One of the most out-of-left-field surprises this year has been XSEED's release of Xanadu Next, a dungeon crawler from Falcom first released in 2005. Some readers may recognize that the game shares a title with a forgotten N-Gage game released that same year, but equating the two would be a mistake: Xanadu Next, like Ys Origin before it, is another high quality Falcom PC game saved from the annals of Japanese obscurity, and it is a game definitely worth your time.
Set on the mysterious Harlech Island, you play as the unnamed bodyguard of historian-in-training Charlotte L. Wells, on an archaeological venture to unearth relics from the ancient Kingdom of Xanadu. You're the one doing the heavy lifting, diving into dungeons in search of old tablets and relics, while Charlotte stays at the Inn to examine your finds and write up reports. It's a simple enough setup for a dungeon crawler, but the story has a surprising amount of depth. You see, you're not just along for the ride; the prologue reveals that your journey to Harlech is more an exile than an expedition, and the hints you get about what's going on in the rest of the world, including a coup d'état and a repressive theocracy, are enticing additions to your spelunking.
Your quest across Harlech sees you traverse lush forests and dive into dank catacombs to slay all manner of abominations. In contrast to the highly frenetic battles of the Ys series, combat in Xanadu Next is a much slower and deliberate affair. The key to successful combat is to isolate a foe from its group, watch for tells, and then dodge out of the way to strike from behind. Patience is rewarded over dexterity, and each encounter feels challenging and satisfying in its own way. What's most unusual about Xanadu Next's combat system is that you can only attack when you're locked onto a target, something that happens automatically when you're in close proximity. It takes a little getting used to, and matters are not helped by the lack of a manual lock-on for any given target. This is exacerbated by the fact that several early areas have targetable grass, seemingly to no benefit. A number of my early runs saw me swiping feebly at the grass as I attempted to defend myself, though this became less of a problem as areas became less green.
Each dungeon area is split into small rooms with multiple exits, not dissimilar to Vagrant Story. These rooms can contain a group of monsters to dispatch or a block-pushing puzzle to solve. Hitting a wooden block once cuts it in half, turning it into a low platform that can either be used as a step or a ramp to raise the height of other blocks. Additional elements are introduced as the game proceeds, such as color-coded blocks that vanish when matched in groups of three or more. These puzzles are just difficult enough without being frustrating, and even the toughest ones gave me immense gratification once I had that "a-ha!" moment. My only gripe about the dungeons is that just about every door you find is locked, which means you need to keep stocked up on single-use keys from the town shop. This mechanic felt unnecessary, and I never stopped feeling slightly frustrated when the game forced me to return to town for keys.
Being an Action RPG, you gain experience by defeating a number of foes. Once you've gained enough experience for your next level, you're awarded six attribute points which can be assigned by the Shrine Maiden in town. The interesting thing about your points is that they remain editable until your next level up, at which point they're locked in place. If you're having difficulty overcoming a nasty area, it might be worth rearranging your points to give yourself a magic speciality or a constitution boost for extra defense and HP. If you accidentally hit that next level and you're not happy with your stats, the Shrine Maiden will allow you to level down, with your experience at the halfway point to the level you've just come from. It's a welcome degree of versatility for a JRPG.
Along with the usual experience levels, you've also got weapon proficiency and Guardians to build up. Each weapon in the game comes with an inherent skill, which can be a special attack, a passive ability (such as increased critical hits or extra gold) or a stat boost. Equipping a weapon allows you to use its skill temporarily, while building proficiency with that weapon to 100% grants you permanent use, independent of which weapon you have equipped. You can also build weapon proficiency up to 200%, which increases the weapon's attack power considerably. Weapon classes have their own attack speed and range, so the proficiency mechanic means that your favorite style of weapon can be viable for a long stretch.
Guardians, on the other hand, also grant passive abilities, and these come with increased effect with each Guardian level. Guardian abilities can range from increased experience points and quicker proficiency builds, to extra HP and discounts in shops. Every enemy in the game grants a single Guardian experience point upon being defeated, and it's worth building them up and switching them out on the regular. The Guardian that boosted my HP effectively doubled its total at the maximum level, which gave me an edge against the more intense dungeons found in the late game.
As I spent time with Xanadu Next, I noticed that it's all about decisions. I don't mean this in the sense of a visual novel or a BioWare epic; Xanadu Next's dilemmas are not narrative, but rather baked right into the game's mechanics. Most situations you encounter present you with a clever choice to make. The last foe killed in a room always awards a treasure chest; will you take out a deadly spellcaster first, or will you dodge his fireballs to clear the room of bats, leaving him for last to get a chance at receiving his spellbook? When you receive a bone in a dungeon, will you carve it to gain a key right then and there, or will you sell it in town to reduce the cost of keys? Let's say you're up against a group of skeletons; melee killing them means they'll revive once, whereas flinging spells at them will destroy them instantly—along with their treasure. Even death in Xanadu Next is a choice: Will you reload your last save, or agree to wake up in town with half your gold and a random chance of consumable items going missing? If you have a rare resurrection potion in your inventory, will you revive, or accept death to save it for a rainier day? Observing all of these little choices made my playthrough all the more satisfying and convinced me that Xanadu Next knows exactly what it's doing.
Yet it's not all sunshine and roses: Xanadu Next was a hotbed of glitches during its week of release. Some of these glitches were merely frustrating, like Steam achievements unlocking for no reason; others were game-breaking, like skills vanishing permanently. Fortunately, XSEED's technical support have been on the case and fixed the most serious issues, but a few minor bugs still remain. These are mostly related to text, like a glitchy name entry screen and a few text boxes disappearing too quickly, though a few gameplay bugs remain, such as an exploding monster with an infinite blast radius. This caused a mishap in which killing one set off a chain reaction that killed all of them in the room along with myself. Although that was hilarious, it isn't something that should be happening. The patches have been coming pretty consistently from XSEED, so these probably won't be issues for much longer, though they are worth mentioning.
Bugs aside, I had a great time with Xanadu Next. It's a vastly different experience compared to Falcom's most beloved titles, but it has a quiet dignity and an air of mystery that hearkens back to the developer's microcomputer roots. You can finish the game within 10 hours, but players who haven't had enough by that point can dive into a procedurally generated bonus dungeon that, although not as thoughtfully designed as the main game, provides a host of souped-up baddies to slay and rare loot to grab. Personally, I found the game just lengthy enough; it's a tightly paced romp devoid of needless padding, which is refreshing in a year filled with 100-hour games. Xanadu Next is a strong experience from start to finish, and a humble little game that shouldn't be ignored.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.
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