Title: Wandering Sword
Developer: The Swordman Studio
Release Date: September 15, 2023
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Spiral Up Games
Genre: Tactical RPG
Octopath Traveler was a landmark title for several reasons but was most notable for its refreshing HD-2D presentation. Achieving a near-perfect blend of old and new is no easy feat, so it’s only natural that budding developers would be inspired. A recent example of this comes in The Swordman Studio-developed Wandering Sword, a Chinese RPG that one could easily mistake for Octopath Traveler or Live A Live at a glance. Such a clear resemblance naturally causes concern with the originality of the project, which I felt as its release neared. Yet, after playing Wandering Sword, it became clear that the title will quickly become distinct to those who try it out, but it’s missing out on some crucial polish.
Wandering Sword occurs after the end of the Ning Dynasty, where conflict of all kinds runs rampant under the rule of Tianlong Gang, resulting in innumerable losses of life. The protagonist, Yuwen Yi, is a member of a group that seems to take jobs, such as escorting and guarding well-paying individuals, to get by. During one such assignment in the Outer Lands, a truly dangerous locale, the team gets caught up in a battle not concerning them that unfortunately puts their job on permanent hiatus.
Following an ambush of unexpected scale, Yuwen wakes up in an unfamiliar abode, learning himself to be inflicted with Frostvenom. He then falls under the care of a certain stranger, eventually leading up to him being cured of the ailment, and is now burdened with a newfound purpose tied to the one who saved his life. Wandering Sword is a pretty wordy game that doesn’t relent in its frequency of dialogue or number of characters, so it can be intimidating to get into. In fact, there’s a decent chunk of context and exposition you won’t fully understand when initially introduced, but it all somewhat requires patience.
Thankfully, the translation is at least passable, meaning you’ll be able to get by on the character motivations and general plot as long as you pay attention. Still, it’s messy. While understandable, it gradually becomes evident that this script needed another pass because there are several instances of erroneous grammar and rather awkward sentence pacing. It’s never particularly debilitating to the experience, but it’s undeniably noticeable. This hurts moreso because of how much dialogue the game contains.
As for the narrative itself, Wandering Sword doesn’t shy away from grim subject matter, as it embraces the darkness of its intended era, where constant heartless death from any manner of circumstance is ludicrously common. Political turmoil is also quite prevalent, giving the story plenty of introspective depth, though perhaps too rigorously. In all honesty, I was on and off with most of what happened since there was such extensive and inane detail at points that I simply didn’t have enough investment to care about the minutiae.
Yuwen picks up the slack with engagement, at least. He possesses a sort of endearing naivete and loyalty that carries the more dry scenes and acts as an excellent foil to the mix of one-dimensional and intricate antagonists. All of this is to say that Wandering Sword’s plot will be hit-or-miss with most players due to a mix of the somewhat odd translation, gradual pacing, and almost overwhelming cast. Those who really take the time to dig deep may find themselves intensely compelled, but the challenge of reaching a baseline level of attachment is off-putting.
In the realm of gameplay, Wandering Sword is a tactical turn-based affair, where players navigate their units across a grid while being cognizant of foes’ movements. It’s pretty standard in that regard, but the inputs for attacks are definitely unconventional. Your chosen skills are slotted to button combinations that can take some getting used to. It’s not like they’re complicated to trigger or anything, but when comparing it to more traditional releases where you just have a dropdown menu, this can take time.
Other than that, the combat is rather self-explanatory, giving those with even moderate tactical gameplay experience generous leeway for the most part, assuming you keep up with the number of growth systems. There’s plenty going on on that front, but it can all be simplified as there being miniature skill trees and specialties depending on one’s desired weapon type and fighting style. There’s an honestly impressive degree of player freedom with how in-depth you can go with your customization. This also extends to recruitment.
You’re able to build up affinities for several NPCs and, once high enough, can recruit certain ones to join your battles. Even when considering the limited number that can be recruited, everybody’s playthroughs have the capability to be genuinely unique, especially when accounting for the characters’ upgradeable traits. Admittedly, the tactical approach to several standard enemy bouts does feel needless at points, even in later hours, because you’ll be able to take down foes in identical manners that feel needlessly drawn out because of the turn setup. This is just personal taste, though, since long battles feel more conducive to the genre than rapid encounters.
Perhaps most interestingly, though, is how you can switch between real-time and turn-based modes while in combat. The former does slightly mitigate the drawn-out normal fights, which is appreciated, and it can help speed things along. I generally recommend the typical turn-based mode for newer areas and boss battles, given their unfamiliarity, while the real-time implementation is ideal for common encounters that don’t pose much challenge. Oddly, there seemed to be no battle transition effects, and that took me out a little bit.
One last point of emphasis is, of course, the presentation. Wandering Sword undoubtedly takes straight from Octopath Traveler‘s coined HD-2D art style, and it’s pulled off to an unprecedented, impressive extent. Most areas stand out with vivid coloration, notable asset scaling, and a jaw-dropping world map. Fans of the HD-2D aesthetic will be impressed with what Wandering Sword manages to pull off.
Wandering Sword is a bit of a mixed bag that uses its brilliant presentation and vast player freedom to partially offset its dull storytelling, the lacking script translation, and dialogue structuring. Unfortunately, the pros weren’t enough to really stick the landing, as I had to force myself to get through a fair bit of the experience. The intrigue this cast and narrative carry doesn’t manage to reach anything meaningfully gripping or memorable, and that made much of this title an unfortunate slog. Still, it can be an addictive and enjoyable time for those who become compelled by its systems.
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