New Chinese Action-RPG Is Like The Witcher, But More Focused

New Chinese Action-RPG Is Like The Witcher, But More Focused
Illustration: Softstar

Sometimes, I want the gritty fantasy storytelling of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt without dealing with hundreds of hours of content or an open world map. Xuan Yuan Sword 7, the latest entry in an action roleplaying series that has been a cornerstone of Chinese gaming for almost 30 years, scratches that itch for me. But while it tries and fails to be a mature AAA game, XYS7 also doesn’t doesn’t fully utilise the unique aspects of the setting and IP that could have made it stand out among other action RPGs.

Though English readers may never have heard of this series before, Xuan Yuan Sword has a long and influential legacy in China. Developed by the Taiwanese studio DOMO, XYS7 is the 13th main entry in the series, but the first to have been localised in English. Don’t let that scare you off, though. I found the game to be approachable despite not having played its predecessors.

Xuan Yuan Sword 7 takes the player on a fantasy adventure through a fictionalized China. You control a young man named Zhao Taishi, who fights supernatural creatures to restore his dead sister’s soul and unravel a political conspiracy. Zhao can use mystical abilities and special martial arts stances in battle, and the importance of real-time positioning in combat reminds me of Witcher 3. That’s about where the similarities end.

Screenshot: Softstar / Kotaku Screenshot: Softstar / Kotaku

Despite the open-world layout and interface, XYS7 isn’t a fully open-world game. There’s no serendipitous discovery, and no happy accidents. Every level is tightly designed to be a linear experience, and this focus keeps the game relatively short. The main campaign is enjoyable as long as you leave any open-world expectations at the door. As a player who gets really bad open-world burnout every time a new Assassin’s Creed title comes along, the linearity is fine. There’s crafting in the game, but it’s mostly for straightforward weapon upgrades. That’s also fine.

Yeah, I’m saying that the gameplay is just fine. It’s a game that you could play and finish in a couple of weekends, and you’d experience worldbuilding that doesn’t often come about from big-budget console exclusives, but it’s also not doing anything that other long-standing series like Yakuza haven’t been doing for years (like quick time events during cinematic scenes). I would have been happier if some features like QTEs and crafting systems were left off entirely. Normally, these mechanics add another layer to a game’s storytelling. XYS7’s quick time events system, by contrast, doesn’t actually allow you to fail, and most of the crafting materials can be bought off merchants instead of sourced from specific locations. A system that doesn’t significantly add to my experience of the game is less elegant than not having it at all. XYS7’s opening sequence and loading screens tease a lot of worldbuilding about the real-life Xin Dynasty, but this history never becomes significant to the plot during the gameplay that takes place outside of cinematic cutscenes. The item pickups are generic, the NPCs have very standard fantasy RPG concerns, and there’s not much story buildup to the fantastical boss monsters that I fight. It feels very strange for a game with such a large IP to draw from.

XYS7’s visuals also seem to grasp for larger things, as if the developers had AAA ambitions that they weren’t quite able to achieve. The graphics aren’t what you might expect from a game released in 2021. In fact, they look like they’re from two console generations ago. The animations are so rough at times that I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief. That said, there are some lovely visual effects animations and Chinese-influenced water-painted stills. I wish there was more of that! XYS7 would have been a stronger game if it had leaned into its flashy style (which it has a lot of) instead of trying to be something that it can’t be (a modern AAA).

Despite its technical limitations, XYS7 shines in its very human portrayals of its characters. I’m halfway through, and despite all my complaints about clumsy animations, the writing helps to carry me across the uncanny valley. The conversations between brother and sister feel more natural than those in most AAA blockbusters, and there are small moments and details that really sell the verisimilitude of the characters. For instance, Zhao uses the fist and palm salute with those he respects. It’s a small detail I’m not accustomed to seeing, since handshakes are so ubiquitous in western media. Seeing two men acknowledge each other with a Chinese gesture was humbling. It made me realise that my experiences as an American gamer have given me a narrow view of what kinds of interactions can exist in games.

Xuan Yuan Sword 7 had a lot of potential, and I was excited to dig into a series with such a long legacy. Unfortunately, it struggles with delivering a AAA experience and doesn’t give me a sense of how large its world truly is. If you want a palate cleanser from the 100th Europe-based fantasy game, XYS7 will fill that niche. Otherwise, the game is unlikely to measure up to modern expectations.

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