I love Chinese wuxia movies. The best of them are sweeping epics with beautiful cinematography, elaborate martial arts choreography and suppressed emotions. I regularly re-watch films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The House of Flying Daggers and The Grandmaster and keep thinking why there are no such games like them. BioWare’s Jade Empire and Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword are closest to wuxia in gaming but no matter how great they were, they still were just foreign attempts at mimicking genre’s themes and aesthetics. In China, though, there indeed are true wuxia games. A long-running roleplaying game series Chinese Paladin is such a big franchise in the mainland China that it was even made into two TV series. There have been unofficial fan translations available from the series’ games but its latest entry, Sword & Fairy 6, saw an official Western release on PC a couple of years ago. Lo and behold, the game suddenly made an appearance on PS4 and my world was made complete!
In the martial world many factions compete for supreme power. Notorious Risen Soul Cult attracts people with false premises of Nether Lord granting them an ever-lasting happiness. That won’t hold well with people with more common sense, though. Sword & Fairy 6 jumps straight into middle of a scene where seeming siblings, right-minded swordsman Yue Jinzhao and his protégée, a childlike fighter Yue Qi, face off a martial arts master Luo Zhaoyan they have sought out. A short, staged fight later the threesome ventures off to the nearby cult stronghold. It’s just a first, tentative step in a long journey ahead of them. Jinzhao ponders over Zhaoyan’s clean features and girly voice but for the most part, the young master of house of Luo passes for a man. It’s a common, even amusing theme in the wuxia genre that no matter how beautiful the leading lady might be (and Zhaoyan is very beautiful), by donning manly clothes and hairdo everyone thinks she is a he!
During the adventure, the gang is rounded up by a mechanist Ju Shifang, strict spirit healer Ming Xiu and the laid-back but insightful demon Xian Qinq whose non-human form is a white wolf (not unlike Amaterasu in Ōkami). With the exception of Ju Shifang, who fights with remote controlled wooden robot bear(!), all heroes and heroines are capable martial artists in their respected disciplines. I have never seen a game character as touchingly sincere and kind as Yue Qi with her naive delivery and big, gentle eyes but she’s the best fighter of the bunch with her spirit weapons (a bit like Noctis in Final Fantasy FXV, only cuter and more agile). The plot takes twists and turns as the ambiguous bad guys weave their plots but much of the issues revolve around nine springs of Jiuquan, holy sanctuaries between heaven and earth that can make wishes true and predict fate. Can a supposedly pre-determined destiny be changed is the big question in the game’s story.
There’s no singular lead character in Sword & Fairy 6 as the game gives room for everyone to reflect their innermost thoughts, including the intriguing antagonists. As the story unfolds, the party make-up shifts wildly according to whom the current scene involves. The party leader who jogs through various surroundings can be changed at any time and there are even some occasions that require certain characters to use their special ability to make further progress. For example, Qi can telepathically move large objects like boulders and Jinzhao can traverse vertically through air in select, tight spaces. All in all, such occurrences are few and far between as most of the time in the field consists of hurrying from one narrative scene to another in-between fighting monsters and doing business in towns and cities. Halfway through the adventure, a fast travel between visited places is made available through Cloud Ark, a floating stone platform Ming XIu can control. Still, the story moves through a pre-determined course and the fast travel is just a convenient means of passing to the next scene.
Uncharacteristically to an RPG genre, new gear - armors and weapons - are not crafted or gained from battle loots and treasure chests. Instead, they are bought from vendors. Whenever you move to a new area, it’s best to visit its weaponsmith and clothing store to keep up the equipment with the rising challenge. There are also dying and transmogrification available to retain previous item looks but I was fine with what was offered in each case. Also, several support and recovery items can be combined together from various materials but there was rarely a need to craft more of them as they kept dropping in volumes. Likewise, I didn’t bother with engraving runes to enhance character abilities as their effects felt marginal at best.
Whenever you’re not watching narrative scenes that make up the lion’s share of the game’s forty something hours running time, you’ll be fighting monsters in the field. Even though the cast journeys mostly together, the combat party consists of four members. However, unlike in most games in the genre, you directly control only one character while the other three acts according to the chosen AI-pattern. Much like in Final Fantasy XIII, battle and support skills alike are placed onto a time bar until they’re played out in a flashy martial art choreography. Each character has two skill sets, one for offense and another for defense that can be changed between any time. Three special attacks are made available when their charge bars are filled up by delivered and received hits. They can also be chained together through quick-time transitions that require following a pattern with the left thumbstick of the controller.
The fact that only one character is controlled in the combat gives gratifying focus to the gameplay. There are no mana bars and such to worry about so you can dish out skills and spells to your heart’s content. I liked to control Yue Qi in normal battles for her quick-firing attacks but as the story beats often escalate into numerous boss fights, it was almost obligatory to change into Ming Xiu whenever she was available for the occasion. Otherwise, some of the big battles would have been simply unwinnable as AI doesn’t understand to cast Xiu’s party heal Cloud Meditation often enough. Completed battles not only net money and experience points but also souls that are fitted onto each character’s meridian trees that improve their speed, strength, magic, constitution and luck. The first boss fights in the game are really tough but later on, as long as meridian attributes and the equipment is kept up to date, they only test patience as it can take as much as half an hour to gnaw away bosses’ huge hit point pools. Needless to say, it feels sweet to beat these encounters.
Here’s the deal; we have a beautiful wuxia opera with an intriguing story, a lovable cast of characters and a lush scenery of an ancient China in turmoil but it comes at a cost. There are serious technical problems with the PS4 version. It’s as if PC game is ported as it is with no optimization whatsoever. Even though the visuals aren’t up to today’s - or even to yesterday’s standards - the frame rate is choppy so much so that some events are almost unplayable unless you’re not determined to see them through. And I was. I loved the game so much that I didn’t let any technical hitch come between me and completing the game. The user interface, too, fitted from the mouse and keyboard to the console controller, is sometimes cumbersome, especially when you need to quickly change between different tabs in the combat but even that was something that I was able to overcome in due time. The final hurdle in enjoying the game is the English translation which is riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes. In the long run, though, you begin to appreciate its literal nature as that way nothing is truly lost in translation, even it comes off sometimes amusing (“There are monsters are real”).
When I played Sword & Fairy 6, I entered a place and time of its own and suddenly, the lack of fluidity in the gameplay became secondary. Initially, the game has an obvious curiosity value as there are no other titles like it available in the west. However, the game goes easily beyond that. It’s this story and these characters that make the rocky trip worthwhile. I was sucked into a wuxia drama that is at least equal to the movies of the genre and intently watched through even the longest dialogue scenes. Even though the graphics are technically nothing to shout about, the art, costume and character designs are beautiful. The heroes and the heroines look pure and strikingly attractive and their limited but expressive facial animations are enough to portray their surging emotions. More than that, though, the Chinese voice actors are phenomenal in their range and delivery. Together with the exquisite looks and the impassioned voices the characters are made complete. And what about those technical problems, like lock-ups and crashes? Make it a point to save often and to different save slots and there’s nothing left in the game that would hinder its course.
It’s a beautiful thought that genders are equal, that one can take another’s role without anyone taking notice. It’s but one example of the game’s wisdom in dealing with its many big key themes, befitting the cultural heritage behind the genre. The story builds intrigue by layers upon layers of secrets and hidden meanings. The only one avoid of them is ever-so whole-hearted Qi, the one with the biggest secret of them all but unbeknownst to herself. She, and the rest of the cast, are the reason why I fell in love with the game. Sword & Fairy 6 felt like I had binge-watched 64 half an hour-long episodes of a Chinese fantasy drama TV series. Productions values may have been low and effects cheesy but the actors and actresses were beautiful and the story so gripping that I couldn’t stop myself.
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.