One of the most interesting developments in the game industry in the last few years has been the proliferation of games, particularly RPGs, developed in China. The Chinese game development scene has a long and storied history of acclaimed role-playing games, with series such as Sword and Fairy or Xuan-Yuan Sword rivaling classic series like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest in popularity and critical praise in their home country. Unfortunately, most of these games were inaccessible to the Western game audience for decades, and it’s only recently that developers and publishers have realized there is an untapped market for these elusive classics. The floodgates have opened, and now that we are finally receiving the biggest names in Chinese RPGs on our shores, the path is open for up-and-coming developer Swordman Studio and publisher Spiral Up Games to make a name for themselves with their debut title, Wandering Sword. I’m happy to say that Wandering Sword is an incredible achievement that weaves a personal tale of family ties and revenge into a beautiful tapestry of world-building, political intrigue, and martial arts lore that had me deeply invested in the story of Yuwen Yi while also providing a tactically rich combat experience and deep character progression.
The story starts off strong as you follow Yuwen Yi, a young martial artist hired along with some friends to guard the carriage of a mysterious official through the desert Outer Lands to the central plains region of Jianghu. Yi’s group is caught in a conflict between the criminal Tianlong Gang and the villainous Xuanhuo Cult, and his friends are quickly killed while he is poisoned and left for dead. Fortunately, he is saved by the man they were escorting, who turns out to be the leader of the prestigious Wudang Sect of martial artists, Qingxu. He takes Yi to an outcast former disciple, Jiang, who lives in hiding in a remote village with his daughter, Xiaotong. Master Jiang teaches Yi how to control his Qi and more techniques while he heals from the poison. However, Yi’s tutelage suddenly ends when a disparate group of bandits, martial artists, and even government forces descend on the village, kill Jiang, and kidnap his daughter. Yi vows to get revenge, both for his fallen comrades and the death of his new master, and sets out on a journey that sees him join the Wudang Sect, become a martial arts master in his own right, and discover the mystery of his origins while rooting out the evil that plagues Jianghu. The story of Wandering Sword is a true example of an epic hero’s journey narrative, encompassing the five regions of the world and the various martial arts sects, as well as political intrigue between the government, religious cults, and organized crime.
The story evolves naturally as Yi meets new groups and unravels more layers of the central conspiracy at the heart of Wandering Sword’s plot, while never losing the human element of Yi’s bond with his companions and the mystery of his past. At first, all the names and groups thrown at you can be confusing, but everything is mentioned with purpose, and all the dangling plot threads are eventually addressed in a satisfying manner that relates to Yi’s backstory and his relationship to the martial arts world. I commend Swordman Studio for crafting such an intricate and detailed world and complex narrative without significant plot holes, inconsistencies, or contrived deus ex machina that feels out of place or unearned. Many Chinese language games have suffered from lackluster English localization, but thankfully, Wandering Sword bucks that trend. The writing is adept, conveying each character’s personality well and containing some clever turns of phrase. The dramatic moments land expertly and tug at the heartstrings, and lighthearted moments got a chuckle out of me now and then. One nice touch is that after each major story beat, you are treated to a poem that summarizes the emotional stakes of prior events and hints at where the journey is heading. These poems maintain correct meter and rhyme structure, making it clear the localizers went the extra mile to deliver a high-quality translation.
The characters are also a highlight, both those met through the main story and the optional side characters who will make up most of your party. Each optional party member has a unique introductory quest and then at least one follow-up recruitment quest that fleshes out their backstories and relationship to both Yi and Jianghu. Some particular favorites of mine include Bai Jin, an impulsive burglar who wanders wherever the wind takes him; Shangguan Hong, a swordswoman who is the last of her sect and seeks to master the hidden technique left behind by her ancestor; and Leng Wuqing, a detective who uses a wheelchair and asks for your help to take down a human trafficking ring. Each character’s scenario and personality are unique, and while they don’t feature in the main story, they are vital to overcoming the game’s many challenges.
Wandering Sword first garnered interest by emulating the HD-2D visual style Square Enix has used in their retro throwback titles, such as Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy. The visual technology doesn’t stray too far from the framework set by these titles, but Swordman Studio took advantage of the PC exclusivity to substantially increase the visual fidelity and improve some effects (particularly the gorgeous water effects) to make this, by far, the highest-quality iteration of the HD-2D style. Even more impressive is the art direction, with aesthetics heavily influenced by wuxia, or Chinese martial arts fantasy. From vast, sprawling temples nestled in the mountains to bustling city streets teeming with life, the world feels incredibly vibrant. Each location on the world map has its own unique flavor or characteristic, and by the end of my playthrough I had a working knowledge of each location even without referencing the map view due to how memorable every place felt. There are even NPCs who travel between locations constantly, causing typical RPG overworlds to feel barren by comparison.
The level of interactivity in the world of Wandering Sword is staggering. While most NPCs may share reused character portraits, they have unique names and inventories. Many of them are involved in side quests, and even if they aren’t, there is typically some form of interaction possible with them. In addition to chatting with NPCs or picking up quests, you can give gifts to martial artist NPCs to raise your affinity with them. If your affinity is high enough with another martial artist, you can consult with them to learn their techniques or duel them for rewards. All of these options are possible with characters who, in most other games, would be generic NPCs with a single line of dialogue.
The character progression in Wandering Sword is unique, eschewing character levels in favor of training individual martial arts skills and unlocking nodes in various Qi pathways to increase stats. Combat rewards you with Martial Points, allowing you to level up martial arts skills. These range from direct attacks to buffs and healing skills, and are divided into six categories (Normal, Special, Mighty, Unique, Lightness, and Cultivation). Cultivation skills are particularly important, as leveling these up also rewards Meridian Points, the resource used to unlock nodes along each Qi pathway and increase base stats. This system grants you a fine degree of agency over the way each character develops, particularly Yuwen Yi, as he can master any of the five martial arts instead of being confined to a single one. I chose swords, as most of the major story beats reward Yi with powerful swords. Still, helpful equipment for all disciplines is readily available, so you won’t handicap yourself by picking a different fighting style.
The battle system in Wandering Sword is its most standard aspect, but it proves that there isn’t always a reason to reinvent the wheel. Battles play out in tactical turn-based combat on a grid layout, with turns governed by an ATB system similar to traditional Final Fantasy games. Movement and positioning are critical, as side or back attacks deal increased damage, and nearly every skill has a significant area of effect. Battles become a dance, moving your characters into range and setting up combos while keeping an eye on your opponents’ ATB bars, buffs, and skill sets. The most challenging encounters are the large-scale battles where you will face ten or more enemies at once, or the one-on-one duels that occur frequently in the main story and occasionally in sidequests. These encounters will test your mastery of the battle system, and you will need familiarity with each of your skills and the opponents to overcome them. The game allows you to save pretty much anywhere, and I recommend saving frequently, as dying will force you to reload your most recent save. Due to the open-ended nature of Wandering Sword, it’s possible to accept and progress sidequests that are too powerful for your current strength, but the game typically warns you before the most challenging segments to give you a chance to back out and become stronger before continuing.
I loved every second of the 30+ hours I poured into Wandering Sword. In a year filled with so many critically acclaimed RPGs like Baldur’s Gate 3, Starfield, Final Fantasy XVI, and Sea of Stars, I could easily see a smaller, PC-only release like Wandering Sword getting lost in the shuffle. That would be an absolute tragedy, as Wandering Sword delivered one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had all year. Yuwen Yi’s journey opened my eyes to the wuxia genre and the wonderful world of Chinese RPGs.