It’s finally happened–Xuan Yuan Jian in English!

I’ve been going on about Chinese RPGs for… let’s say ‘too long’ and I honestly never thought I’d see a big-name Chinese game with an official English language release on a major Western platform, but here we are! ‘The Gate of Firmament’, as it’s being called in English, is the most recent RPG from Chinese titan Softstar and came out of nowhere. Just to see a big Chinese game on Steam would be shocking enough (sorry Rainblood) but with English and Japanese language support too? I still can’t quite believe it if I’m honest.

To try and express just how unlikely this situation is - this turning up on Steam out of the blue for £10.99 (post-launch-sale price) with both English and Japanese text is the Chinese RPG equivalent of Square-Enix releasing Dragon Quest X tomorrow in a dozen European languages for £4.99 with the entire game playable offline. It’s that unlikely, and that amazing.

2016-02-27_000072016-02-28_000222016-02-26_003692016-02-27_000392016-02-27_000552016-02-27_00060

There is something important out of the way before we go any further, and that is the quality of the translation. Let’s be clear: measured against typical modern RPG standards, the dialogue is often stiff and overly-literal. Was it ever going to be any other way? No. Chinese-to-English game translations just don’t happen, and for their first go the team had to contend with a Xeno-length script, poor things. Japanese companies have had decades to adjust to the Western market, creating dedicated internal localisation teams or forging relationships with reliable third-party groups – China’s had… about half a dozen games and a few free to play MMOs, ever?

Even with these issues the text is far from unreadable; the script has some odd phrasing (a combination of cultural differences and inexperienced localisation) but it’s certainly not machine translated, and while the UI text appears to have been handled by a junior member of the team the worst of it’s having to read things like ‘This move will cover your data’ to mean ‘This action will overwrite your data’. Awkward? Absolutely. Indecipherable scene-killing text? Not at all. Have a good look at the text in the screenshots used in this blog post – I’ve tried to include the best, the worst, and the usual to give you some idea of what it’s like in practise.

2016-02-26_002642016-02-26_003092016-02-28_000402016-02-28_000552016-02-28_000702016-02-26_000612016-02-26_002582016-02-26_003172016-02-27_000062016-02-27_00056

But there’s another hurdle The Gate of Firmament will have to overcome – it’s deep-rooted and utterly essential Chinese-ness. Japanese games have long passed through the ‘Ha! Look at those weird things the foreign people do!’ ‘What strange names!’ (remember when nobody could say ‘Ryu’?) phase to the place we’re now at where a character saying ‘senpai’ in an English localisation doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, but playing this is a lot like starting that learning process all over again. To be blunt, China is not Japan: the names sound different, the apologetic bows are different, and medieval Chinese fantasy values are not the same as the bushido-ish Japanese medieval fantasy values we’ve gradually become familiar with.

Softstar have made a bold if unpolished first move towards the international market, and if you ever wanted to make a difference in gaming now’s the time – you can be sure that Softstar and their rivals will be watching sales and reviews of The Gate of Firmament very closely. The success or failure of this title will no doubt determine whether we see the likes of Xian Jian 6 and Gu Jian 2 overseas or if this effort will end up a blip on an unchanging gaming landscape that will only accept Japanese games, Western games, or one of the previous two pretending to be the other.

The Gate of Firmament is rough and needs a significant amount of work to bring it in line with the standards we’ve come to expect, but it’s also an exciting adventure into a whole new world – are you ready?

Happy birthday Burning Rangers!

Burning Rangers, Sonic Team’s other Saturn game that also wasn’t the 3D Sonic platformer everybody was waiting for, is now officially an adult! It’s been eighteen years today since these Angel with Burning Hearts with their Wings of Shining White ♫~Aquamarine coloured sky/FLY HIIIIIIIIIGH Wi~♫

*cough*

In any case, I thought this anniversary would be as good a time as any to take a moment to talk about this wonderful mess of a game, a fine display of ambition over common sense and somewhat shaky proof that the Saturn could pull off all those fancy 3D effects that PlayStation and N64 games seemed to do with little effort.

There is no escaping an uncomfortable truth with Saturn technical tour-de-force and a personal all-time favourite Burning Rangers, and that is that it looks… a bit rubbish. It makes no difference whether you’re looking at still screenshots or a video of the game in motion, there are almost no instances where you won’t spot some nasty clipping, or spy an object sitting in the black void of an undisplayed room through a flickering wall, or see fire stuck inside the scenery again. The Saturn really tried, bless it, but at the end of the day it just wasn’t capable of pulling off everything Burning Rangers asked of it.

bandicam 2016-02-24 09-57-42-384bandicam 2016-02-24 09-24-37-702bandicam 2016-02-24 09-29-26-502bandicam 2016-02-24 09-42-51-744bandicam 2016-02-24 07-47-41-073

But it’s not  actually the Saturn that’s to blame here, because when you really look at exactly what’s going on in each stage you’ll realise Sonic Team were bonkers to even think they could try to get the Saturn to handle half of this stuff in the first place! Take for example the most mundane of environmental details – the floor. Here’s a very typical bit of this functional but usually unremarkable surface from the second mission ‘Silent Blue’ -

bandicam 2016-02-24 09-47-22-232

So what, right? It’s a floor, all flat and floor-like. Look again – the floor Tillis is standing on has great big strips cut out of it on either side, and underneath that is another polygonal floor (the only 2D image outside the HUD is the blue background seen in the distance) – and this lower floor has its texture animated to look as if water is running under your feet. All this for a floor on a game that’s already stretched to the limit doing a ton of other things it’s not supposed to be able to in the first place. It’s a small detail that’s as unnecessary as it is impressive.

Sonic Team’s attitude towards the entire game seems to have been ‘Break the Saturn or die trying’ – there’s a lot of tinted and translucent glass and water, wibbly underwater scenes, translucent fires on top of other translucent fires, multi-coloured lighting that can change on the fly… There’s no getting away from the fact that even with all this graphical extravagance Burning Rangers still looks like it’s held together with nothing more than enthusiasm, but Sonic Team’s style and passion for the project does its best to shine through regardless.

bandicam 2016-02-24 10-12-00-055bandicam 2016-02-24 10-13-03-804bandicam 2016-02-24 10-14-42-665bandicam 2016-02-24 09-33-45-876bandicam 2016-02-24 10-10-44-993

Thankfully these big ideas didn’t end with the graphics, and Burning Rangers other bold innovation was in its impressive semi-random stage design – anyone who’s ever played Phantasy Star Online will be familiar with this, where even the very first area can feel drastically different just by blocking off a few rooms and forcing the player to detour through an unfamiliar area. It’s not just the odd door that’s effected either - while after many, many, runs you’ll realise that the vast majority of flash fires always occur in the same spot every time there’s never any way of knowing if the area you’re exploring will contain a survivor, some crystals, or nothing at all - and even if you do find a survivor you have no idea who you’re rescuing until you’re right next to them and can get a good look of their face and clothing.

And yes, you really can tell who these people are just by looking at them. In another display of Sonic Team’s grand (crazy?) vision for the project every single survivor in Burning Rangers is an individual who’s 3D model matches the 2D illustration in their ‘thank you’ emails. You can even rescue Claris and Elliot from NiGHTS (second mission) and the game’s staff (third mission) too! Thank you emails are received a maximum of five at a time at the end of a successful mission and once obtained can be re-read as many times as you like – some of them even come with files attached, including a minigame and several pieces of artwork. Survivors often have several emails to send your way, ranging from simple fluff to revealing how they’re coping after their ordeal; it’s a neat way of bringing some depth and lore into an otherwise very arcade-like game without disrupting the action.

bandicam 2016-02-24 09-57-12-706bandicam 2016-02-24 07-47-58-368bandicam 2016-02-24 09-10-02-015bandicam 2016-02-24 09-20-26-731bandicam 2016-02-24 09-29-04-251

Burning Rangers is the gaming equivalent of a genius architect building a 200ft castle out of sand – you can clearly see their passion and talent show in their work, but ultimately the base material just wasn’t capable of handling such a monumental task. Sonic Team’s futuristic fire-fighter constantly teeters on the edge of oblivion, at all times just a single moment away from coming together beautifully or falling apart at the seams. Technically brilliant and yet always lacking, it’s a game that deserves to be appreciated for its daring ideas over its shoddy execution - few other 3D games before or since have dared to push their host hardware as hard as Burning Rangers did, and the concept of a constantly evolving 3D rescue-em-up remains an alluring and underused concept almost twenty years on.

If you’ve got this far and you’d still like to hear more about Burning Rangers, take a look at this post I wrote about the Japanese trial disc - http://shinjuforest.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-house-of-deadburning-rangers.html

Oh! For some wonderful reason the official Japanese website’s still up and can be found over here - http://burningranger.sega.jp/

A little look at… Genei Toshi: Illusion City

Before we get into anything important I have to say something about the odd title of this 1991/2/3 (depending on which version you’re playing) MicroCabin RPG – much like Zwei 2 is literally ‘Two Two’, the full title of this game is essentially ‘Illusion City: Illusion City’. It probably sounds cool to someone but thankfully Project EGG took a stand against naming redundancy as on their glorious site both the game and the soundtrack are simply called ‘Genei Toshi’, but I digress.

bandicam 2016-02-21 08-00-59-472

This lovely game came out across the usual Japanese computer formats of the era – MSX Turbo R, PC-98 (also compatible with  certain PC-88 VA/286/386 computers), X68000, and FM Towns – as well as a final farewell tour on the Mega CD. The Mega CD and MSX releases are probably the most familiar to English speakers due to general awareness of Japanese Sega games and the mostly-complete English translation of the latter. Unfortunately these two look a bit rough when you compare them to the other ports, even if the Mega CD release does have some unique art in its opening and ending sequences.

But that’s quite enough waffle, because the important thing to remember is that whatever version you’ve managed to get your grubby mitts on the game itself is nigh-on identical across all formats and damned good too. The quickest way to describe Illusion City is roughly ‘Just like Phantasy Star IV, if Phantasy Star IV had its ratio of sci-fi-to-fantasy reversed’ (this is also important: Illusion City came out two years before Phantasy Star IV) – that’s not the perfect analogy, but close enough to mostly work.

 bandicam 2016-02-01 07-20-16-902bandicam 2016-01-25 14-35-46-299bandicam 2016-01-29 12-11-30-431bandicam 2016-01-29 12-13-53-922bandicam 2016-01-29 12-19-26-613bandicam 2016-02-03 13-03-48-027bandicam 2016-01-23 06-17-50-358bandicam 2016-01-23 06-17-54-790bandicam 2016-01-23 06-20-15-713bandicam 2016-01-23 06-21-29-681

What this means in real terms is Illusion City’s a cyberpunk RPG with a fascinating setting and a lovely mix of magic, robots, cyborgs, and magical floating sky castles all in one game. Perhaps sensing that placing the story within magical cyber-future Hong Kong was a great excuse to shed a lot of the usual JRPG baggage, Illusion City made the main magic user your gun-toting, trench coat-wearing, cigarette-smoking, lead man, and the leading lady would much rather be attacking enemies with machineguns or razor-thin wire (much like Benten from Cyber City Oedo 808) than sitting on the back row and meekly casting curative spells – as a matter of fact she can’t use any magic at all. Other surprising highlights include dead people staying dead, bad guys that maybe aren’t all that bad, and a game set in Hong Kong that actually stars characters with names like ‘Mei Fan’ and ‘Tian Ren’ rather than a convenient Japanese/American party created for fear of being somehow unrelateable.

The PC-Engine-style event art may be restricted to the opening and ending scenes but the game’s frequent cuts to other characters and places – often to the private thoughts and actions of the antagonists – have a lot of unique animations and really help express the idea that you’re in the middle of something much bigger - and the game is confident enough to not explain every last interaction and personal motivation in tedious detail either.

But that certainly doesn’t mean you’re left adrift – a ‘talk’ command is accessible at any point, and just like Phantasy Star IV you can expect some brief discussion between your party members on their current situation and where they need to go. Further assistance can be found at the computer terminals littered around each residential area, offering not only the chance to save but verbal directions to local points of interest, shops, and transportation.

 bandicam 2016-02-03 12-41-42-698bandicam 2016-02-03 12-42-13-849bandicam 2016-01-29 12-12-42-877bandicam 2016-02-03 13-06-40-630bandicam 2016-02-03 12-21-05-987bandicam 2016-02-01 07-12-35-421bandicam 2016-02-01 07-20-47-370bandicam 2016-02-03 11-31-50-549bandicam 2016-02-03 11-33-28-765bandicam 2016-01-29 12-55-58-001

As you may expect from a world that’s home to monsters, experimental abominations, and an unpleasant chap called ‘Demon King’ there’s a fair bit of battling to be done before you reach the end of the game, so it’s a good thing the fights in Illusion City are quick, interesting, and visually impressive. Your party of three (almost always two-plus-overpowered guest) have access to quite a varied arsenal of guns, swords, throwing knives, claws and plenty more. Guns are split into various types – handgun/rifle/shotgun/heavy weaponry and so on – and they all require their own particular sort of ammo, bought from your friendly neighbourhood shop. It is a little difficult to tell in game which ammo is for which gun at times (bar obvious ones like the assault rifle using rifle ammo) but the manual does have full tables that explain everything properly. An annoyance to be sure, but not uncommon practise for 1991. In any case ammo can be bought by the 1000 and is so cheap you’ll encounter little difficultly in keeping your reserves topped up, so it’s more something to keep an eye on than any real problem.

Another interesting equipment quirk is that it’s rarely a simple case of one circlet, glove, or chest piece being better than another – a lot of items have unique attributes and drawbacks that don’t become obvious until you try them out for yourself. For example: A claw that appears to be much weaker than the one you’re currently using, until you realise that it does two attacks per round instead of one, and the second slash unleashes a powerful bolt of lightning. It can work in the opposite direction too, as is the case with the cloak that offers a massive defence boost but also paralyzes the wearer. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless – on the right party member it can turn them into effectively a damage sponge for the benefit of everyone else, or you could give it a weaker party member to help them level up (anyone who survives a battle receives XP, regardless of their contribution to the fight). So there’s a lot of scope here for intelligent and situational play if you care to make the effort, and if you don’t there’s enough ‘plain’ equipment around for you to use anyway.

Magic falls into a similar pattern of having both straightforward ‘hit stuff’ and ‘heal people’ spells as well as long lists of effective buffs, debuffs, stat boosts, and spells that only really work in conjunction with others all on top of the usual elemental alignment and enemy weakness systems. Tian Ren also has a very useful (and low cost!) ‘teleport to the nearest safe location’ spell, so no matter how bad things look you can escape any area with your life, loot, and experience ready for another go when you’re more prepared.

bandicam 2016-02-04 19-29-23-330bandicam 2016-02-04 04-23-57-473bandicam 2016-02-04 04-31-01-496bandicam 2016-02-04 04-31-50-018bandicam 2016-02-04 16-33-44-131bandicam 2016-02-01 07-22-25-852bandicam 2016-02-01 11-28-58-709bandicam 2016-02-03 11-07-02-830bandicam 2016-02-03 11-15-34-629bandicam 2016-02-03 11-16-27-351

These dangerous areas you’ll find yourself in range from high tech prisons to crumbling buildings and even a lush plant-filled oasis, but even better than this wide variety of locations is the knowledge that the designers understood that while most players don’t want things handed to them on a plate, they also don’t want their time wasted in labyrinthine nightmares either. Corridors and rooms off the beaten path tend to contain chests filled with genuinely useful items not available in the shops and true dead ends are uncommon and it never takes too long to return to where you were.

Potential enemy encounters are shown as vague shapes as you walk around – there are no blind random battles here. It’s also easy to run from the vast majority of scuffles anyway, so how much you fight’s by and large left up to you. The game’s balanced in such a way that this doesn’t leave you high and dry either – I am the queen of the anti-grind, and even with my allergic-to-fighting attitude there were only two spots in the entire game that required a bit of level-boosting, and even then it wasn’t for very long and only because I’d made a badly-equipped beeline. for the next boss battle for the previous few story segments. This means Illusion City feels challenging rather than punishing, and most of the time I was able to think my way out of a scrape rather than wish I could have afforded better gear.

 bandicam 2016-02-05 14-36-57-516bandicam 2016-02-04 19-41-02-893bandicam 2016-02-05 07-43-03-539bandicam 2016-02-05 10-57-35-867bandicam 2016-02-05 10-59-32-463bandicam 2016-02-09 12-40-19-965bandicam 2016-02-04 17-47-28-956bandicam 2016-02-04 19-38-56-130bandicam 2016-02-04 19-39-06-003bandicam 2016-02-08 15-10-31-098

Illusion City is an astonishing RPG if you think back to other RPGs from 1991 and it’s still a fantastic game today that deserves to be talked about with all the other top-quality games of the 16-bit era. This a unique, well-balanced, and exciting adventure that’s more than worth playing if you have the means to do so (Project EGG's PC-98 release is the most practical way for the majority of gamers) and still worth spending some time mooning over if you can’t. Sadly MicroCabin didn’t make any further adventures set in cyberpunk Hong Kong, but I can at least leave you with this cute cameo from the Tower of Cabin title screen.

bandicam 2016-02-22 11-30-48-055

If you’d like to read more about Illusion City (in Japanese) this is far and away the best website I came across - http://www2.nkansai.ne.jp/users/karin/genei/index.htm It has the usual maps and walkthrough as well as lots of great quotes from the game and all sorts of information and musings you wish other fan sites had.