You could be forgiven for never having heard of Xuan Yuan Sword, given that, until now, it’s had almost no international presence—a couple of poorly-translated multilingual Steam releases and Asia-region versions with English language support being the full extent. But this is a series with a long and storied history in China and its native Taiwan, one that goes all the way back to 1990 and has seen dozens of games in the decades since. And with its compelling stories that draw from all corners of Chinese history and mythology, it’s built up a deserved legacy as one of the greats. Now, with an official global release of Xuan Yuan Sword 7 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One—and a new, vastly-improved English translation—one of Taiwan’s most prominent RPGs finally gets a shot at the international recognition it deserves.
Taking place during the short-lived Xin dynasty, Xuan Yuan Sword 7 centres on a young warrior called Taishi Zhao, who spends his days looking after his sick younger sister, Xiang. When a sudden attack from strange, supernatural creatures leaves Xiang’s body dead and her soul in limbo, Zhao sets out in search of a way to save her—and in the process, finds himself caught in the midst of a turbulent period of history, crossing swords with ancient demons, and delving into the hidden secrets and spectacular engineering feats of the Mohists.
There’s something so refreshing about playing a game set in a different slice of China’s past than Three Kingdoms or Journey to the West. Don’t get me wrong, I love those settings as much as anyone, but with thousands of years of fascinating history to draw from, there’s a lot of untapped potential—and that’s exactly what Xuan Yuan Sword 7 pulls from. It’s not just set dressing, either, but something that informs every aspect of the story that unfolds.
The Xin dynasty lasted barely 14 years—a speck of dust, compared to the centuries-long empires on either side of it—but it was as dramatic as any. Despite bold ambitions for egalitarian social reform, the empire’s authoritarian rule and corruption among its ranks, coupled with poverty stemming from natural disasters, led to distrust and open rebellion; it’s this that drives much of the plot in Xuan Yuan Sword 7. But it draws just as much from Mohist philosophy, a movement built on rational thought, science, altruism, and universal care that flourished during the Warring States era but had long declined by the time the Xin dynasty took root.
In weaving these two seemingly disparate threads together, Xuan Yuan Sword 7 crafts an engrossing tale about standing up for the weak and downtrodden that’s equal parts dramatic, exciting, introspective, and action-packed. The sense of intrigue and drama from the political backdrop feeds into the Mohist philosophical underpinnings, with a dose of mysticism and even an Indiana Jones-like element of digging through ancient ruins in search of lost knowledge—the Mohists were known for their engineering capabilities and skilled artisans, too, which Xuan Yuan Sword 7 brings to life in some magnificent, long-lost clockwork technology.
This intriguing blend of influences is backed up by some gorgeous set design that combines the natural beauty of China’s forested mountains, ancient architecture, mechanical oddities, and some supernatural twists. Xuan Yuan Sword 7 employs a more lifelike art style than its predecessors with a more cinematic quality, but it still carries an ethereal air to it, and the inkwash-style animated cutscenes that bookend chapters make a stark, beautiful contrast to the rest of the game’s world.
Related: Two episodes in, The Heike Story effortlessly blends classical influence, humanity, and incisive commentary on the history it draws from.
Those same ideas also feed a very personal story about the bonds shared between siblings, and the lengths a brother will go to save his little sister. It’s bittersweet and uplifting in equal measure, with Xiang’s curious playful nature bouncing off brotherly affection as the two share stories and tell jokes, never losing hope even in the most dire circumstances. In a game full of action set-pieces and mythological creatures, it’s the quiet moments around a campfire that are some of the most poignant and memorable, thanks in no small part to some powerful, emotive voice performances. The reworked script plays an important role here, too: the original English script for the Steam and Asia-region releases was functional enough, but lacked character and was full of distracting grammatical errors, but the revamped one addresses both those concerns.
This story, so beautifully told, is Xuan Yuan Sword 7’s highlight by far, but it’s no slouch as an action RPG, either—though the focus is definitely more on the action side. Combat is fast and fluid, with an emphasis on mobility, smooth dodges, flurries of quick-hitting strikes, and finding ways to stun your enemies. It’s not exactly deep, but it’s satisfying to master its ebbs and flows, and to see what challenges each new foe brings. A small handful of active abilities, though few in number, augment the combo-heavy nature of the game with useful things like crowd control and interrupts, and when you need to pull out the big guns, there’s a special move that slows everything around you while you throw out some big damage.
The RPG systems are a comparatively lighter touch, with rudimentary levelling and ability upgrade systems and a relatively small assortment of equipment to find, craft, and upgrade. The pieces all work well enough, but they’re limited in scope, to the point that managing your party’s setup and progression is an occasional, brief distraction rather than a key part of the game. Likewise, maps tend to be linear, with little in the way of exploration and few treasures to find, and there isn’t a whole lot in the way of side-quests and other optional activities. That said, in a genre that’s become obsessed with over-designed yet uninteresting card minigames, zhuolu chess is a breath of fresh air that balances simplicity and depth like nothing since Triple Triad.
I do appreciate the lack of bloat in Xuan Yuan Sword 7, and the way it doesn’t let systems and an arbitrary expectation of content hinder the pacing of the narrative. At the same time, it can feel a little too constrained at times, with dungeons that introduce intriguing gimmicks—like puzzle-filled ruins that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Tomb Raider game—but come to an end long before those ideas have a chance to be fully developed. For purists, the light-touch RPG systems may be a deal-breaker, especially compared to the series’ history of intricate, turn-based games.
But those constraints never hinder what Xuan Yuan Sword 7 does best: tell an enchanting story that’s both intimate and grandiose, and explore a rich slice of Chinese history that’s been largely untouched by the videogame medium. And between stunning performances, a sharp new script, gorgeous, cinematic presentation, and the fluid action that ties everything together, it tells that story beautifully. Xuan Yuan Sword may not be a well-known name in the west, but it should be—and Xuan Yuan Sword 7 is a wonderful demonstration of why.
Xuan Yuan Sword 7
Developer: DOMO Studio, Softstar Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Release date: 30 September 2021 (PS4 and Xbox One), 29 October 2020 (PC)
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.