A half-demon man, a demon prince, a young woman kept alive by magic, and the direct descendant of a goddess meet mostly by chance before going on to finish once and for all a world-shaking set of events that were set in motion almost two decades earlier, completely destroying an ancient Daoist training ground and sealing off the doorway to the demon realm in the process.
Welcome to the world of Softstar‘s 2011 PC RPG Sword and Fairy 5.
The RPGing itself is content to be relatively ordinary: There’s the usual array of shop-laden towns filled with people of great importance and none to chat to and dungeon-like places brimming with enemies to fight using a turn-based battle system (with those turns running along a timeline, a bit like Grandia and Arcturus), places that more often than not have some sort of larger creature waiting at the end of them.
“Yeah whatever,” says Sword and Fairy 5 with a dismissive wave “Just let me tell you a story.”
Some RPGs revel in the intricate worldbuilding they envelope a blank slate of a player avatar in, while some treat their settings as little more than the decorative window dressing for a battle system as deep as the ocean. All Sword and Fairy 5 wants to do is make you fall in love with its four playable characters – that’s Jiang Yunfan, Long You, Tang Yurou, and Xiaoman I described in the opening – and the world they live in, then weave them into a tale of dormant demons and returning heroes that is always true to itself yet never quite plays out the way you expect it to.
Take Jiang Yunfan for example: He’s the lead protagonist; a nineteen year old young man with a beloved dead mother, a feared demon for a father (who spends much of the game sealed away), and he’s been raised by the good sort of outsiders to normal society in a small settlement out in the middle of nowhere in particular. So far, so typical teenage RPG hero (well, close enough anyway). Yet at every turn Sword and Fairy 5 introduces little titbits of information and slight twists that take him – and us – into unfamiliar territory.
Those outsiders form a genuinely loving if not exactly refined sort of family (the writing at pains to point out that “rough around the edges” is an entirely different concept to “stupid” or “unkind”), and while his home village does come into some life-threatening trouble early on the story doesn’t crudely kill off anyone living there just to give Yunfan a compelling reason to leave. His found family, including his adopted father, are tirelessly supportive of his endeavours even though they fall far outside their own fields of experience or future plans for Yunfan – if he’s happy then they’ve done a good job raising him, simple as that.
His familial strife instead stems from his demonic father, Jiang Shili – a man he can’t meet until very late in the game as Shili was sealed away during a bloody battle twenty years earlier by the noble Shushan sect. Several groups would like Yunfan dead simply for his biological link to someone they fought and captured decades ago, while his dad’s remaining allies would like to anoint him as their new leader (at least until they can get the old one back), which only makes the first group all the more mistrustful of him – just look at how the violent demon’s followers flock to his child. Whether he asked them to (he didn’t) or wants anything to do with them (he doesn’t) makes little difference to anyone on either side. Yunfan points out rather bitterly that few people are interested in Jiang Yunfan at all, only in Jiang Shili’s son – in his existence as the unwilling successor to a man he didn’t know even existed for most of his life. Yunfan himself would like nothing more than to be with the beautiful yellow-dressed Yurou and to study martial arts with his newfound Shushan master.
You’d expect the big surprise here to be that Shili was judged unfairly all those years ago but no, people are right to fear him. When he’s freed he makes no bones about wishing to crack the seal separating the realms of humans and demons, nor is he shy about stating his desire to wipe out humans in general and anyone else who dares oppose him too.
Yet again there’s more to this than there seems to be. As a demon raised in a world of humans, Shili spent his entire life dealing with people shunning him, pointing the finger at him, or hunting him down simply because he existed, no amount of honest effort or good deeds in his youth able to free him from his “taint”. He had nothing to atone for and no family to return to, yet he was punished for daring to live in the only land he had ever known all the same.
So he is not incorrect when he says that humans pose a real threat to his life and the lives of all the other demon-people who find themselves wandering the earth. This doesn’t however make his stance a clear case of a wronged underdog standing up for an oppressed people: He will kill everyone without remorse if he’s not stopped and then definitely kill some more people for good measure, Yunfan wisely noting that his father – a man who was genuinely overjoyed to learn the woman he had loved all those years ago had given him a son – is concerned only with the endless pursuit of revenge for the past, in taking an eye for every eye, rather than in building a stable future for anyone.
It falls to Long You, not only a resident of the demon realm but also an absent prince hoping to find the way to heal his broken land, to correct Shili’s idealised view of the demon world during a tense exchange close to the game’s climax: It’s not a promise land of acceptance and understanding, or even an endless supply of willing soldiers baying for human blood, but a place made up of separate countries with different cultures – just the same as it is for humans – where the water has long dried up, leaving the innocent people who live there struggling in a lava drenched hellscape they don’t want and didn’t create. Yunfan, Yurou, and Xiaoman (the player too) know this is true because they’ve been there and seen the suffering of these people for themselves earlier on, these people “demons” by birth, not behaviour and appropriately enough the solution to this problem is not conflict, but cooperation. For water to flow in the demon realm You needs the help of a descendant of the creation goddess Nüwa – but what ally of the goddess would ever choose to help demons?
Just as being a demon doesn’t automatically make someone evil in Sword and Fairy 5, neither does being human or even divine automatically make someone good and pure either – as demonstrated perfectly by the adorable red-haired bundle of disrespectful trouble that is Xiaoman. She’s the granddaughter of the first game’s leading man Li Xiaoyao, and daughter of the second game’s Li Yiru. Like the other women in her family the blood of the goddess Nüwa flows through her veins, and as such she’s gifted with immense spiritual power – and great responsibilities too. Narratively she exists as something of a wrecking ball to the mythical nature of the revered Shushan sect, as unlike everyone else there she’s a teenager living in that world through no choice of her own (somewhat mirroring Yunfan’s importance to various demon and demon-hating factions) and holds no great respect for the place or its practises – learned masters are referred to as “Gramps” and “Uncle”, and if she can sneak off to do something more fun than training she definitely will and only be sorry about it if she gets caught.
In keeping with her “I’m not special, I was just born this way” approach to her magical life Xiaoman’s prayers and requests to Nüwa throughout the game are notably blunt, lacking the sort of ceremony and sense of awe you’d expect when someone was directly addressing not just a goddess, but the goddess. Then again, why should she behave in any other way? Her bloodline means this contact’s like talking to her auntie… an all-powerful divine auntie responsible for the creation of humanity, but still – they’re family. Sword and Fairy 5 supports this informality, this urge to challenge our expectations of the divine and the damned, with Nüwa’s responses. We never hear the goddess ourselves but Xiaoman’s prayers never, ever, go unanswered and when the two do communicate she describes the sensation as having a motherly warmth to it. Xiaoman doesn’t have to behave like a goddess just because she’s related to one.
Likewise Yurou doesn’t have to behave like a demon just because the story eventually reveals that not only is she related to one but she is one herself. Yurou’s pretty, polite, and well educated, her life one of comfort and cultural pursuits thanks to the efforts of her father, a demon who was once Shili’s trusted friend but now chooses to live peacefully amongst humans – and in utter denial of his past for much of the game – for his daughter’s sake. Her extensive medical training makes her a skilled healer – and not in the usual “The girl gets to do the all the sparkly magic stuff in battle” sense either. Her knowledge in this field is apparent and frequently useful throughout the story, and her advice and decisions are respected and followed as the life-improving treatments they are by others.
There’s just one small problem… she almost died as a baby and has only be kept alive all these years by magic – the same magic that needs to fade away if Yunfan’s ever to meet his father – magic that will naturally run out in roughly twenty years if nobody does anything about it anyway. Guess how old Yurou is during the events of Sword and Fairy 5? Yeah. You’d expect this to be the sort of handy setup a writer uses to flirt with tragedy before giving players an easy way out so everything can stay the same but instead she unceremoniously dies and then stays dead, the short time between you receiving this information and her demise reflecting her own wishes to spend her final days living, rather than waiting to die.
These storylines develop over the course of the game, a constant layering of interconnecting details that like a good magic trick don’t fully reveal themselves until a critical moment, and it’s only then you realise how far these characters have come and just how important the revelations that have shaped their lives are. This richness then effortlessly bubbles over into the supporting cast – including returning legendary hero and Yunfan’s master, Li Xiaoyao. He possesses a “humorous” drinking problem and lax attitude that over time the story suggests is not as funny as it’s first made out to be, and is almost certainly related to the unnaturally early deaths of his wife (the original Sword and Fairy heroine, Zhao Ling’er) and daughter. On a similar note fellow Shushan students may appear to be downright nasty towards Yunfan at times… until you learn they were fighting for their lives on the day his dad tried to wipe them all out. Who wouldn’t be mad at the person who unleashed their friend/colleague/master’s killer upon the world?
Everywhere you look you’ll find Sword and Fairy 5 following up on the far-reaching ripples in its own adventure, always asking you to listen to all of the people you meet and to judge them on their hidden truths rather than the roles current circumstances have forced them to play.
It’s this commitment to filling in the lives, personalities, and histories of everyone, even those so lowly they don’t even have a character portrait to call their own, that helps to make Sword and Fairy 5 one of the storytelling highlights of the entire genre. This is a game that’s as essential as anything good Falcom, Square, or any other celebrated developer has created, held back only by a lack of translation (official or otherwise) and a general lack of global awareness.
So this is me banging the drum for Sword and Fairy 5. It’s amazing. It’s now on Steam (the soundtrack is too). And it’s more than capable of standing tall next to any better known RPG that’s ever been showered with praise. It – and Sword and Fairy as a whole – deserves a better fate on this side of the planet than to be seen as the perpetual outsider in the genre its been excelling at for decades.
It deserves, if nothing else, to be considered a visible hole in our collective gaming knowledge, one that sorely needs filling in.