I love wuxia movies and female action heroes so the premise of Canadian-made Shuyan Saga couldn’t be more tailormade for me. The game is set in an ancient fantasy China and stars a young princess who wants to be a kung fu warrior. And the game’s narrative is presented in a graphic novel style. Great, I love graphic novels too! It all sounds just too good to be true.
Princess Shuyan of Nan-Feng is more interested in running the streets and picking up fights than representing her place at the court, much to the annoyance of her parents. Be careful what you wish for though as Shuyan’s dreams are both met and broken by the invasion of the gruel Guer forces. During her escapades, our young princess must grow up as a person and kung fu warrior if she ever wishes to stand up against the ruthless Guer leader Ganbaatar and save her kingdom.
Shuyan Saga plays like an interactive graphic novel. The narrative, separated into three chapters, is told in comic book panels with voice acting and sound effects. The first chapter introduces Shuyan, her friends and her kingdom and ultimately the invasion force. The second takes Shuyan to a secluded mountain temple where she’s taught in deeper understanding of kung fu and controlling a mythic guardian spirit she holds within. The final chapter sees Shuyan trying to take back her kingdom.
Once in a while there will be choices of dialogue for Shuyan much like in Telltale Games’ adventures, which seemingly shift the story. More often than not, even the most sensible choice makes Shuyan act like a spoiled brat. It’s very hard to relate to her persona as you really don’t have much say in the matter. More importantly, the narrative is broken down with fighting segments, which are presented in a top-down view or a more traditional beat 'em up look.
The fighting is entirely mouse-controlled. A left-click throws out punches and kicks depending on where the attacks are pointed at, and a right-click defends. Despite its simple nature and PS2-era looking ancient cel-shaded graphics, the kung fu action is actually pretty engaging. Shuyan starts as a brawler, but she eventually learns to greet (in other words, dodge and set up counterattacks) her enemies and the two sides of kung fu are unfolded: the hard (Qi) and the soft (Gong). It’s not a surprise which school Shuyan and the player are encouraged to follow. Greeting may not sound as crushing as Qi, but it’s a pretty foolproof method of winning. The hard Qi is easily defended by the enemies and at later stages almost impossible to win the fights with.
And there lies the first problem with Shuyan Saga; it’s not very challenging. Sure, the game is aimed at as a casual entertainment (as the game is released for iOS devices as well), but the lack of challenge strips the game its threat. At the end of chapter two, Shuyan finally learns all the kung fu skills, but you’ll hardly get to enjoy this newfound enlightenment as the third chapter is a breeze. In the end, you just know you won’t break a sweat when facing off Ganbaatar.
What should be the selling point of Shuyan Saga is its biggest drawback, namely the drawings. The game is advertised featuring art by the renowned Chinese comic book illustrator DaXiong. But in my view, he has drawn only the presentation screens and a few panels of the graphic novel art. Most of the work is divided up between three artists of various skills with DaXiong acting as an art director. As an artist myself, the lack of consistency between the panels disturbs me greatly. The features of the characters should remain constant, but here, the quality of the illustrations varies far too much even within a scene.
What’s common for all the artists, including DaXiong, is they all are struggling to portray attractive young female faces. Shuyan’s supposedly pretty face ranges from bearable to downright abominable (I tried to select more representable screen caps to the review). And for some reason, she’s the only character who doesn’t look like Asian. It has Matt Damon in the Great Wall vibes.
But even with weak art, graphic novels can touch us emotionally. Sadly, the story of Shuyan Saga is ultimately just a clichéd bundle of Western conceptions of Asian martial arts philosophy and finding one’s true self. The game surely is made seriously, but due to the subpar voice acting, uneven art and sloppy script, it often felt like a parody. Sometimes, I couldn’t help but laugh at some scenes which were clearly meant emotional. It made me feel terrible.
It takes about four hours to complete the main campaign of Shuyan Saga, and two mini games are unlocked. The tournament offers 16 bouts of focus fighting with all the available skills. Too bad it’s once again way too easy, thanks to the invincible soft kung fu. It may take longer as the opponents have increasingly bigger health pools, but really, one can’t fail here. No hurrahs at the end either, it just ends after the final fight.
The temple adventure stars the misguided and temperamental Jade and takes place in the chapter two when she goes missing after a fight with Shuyan. In kung fu movies, supporting characters are often more interesting than goody two-shoes heroes and likewise I preferred flawed Jade to Shuyan. The temple adventure is mostly top-down action which shifts to focus fights when necessary. It’s not very long, but I’m asking why the game couldn’t have been more like it? A fun dungeon brawler with some narrative now and then as opposed to a narrative with some fights in-between.
I wish I could say that the art of Shuyan Saga is amazing, the story is compelling and the game is challenging. Indeed, the premise was too good to be true. Apart from the occasionally cool fighting, the game lacks everywhere else. Even as it is though, Shuyan Saga somewhat fills the gaping shortage of wuxia games. Come to think of it, has there even been a wuxia game since BioWare’s excellent but widely unappreciated Jade Empire? The lack of better examples in the genre is the only reason I can hesitatingly recommend Shuyan Saga to the fans of Chinese kung fu movies.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.