Like a lot of Americans, my first real introduction to the wuxia genre was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And it’s been one of those genres that I enjoy without being a complete slobbering fanboy over. At the same time, I’ve also had a long running love affair with JRPGs. So when I came across Wandering Sword, and heard the promise of bringing wuxia sensibilities to a JRPG, I was understandably intrigued. Having sunk some time into it, however, my enthusiasm has waned.
Wandering Sword puts players into the shoes of Yuwen Yi, a caravan guard tasked with protecting a VIP returning to the Central Plains of China. Ambushed and almost killed, Yi is brought back to a mostly healthy state by Jiang Yinfeng, a mysterious martial artist with a talent for handling poisons and a long list of enemies. By the end of his convalescence, Yi will find himself embroiled in a long running feud between respected martial arts schools, criminal intrigue, a small civil war, and more martial artists spoiling for a fight than you can shake a sword at.
Visually, Wandering Sword makes good use of the Unreal engine to take 16-bit retro aesthetics and give them some extra muscle. Sprites move smoothly. Exploring through villages, caves, and other sites, as well as certain cutscenes, has just the right amount of parallax to it to give the feeling of classic JRPGs. There’s a good number of special effects which help add a lot of eye candy to the action, particularly with various special attacks. Certain areas have weather effects and special lighting to help better capture the mood of a scenario.
Combat makes use of a grid to position your warriors and let you line up area of effect attacks to hit the most targets. The sprite designs and the character portraits are fairly consistent, though you do see a lot of recycling for generic NPCs and mooks. As for the gear, the items are rendered very nicely, with certain caveats. The actual item icons in the inventory are a little small. You see more detail when you’re at a crafting station, but the detail doesn’t translate to the sprites of your characters or your companions. The icons for different weapon attacks and special moves are distinctive, so you’re rarely if ever guessing what a given attack in your loadout is.
Audio is perhaps a little weak. On the one hand, there’s a fairly good score, with relaxing tunes while traveling overland and snappy battle music when the action kicks in. Sound effects are also fairly well done, though they’re not what you’d call immersive. There’s not a whole lot in the way of environmental sounds, which is a little disappointing. There’s also no voice acting, which is probably for the best, though there are a few short grunts here and there at times.
The biggest stumbling blocks for Wandering Sword are found in its gameplay. And there are a lot of stumbling blocks, compounded by a dearth of documentation to help you better understand what’s going on. Combat mechanics are perfectly fine if you stick to the turn-based option, which creates a classic tactical RPG experience. Throw on the “real-time” option, and you’re likely to get your head handed to you in short order. But even in the turn-based mode, combat devolves into a vicious sort of slugging match where you either pound the hell out of each other face to face or try to keep moving around to position your characters to exploit more vulnerable side and rear aspects of enemies. And that assumes that the enemies you’re up against aren’t just going to absolutely wreck your face. In wilderness zones and dungeon-like areas, wandering monsters have name tags rendered in different colors. Gray and white tags aren’t much of a challenge, but green and yellow are considerably harder.
There isn’t a typical level mechanic in Wandering Sword. In theory, your power level is based off the gear you equip. However, you might have what is considered “legendary” grade gear and you’ll still get mercilessly slaughtered because for story missions and side quests, there’s no sort of indication what sort of power levels you’re dealing with. I came across one mission indicating that there was an “extremely difficult” challenge ahead in red text. The problem was that the warning’s essentially meaningless without some method to quantify it. If the quests are predicated on a certain power level, rather than scaling to the player’s existing power level, then there either needs to be some way to identify that or the quests shouldn’t be available. It’s beyond frustrating to pick up a quest, go through it in earnest, and then suddenly get brutally murdered because you had no idea what you were getting into. Forget bad storytelling, it’s bad game design.
Another feature which Wandering Sword touts and fails to either explain or execute cleanly is the companion system. In theory, you basically bribe people into sparring with you, or being friendly with you, or even joining your party. The problems are manifold. You can observe people who have names over their heads to learn what gifts they like. That’s the only simple part. Beyond that, you run into the problem of not having good enough gifts to give (which fails to raise the affinity), you’re not strong enough to give somebody a gift (which really stings given the lack of transparency about character power), or they will refuse for some completely unknown reason (probably story related, but still pretty irritating). I was hoping that I might bum around, Skyrim-style, building up a band of badasses before digging into the main story. No such luck. I basically ended up taking a lot of detours with characters significantly more experienced and buff than myself who had joined me on a main story quest to finish side quests which were effectively impossible to finish by myself or with the one sidekick I’d earned through the very skimpy tutorial process. And even then, sometimes that wasn’t enough.
Character development, from a raw ability perspective, is another system which is poorly explained and/or implemented. Martial arts techniques are obtained through various manuals which either drop as quest rewards, appear as random loot, or are given to you as part of a quest. Some of these techniques are straight attacks or special attacks. Others help improve your ability to move around the combat field. And still others are listed as “cultivation” powers, intended to cultivate your character’s chi and ultimately unlock various meridian points. Martial points are awarded for successful battles. Each martial arts technique from simple attacks to cultivations can be upgraded to a maximum level of 10. Pretty simple up to a point. The amount of meridian points you gain from improving cultivation skills seems to be pretty scanty while the requirements for each perk grows increasingly more expensive, and you have to burn meridian points three times to get to the next perk on a given tree.
More importantly, there’s very little explanation about what each tree actually does for you, so you’re likely to be using up a lot of meridian points because the perks are accessible, not necessarily because there’s a coherent improvement path in front of you. And just to make it more aggravating, while companions can read certain manuals (like the cultivation manuals), they can’t pick up different styles for some reason, learning how to use different weapons or such like that. For extra salt in the wound, you can notionally learn other moves from companions, but it costs a lot of martial points, and the interface doesn’t tell you the amount of points you actually need.
Adding insult to injury, save management is a total shambles. At certain points, Wandering Sword does an auto-save, usually right after a big story beat or right before an important fight. Beyond that, however, it doesn’t do much in the way of auto-saves. So, if you happen to pick a fight you can’t win, you’re likely going back a manual save point on the hope that you were smart enough to make one. Otherwise, prepare to lose a lot of progress. Worse still, there are times where your health and energy bars are refilled after a fight which is important to whatever quest you’re on, but other times not. One side quest I stumbled over had me fighting three people in the final phase (all by my lonesome), but didn’t give me a chance to replenish my health bar. It’s moments like that which really put a damper on the fun.
All told, Wandering Sword has a decidedly unfinished feel to it. I don’t know if it’s just bad localization or bad design or bad implementation or all of the above. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t spark any of the joy I might get from a JRPG or from a good wuxia story. It’s particularly excruciating because every time I found something interesting which moved me to keep playing, it ultimately became a disappointment which pushed me away. I don’t doubt there’s a lot of interesting stuff in terms of story, gameplay mechanics, and action. But all the hurdles which stand between the player and all those good things too often resembles the sensation of getting your head caved in.
Axel played Wandering Sword on PC with a code provided by the developer.