Xanadu Next is the new release of the 2005 entry into the classic Dragon Slayer game universe by Falcom. Fans of old school Japanese RPG's will join me in recalling the fine adventures developer Falcom has given us over the years with its excellent Ys games, which have graced nearly every classic console and computer system all the way up to the Playstation 2 and Vita. Yet few outside of Japan know the expansive pedigree of Falcom's other epic series, Dragon Slayer, which includes games as varied as the NES titles Legacy of the Wizard and Faxanadu, all the way to the lauded The Legend of Heroes PSP entries.
Like the Ys games, Xanadu Next features action-oriented combat and an engaging narrative, all of which is enhanced by great porting (thanks Falcom and X-Seed!) We don't get too many of these Japanese PC RPG ports, so the fact that we got a good one is all the more reason to give it a go!
The story begins thusly: You are an orphan knight of a now disbanded honorable order, which is being persecuted by the current erratic ruler. Unsure of your future path and more than a little morose, you are invited by your childhood friend Charlotte ("Char") to accompany her to the island of Harlech, where she intends to study the legend of Castle Strangerock. Within that potentially non-existent stronghold is said to rest the Dragon Slayer, a legendary sword with the power to make its wielder un-killable.
Shortly after arriving at Harlech Island, however, the story takes a grim turn. While exploring some newly discovered ruins near the friendly main village, you are struck with a fatal blow by a mysterious swordsman who has already murdered another on the island. As you die, you are saved temporarily by the town priestess. Your cure won't last forever, however, so you must find the legendary Dragon Slayer in order to stay your wounds and stay alive.
The Iron Man-esque dependence on the game's ultimate weapon, combined with your companion character's guilt over your situation, adds levels of tension not commonly found in recent JRPG releases, and drove me to continue my quest with a strengthened resolve to see the story to its completion.
Xanadu Next is, at it's core, a dungeon-crawling hack 'n' slash, though there are some choice design decisions that encourage strategy and prevent it from becoming a click-fest. First, you cannot even deliver a basic attack unless you are within striking distance of an enemy; when you're close enough, a red ring appears at the enemy's base. This means that you can't flail around like a mad person, as you'll mis-time your strikes. You'll also be skirting enemies frequently, as attacks delivered to the sides or rear of an opponent are more likely to deal higher damage.
There have been a lot of comparisons to Diablo made about Xanadu Next, but it's more akin to one of the overhead 3D Zelda's of late, as it has pre-designed dungeons, is more a deprecated 3rd-person/top-down view than a true isometric, has some block moving puzzles, and you sometimes reveal loot by clearing a room. What is Diablo-like is the inventory system, where you can collect potions, keys, and story-related items, as well as equip-ables such as armors, shields, weapons, and helms. Where as armors and shields (obviously) affect your character's defense stats, your helm does that plus gives non-offensive buffs that vary per item.
Your weapons, like in Ys Seven, each have a skill, and using that weapon builds your "Proficiency" stat with that specific weapon. Once you reach a 100% proficiency, your character "Internalizes" that skill, and can utilize it even if you unequip or get rid of that weapon. You can also continue to build your proficiency with a certain weapon up to 200%, which is good, since the damage you deal increases with a higher proficiency.
As for skills, you can equip up to four, though you share those same four slots with your spells as well. There are active skills, which require you to press a button to use (often, these are attacks), and passive skills that are always on (these give defensive or offensive buffs). Spells operate the same as skills, though in order to learn them, you simply need to find and read (a.k.a., use) the appropriate spellbook one time.
Unlike normal attacks, you can deliver a skill attack or use a spell anytime–you won't want to, though, as each skill and spell has its own stamina reserve, which is depleted partially with every use. You'll only be able to replenish those reserves with rare potions you find or buy, or by finding a deity statue to interact with (these are also your save points).
The game is made of two navigation area types–towns and non-battle areas, where you can speak with NPC's and shop; and dungeons and battle areas, where you complete most quests and get loot. The movement and presentation is seamless between each (there's no engine change, though you'll encounter fixed camera angles more frequently in the non-battle areas.) In most places, however, you can swivel the camera left and right, which is necessary to reveal hidden chests and NPCs that are sometimes tucked into corners.
The controls with keyboard and mouse are good enough, but the gamepad is the way to go–be warned, though, that while the gamepad movement and battle mapping are great out of the box, you'll need to mess around for a while to get the inventory control (which is mouse-driven) to work totally through pad.
graphics and sound
The graphics are right in line with what you'd expect from a mid-era PS2 game, albeit with smoother rendering due to modern PC abilities. Some may remember that Xanadu Next was first released in the U.S. on the Nokia N-Gage game/phone system, and this new iteration runs smoother and faster.
The visual design is good, but not nearly as detailed or well-rendered as some of its contemporaries (which include Final Fantasy X and X-2). Despite this, the direction of the cut scenes, colors, and landscape design do a lot to make up for the lackluster visuals.
Sound effects are fine, though occasionally wonky (the ferry paddling in the opening scene sounds like my cat tearing up the carpet), but the music–good GOD the music! This game has, hands down, the best game music I've heard in the last five years (theater pun not intended). It's atmospheric, composed mostly of interesting string arrangements, and takes a unique approach to the traditional style of renaissance-era fantasy film music.
Even if you don't play this game (and why wouldn't you? Didn't you read this glowing review?) you would be well-served to give the soundtrack a listen.
If a great story, solid gameplay mechanics, and the best soundtrack in ages isn't enough reason for you to give this action JRPG blast-from-the-past a playthrough, then you clearly don't want to experience gaming joy. Or you don't like classic JRPG's, in which case, buy this for your friend that DOES like them.
They'll thank you, and you'll be supporting XSEED's quest to give us the games we missed from yesteryear.
|+ Enough reading to give a good story, but not bore||– Controller mapping takes some tweaking|
|+ Solid Ys Seven style skill-learning via weapons||– Would love the option to increase font size|
|+ Writing is great and feels contemporary|
|+ Performance is smooth, even on a toaster|