This game is a classic, and sadly, also lesser-known among the US game-market. I have great respect and admiration for KOEI for having the guts and the vision to translate this game, and I can say they have done a worthwhile job. Saiyuki: Journey West is a Strategy/RPG similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, yet it is also original in its own way, as well as less complicated!
The game is based on the famous Chinese legend of the priest Sanzo and his journey to India to retrieve Buddhist Scriptures. The game more or less focuses on this story, but for those of you who have watched the Chinese dramas, or read the novels or comics, don’t worry too much: the game tells a modified legend of its own, in a more light-hearted, romantic and fun way. Sanzo’s is sent to India per request of Lady Kannon who appears to him in his dream, giving him a magical staff to set things in motion. Sanzo thus begins his journey, spanning 4 Chapters and meeting with lovable characters like Son Goku, Cho Hakkai, Shu Ryorin and many more, including 2 very adorable girls! The story is very unique as well, mainly because of the many side-quests and plot twists. As Sanzo nears the end of his journey, secrets about himself, the purpose of the journey and many more interesting events will occur, leading to a very exciting and engaging experience.
The game’s mechanics are rather simple. As mentioned before, the Overworld Map is similar to Final Fantasy Tactic’s, with lines leading to dots that mark locations. The only difference is that there are no random battles once an area is cleared. The only time there are battles is if you enter the location for the 1st time or when you are doing a job from a Post.
Plot events occur in towns/villages, and like Final Fantasy Tactics, there is no self-exploration. In some towns, players can purchase equipment, train in a dojo for experience, upgrade weapons at the smith, get jobs at the post, or play a game of cards for prizes. Especially interesting are the jobs at Posts, where you can get jobs for simple delivery of goods that reward you with gold or unlock many side-quests that reward you with more gold, great items and more character development!
Battles in the game follow Final Fantasy Tactics as well, the maps are smaller, though, and the battle party is limited to 6 characters at a time. Characters move according to their speed and can attack, cast spells or use their special abilities, namely Guardian Summoning which only Sanzo can use, while the other characters transform into their Wereforms.
Wereforms are the true forms of the characters that join and they can give a great advantage in battles. For instance, Son Goku transforms into the Great Ape. Only one Werechange can occur each time and other characters can only transform if the one who transformed changes back. Characters are also limited by the Were Gauge. When someone performs a Were change, it begins to deplete the Gauge. Once it runs out, the character reverts to normal and no other characters can change anymore as the Gauge cannot be replenished until the battle ends. This pretty much balances this relatively easy game though.
Sanzo, however, cannot Werechange, but he can summon Guardians. When a Guardian is summoned, it gives all characters in the party a beneficial boost, such as restoring HP every turn or improving status. Characters nearer to Sanzo get a bigger boost. Guardians also allow Sanzo to execute a single powerful spell associated with the Guardian’s ability. Guardians last 3 turns before Sanzo has to summon them again.
Battles end when the Victory Conditions are met, mostly simple ones like Kill All Enemies or Kill A Boss. Some maps have tricky twists and gimmicks, though, which really add to the fun. The faster you complete a battle, the more experience and gold gained in the end, but some items cannot be gained if missed, so it’s best to be thorough. This may be hard due to the fact that all the enemies charge at you like kamikazes.
The battles also follow another simple rule, attacking from behind, from the side, from higher elevations, or with an element they are weak against will deal more damage. The elements consist of the 5 basic Chinese Elements of Wood, Earth, Water, Fire and Metal. Wood beats Earth; Earth beats Water and so on. Characters are also more skilled at using Magic Scrolls that are under their element.
There is no buying of new weapons in the game. Characters generally start with their own unique weapon, which can be upgraded only at smiths. Sanzo’s weapon upgrades only when he finds a Guardian. Characters can then equip 1 piece of body armor and a head armor. There are 6 slots left for Magic Scrolls, which allow characters to cast spells the scrolls allow or accessories like beads or chains which boost status, offer status protection or special effects in battle. This allows some customization, as players will have to decide which spells to keep or which accessories to equip.
The biggest kick, though, would be the choice of choosing whether Sanzo is Male or Female! Traditionally, Sanzo is male, but why follow the norm? KOEI did a good job making this game for a wide audience! The change is not only cosmetic, though; the gender of Sanzo slightly alters some events in the game and the relationships the characters develop for him/her. Naturally, female characters that join will develop ‘deeper’ feelings for our hero if he’s a male, and vice versa. There are also events where Sanzo has to make a choice that will alter future events and character development. These options really add to the replay value of the game and also makes it a whole new experience altogether.
Plot events that occur can be read and viewed again as well, through the convenient ‘Dairy’ option in the title screen. It is simply Sanzo’s Diary and lists all the viewed events that occurred from the loaded Save File, excluding side-quests and minor events. This is a cool feature for players who want to view an event they accidentally rushed through or any of their other favorite events without having to play through the game again. A pretty good feature for this game indeed!
The controls are simple enough; analog support is available, though players will rarely have to use it. The game’s simple interface makes it quite a breeze to navigate menus and view status. Viewing the Battle Map is made easy as well, since it can be rotated, adjusted from side view to near top-down view, and can also be zoomed in or out! This makes some tight battles less frustrating and kudos to KOEI for implementing it!
The graphics are sprite-based and may seem a little dated. The character sprites animate pretty well, even though they have limited animations. Spell effects, Werechanging, and Guardian Summoning are awesome and very flashy, albeit lengthy and repetitive over time, fortunately most of them can be turned off. The character speech is accompanied with their respective well-drawn portraits, which help convey emotions according to the situation. The artwork in the game is probably the show stealer, mainly since Akihiro Yamada who worked on Front Mission 3’s art was responsible.
The music in the game is simple, yet highly addictive. It consists of some Chinese and Indian-themed tunes and an assortment of tracks. The battle music against the Devil type bosses is very enjoyable in my opinion. The tunes also add great atmosphere; whether it is romantic, light-hearted, inspiring, or sinister, there’s a theme for all situations!
The sound in the game is simple but well done; the only drawback is that you won’t hear the bulk of them if you turn off Battle Animations! Sounds ranging from weapon attacks, roars, magic blasting, footsteps and other miscellaneous sounds add up to quite a varied and large sound library.
Overall, Saiyuki: Journey West is a must buy game for Strategy/RPG fans or those of you who like a great story and lovable characters. This game deserves attention and KOEI knows that. They brought it over to the US even though many were skeptical. Now this is what I call taking risks. I will agree on one thing though: it was worth it!