You’ve probably never heard of EastAsiaSoft’s newest release, Xuan Yuan Sword 7, despite it being a series on its seventh iteration. I’ll be honest, neither had I until recently. Starting way back in 1990, Xuan Yuan Sword has been an Asia-only property for some time; there are seven mainline entries, at least the same again in expansions, and another half dozen spin-off titles. With the console ban in China from 2000 to 2015, almost all have been for PC, only recently appearing in the west via a few of the titles making their way to Steam.
Xuan Yuan 6 was the first to make it to consoles in 2016, which brings us to Xuan Yuan 7. It’s a simple and very small-scale RPG, concerning itself not with the fate of the world, but the fate of just a few characters in a small set of locations in deepest China.
Maybe it’s inherent in coming to a series at the seventh entry, but there is almost no exposition in Xuan Yuan 7. Nothing bar a couple of loading hints will tell you what year it’s set, who is on the throne, the context of the story, or really anything outside the tiny realm the narrative takes place in. That’s fine, but it means I really can’t give you context either, even having played it. Ancient China, or at least a long time ago, technology is iron age-ish. That’s all I can say. On the plus side, the story is understandable without having played the previous games, it just exists in this bubble. Instead of the macro politics and history, Xuan Yuan 7 concerns itself with the micro goings-on between two siblings.
A young boy named Zhao lives in a gorgeous Chinese mansion until soldiers invade and kill his parents. Zhao is left literally holding the baby, fleeing the mansion with his baby sister in a bundle. Fast forward to the present day, and Zhao has changed his family name, and he and his sickly sister Xiang live together on the outskirts of a tiny village. While Zhao is away earning money for her medicine, Xiang is mortally wounded by a strange blue skull monster. Zhao demonstrates some inhuman speed and magic (abilities that are never explained) and disappears in a burst of light with his dying sister.
But instead of laying her to rest, Zhao enlists the help of a suspiciously incarcerated temple spirit. Through a magical rite called Soulshaping, he splits Xiang’s body and soul, reviving her as a ghost. The spirit needs payment though and wants Zhao to free it from its bonds. Trust me, if I had come across an entombed spirit voice that wanted to bargain for its freedom, I’d have taken my chances elsewhere – that just screams trouble.
Zhao agrees, but before he can free the spirit, he must merge his sister’s soul with an automaton, causing them to embark on an adventure full of twists and turns, fetch quests, a few other temporary allies, and plenty of strange Chinese monsters, all so that they can slowly, ever so slowly, get back to opening that tomb, and releasing something they really shouldn’t. It’s another dozen hours of meandering jobs that get in the way of advancing the plot, and give you things to do.
The story and character interactions between Zhao and Xiang are really charming but they only go so far. Without any world-building, exposition, or any explanation of what is happening, things quickly lose any real impetus. Zhao constantly stops to help soldiers fight, but I couldn’t tell you why, or who each army was fighting. And his powers, the magic of the world or more importantly, the rules, are never explained. It leaves a charming story feeling particularly half-baked.
Gameplay breaks down into three things; pointlessly short walking sections, ie from one room to another, that break up cutscenes; long, arduous puzzles; or combat that verges on farcical until you get much further into the game.
So let’s start with those cutscenes. Xuan Yuan 7 is heavy on the dialogue, and while most of it is nice and cute between the leads, it does get mundane a lot. Action cutscenes generally devolve into a number of scripted quick-time events that are so forgiving as to be pointless. You can press every wrong button first with no penalty, and go and make a cup of tea in the time frame it gives you. I also got very frustrated with the amount of times I was given back control, only to walk virtually a dozen steps into a door, or down one corridor, before I was thrown into another long cutscene.
The puzzles that crop up every hour or two, are long, drawn-out, PS1-era affairs. They don’t look it, but they are programmed like it, slow block-moving, not far removed from the first Tomb Raider for example. You can skip them, which I heartily recommend you do, because I got stuck on one for about a half-hour, not because it was hard, but mainly because of the incredibly slow speed with which Zhao can rearrange himself and then push large stone pillars around.
Combat in Xuan Yuan feels a little like an alpha version of The Witcher 3. It’s far more simplified, but there’s something of the cadence and rhythm of replicating Geralt in this. That said, it really is like it’s in Alpha stage. You have a basic light hit combo, and a heavy hit, a dodge, a number of different stances that confer different magical abilities, and you can use magic or your ally’s moves when charged.
In the first five or so hours I really only encountered about five different enemy types, and for the first hour, it’s really just constant generic wolves. These enemies can pack a massive punch, but they rarely, if ever, get to unleash it. In short, it’s because you can button-bash the light combo to your heart’s content and the enemy can’t really counter in any way. I don’t think I even got hit until the first boss.
To add insult, Zhao has a stamina bar that is completely broken. Stamina exists and depletes with each move, but it allows for some ten to twenty hits, and even then, never quite runs down. No enemy can withstand more than about ten hits, and with the stamina never depleting completely, it undermines the entire premise of having a stamina bar in the first place. You can disregard the stamina bar, it won’t have any effect on your play. Think of it as an infinite Stamina cheat that is constantly switched on. It’s almost like the devs thought they had to include a stamina bar, because those are cool right now, but didn’t understand the purpose.
So from ridiculously easy sword fodder, to the bosses. Bosses are much harder than the rest of the enemies. Well duh, you say. Well, what I mean is that you can button-bash through almost any enemy in the game, but then suddenly a boss comes along and you actually have to start timing your dodges and playing conservatively. You’ve not been trained by the enemies to fight like this, so Xuan Yuan 7 only wakes up to the fact it’s trying to imitate a Souls formula in bosses. One was so hard, I had to pause and re-think my strategy.
When I did, I discovered about a half dozen systems the game had barely explained. You can upgrade your accessories. You can capture enemy souls with a soul-shaping battle move and then upgrade those souls and attach them to your gear. You can build ethereal workshops in the nether realm that Zhao has access to, and use them to make and upgrade gear. Suddenly I went from stupidly overpowered, to having every kill heal a third of my health as well. Needless to say, I made short work of that boss once his minions healed me in death. Xuan Yuan does a terrible job at exposition, not only with its story, but also with explaining any of its systems.
The last thing I’ll say for combat is that around five hours in, you’ll start to face human enemies. I was so pleased, it almost rekindled some kind of interest in what was happening. They had shields, they had dodge moves, they couldn’t be button-bashed to death. They nearly killed me. I would still say Xuan Yuan 7 has not been designed with the kind of moves and speed necessary to actually roll behind a shield-wielder and attack them, which meant that even this added difficulty was frustrating in the wrong ways.
Some screenshots of Xuan Yuan 7 look stunning. Rippling water effects, stunning lighting. I once stopped on a cobbled street just to admire the breath-taking realism of the lighting and reflections on the wet paving stones. It was really something. This does not represent the whole game. Apart from these disparate moments, the rest of the game graphics are sadly quite poor. Incredibly basic animation, generic locations, corridors from one dull textured area to the next. Characters move in a very wooden style, which is no comment on Xiang’s automaton body; they all do it.
As a westerner, I always find it hard to give an opinion on voice acting talents in another language. The Chinese voice actors all sound good, but there is no English dub option, and you will need to read subtitles throughout the entire game; in cutscenes, conversations, battle, and field travel. If that’s a deal-breaker, you’ve been warned. The music is traditional, if a little understated, and generally just falls into the background.
Beyond the structural and combat issues, I did also find glitches. A few times while exploring the linear corridors, I fell through a wall, or got stuck in said wall, and couldn’t get out without restarting. Generally, this was pretty painless as the autosave is frequent. There is screen tearing and framerate drops quite often as well.
While it has a charming enough plot to keep you going for a few hours, Xuan Yuan 7’s lack of any interesting gameplay is what will break you. From the two seconds of walking between cutscenes, to the button-bashing combat, to the pointless copy and paste design, everything builds to a crushing monkey on your back as you play. The Stamina bar having no purpose, the lack of explanation for key systems, the slog of the old-school puzzle sections (the developers knew these were bad enough they offer to let you skip them).
Where Xuan Yuan is strongest is in its personal relationships and the strong bond between Zhao and Xiang. The two of them were cute and fun. It’s a shame that the rest of the game lets them down dramatically. A plot that meanders all over the place, with no exposition or rules, makes it hard to care. There ends up being no stakes, no peril.
All of this combines to sap your desire to play beyond a few hours. Take it from someone who had to play a lot more than that for this review; it doesn’t get better. Sometimes there’s a reason you haven’t heard of a series.
An ancient Chinese character tale rather than an epic, Xuan Yuan 7 is a linear RPG that takes inspiration liberally from the best games around, but has no idea how to implement anything it’s stolen. Combat is farcically easy, systems are barely explained, puzzles feel decades out of date and there’s that stamina bar that does nothing. Sometimes there’s a reason you haven’t heard of a series.
Xuan Yuan 7 is available now on PS4, Xbox One (review platform) and PC via Steam.
Developer: DOMO Studio
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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