All too often when people talk RPGs they’re only talking about JRPGs or European/American computer or console role-playing games. Don’t believe me? OK, let’s do a thought experiment think of an RPG, any RPG, go on, don’t be shy. What were you thinking of? Chances are it wasn’t Xuan-Yuan Sword EX: The Gate of Firmament.
The Gate of Firmament is a spin-off from the long-running Chinese CRPG series Xuan Yuan Sword which features six mainline entries and a number of other spin-off titles. TGoF is the first title in the series to see an English language release and it was with some curiosity that I booted up the game for the first time, wondering how it would compare to my favourite Japanese and Western RPGs or if it would offer something completely different.
Have you ever played an MMORPG on your own? I have, in fact just this week I played a good portion of Phantasy Star Online solo. You’ll have to wait to read about the hows and whys of that. For now, back to TGoF, it feels like playing a bad MMO on your own.
The character movement, quest markers, combat all feel like an Eastern online RPG. Think Lineage, Ragnarok Online 2 or Tera, think of the stilted movement, cool-down based combat and fetch quest design of these games, only take away the social aspect. You now have a perfect picture of the TGoF experience.
The first thing I noticed is how plain the game looks. The game looks ‘humble’ and that’s putting it nicely. Sure, there’s a cute pig monster in the first cutscene but apart from that everything looks incredibly dull. You’d have a hard time picking the lead character out of a lineup of Dynasty Warriors NPCs and the rest of the bystanders and bad guys don’t look any better.
Fans of Wuxia novels and films will feel at home with TGoF. The story is typical Chang Cheh stuff. A young warrior must protect his village from an evil warlord and nearby hostile villages. Although, these plot points aren’t made entirely clear due to the game’s matter-of-fact translation and low-visibility subtitles. You can infer a little form the cutscenes but they’re staged poorly as well, so a lot of the time the game leaves the player in the dark as to their motivations. It’s an RPG though, so you can be sure there’s some sort of epic quest a-happenin’.
In the early stages of the game the player’s epic wuxia journey boils down to moving to way-points on the minimap and fighting a variety of mythical woodland creatures, three-tailed foxes, butterfly women, giant cocoon things. You know, Chinese forest stuff.
Fighting these forest beasties involves little more than pressing the same three keys over and over again. There is an element of timing to the key presses that results in longer combo strings but generally you’ll be tapping the ‘W’ key as fast as you can until the battle is over. The illusion of some strategy comes later in the game when you can switch party members with the number keys.
The game feels a little bit like Final Fantasy XIII as you attempt to stun your opponent and switch to the character best suited for attack. It’s not very involved stuff but battles are often short and so the key mashing doesn’t feel overly chorish, just unfulfilling. That’s like FFXIII as well, hot dog!
Character development is dull as well. You can make the ‘W’ key hit harder, faster and for longer and you can do the same for the ‘Q’ and ‘E’ key as well. Even the ‘F’ key gets in on the action as you acquire more potent medicine. Not that you’ll need them as the chances of dying in the game are very slim. Even bosses go down quickly if you hammer at them fast enough. I’d wager you could play the game blindfolded and still come away with a victory.
The UI plays such a small role in combat that you’ll forget it’s there before too long. All that matters is that sweet ‘W’ key, it’s the best one. Incidentally, the ‘W’ key plays a big part in the game as a whole as you’ll largely be running in straight lines towards a quest marker.
That’s the fundamental issue with The Gate of Firmament, it doesn’t want to involve the player in any meaningful way. As a result its shortcomings are all too evident. I played through the whole game and can’t remember the lead character’s name. If you mapped my keystrokes throughout my hours upon hours of playtime you’d mostly see ‘WWWWWWWWW’ when a game looks like the obnoxious annotations on a NicoNico stream you’re in trouble. Wuxia hungry RPG people should replay Jade Empire, you’ll have a better, more engaging time and your computer’s ‘W’ key will thank you for it.