Sword and Fairy: Other RPGs wish they were this good

[Quick note: I have been playing and will be writing about the 2001 PC remake of Sword and Fairy, also known as Xin Xian Jian Qi Xia Zhuan. Although there are some differences between this and the 1995 DOS original, every significant thing that is good (and bad) about Sword and Fairy applies to them both—it’s roughly the difference between playing the NES Final Fantasy and whichever later reimagining you consider to be a good one.]

You may not believe me, but I did have a plan when I started this article. I imagined I’d write about a few key scenes and characters, and we’d muddle through the game like that, ending up with something neat and concise at the end of it. Unfortunately for me, Sword and Fairy doesn’t work that way. It’s one of the most narratively dense games I’ve ever encountered; everything is carefully layered and tightly intertwined, the story flowing smoothly from one event to another, like a leaf being gently yet inexorably carried down a stream and out to sea.

It’s the sort of game where you can walk into a city that’s simply located between two places you need to go and end up chasing a beautiful thief across moonlit rooftops only to find yourself wrongfully arrested, beaten, then made to hunt the light fingered lady down to prove your party’s innocence before continuing on your way. An unassuming roadside restaurant becomes the scene of a bloody massacre between two opposing groups. A single cobweb marks the beginning of an enchanted love story. Everything is treated as an opportunity to tell add to the adventure, and everyone—and this also applies to numerous NPCs you meet along the way too—has an active and ongoing role in this tale (and even beyond it).

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. At its heart, Sword and Fairy is a slow burn love story beset by tragedy, starring someone who initially believes he’s the star of a grand RPG adventure.

At this point in time Li Xiaoyao is a teenager who lives with his gruff-but-kind auntie and (reluctantly) helps her run the small inn they call home. His head’s filled with dreams of wandering the world and becoming a great martial artist and hero to the people, just like his absent parents who left him years ago and will never return home did.

The other members of the small playable cast are Zhao Ling’er, Lin Yueru, and Anu. Ling’er is the direct descendant of a goddess, and also turns into a divine half-snake version of herself from time to time. During the events of the game she ends up betrothed to Xiaoyao, gives birth to their daughter, Yiru, and eventually dies. Yiru is lovingly named after Yueru, a fiery martial artist from a wealthy and well connected family. During the events of the game she delivers a nigh-fatal blow to Xiaoyao, ends up betrothed to him, dies, then sort of gets better just in time for the credits. And then there’s Anu, who isn’t marrying anyone and doesn’t die either but does live in the same village Ling’er was born in before she was whisked away as a tiny girl a decade earlier. Oh, and she also helps Xiaoyao gather the materials he needs to bring Yueru’s body, but not soul, back to life too.

Simple, right? …What do you mean, “No”?

I think the key to understanding and enjoying the story is to treat it like an old legend or fairy tale, something bound by a more classical set of rules where fate can be considered an active force in the universe and truly magical things happen, but only if someone pays a heavy price. There are solemn vows thrust upon near strangers that their concepts of personal and public honour then compel them to keep, cruel twists of fate, secrets kept, and strings of misunderstandings leading to quiet heartbreak.

One of the things I love most about Sword and Fairy is that the logical next step for a story with two beautiful young women promised to one lucky guy would surely be to set up a love triangle seething with snippy comments or “It’s not what it looks like!” (it is) scenarios until the non-canon love interest is fobbed off with He’ll Do Guy and the lead is never admonished for possessing all the backbone of a chocolate eclair.

Sword and Fairy is not anywhere close to being that shallow.

Both Yueru and Ling’er have an equally legitimate claim to Xiaoyao’s hand in marriage, this life-changing event thrust upon them both by older relatives trying to make the lives of the young people in their care better.

Ling’er lived most of her life on a magically protected island with her grandmother and a handful of others, Xiaoyao effectively “breaking in”, desperate to find a cure for his auntie’s illness when nobody else could help. There he meets Ling’er, the two bonding over their similarly sad parent-free childhoods, and also her terrifying grandmother, who—to cut a long story short—offers the frightened teenager two options: he can marry Ling’er and stay, or he can leave… without his tongue or his hands, to ensure he can’t tell anyone how to get back to the island. Naturally he agrees to her proposal, and for the short time he is there he is utterly sincere in his affection and promises to the lovely Ling’er… but he also needs to leave, soon, because if he doesn’t get this medicine back to his aunt she will die. And he doesn’t realise he was fed a pill designed to make him forget all about the place before he left by another group with their own plans for Ling’er…

Later on, after that mysterious third party massacred everyone on the island, put Ling’er in a sack, and very nearly got away with her, Xiaoyao and Ling’er set off to find the latter’s mother only to end up saving two servants in a nearby city from the woman trying to prevent them from eloping—Yueru. Yueru is shamed by her defeat at their hands, and on an unrelated note is soon seen taking on everyone who dares to challenge her in a martial arts tournament set up by her father, the victor winning her hand in marriage. She and Xiaoyao get into a verbal argument, which escalates into her challenging him to a duel. He agrees, but only to clear the air between them—and wins. Yueru’s father summons Xiaoyao and his travelling companion (but definitely nothing more: he’s just helping Ling’er find her mother as far as he currently remembers) to the extravagant Lin home. Again threats are made and questions are raised as to how anyone could refuse such a beautiful girl’s hand in marriage, and Xiaoyao is once more caught between a rock and a hard place, the only practical solution being to try and not anger the powerful people able to have him killed on a whim.

So as you can hopefully see, Xiaoyao didn’t get out of bed in the morning and plan to marry anyone or lead them on, and both times he finds himself with his back against the wall and literally made to choose between death or marriage he still tries to politely excuse himself from the situation, stating quite correctly that he doesn’t know them, didn’t intend to marry anyone right now, and it would be disrespectful to not get to know each other better first. The three of them end up pressing on together (and sometimes apart), Ling’er confused as to why Xiaoyao is suddenly so distant when he seemed so sincere the first time they met (the pill so effective he doesn’t even realise he’s forgotten anything), Yueru growing more fond of Xiaoyao than she thought she wanted to be, and our forgetful ex-innkeeping hero thinking he’s just doing good deeds and helping these young women out (while not getting killed by their older relatives), and nobody is really willing or able to make a definitive relationship-changing move.

Until Xiaoyao gets his memories back.

And then… and then this awkward and potentially incendiary situation is solved instantly in the most beautiful way possible. Xiaoyao is so happy to remember his promise, his emotions and love for Ling’er as deep and sincere as they were before that awful “medicine” blocked his memories. From that point on he refers to Ling’er as his wife with obvious pride welling in his chest. And Yueru? She’s immediately and genuinely happy for them both—and in the same moment says with a smile that Ling’er and her can now be good sisters. Xiaoyao reciprocates her sentiment by declaring that the three of them will be together forever, their little found family off to see the world and make some happy memories together. There’s no rivalry or bitterness from any of them, just lots of different forms of love happily coexisting. It’s honestly one of the most touching moments I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing through.

Sadly this cheerful unity’s over almost as soon as it’s begun. Heroic sacrifice and noble deaths are very much the order of the day here, which is why Yueru dies from the injuries she sustains during their escape from the tower Ling’er, then a half-snake “demon”, had been imprisoned within, and Ling’er isn’t really all that much better off for a good while either. But again, Sword and Fairy introduces a classical twist that elevates its tragedies beyond simple miseries to be cynically mined for their emotional shock value. Someone giving their life for the sake of others is portrayed as a lasting kindness, the ripples lasting long after any final goodbyes, and the true hero of the story isn’t necessarily the last playable character left standing by the time the credits roll.

These huge characters with their grand destinies and sworn oaths would perhaps come across as slightly ridiculous if the world they lived in left them stranded in Generic RPG Land, where nothing worth mentioning ever happens to any character who doesn’t have a hand-drawn portrait sitting next to their dialogue box—so it’s a good thing for everyone that Sword and Fairy’s world is so rich and full of life. There are little jetties made for boats your party will never use, theatrical performances put on for a city’s benefit, drunkards guzzling wine on the corner of a big city street, and children happily bouncing around on hobby horses. Clothes hang to dry outside very ordinary homes and people you see are often busy selling their wares at market or hard at work—you’re never merely passing through RPG Village F, but busy towns where people live and work, people with names and clearly defined jobs, hopes, and personal lives of their own.

This attention to detail and apparent need to infuse every last facet of the game with a life and personality of its own even extends to the gameplay. Xiaoyao, brave and honourable soul that he is, will from time to time automatically block an attack aimed at one of the other characters. Ling’er has a wide variety of powerful magics available to her from the very beginning, reflecting her natural talents and her grandmother’s training. Powerful physical attacks leave deep gashes in the ground and swords planted by the feet of your enemies for the duration of the battle—a striking effect that really should be used in every game where it would be appropriate to do so.

Outside of combat enemies can be seen wandering the map, and it is possible to sneak by… not all of them, but just enough to make you feel it’s worth trying to make a battle-free getaway. This helpful feature’s the one small ray of hope in the game’s often miserable maze-like dungeons, their already labyrinthine layouts often made worse by locked doors, multiple floors, and mandatory switches. Considering the year the original game debuted—1995—there was no real reason why this couldn’t have been handled with a little more finesse (this is the same year that gave us Chrono TriggerTactics Ogre, and most of the world the PlayStation), but admittedly it’s not egregiously out of character for the era either, and at least you can save in/load from multiple slots whenever you find your patience waning.

But best of all, the effort is well worth the reward, as the main canon ending (this remake also introduced two hidden extras, as well as a post-credits scene leading into the excellent Sword and Fairy 2) draws a bittersweet conclusion to this unforgettable tale: Yueru’s body is brought back to life, the last image seen is of her standing in the snow, gently cradling Xiaoyao and Ling’er’s baby daughter in one arm. This ghost of a cherished friend and a child who will never know their mother is all that remains of everything he has loved and lost, the scraped-together echo of what was nearly a beautiful future for everyone he cared for.

Sword and Fairy became a million selling, award sweeping, series spawning success off the back of this beautiful story; one that I’m prepared to say is still one of the highest highs RPGs have ever reached in any language. It’s a historically significant pillar of the genre, on a par with the original Wizardry and Dragon Quest, and one of those rare instances where you can feel a legend being weaved into existence as you play. It is as important, and as beautiful, as you may have heard, and utterly essential. You haven’t played every great RPG until you’ve played Sword and Fairy.

Further reading: 

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