It’s always somewhat embarrassing when you receive a review code for a video game franchise that you’ve never heard of – especially as its a nearly 27-year-old RPG franchise, even if the 6th entry of the series was first to come over to the west.
Sword and Fairy: Together Forever (oddly renamed for its PlayStation release from its original title of The Legend of Sword and Fairy 7) makes a clear and concerted effort to make an eye-popping impression out of the gates as it’s a visual storytelling powerhouse, with stunning environments, endless cutscenes and a huge script that feels like reading a long Chinese fantasy novel steeped in mythology.
It’s likely to take you aback, especially for a series that – chances are – you probably have never heard of. The story takes you across a variety of incredibly diverse landscapes such as mist-covered mountain tops, sunset-glowing beaches, and lava-spewing underworlds (just to name just a few) and they all have tremendously designed and detailed architecture all of which are screenshot-worthy, giving the game a stunning canvas on which to build off. It isn’t all eye candy either with a brilliant soundtrack filled with traditional Chinese music that adds to a very natural and holistic presentation that blends brilliantly with the ancient mythology and fantasy story.
Also, the running animation is great, which I just needed to get out there.
Putting Deities, Humans, and Demons and their respective realms at odds with each other, it’s up to the 4 protagonists to try to unravel the mystery behind ever-frequent incidents that threaten the safety of the many sects that the world is divided into. Leading the show is Yue Qingshu, a spirit-controlling member of the Mingshu sect who forms a symbiosis with Deity Xiu Wu after investigating Vicious Beasts. First name Vicious, second name Beasts.
One mark of a good story is to make the surrounding characters more interesting than your protagonists and Sword and Fairy manages to do that here, providing many intriguing characters around the main two characters who are largely blank slates while providing enough lore to keep you interested in the slower sections, but you better enjoy the deluge, as there is an avalanche of fully-voiced cinematic cutscenes that takes precedence over most other gameplay, the game often guiding you to walk from cutscene A to B to convey the narrative.
The only knock on what is an admirably large main story is that this game only has some of the most inaccurate English subtitles I’ve ever come across (though is still apparently an improvement on installment no.6). It is comprehensible, but it is filled with spelling mistakes, incorrect word choices, and grammar issues. A common example is characters that answer ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions with ‘good’. It can sometimes affect the tone of a conversation, especially if it’s a serious scene and the errors almost make them comical.
For the PS4 it should be noted that while the presentation is mostly great, this experience was clearly optimized for more advanced hardware with some elements that were either downgraded or have yet to be polished properly, such as water effects and a beach with sand that looks like you are running on a yellow cardboard box.
The game itself starts off fast, with you dropped into the action of a battle tutorial and cinematic action cutscenes with QTEs, but after that, the game slows to a crawl, as it tries to introduce a huge main story and an immersive world. The former picks up pace eventually, but the latter fails to click as while the game creates an in-depth story within the bubble of the main characters, there is a disconnect between them and the world around them, constantly jumping around the hub world maps without really allowing for any meaningful interaction outside of the cutscene you are there to activate.
I should have prefaced this by first saying that I’m borderline obsessed with ‘immersion’ in video games (having been bitten by the bug after playing Shenmue) and it pains me when games are called ‘open-world’ when it’s more appropriate to call them ‘open-field’ games, and by the same token, it’s also frustrating when a game creates something so detailed (like in Sword and Fairy’s case) but makes it more like a museum exhibit.
The side quests attempt to alleviate the issue by giving it a quasi-open-world feeling to fill the world with detail and also feedback into the RPG gameplay loop with loot and XP, but helping the NPCs often makes little sense story-wise, in addition to a basic leveling up system, so the justification for both open-world and RPG elements feel very artificial.
I have no doubt that implementing a more interactable open world would be more expensive, but as it currently stands, the beautiful maps feel more like you are sightseeing rather than the hometowns of these characters. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it makes everything outside of the main story seem somewhat disjointed and at worst unnecessary.
To properly justify this as an interactive piece of entertainment, though, there obviously needs to be gameplay that the game can hang its hat on, and Sword and Fairy injects a hack-and-slack JRPG-esque battling system in between the run-cutscene-run formula. Each of the four characters has combo strings and eight slots for special moves on two ability wheels, but despite this, the battles are more style than substance and, to me, felt like a means to an end, rather than something I particularly looked forward to.
A bugbear I have with MMOs is the very little animation when enemies are attacked and the only representation of your offensive actually landing are damage figures and flashy effects from your own attacks. While not being an MMO, this is still the case here and there are only a few bosses whose varied attacks and movement allow the fights to offer a challenge, resulting in one-on-one fights with standard enemies feeling desperately empty.
Personally, I also feel that there is not enough noteworthy strife or tragedy for a 30+ hour story that feels like the length of an entire season of TV, with there being only one of a few attempted tear-jerking moments that I felt really landed properly. This might be because this game is rated for teens (and I’m old), but with no blood and being told that men and women holding hands is forbidden – despite the story constantly threatening the genocide of all races – was a little too childish for my tastes and a contrast that I couldn’t quite get my head around.
Because of this, I was often hoping the game to be a little less conservative by the end and funnily enough, there was one opportunity for the game to do it – a side quest where a peddler rips off the main character, and after finding out, you have an option to forgive or kill them. Unfortunately, after selecting to kill them, you not only see nothing happen – literally no animation, nothing – but the main characters barely flinch, as if your choice didn’t make a difference. I mean, I know the character was insignificant, but some compassion – please.
The inconsistencies of Sword and Fairy don’t end here either, with the game’s implementation clearly lacking a layer of polish – or two – with cutscenes that often end abruptly and cut immediately to in-game conversations, cutscene audio being out of sync by a degree of seconds, and bugs in the final boss requiring me to reload the game, all represent clear and obvious issues in addition to the most essential area of need of an update – the subtitles.
All hope is not lost though, as the developer has released 7 updates since the game’s release 3 weeks ago, which is a good thing – I think.
Unfortunately, Sword and Fairy is not a case of ‘What you see is what you get’, as although the music and presentation is top-notch, the game is unable to maintain its high level of quality across the board, so even though the story does intrigue, it dabbles in a bit too much mediocrity to truly recommend this to everyone, despite its eye-popping strengths.