Review by Matt S.
Sword and Fairy 6 – known in its homeland of China as Chinese Paladin: Sword and Fairy, or The Legend of Sword and Fairy, is a hot mess on PlayStation 4. I don’t know how well it runs on PC, but on my PS4 Pro, it is one very poorly made game. And yet, for all its many issues – issues that would kill just about any other game I might play – I couldn’t put it down. This series is equivalent in prestige in China to Final Fantasy, and even has had its own TV show. After my first experience with the series, I totally understand why.
What’s most impressive about Sword and Fairy is the narrative that it weaves, which is both fantastically exotic, and quite beautifully poetic in its structure. It starts with a young noble teaming up with two itinerant mercenary-types to investigate and put a stop to a rather nasty cult, suspected to be behind the disappearance of many of the poor and destitute in the region. That naturally spins into a far more grand conspiracy, and takes the trio – soon adding all kinds of interesting people and beings to their team – on a truly epic quest.
The Chinese have a taste for, and understand the epic better than perhaps any other culture out there. Romance of the Three Kingdoms somehow manages to be a compelling read for each of its 2,000-odd pages. Chinese cinema, from Curse of the Golden Flower, to Hero, and even Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, weaves epic tales with such grandiose scale and vision that make Hollywood’s biggest budget works feel small in comparison. It’s not just because of the length of the film, or that the filmmakers have found vast planes and massive mountains to use as the backdrop. It’s the rich, endlessly deep colours of the Chinese aesthetic, and it’s the ability to infuse portent into the most subtle and quiet of moments. The sense of the epic seems infused into the very soul of Chinese artists, and is perhaps a consequence of it being one of the most ancient, and yet multicultural nations in history. I’ve long wondered what a Chinese RPG might look like, given that the JRPG is itself one predisposed to the epic form, and until recently, the Chinese games industry has been quite closed. Sword and Fairy 6 has been a treat from that perspective, because it certainly sells its epic credentials hard, and with complete success.
One of the things that helps Chinese epic storytelling is that China itself is a massive country, and one that contains innumerable cultures within it. From the northerners who have traditional lived the lives of the Mongols, to the rich tapestry of Islamic tradition in the west, to the South East Asian lifestyle of the south, Chinese storytellers can intricately mix all these exotic locations, peoples, and themes together while still retaining a cohesive “Chinese” narrative. Given that the JRPG genre itself traditionally features a journey from one exotic location to another, the Chinese setting should lend itself well to the genre, and it most certainly does in this instance.
Sword and Fairy 6 features oasis desert environments with music and costumes that could be pulled directly from 1001 Arabian Nights. Your team will spend a couple of nights in a Mongolian village, yurts and all. The people from one place to the next look different to one another, and while Sword and Fairy 6 is hardly a AAA-blockbuster production, aesthetically, it’s spot on for what it needs to do to establish place and context. It’s worth playing on just to find out what location the group will visit next.
The narrative, without giving anything away, is every bit as sweeping, while also spending plenty of time of individual intrigues and some intense character development. I was surprised at just how much I ended up caring about this mob of misfits. It’s party because they don’t fit so neatly into genre tropes (given that the game comes from within a different culture), and were therefore a breath of fresh air in a genre that isn’t too big on breaking with character conventions. What most impressed me, though, is that the game was willing to take its time actually developing the characters. So many modern games – including RPGs – aim for action. They’re long, but that’s because they have more dungeons, more boss fights, and more content to keep people playing. At the same time, the genre is becoming so efficient in how it delivers its story that characters feel increasingly like avatars to write our own impressions over, rather than written people to love (or hate).
Sword and Fairy’s languishing long cut scenes and dialogue sequences are decidedly old school in that regard, but his has the benefit of drawing rich, deep, and interesting characters to follow along with. Each character has their own mysteries, and motivations beyond whatever the next objective is. Each character also has their own sub-stories, and a dynamic relationship with the rest of the group, and each cut scene allows all of that to slowly evolve. Sword and Fairy 6 isn’t the shortest game as a result of all this, but it’s deceptive in the way it draws you in, and keeps you playing. It feels far shorter than it actually is, and there is no finer compliment that you can pass on to a narrative than that.
It’s just as well that the narrative is so strong, because mechanically, the game’s a complete mess. From the shuddering frame rates, which can’t even transition into a battle scene without diving to single digits, to highly compressed music meaning that the beautiful soundtrack sounds like it’s being relayed to you though it’s through a tin can. What a waste. Sword and Fairy really struggles to meet even the most modest standard of presentation. Combat is modeled after Final Fantasy XIII, where you control one character in battle, with the others each operating according to whatever strategy you set them (all out attack, focus on healing, etc). As your character’s turn bar fills up, you can queue up a number of different actions, with more powerful actions using up more of your “turn” before, after executing them, having to wait for the bar to fill up again. But a combination of a lagging menu (which means that you’ll often select the wrong thing by accident), and clumsy pacing, just about ruins any potential for strategy that this combat system might have had.
Visually, combat is difficult to watch, because it’s all abstracted as though you’re playing an MMO. Given that some attacks have the potential to hit multiple enemies, or a range limit, it can be hard to figure out just what you can expect from an attack when, in execution, all you’ll get is numbers flying around the screen, whether your attacks are visually connecting with your opponents or not. Even by MMO standards, what you see in Sword and Fairy is messy.
The biggest problem of all with the combat system is the obscene difficulty spikes with bosses. You can be cruising through an area, killing every enemy along the way, only for the boss to utterly cream you. More than a few times I assumed, as I floundered about with a boss I obviously had no chance of beating, that there were boss battles that I wasn’t meant to win at all, and after losing the old JRPG narrative tradition would kick in with some dramatic cut scene happening to save my clearly overmatched team. But, no, that wasn’t to be. Each time I had the floor wiped with my team, with only the tiniest dint in the boss’ health bar, it was simply the case that the team wasn’t leveled up enough. Once, I came across such a boss after having saved in an area where there were no common enemies to fight… meaning I had absolutely no way of gaining experience to progress to the point that I could take the boss on, and had to start the game from scratch. Should I have been better with my save game management? Sure, but equally, that kind of thing simply shouldn’t be happening in a well-designed game.
It goes to show how captivating Sword and Fairy 6 is that I did indeed restart the game, and stuck with all its amateurish elements so that I could enjoy its story to completion. This is a Chinese game, of a popularity profile similar to Final Fantasy in Japan/ the west, telling a Chinese story, by Chinese game developers, and it’s something that I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more of in the years ahead. As video games continue to evolve as an art form, the emergence of “foreign games” is an important step. Just as foreign films might be worthy, even essential, even though they lack the budgets and production values of Hollywood, so too does a title like Sword and Fairy 6 deserve to find an audience in the kind of player that is more interested in artistry and theme than how well done the button pressing fun is.
– Matt S.
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