Visual novel hybrids do interest me. Aside from the usual tales of choosing your own adventure, the addition of light gameplay elements can elevate them above the genre’s more wordy literature. Shuyan Saga is another attempt at that Lofty Sky Entertainment have undertaken. Set in a feudal China, this addition of brawling doesn’t quite pull together.
The narrative is pretty easy to grasp. The Gruer are currently waging a successful, brutal war over the other kingdoms. Their leader, Ganbaatar serves as the main villain and he’s suitably bulky and intimidating in size. It’s only a matter of time before it arrives in Nan Feng. Shuyan their princess and, despite her royal status, she wants to learn Kung Fu and spends most of her days out on the streets. She’s troublesome but carries a swashbuckling attitude that makes her a likeable protagonist.
Shuyan Saga’s story follows a very rigid three-act structure. It feels very much like a heroes journey with the second act serving like a training montage before a final showdown. It’s a tale steeped in Chinese mysticism and supernatural elements but sticks to a very familiar format. Shuyan is shown to be unruly but, regardless of your decisions, takes on a caring persona who wants what’s best for her kingdom. Ganbaatar’s ambitions lie within crushing the guardian spirits these other kingdoms hold, conquering them in the process.
The second act leans very heavy on traditions and the mentality of martial arts. There is a journey of discovery involved but the game itself can be quickly completed in under two hours. The voice actors do a great job of selling it. Each character feels distinct with their own personality and it’s not just Shuyan who grows over time. There’s a nice sense of camaraderie that forms and I found that satisfying.
The decisions I faced did feel cosmetic only. There is one route to take in Shuyan Saga and, whilst your decisions can flavour our protagonist, it does not alter the trajectory of the narrative. That’s something of a shame as it crushes any incentive for me to replay the tale. It makes the visual novel aspect feel very shallow. It really disappoints me that your choices have no weight on the journey or destination.
The visuals take on a comic book look which does well to display plenty of charm. I’m not entirely sold on the aesthetic but it’s consistent and certainly feels a cut above the usual presentation that visual novels entail. Portraits are nowhere to be seen as Shuyan Saga prefers to display a whole scene in front of the player. Whilst it’s still static imagery, there’s an implication of movement that makes the action feel more lively.
Combat arenas suffer from repeated textures and generally a duller, muddier view when compared to the 2D art. The thick black outlines are still present but it generally takes on a palette that’s a little grubbier and not as sharp. It can make the look feel inconsistent and can be jarring when switching from narrative to combat sections.
Combat is light, although there’s some complexity. Shuyan has attacks that strike low and high with the opposition’s guard indicating which strikes are best to use. Heavy strikes can break a strong guard and parries can be executed for extra damage. Fighting takes place from two perspectives. By default, it’s a top-down view which gives you direct control over her movement. Here you can land strikes and finish enemies off. Dealing damage increases your Qi meter which, once filled, grants access to special attacks.
A more close-up perspective takes charge when larger enemies square up to Shuyan. High and low attacks take precedent as you read your opponent’s movements. Movement is limited and there can be times, even in the top-down perspective, you can be pinned in position waiting for enemies to engage you in combat.
Whilst there are higher difficulties to play with, I found fighting to be a little on the clumsy side. The game dishes out regular upgrades to Shuyan’s abilities but this means waiting for the full repertoire to open up. Fights are at least easy to read but enemies in the overhead view will gladly try to crowd out our heroine. Parries become your best option to control them but this arrives within the final book of the story. Encounters can be skipped although you level up through combat. There’s no way to grind so these battles need to be engaged with to uncover extra combos and abilities.
Despite this semblance of depth, combat is flexible enough to allow a simpler approach. As long as my stamina was maintained and spacing well-managed, I could take my shots and stay out of trouble. The adventure mode unlocks after game completion. This focuses around combat-heavy challenges and does a more focused excursion to explore the rest of the systems. As it is, Shuyan’s story is too short to really dig into the mechanics fully.
Shuyan Saga ultimately left my memory pretty quickly. The pacing of the narrative did keep things moving but the ending felt abrupt. The combat provided more complexity than I was expecting but, at times, it can feel more like a minor obstacle. The art seems to waver in quality with the anime aesthetic not quite coming together. It’s a story told well enough with good voice acting, but Shuyan Saga can feel very disposable.
+ Fun, hammy voice performances.
+ Swiftly paced.
+ Combat has a surprising amount of depth.
- Combat can become repetitive.
- The 3D environments look basic and jar against the more detailed 2D panels.
- Short and with a lack of replay value.