STAFF REVIEW of Xuan Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament (Xbox One)

Friday, February 23, 2018.
by Adam Dileva

Xuan Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament Box art Being a Westerner, I’ve never heard of the Xuan Yuan Sword series before, though not to the fault of the developer, as they’ve never released them over here before. Finding out that there’s been over a dozen games in the series already, much like the Final Fantasy series, I was actually quite shocked. It seems the series even bleeds into other media as well, so the name has some weight behind it overseas. Softstar Entertainment Inc has decided that the time is right to bring the series over to this side of the waters, but given its heavily Chinese influence, it’s a risky move. While I’ve got a laundry list of issues with Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament, it’s an odd JRPG, and I keep finding myself going back to it regardless of the concerns I have.

A great RPG’s backbone is usually its story, and I wasn’t sure what to initially expect from The Gate of Firmament, but as I put the hours in, I found myself interested throughout. Like most RPG’s, the main narrative starts off incredibly slow, and small in scope, but as you progress and unearth more events, the scale and urgency of your journey will become more and more important. You begin as a normal village boy that’s simply trying to protect his home village, but like most RPG’s, you fall into some extreme circumstances which will have you turn into a hero by the time the credits roll.

The Gate of Firmament is more than just a subtitle, as it’s the actual gateway between our mortal world and something else. In ancient times, the divine Jade Emperor opened the gates of heaven, allowing mortals into his world to gain power, but only if they agreed to help find his missing daughter. Of course, someone took advantage of this, causing evil to invade the land of mortals.

The story is actually quiet decent, as long as you have the patience to read along if you’re not proficient in native mandarin. There is no English dubbing, just captioning. You start off as Sikong, a quiet young man from a small remote village, eventually recruiting others along your journey, all with their own backstory that you’ll explore along the way. I enjoyed the overall narrative, and the relationships between each character, but you’ll need to enjoy a very traditional Chinese setting to really appreciate it.

As you explore the world, you’ll be in certain areas rather than one massive seamless world. It’s a little jarring at first, but reach one of the end areas of any specific level and you can then fast travel to any of the areas you’ve previously uncovered. Each new area will give you a marker that you'll attempt to reach, which will most likely trigger a cutscene to watch. Get used to this, as there are a lot of cutscenes throughout the game, many more than I was expecting. The main storyline scenes will play out like a movie, whereas the minor scenes are rendered in game.

As you explore each area the map will be greyed out until you traverse down each path, revealing any branching routes or hidden treasure chests. Enemies wonder the areas as well, and you can choose to avoid or engage in combat, though I suggest battling as much as possible early on to gain some very important levels and skill points. As you run around, and if you are quick enough, you can actually preemptively attack monsters to gain an advantage in battle. Depending on which character you are actively controlling, you’ll get a different bonus for the battle, such as enemies starting with lower health, bonus treasure, or beginning with them stunned for a short time.

Combat is in real time and uses a global cool-down for ability usage. When you use an ability you’ll need to wait a short period of time before using another. You have two varying attacks that don’t take any mana, eventually allowing you to create different combos with different effects as you level up and unlock them. For example, spamming ‘A’ is your basic attack, but ‘A’->‘B’ will do a different combo, usually with some sort of bonus damage or effect. As you spend skill points that you earn by leveling up, you can also train in magical abilities, that do either damage, heal, or buff your team. These abilities can be used at any time when the cooldown timer has reset as well, so you need to pick carefully what ability, melee, or item you want to use, including healing or mana items.

Once you have your full team of 4 characters, you can swap to any one of them freely in battle with the d-pad, allowing you to take control of their attacks and abilities individually should you wish. Eventually you’ll unlock formations, somewhat like the Paragon system from Final Fantasy XIII. These stances will give your team extra damage or resists, and can be customized who will get what applicable bonuses per stance. It’s not terribly in depth, but it’s more than I was expecting, and once you learn to start relying on the elemental bonuses, it can change the battle outcome in your favor quickly. The majority of the game you’ll breeze through for combat, but bosses can be brutally difficult if you’ve not leveled up appropriately and have a ton of healing items.

A problem you’ll start to notice once you have a full team is that the AI is absolutely terrible. When in control of one of the characters, the AI will automatically use the other characters, but it does so terribly. There’s almost no logic in what abilities they decide to use, as they will cast a spell over and over, or use potions when not needed, draining your supply. They will even buff you and the rest of the team when battles are about done, and make other poor decisions that make absolutely no sense. The lack of monster variety doesn’t help matters either, as you’ll see the same variation of animals and weird faced baskets throughout your journey as you go from area to area.

There’s a lot of other mechanics included that surprised me, each of which are unique and blend well together with one another. Crafting, for example, works quite well once you figure out how to do it. Say you loot a steel staff, it would have regular stats for damage, but if you craft a steel staff instead, the damage output and other stats would be vastly greater than the one you found, or even bought. To craft you’ll need to hunt enemies for materials and search for treasure chests, but you’ll also need to purchase recipes at the merchants to learn how to craft the different items.

Speaking of chests, some are your standard click and open, but there are also higher level chests that require a quick puzzle for you to solve in order to open it. Oddly enough, the puzzles revolve around words and spelling the word with a missing letter. So you’ll be shown a word with a missing letter, like _UGGAGE for example, then given a row of 4 different letters, and you need to choose the right letter across 4 different words to successfully open the chest. It’s an odd mini-game that isn’t challenging, especially when you have words like LOCK or BUG for example, and completely unnecessary if English is your native language.

Interestingly, there’s a system in place once reach it you get an adorable pet boar that can be used to capture enemies in battle, which can then be used for a multitude of purposes. He carries a small urn on his back that, when the Right Stick is pressed, can attempt to capture a monster, much like throwing a pokeball. The captured monsters can be infused with one another to create stronger versions that you can you bring out in battle, or you can also use them to infuse weapons and equipment to level them up and make them stronger. It’s a very odd system at first, and one that isn’t explained very well, but once you learn its intricacies it becomes one of the more addictive parts of The Gates of Firmament.

The game's soundtrack is very lucid and beautiful, matching the scenery and setting, and even though I can’t speak Mandarin, the voice acting itself seems to be decent, at least if the emotions conveyed match the subtitles. That being said, the subtitles have clearly been done either in a rush or by an amateur, and they do not seem to have been proof-read, as the translation to English isn’t always accurate or how it would be natively spoken.

While I can forgive the fault of poor subtitles, the visuals are a whole other story. Plainly put, I was constantly reminded that The Gate of Firmament looked as if it belonged on the PS2 or original Xbox. Visually, you’re going to be blown away, specifically with how dated and ugly it is at times, which is a shame, as some of the backdrops of the areas are gorgeous, and the story encourages you to keep playing. It’s ugly to look at, simply put, and that’s before even factoring in the mass amount of texture glitches that stretch across the screen and the terrible object pop-in in the backgrounds. These distractions really take away from the experience, and even if you are able to ignore them for the most part, they last throughout and become very disrupting.

Even with the myriad of bugs there’s an odd and endearing quality that Xuan Yuan Sword: The Gate of Firmament possesses. Sure, the $25 asking price seems a bit high when you judge it on its looks alone, but there’s a surprising amount of gameplay held within, as long as you can stomach the lackluster visuals, poor translation and bugs. If you’ve been craving a new JRPG game to enjoy, there’s enough ‘meat on the bone’ here to keep you interested, even if there are better choices available. With some more QA time, and a better translation, this might have been a completely different, and even more enjoyable, experience. All the typical checkboxes have been marked to make for a decent experience, and there are a few mechanics included that I really enjoyed, but like a good B-movie, I enjoyed it for unintended reasons instead.

Overall: 5.3 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 4.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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