Final Fantasy XV isn't the only JRPG that has taken its time to arrive. Xanadu Next was originally released in Japan back in 2005 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Xanadu role-playing game series by the legendary developer Nihon Falcom. An English fan translation patch for the game has been around for some time but the only official Western release at the time was a watered-down port for Nokia's ill-fated game phone N-Gage (I owned one, it wasn't very good...). It took eleven years but Xanadu Next is finally here by XSEED, which has grown into a popular distributor among JPRG fans because of their efforts to bring the best games of the genre to the Western market.
People who expect some sort of HD remaster must understand Xanadu Next really is an eleven year old game. This release supports modern widescreen resolutions but everything's being upscaled as XSEED didn't have high resolution assets to work from. The game wasn't a graphically state of the art game on release, designed to run on cheap low-end Windows boxes in Japan. Having said that the game isn't ugly by any means. It's surprisingly pleasant to the eye and while the character models are blocky up-close in the narrative, they have certain PS1 era charm to them and the animation for both the hero and monsters is excellent.
Young scholar Charlotte L. Wells is determined to solve the mystery of the castle Strangerock which is said to only appear when the mist falls upon the lake Orwell. The rumor has it the castle holds in its depths a legendary sword Dragonslayer which was used by princess Fleurette to banish the evil dragon lord Galsis who terrorized her beloved home kingdom Xanadu (inspired by Kublai Khan's summer capital) several hundred years ago. Charlotte heads to the Harlech island to study the phenomenon along with her childhood friend, a knight from a recently fallen brotherhood whose role the player assumes.
Charlotte hopes the adventure will lift his friend's spirits but instead it almost dowses his flame. As the silent knight ventures to examine the local ruins he's mortally wounded by a mysterious swordsman. The head priestess of Harlech village manages to save the knight by bonding him with a guardian spirit but to fully recover and eventually leave the island, he must find the Dragonslayer and hold it in his hands. Charlotte remains in the local inn to translate stone tablets and memoirs while the knight does the footwork around the Harlech island to examine ruins and defeat perils in his way.
Xanadu Next is best described as a dungeon crawler, resembling more like the Ys series Nihon Falcom is known for. The game world consists of interconnected dungeons and mazes with Harlech village acting as a central hub. All roads lead eventually to the village, making adventuring and resupplying the resources effortless. You are always aware of the road back home to rest and save the game. You are even provided with a hearthstone of sorts, with no cooldown or much restrictions to whisk you back to the village.
As much as I love Japanese role-playing games, I must sadly admit I find some even great titles being an unnecessary convoluted mess. Here a smooth user experience has clearly been the top priority. The game rules and mechanics are simple and easy to grasp. In fact Xanadu Next plays out much like an action game with fast and fluid real-time combat. No battle screens, victory ceremonies with fanfares or loot lists. What you see is what you play. While Xanadu Next can be controlled with a keyboard and mouse like its original release, a controller eases the outcome as backstabbing enemies is a blast with it. I found it best to handle the action with the controller and the interface and inventory with the mouse.
There are no traditional role-playing classes as such. Most of the action is melee-based but you can learn magic spells from the most familiar elemental schools. Different proficiencies can be emphasized by distributing attribute points and switching between various guardian spirits. Some of the attribute point allocation is also dictated by items you find as they need different traits to equip. Luckily the head priestess can take you down one experience level if you want to redistribute the latest set of attribute points. After opting for a level down, leveling back takes only a half of the next experience bar. Each magic use their own spell point pool so when you run out of one you can switch to another and keep blasting.
Weapons and guardians also gain experience. Thanks to the easy-going nature of the gameplay, taking a newly-equipped sword or guardian for a spin is a no-brainer and even fun, listening to the game's great soundtrack playing in the background as you slash and grind for more proficiency with them. You also learn each weapon's active and passive skills which can be equipped in the same way as spells. Every monster drops gold so whatever reason you're grinding for, the money is never a in short supply to buy necessary potions and spell books from the village merchant. He also sells keys essential for exploring or you can carve them yourself out of looted bones with a knife you really should buy early on from a mysterious treasure hunter girl.
Xanadu Next is paced nicely, taking all aspects of the game in moderation. The game is split into easily digestible parts which are revealed by progressing in the story as new items from power gauntlets to flying boots give access to previously unreachable areas. This way mazes and dungeons are kept thrilling and fresh, never quite knowing what's around the corner. Unless there's an oncoming boss fight you can anticipate from a conveniently placed save pillar in front of an ominously innocent set of doors. The boss fights are usually fun and even though tactics for each don't differ too much, grotesque nature of these monsters will keep you amused and entertained.
A sparse and humble narrative doesn't come in the way but keeps the intrigue alive, revealing bit by bit the exciting history behind fabulous Xanadu and the mysterious events taking place in the game's present time. Xanadu Next can be completed in some 20 hours but if you are keen to explore every nook and cranny like me, it takes easily more of those well-spent hours. I even compiled some dungeon maps out of screen captures to keep me noted on the progress and help me navigate in addition to the game's rudimentary auto-map.
Converting an eleven years old game to the modern hardware hasn't been completely trouble-free. The save game bug was fixed with a patch but there can be several control and interface issues. Most of these are ironed out by setting the screen resolution to match the desktop. The in-game menu doesn't offer the option for that but by right-clicking the game icon in the Steam library you can access a configuration tool. After fixing the resolution I had no problems whatsoever anymore.
Xanadu Next would have been just a relic from the past if it wasn't such a blast to play. If you can overlook somewhat dated graphics, the lack of voice-acting and the quiet demeanor of the silent protagonist, there's a gripping and enjoyable action role-playing game awaiting in Xanadu Next. Easy to grasp nature of the gameplay mechanics and effortless controls tell about respecting the player but the game doesn't underestimate its adventurers either. It's easy to get into Xanadu Next but hard to leave its dungeons and secrets until they're fully revealed.
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.