Ancient swords and new ideas

I’ve dithered over whether I should or shouldn’t replay Aurogon’s debut Chinese RPG Gu Jian Qi Tan (many of the staff actually ex-Sword and Fairy developers) for a long time now. The game left a huge impression on me when I first played it back in 2010; a second run through all these years later could never be as sweet, could it?

Honestly, going back has been a real joy.

And that’s mostly thanks to the cast, both as characters in their own right as well as the way they’ve been treated by the script. The majority of them join forces early on, although unlike many RPG gangs this lot do take quite a while to warm up to each other – they bicker, argue, resort to bare-faced insults and to begin with have such little trust they even refuse to sit and share something as benign as a campfire together at one early point, this lengthier than usual period of opening up making their eventual friendships feel more genuine and earned as the story’s made it perfectly clear this mismatched group of humans, sorta-humans, and definitely-not-humans (eventually) stick together and fight tooth and nail for each other by choice.

On a more personal but just as wonderful note all six members of your playable party consistently contradict the obvious pigeonholes lesser tales would leave them stuck within forever. Take protagonist Baili Tusu, a serious young man fond of terse interactions and flowing black clothing, for example: You’d be forgiven for thinking he was the typical aloof but competent jerk, good with a sword and not much else; but the truth is he’s introduced as a young mischievous boy who’d rather sneak off and shout at monkeys than study and even in his older, less talkative, form there’s a steady stream of positive thoughts, small considerations for others, and kindnesses willingly spoken that leave you with no doubt the outward impression he gives does not make him happy and isn’t something he cultivates willingly. It turns out Tusu’s reserved rather than irritable or anti-social, someone keenly aware his uniquely cursed situation makes him a real danger to others and it truly is for the best if they keep away, the plot ensuring players see this is as a simple fact rather than another wearily abrasive RPG anti-hero trying too hard to look cool. Likewise his eventual love interest, Feng Qingxue, is not a cute girl desperate for affection or an “appropriately” fanciable heroine but a scythe-wielding, bare-footed, kinda weird, straight-talking fish out of water; her lack of knowledge of the wider world and forthright style down to her genuinely sheltered existence – and never mistaken for a lack of intelligence. One of my own favourites is Fang Lansheng, a book-smart young man frequently propelled into situations his mental stash of classic quotes and Buddhist prayers are of no use to him whatsoever, especially as he also tends to engage his mouth long before his brain’s even had a chance to wake up. Over the course of the game he grows into a man with emotional as well as academic intelligence, someone with the maturity to understand the difference between what he wants to do and what he should do – and then sincerely committing to the latter for the rest of his life anyway.

There is however something of a downside to this unwavering focus on highly detailed characterisation: Gu Jian is not a game afraid of taking control away from the player for extended periods of time to make sure it can tell its vast millennia-spanning story properly, and is unapologetic about giving control back just so it can take it away again moments later after you’ve walked a few paces down the road. The good news is these hands-off plot dispensing sequences are packed full of drama, comedy, touching scenes under starry skies, and oodles of character-specific stock animations (I’m especially fond of little human-shaped fox spirit Xiang Ling’s fondness for playing with her braids when she’s feeling under-confident). If you’ve got the time for it – and you might not have – Gu Jian’s leisurely pace exudes confidence in its world building, the closest accessible equivalent perhaps being Falcom’s Trails of… series (although certainly not taken to that extreme); you feel these extended scenes and the endless spread of ancillary characters are included because they enrich the setting and everyone living within it. To the game’s credit these details really are important and over time numerous plot threads weave into one beautiful tapestry, your own shock as everything falls into place as strong as the reactions found in any of the cast.

As expected of almost any RPG your interaction with the world mostly involves chatting to the local townsfolk and traversing fantastical locations. Just like the story these instances are again handled a little differently from the norm and a conscious effort has been made to inject some variety into the standard issue treks from A to B, Gu Jian at times asking you to run out of a dangerous cave within a (generous) time limit, navigate your way down a large magical pillar, the ground rotating underneath in a disorientating fashion as you walk along its surface, freeze water to form an icy path, and even push rocks aside in a vaguely puzzle-like manner to clear the way after a malicious spirit tried to crush Tusu and friends with a boulder from above. There are even – brace yourself – occasional QTE segments, and while I wouldn’t call them welcome I do believe they were included as part of an honest attempt to give players more to do than walk, talk, and fight. At the very least they’re short, easy to execute correctly (and the penalty for failure is nothing more than a retry), and stunning to watch, Tusu engaging in all sorts of athletic wall running and gravity-defying leaps that wouldn’t otherwise be present.

Roaming these areas are a heaving bestiary’s worth of ghosts, monsters, and weapon-brandishing people, battles with them triggered by the two of you making physical contact. In keeping with Gu Jian’s unspoken pledge to always go the extra mile, in addition to the usual “rush or be rushed at behaviour” normally found in this setup an enemy might cast a spell to temporarily freeze you in place or even reverse your controls for a short while, making escape more difficult than usual (but not impossible, or even unlikely). Sneaking up on enemies from behind grants the expected opening turn’s worth of advantage, and as you can spot all of these semi-mythical marauders from a good distance away the vast majority can be avoided entirely if you’re just trying to reach a treasure chest or trying to make a beeline for the nearest save point or plot trigger (both are almost always helpfully marked on the map).

Fights are turn based with a twist: There’s a bar present at all times across the top of the screen, showing the current order of attack – this is altered as the battle goes on based on a combination of factors, but at it’s most basic faster characters (enemies or party members) get to go first and go more often. With this information in hand you can choose to pick off a troublesome enemy before they get the chance to land a hit, heal up before several monsters unleash one attack after the other, or dare to risk going on the offensive, hoping your healer’s upcoming turn’s isn’t pushed back by an unexpected enemy buff. And if your current party’s just not up to the job? Swap them out! You can switch any member of the active battle party with reserves at the cost of the current character’s turn, either bringing in someone better suited to the brawl at hand or simply dragging out in a fresh body to absorb some damage while you work out what to do (hey, it happens).

All offensive actions – whether that’s plain attacks, skills, or magic – cost between one to five action points to use (this is on top of MP, etc. usage), everyone starting with two points to spend per turn and more opening up as the game goes on. More points means more power but (there’s always a but) that doesn’t always make them the best option; a string of weaker blows lack the risk of a single all-or-nothing attack and might even end up doing a little more damage if a few of them deal critical damage – and not using all of your points each turn makes the next come around so much faster, giving you more opportunities to attack, heal, or draw upon Gu Jian’s wide range of powerful offensive and defensive items. To inject a little action into proceedings counters rely on you hitting the left mouse button when prompted (the timing is pretty loose), causing the attacked party member to respond with a “free” attack of their own.

The magic your party members can use is determined entirely by a unique License Board-ish (ish) system, the type of abilities unlocked depending on the quantity of points invested in one of five elements on each character’s themed constellation-like chart – water spells lean towards the restorative while fire tends to deal damage and so on. These player-directed proficiencies have an impact on a character’s resistances too, opposing elements doing significantly more damage to a character than before should someone’s attributes lean too far one way – but made up for by them not only absorbing but being healed by what should have been a devastating party-wide spell in a matching element later on. To make things a even more interesting each potential point is tied not only to an element but also an attribute – adding a point to wind may increase your speed in one slot, but the same element in another might bolster your attack… or even decrease your defence instead. So you have to use all the information given to you to find a compromise between the stat boosts you want and the sort of spells you would like someone to have as well, you team personalised and generally useful without becoming homogenous and also without forcefully casting any particular party member (let’s be honest, it would have been the ladies) as the physically weak healer unless that’s what you want them to be. To prevent Gu Jian from descending into min-maxing madness the number of do-overs you can perform (per character) are extremely limited – something for you to mess up and sort our properly later rather than finely adjust on a boss-by-boss basis.

All that text, and there’s still so much more left to talk about! I haven’t touched upon the cooking system, or the magical pet-spirits and their special field abilities, or the mission boards found in each major town that whisk you away to special battles and reward you with all sorts of fun things if you win. Oh and you gain access to a house of your own early on too, one to decorate with furniture you buy along the way and plant whatever you can find in the tilled soil outside. These days there’s even a little Aurogon helper stationed there, waiting to sell you for paltry sums of money (even by early game standards) what were once DLC costumes and game-breaking weapons. Wait, game-breaking weapons? Isn’t that a bad thing? Normally, yes. But Gu Jian’s over a decade old now, the first in what is currently a trilogy of single player games (there’s an MMO too) and well known enough to spawn its own live-action TV adaptation – everyone, relative to its target audience, has either played it through already or has seen the show and would like to give the game a try. In this context these overpowered armaments are more like the “boosters” found in recent Final Fantasy remasters: if you want to blast through the game with Xiang Ling wearing a panda costume and wielding a pair of demon-decimating school books instead of her usual fans, you can – and you know that’s not how the game was originally intended to be played.

I’m so happy I went back. The characters still sparkle like diamonds, and watching their epic story play out is just as wonderful even when you already know what’s coming. But best of all is something that’s definitely changed in the years since I first bought it: Gu Jian’s now available to buy on Steam, and that means anyone eager to experience this wonderful Chinese RPG for themselves can do so in just a few clicks.

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