Review: Xanadu Next
Falcom – a pillar company of the JRPG genre in Japan, but relatively unknown in the west until recently. Also, apparently, they are a master of creating spinoffs. While Falcom has multiple currently running series, each with their own amounts of critical acclaim, most of them can trace their history back to the company’s original JRPG series: Dragon Slayer.
The Dragon Slayer series currently stands at eight titles, released from 1984 to 1994. Nearly every title attempted a spinoff into its own series, with varying success rates. The only entry to not receive spinoffs was the fourth, and one of the few that was localized for the west, released here under the title Legacy of the Wizard.
Aside from their Ys series (which is an original, not a Dragon Slayer spinoff), Falcom has put much of their focus into the series spawned from the sixth Dragon Slayer game, subtitled The Legend of Heroes. However, there is another spinoff series that remains relatively popular for the company, despite only seeing games released for it once a decade or so. This is the series spawned from the second Dragon Slayer game – Xanadu.
While the Xanadu series includes a number of ports and smaller entries, it really does see a “big” entry just around every ten years. The original Dragon Slayer title was released in 1985, followed up quickly by an expansion in ’86 and a port entitled Faxanadu in ’87, which made its way to the States. A decade later, in 1995, alongside a couple of remasters/ports of the original and its expansion, Falcom released The Legend of Xanadu. Interestingly, this title is considered the eighth Dragon Slayer title, and received a sequel of its own.
Jump ahead another ten years to 2005, and Falcom returns to the series with Xanadu Next, originally released for PC. The title did actually receive a western release, although there’s a good reason you may have never heard of it – in the west, it was an N-Gage exclusive of all things.
The trend has continued into 2015 with the (currently Japan only) release of Tokyo Xanadu, but the game we’re interested in today is the third major entry. In their continuing partnership with Falcom, XSeed Games has brought the original PC version of the title to the west, so we no longer have to suffer through using an N-Gage to experience the game.
Developed by Nihon Falcom and published in the west by XSeed, Xanadu Next was released on November 3rd, 2016. The game was released for PC via Steam.
Seek Out Your Story
In Xanadu Next, you take on the role of a ex-knight, named to your liking. In this world, though, knights are looked down upon with disdain and treated like criminals, due to past political events.
You are currently acting as a bodyguard for a young girl named Charlotte, who is studying history and archeology. She is on her way to Harlech Island, specifically to see and learn about the island’s main attraction: Castle Strangerock. All kinds of oddities and rumors surround the castle. After all, nobody has ever set foot inside of it, and it seems to have only come into being a few years ago.
While you are exploring the island’s main village and the ruins it contains, you come across a golden crown buried deep in the ruins. At this moment, though, a knight named Dvorak approaches you, nearly kills you, and takes the crown for his own.
Luckily, the town’s priestess manages to save your life by binding your body with one of the god-like “Guardians” of Harlech Island. This keeps you alive and gives you some extra powers, but unfortunately, if you ever leave the island, you will lose the protection of the Guardian and die. The only way to save your life and leave the island is by obtaining a special relic – a sword known as the Dragon Slayer. Not much is known about it, aside from the fact that it supposedly rests within Castle Strangerock.
Much like Falcom’s main action RPG series, Ys, Xanadu Next is very light on actual plot. The story here acts as more of a frame for the overall gameplay, rather than a focus. There’s enough here to provide drive to play through the game, though, and there are optional tablets and manuscripts you can find within dungeons that provide some info and history about the game’s world. There’s nothing I’d really call very intriguing, let along groundbreaking, though.
Click Your Day Away
At its heart, this game is very much a dungeon crawler. You’ll be working out of your hub town of Harlech Village, making your way to various ruins scattered across the island to try and find access to Castle Strangerock. Exploration is very much encouraged here, as outside of the opening/tutorial dungeon, you are given little to no direction on where you have to go or what you have to do.
Fields and dungeons start rather large right from the get-go and become more complex as you continue through the game. There is an on-screen map that fills itself in as you explore, but with the number of dead ends, areas you have to return to later in the game, and various puzzles, even a map wasn’t enough to keep me from occasionally getting lost.
Not helping in this is the amount of backtracking to the village that you have to do. Xanadu Next is all about slow progression, pushing yourself further and further each time you step outside the town gates. Enemies hit hard and fast, and usually come in large numbers. Most of the time, when you enter a new area, you’ll find that your attacks do menial damage to the enemies ahead.
With this, gameplay ends up falling into a routine: stock up on items, push as far into a dungeon as your strength and supplies will allow, return to town, sell items and upgrade stats (if you leveled up), then restock and head out again. Really, it’s the backtracking and retreading ground that were the most negative parts of the game for me. Early in the first real dungeon, you can find an item that lets you warp back to town from anywhere…but you’ll still have to make your way back to where you were again once you’ve stocked up. There are a few points where you’ll open up a connecting tunnel or fast travel between the village and a dungeon, but they’re few and far between.
Making things more difficult are the need for keys. Locked doors are all over the map and in every dungeon, but you’ll almost never find keys for them in the field – you’ll need to purchase them in town. The more keys you buy, though, the more expensive they become, explained with the fact that the keys are made from monster bones, and your merchant has a limited supply. You can find bones in the field and sell them to the merchant, though, to help drive those prices down.
I feel like I’ve been complaining in the last couple of paragraphs, so let me assuage any fears: this game is one of the most entertaining and addicting I’ve played in a long time. The slow and steady progression creates an incredibly rewarding feeling when you’re finally able to tear through the rooms that have been giving you trouble.
As far as the battle system and dungeon crawling itself, take two parts Diablo and one part Zelda, shake with ice, strain into a glass, and garnish with a bit of Ys.
Combat feels very much like the Diablo series: fully mouse-driven, clicking on enemies to attack, right-clicking to use special attacks. Naviagtion is click-based as well, and once you have the controls down, dodging and weaving through enemies with just mouse clicks feels fluid and easy to do. The Zelda feel comes from the dungeons, which feature numerous (mostly box-based) puzzles that open up rooms and alter areas.
That little bit of Ys garnish comes in the form of huge and imposing boss battles. There are only a few scattered throughout the game, but they create some of the best moments Xanadu Next has to offer. While they aren’t as frantic as Ys battles can be (mostly due to this game’s mouse-focused control scheme, I assume), these battles offer a great test of both your level and your skill. Luckily, they aren’t as punishing as Ys, either, especially since you can bring tons of health potions into battle with you.
A Bit of Old School
Xanadu Next has a very dark fantasy atmosphere about it…which means it falls into my “favorite” graphical trap, the ever-so-loved dull brown color palette. Nearly all of the environments are various shades of browns and blacks, and the few colors there are (mostly greens in forest areas) are fairly dark and dull.
On the positive side, though, at least the environments are nicely designed, keeping in mind that this game is over a decade old. The various fields and ruins all manage to express their own distinct characters, even with the limited palette. The usage of some minor lighting effects in parts of the game go a long way to help the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the character design doesn’t fare as well. Once again, the game came out in 2005, but through modern eyes, characters and monster models are rather bland and somewhat blocky. Most notable to me were the faces on character models, which are lacking detail to the point of being somewhat unsettling. This is made up for by having pretty good animation for the models, which helps greatly as you’ll have to constantly be reading your enemy’s actions in battle.
Of final note is a major amount of aliasing in the game. The graphics options offer an “anti-aliasing” checkbox, but even with this enabled, nearly everything from environmental assets to character models have extremely noticeable jagged edges. I will admit, I did not try to force other anti-aliasing modes through my graphics card, so going in that direction may help alleviate this issue.
In House Magic
I’ve never run across a bad soundtrack by Falcom, and this title is no exception. The soundtrack here really adds to and reinforces the dark fantasy atmosphere of the game, jumping between driving, bombastic pieces and lighter, more atmospheric ones.
Falcom’s in-house band makes use of a nice range of instruments for Xanadu Next‘s OST. Most of it leans heavily orchestral, but the addition of synths, bells, electric guitars, and fiddles add a touch that helps the soundtrack stand out from standard “dark” video games.
What always impresses me about Falcom’s soundtracks is that everything they do is in house. Rather than bringing in outside musicians and composers, the company keeps a stable of musicians dedicated to composing music for their games. The sheer amount of music they pump out, and the quality with which they do, honestly astounds me.
Just Can’t Stop
Overall, Xanadu Next is an incredibly addicting and engaging game, flawed by some presentation issues stemming from the fact that this game is from a different generation. The comparison to the Diablo series is still the one I’m most apt to make; a game that turns a repetitive series of actions into something highly rewarding, driven by just the click of a mouse.
I’m willing to overlook the graphical issues (and, in fact, did so easily during my playthrough), as for a game released in 2005, this game looks pretty good compared to some of its contemporaries. Xanadu Next still creates its atmosphere amazingly, certainly assisted by the excellent soundtrack.
For fans of Falcom’s works, dungeon crawlers, action RPGs, or just anyone looking for a new addiction, I can’t recommend Xanadu Next highly enough.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review copy provided by XSeed Games on PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.