Review by Hsu
"One of the Very Few RPGs with Owning."
Admittedly, I don't hold much faith in the RPG genre. With only rare exception, every game out there is the same thing. Different faces, different places, but the same old premise and plot structure. Sure, some add a little to it, or throw in a new twist, but that hardly makes up for chronically insulting the intelligence of one's audience by giving them the same re-hashed sack full of the same, tiresome ideas over and over and over again. They're just not worth playing, anymore. That is, with a few, shining exceptions...
Saiyuki (or Hsi Yu Chi) is a gem released by Koei several years back that got little attention in Japan, and almost none Stateside. It's amazing that they translated it, but thank God they did. It's just what the genre needs, and from many angles. Based strongly on an ancient, Chinese folk tale of the same name, Saiyuki avoids many of the tiresome plot devices seen in Square's selection, and opts to go for well-balanced gameplay strategy over highly-intricate systems. Okay, so just what makes this almost-impossible-to-find game worth the search?
As mentioned in other reviews, Saiyuki, or Hsi Yu Chi, is a famous novel in Chinese culture, and carried over quite well in this telling, and blended with various other tales from Indian folklore. The game's plot centers around a young monk, Genjo Sanzo, and her/his quest to deliver a divine staff from Chine to India, per order of Lady Kannon, a servant of Buddha. Along the way, Sanzo meets a selection of colorful, lighthearted, and lovable companions, and faces numerous obstacles on his/her quest of faith.
Now, it's important to note that there would appear to be a FEW common RPG cliches later on in the game, but as they are directly, or at least mostly out of ancient Buddhist or Indian scriptures, and were written hundreds, or in some cases, thousands of years before the genre surfaced, there is no grounds to criticize for any sort of uncreativity on the authors' part. I much enjoyed seeing a RPG-ization of a classic story I'd known since childhood.
In terms of its presentation, the plot likewise sticks to the novel's mood and tone, and remains a lighthearted, and oftentimes cute and comical tale, mixed with various obstacles and supernatural phenomenon. This is not a ''heavy drama,'' so to speak, and does not contain themes as dire and serious as those seen in many others, nor is it as loaded with plot twists. I'm glad this, again, was retained from its origins. On many instances, we are also shown simple versions of the same, Buddhist teachings that appeared in the original novel, albeit a bit watered-down. Yes, Sanzo does act like a devout Buddhist, and advocates Buddhism repeatedly as the correct religion.
The only real complaint that arises is the fact that some of the dialogue can be a bit plain in terms of its style. It's pretty straightforward, and uncomplicated with high-level language, metaphors, or arcane/strange dialect. Perhaps it was better to avoid a more profound style, given the nature of the game (I don't think a comedy or an afternoon anime would fare well if written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky), but it could have used a bit of sprucing up in places. Perhaps this can be blamed on the translation, as much is often lost in the process, and many terms in Japanese are difficult, if not impossible to carry over with their full implications and beauty. Further on translation, there were a few rare instances where sentences seemed a bit offkey, and were not worded as they should have been, though not nearly as much a many localizations.
Saiyuki is definitely one of the most (if not THE most) character-familiar RPG's I've played. Its cast is in constant conversation with one another, and through this, you learn a great deal about their personalities. Curiously, they all reminded me very much of someone or another I know, personally. Speaking of which, character personalities are always in-sync, well-written, and entertaining. You really get the sense that you're travelling WITH Sanzo and company...not just watching them. Everywhere you go, EVERYWHERE, it seems, you get a new, little cut scene. Every, little side quest also opens the chance to familiarize you with its cast even further. A few of the secret characters aren't up to par with the main six party members, but are still far from mindless excuses for fighting units, and tied to the game's plot in one way or another.
Again, its characters are lighthearted (I can't stress that word enough), as was the cast of Lunar, and do not suffer from deep, psychological melodrama or tremendous personal crises. This is not to say they're not interesting, in the least...they each have a wide selection of quirks, interests, patterns of distinct behavior, and a different relationship with eachother. I really have to commend Koei for pulling them off this well. It reminded me greatly of the novel's personalities, save a few differences, such as Cho Hakkai being more of a confidence-lacking glutton than a perverted letch. Entertaining scenes even take place amongst some of the villains, who are a blend of blundering cartoon-like baddies, pure-evil demons, and occasional thieves or self-interested, one-case wrongdoers.
Its cast is bound moreso by friendship and a sense of duty to eachother than being driven by the ever-tiresome ''I want to save the world, avenge my family, and do duty to my country'' cause. A few of them vow to help Sanzo because she/he either saves their lives, or shows them the friendship and acceptance they've never been given. This works quite well, considering the flow of the game's plotline is one of travel, being attacked rather than attacking, and inconsequential heroism in situations when any decent person would act (such as saving childrens' lives), rather than them knowingly risking their lives for a life-threatening cause, or some sort of a goal that would require a much more deeply-ingrained impetus.
The gameplay is more simple than many of the wilder systems we've seen the past few years in RPG's, but this is not to say it isn't involving. There are several involving systems that allow for customization and special leveling-up that make battles and gradual progression more fun than the basic RPG fare. For instance, it employs the method of leveling up spells as you use them, letting you sort of choose how you want your character to develop based on how you play them. Spell levels will also, apparently, raise if you don't use them, only much more slowly. There is also a unique spin on the concept of character transformations (or Weres), in which they have their own levels that will only raise based on how frequently you use them, and only allows you to remain in Were form for a set number of attacks, also determined by your Were level. You can also choose which spells each character uses, and change this whenever you like.
In terms of balance and challenge, Saiyuki is extremely well-designed. Enemy AI is devilishly smart, and they'll specifically try to surround you, and hammer away at weaker characters. This becomes a nightmare, especially later, on, considering that Sanzo is physically the weakest cast member, and if she/he falls, the game is over. In short, formation and placement is extremely important.
I remember Final Fantasy Tactics (which I will discuss later in this review, to put to rest certain incorrect relationships people are drawing to it here), a critically-flawed strategy game in many ways, began similarly well-balanced, but completely fell apart halfway through, gave you characters who were virtual Gods, placed the toughest boss fights partway through the game, and the easiest bosses near the end. It's a good example of how to make a good strategy game (Koei), and how to make a poor one(Squaresoft).
Now moving on, Saiyuki sports a considerable deal of non-linear gameplay, surrounding a linear plotline. At many points, you're given the option of taking one of two paths to your goal, but at the same time, it allows you to go back and explore the other at your leisure. Perhaps most interesting and impressive is the sheer number of random side quests this game offers, and the fact that they all result in a new cut scene, and more entertaining character interactions. If you want to do all of them, you'll probably spend twice as much time as it would take to complete the entire game! Thankfully, the side quests are just as entertaining as the main cut scenes (albeit, disconnected from the main quest), and really help you get to know and like the characters even more. Rather than seeing them as a chore, which is how I tend to see a lot of optional material in RPG's, I found myself looking forward to plunging Saiyuki's depths.
This game's soundtrack fit it extremely well. All tunes were very oriental, and many were quite catchy - especially two of the battle themes, in particular. Of course, a couple of themes were somewhat bland. The intro FMV song is both fast-paced and exciting, and I was immediately turned on by its stylistic uniqueness. Overall, I have heard both better game soundtracks, and worse ones.
Compared to the technical wonders that we've been seeing these past few years, and even compared to the technology during the time of its overseas release in 1998, Saiyuki isn't the most visually spectacular game. Then again, none of the overhead tactical RPG's such as this one are, and Saiyuki succeeds in looking nicer than any of its competitors in that area (Tactics Ogre, FFT, Kartia). The anime cut scenes are beautiful. The spell animations are so-so, and nothing overly impressive. Some of them take a bit longer than they should to complete, but you can opt to turn them off if you like, or only watch them the first time through (I wish all RPG's had this option). Guardian summons and Were attacks are all entertaining enough to make you want to watch them repeatedly, however.
Saiyuki is a fun and addicting title that really manages to breathe some fresh air into a sinfully-stagnant genre. This game has it where it counts, and it's a pity that it was such an overlooked piece of artwork. Then again, so was Persona, so was Koudelka, and so are most of the best movies...
Odds are you won't be able to find this game new anywhere for rent, as it was cancelled a few years back. Your best bet is to look for it used.
APPENDIX: IS SAIYUKI A FINAL FANTASY TACTICS CLONE?
The answer is no. Absolutely not. In fact, Final Fantasy Tactics did -not- create the overhead, tactical RPG style. To my knowledge, that was done by Tactics Ogre, which was released several years prior to FFT in Japan, for the Super Famicom. Tactics Ogre was later released for the PSX Stateside, but not until after FFT was translated. This leads many to make the erroneous statement that all games that look like this are FFT clones. Please stop saying that - FFT innovated nothing.
So, is Saiyuki a Tactics Ogre clone? It probably wouldn't be fair to say that anymore so than saying than all first-person dungeon crawlers are Wizardry clones. It's a style that has developed into more of a genre since it was first introduced, and Saiyuki more than does its own thing when it comes to gameplay mechanics to define it as its own product.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 12/20/02, Updated 12/20/02
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