What would you be willing to sacrifice if it meant you and your loved ones could live your lives in peace? When every potential decision you make could have long-lasting consequences, what would you choose to do? These are just some of the moral and philosophical questions posed by action RPG Xuan Yuan Sword 7, a title set in a fantastical alternative history of ancient China.
Though Western gamers’ exposure to the series is limited, I’ve been curious about the Taiwanese-developed Xuan Yuan Sword series for a while, given the comparisons to Final Fantasy. When playing this seventh entry, my mind quickly drew similarities to Final Fantasy XV in particular due to visual presentation and gameplay mechanics. However, I’d argue that Xuan Yuan Sword 7 is the stronger title overall, and that’s coming from someone who actually likes FFXV!
Xuan Yuan Sword 7 starts with players in the role of Taishi Zhao, a young man who has spent the past thirteen years of his life caring for his little sister Xiang after the devastating loss of the rest of their family. They live on the outskirts of a peaceful mountain village, though mysterious circumstances have brought the specialized Lijun army to the area to investigate. Zhao agrees to escort the soldiers for a handsome sum to further support himself and Xiang, only for things to escalate out of control when an insidious monster appears. Xiang ultimately perishes, but Zhao makes a pact with an imprisoned mystical being to tether her soul to the land of the living. Thus the siblings embark on a lengthy quest to figure out how to bring Xiang back to life, and in doing so, get roped up in a war that will have a lasting impact on the very kingdom itself. Buried family secrets and truths start to come to light, with a divine artifact known as the Xuan-Yuan Sword playing a vital role as the two struggle to stay together so that they can eventually return home one day.
To say that Xuan Yuan Sword 7‘s plot is extensive is something of an understatement. What appears to be a simple tale on the surface evolves quickly, and I was impressed with the breadth of the constant world-building and lore. Ambient conversations amongst the party members and their clockwork parrot companion Jipeng provide a great deal of insight into the history of both the world and the characters, so much so that I’d often stop in the middle of walking until they finished talking so I didn’t miss anything. When sidequests open up, they provide further detail and cultural insight, often with emotional outcomes attached. Resting at campfires provides even more conversations for players to listen in on as well.
Xuan Yuan Sword 7‘s world is teeming with story notes throughout, which caught me pleasantly by surprise since I’m not used to seeing such rich storytelling in other action RPGs. This isn’t a game with a clear cut “right and wrong” viewpoint either, as everything hinges on one’s own perspective, so the more realistically tinged and morally ambivalent approach to conveying the narrative and the characters’ struggles to do what they personally feel is right, despite oftentimes not entirely succeeding, was incredibly conveyed and made a lasting impression.
As Zhao and Xiang travel, their small group grows to include a Mohist named Chu Hong. Mohism is a type of philosophy with a leading tenet on universal love responsible for the astounding clockwork technological advancements seen throughout Xuan Yuan Sword 7. However, the adversarial Lijun army is also composed of Mohists who interpret the philosophy differently from Hong. This dual nature exists throughout the plot, with all sides being made up of both honorable and rather contemptible people, depending on how you view their actions. There are also quite a few potentially triggering moments throughout, given its realistic, more mature story, so be forewarned. Throw monsters into the mix, and things get even more harrowing as the group continues their journey.
I came to care greatly for the party as I progressed through Xuan Yuan Sword 7: I love Hong’s resolve, kindness, and inner strength; Xiang’s innocence and desire not to be left behind by her family made a lasting impression on me (she is a refreshing take on the young teenager archetype that is prevalent in RPGs); and Zhao’s determination to restore his family, and his often very dorky responses, made him pretty endearing (gotta love the pun jokes!). The relationships that form between the trio, the ever-growing sibling bond between Zhao and Xiang, the found sisterhood between Hong and Xiang, and the gradual romance between Hong and Zhao as they get closer are great to see play out over 20-something hours of playtime. There’s also a refreshing and clever take on the “mascot character” in the form of the talkative Jipeng, who is unswervingly loyal to his mistress, and begrudgingly grows fonder towards this young trio of children, so you’ve got quite the memorable party.
Unfortunately, the rest of the characters aren’t as developed or memorable, given the lack of overall story focus on them. Sure, they’re likable enough and have some interesting and emotional story beats, but they never reach the same level as our four heroes do. The general brothers Liu Xiu and Liu Yan are probably the most distinct of the supporting cast, if only because players must meet up with them multiple times during the main quest and some side quests. The ethereally tragic Sang Wenjin, a recurring character from previous games in the series, does have some well-done moments, though her involvement is tempered by the fact that many Western players probably aren’t going to be as emotionally responsive to the series throwbacks her appearance is undoubtedly meant to convey.
I could probably keep going on plot tangents because the story is so intricate and thought-provoking, but for the sake of the review, I better start getting into the gameplay! Xuan Yuan Sword 7 is an action RPG at its very core, and its combo-based combat has been polished to a fine sheen. In battle, players have full control of Zhao, who doles out damage with stringed-together combos of light attacks and more powerful martial arts skills. Hong and Xiang both provide support, and their AI is pretty capable for the most part, with players being able to call upon either of them for special attack skills with the right button combos. Zhao can also temporarily slow time down to a mere crawl by using the magic inside the Elysium Scroll or trap a group of enemies in a limited cone of space to damage them. Combat is fast and fluid, and you have to think on your toes when it comes to proper strategy. Fortunately, you can retry fights should you need to, a feature I had to rely on until I developed my strategy for the heartbreaking final boss fight in particular. There are even special quicktime events in place of regular battles at certain intervals that are rather entertaining.
Outside of combat, Zhao can navigate tricky terrains by carefully maneuvering through small spaces or narrow ledges, or jumping and climbing to and fro by following helpful prompts. These features help break up what might otherwise be tedious exploration phases. There are also puzzles inside dungeons that run the gamut in terms of what you have to do to complete them, providing a sense of challenge without ever becoming too frustrating. There is even a minigame that you can play called Zhuolu Chess, where you must line up three of your chess pieces and prevent your competitor from doing the same. I found this to be surprisingly addicting, which is saying something since I’m not always the biggest fan of chess.
There are also fast travel points that you unlock as you traverse through each linear location. You also have a beautifully detailed world map, though unfortunately, dungeons in Xuan Yuan Sword 7 do not get their own map, and you must navigate them using only the objective markers as your guide. Shrines and campfires offer numerous opportunities to save, though it can be frustrating that you cannot save anywhere, given that I was never quite sure when the game would autosave.
Thanks to the hidden magical realm found inside the Elysium Scroll, Zhao has access to crafting at any time during his adventure; you just have to unlock the crafting stations first in order to use them. Armor, weapon, and accessory upgrades exist for all three party members. You can also fuse items and equipable souls that grant special stat bonuses to characters. These souls can then be upgraded further at another crafting station before equipping them. The crafting system is easy to learn and surprisingly robust with what it offers. For those who like wardrobe changes, the console version of Xuan Yuan Sword 7 provides the opportunity to change your party’s cosmetic outfits if you so desire.
Visually, there isn’t much to fault Xuan Yuan Sword 7 for. The graphics are stunning to behold, with gorgeous backdrops to traverse through and astonishingly detailed character models. There’s a bit of uncanny valley to the characters’ facial expressions at times, but overall the visuals are truly breathtaking. For certain story scenes, moving watercolor painting animations are used that add a further layer of beauty to Xuan Yuan Sword 7‘s visual presentation. The game is lit darkly for the sake of aesthetics, yet even when I maxed out the brightness settings, there were still a few areas that were very difficult to see in.
The orchestrated music score is also incredibly well-composed and a treat to listen to, and the superb Chinese voice acting carries the character’s emotions wonderfully. The English localization is fine for the most part, albeit there are some typos and grammatical errors. The subtitles sometimes flashed across the screen far too quickly too, so if you aren’t paying attention, you might miss out on a line or two. There were instances of missing dialogue, though thankfully that didn’t happen often enough to be detrimental to the story; however, it seems to worsen closer to the end. It’s a shame, as even with the localization errors, the plot is still strong.
The final leg of Xuan Yuan Sword 7 is very unique. You fight an epic boss battle that you think is the end, only to have another to contend with to truly close out the tale. Afterward, you journey throughout the various lands you’ve previously visited in an epilogue of sorts to learn more about a particular character’s role in the story, which culminates in you returning to the spot of the final fight once more. It is an interesting way to showcase what things are like following the last boss fight and provides some great insight into a fascinating character, but its slower pace, and the fact that it takes over an hour to complete means it can overstay its welcome depending on your patience. I wonder if it would’ve been more emotional if I was more familiar with previous entries in the series, which is a shame since much of the rest of Xuan Yuan Sword 7 stands on its own, even with the series’ Easter eggs thrown in. After the credits finally roll, you have the option to start again and carry over your data and items.
I had a great time playing Xuan Yuan Sword 7 and can only hope that Western gamers will get the chance to experience more games in the series at some point. We’ve clearly been missing out on a compelling series if this entry is any indication! It might not have reinvented the action RPG wheel, but Xuan Yuan Sword 7 is a well-rounded and incredibly solid take on the genre with a phenomenal story at its core.