wide spell or dash off to hit special flowers dotted around to create an opening. I use the word trick rather than gimmick here for a very good reason: These additions genuinely feel like they’ve been thought of rather than thrown in, always relevant to both the plot and the personality/spiritual energy/environment (or a mix of all three) of whatever it is you’re battling. Powerful attacks have long wind-up animations and clearly telegraphed areas of effect, and if there is an incoming blow that requires more specialist preparation or simply can’t be dodged the cast will reliably comment on this and you’ll have the time to either counter the upcoming effect or rush to find some suitable cover – and if you don’t you’ll learn the hard way that these attacks tend to be highly damaging rather than a foregone instant-kill (although depending on your level/equipment the difference between the two may not be obvious). There’s a strong sense of flow and dynamism to these fights, battles where the most interesting things don’t wait until your enemy’s health bar’s been depleted to happen and then only show up in a post-brawl cutscene. Causing damage may trigger a new phase, or make the boss flinch, or create another new state that must be handled differently from the last – you always believe you’re standing in the middle of an evolving conflict, and that the developers have tried incredibly hard to find the place where player skill and raw spectacle overlap.

Aiding in these battles are various elemental spirits recruited throughout the story (with optionally discovered additional ones out there somewhere as well), each again with their own names, personalities – ranging from impossibly adorable forever-friends to “I’m just here for my own benefit” – and even unique reactions to being touched in the spirit sub-menu. These magical companions are not levelled up the traditional way but must instead be manually fed spirit fruits obtained by completing quests, opening treasure chests (more accurately, giant leaves with happy little blob-friends hiding inside), or as the occasional post-battle item drop. Each spirit offers two different passive perks if you choose to bring them with you into battle such as enhanced defence, and increase to the amount of money awarded, HP boosts and so on, with the strength of these benefits depending on the spirit’s level (the cap is a relatively low fifteen – I found I had multiple spirits as tough as they could be by the end without any effort). Regardless of who accompanies you all of their spells can still be used in battle by the spirit-controlling Yue Qingshu so you don’t have to worry about tying yourself forever to any one particular being for fear of a highly damaging fire spell or party saving heal not being available at a critical moment because you wanted more items to drop post-battle.

And if the worst does happen and your entire party gets wiped out? All plot-relevant battles allow you to restart them from the beginning regardless of when you last saved, and if you die often enough in one fight you’ll be given the option to restart it at a lower difficulty (there are three to choose from at the beginning, the standard selection of easy, standard, and hard) – the change is however permanent. The good news is this change is also significant enough that should you reach the final phase of the final boss and find yourself wondering if it’s going to be faster to reload and finally grind out some levels or redownload Cheat Engine, just to use one completely random example that definitely didn’t happen to me, you’ll be able to sail through without any further issues (assuming you still make an honest attempt to engage with the battle properly) rather than fight tooth and nail only to fall again at the final hurdle.

To reach these memorable clashes you’ll have to walk along what appears on the map to be a distressingly linear path, although I have to admit while playing I didn’t really notice and minded even less. There are plenty of jumps between ragged cliff edges, sharp twists to follow up foliage-covered hillsides, and ancient staircases leading towards elaborate buildings to navigate to mask this “problem” and there’s also enough “fuzziness” in the landscape – walkable areas extending beyond the explicit path – that at times it’s possible to leap down to somewhere below or voluntarily cut a more dangerous path for yourself between two distant points. Because way forward was always clear (the map automatically marks the location of major plot triggers as well as tracked side quests) I found going off-piste always felt like a choice that was mine to make and so I was perfectly happy to go down a dead-end or talk to a side quest-starting NPC because I’d decided I’d wanted to, not because I’d taken the wrong path or interacted with someone I hadn’t meant to. Another benefit to having such controlled map traversal rears its head when Sword and Fairy 7 halts your progress for another quick puzzle involving lava channels or splitting the team into two groups, each clearing the path forward for the other: because you either came straight here or only went off exploring by choice, these segments come across as an interesting challenge rather than an extra hassle on top of of baseline level of friction. Materials (for cooking or weapon forging), consumable items, and even equipment can often be found not far from the main route, with even more found if you choose to explore slightly further afield. It’s still best to buy as much of everything you can before setting off but if you didn’t, couldn’t, or were so excited to press forward you didn’t care, the game isn’t going to leave you in starting gear or without any recovery items in you inventory. And on that note I found myself short of money all game long (normal difficulty setting), never having enough to buy everyone everything they could have been upgraded with even if I sold all of their old gear, and… it felt pretty good, actually. It felt like I had to make real decisions, carefully deciding who would benefit most from a refresh of their armour and which items I needed the most instead of blindly updating everyone and buying ten of everything just because I could. Playing this way it became obvious that while becoming stronger always helped it was never the sole solution to any problem, with my own skill always being the deciding factor in any and every battle.

By expected genre standards Sword and Fairy 7’s relatively short: It took me about twenty hours to clear, and that’s after watching every cutscene, playing casually, and frequently hitting ALT-TAB to go jot down a few more notes. I love it when RPGs are “short” (and at twenty hours the game’s still roughly double the running time of the famously lengthy “Extended Editions” of The Lord of the Rings movies) – the main story hasn’t got the time to spin its wheels or send me off on a dozen filler fetch quests. In fact as the credits rolled I felt some parts of the story could’ve actually done with more screen time (or excising completely – the plot threads involving Moqing’s strained family relations were a strange combination of too much of not enough), and for those keen on investing a month or more into the game there are plenty (plenty) of extra quests and minigames of great importance and none to take part in – and clearing the game unlocks a new “nightmare” difficulty level too.

I have to say though after playing it through and thoroughly enjoying myself I honestly still don’t know if I want to recommend the game. I wish I did, partly because the English-speaking side of this hobby needs to break away from the idea that “foreign” automatically and always means “Japanese”, partly because there is a good (if not incredible) RPG in here; the only problem is many of Sword and Fairy 7’s best qualities are almost obliterated by the worst translation I’ve read in a very long time.

At the end of the day Sword and Fairy deserves better, and so do you.

[There would be no review here without the help I get from my Ko-fi supporters! Thank you so, so, much everyone!]

4 thoughts on “Review: Sword and Fairy 7

  1. One thing I appreciate about following you is finding out abou these interesting Chinese and Korean games you bring up that almost never get any clout anywhere else, even now that they start translating them into English.

    I’m still a bit bumbed out I wasn’t fast enough to get the limited release of Sword and Fairy 6’s physical console release T^T

    Like

    1. I still can’t quite believe that PS4 release actually exists! It’s incredible to think that was (for a while) just a game people could buy :O

      Like

  2. Aww, I’m bummed the English translation is so bad. I really enjoyed Gujian 3 (though its translation was far from perfect) and was looking forward to another big, plotty rpg that leans into inter-party romance.

    Danschant 2 is coming out next year I think and includes an English dub as well as subs! The trailer was charmingly terrible. But I can’t be too depressed about the state of Chinese>English game translations while indie publishers like Gamera Game and Coconut Island are localizing so many interesting titles. Eastward and Legend of Tianding got English releases too. I just hope the big studios catch up someday!

    Anyway, this article was really great! Thanks for writing such a thoughtful piece. A rpg where all characters are and remain vital to the plot sounds so appealing.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s