E3: Saiyuki: Journey West impressions

[05.22.01] » Koei's unknown strategy RPG was one of the best surprises on the show floor.

   Koei's booth at this year's E3 was full of pleasant surprises, but the most unexpected was definitely the strategy RPG Saiyuki: Journey West. Released almost two years ago in Japan, Saiyuki still manages to hold its own with a unique setting, exceptional art design, a better than average translation, and the gameplay to back it all up. The game was playable at the show, and the GIA got the chance to get some hands-on between sessions with Gitaroo-Man.

   The strategy game is a retelling of the classic Chinese legend of Son Goku, the monkey king. The tale is probably most familiar to westerners from its "adaptation" in Dragon Ball. In fact, a Koei representative stated that the popularity of that series played a part in the decision to localize the game. The story here is told from the point of view of Goku's companion, the traveling monk Sanzo, and recounts his journey from China to India.

   One more pleasant surprise about the game is the high production values. The game begins with a high-quality anime intro, complete with a jumpy J-pop theme singing the praises of the Monkey King. After choosing Sanzo's gender (unlike the original tale, Sanzo can be either sex in Saiyuki), players are treated to another animated introduction, featuring highly competent English voice acting, narrating how the young monk was found abandoned sixteen years ago.

   He (we chose male) was adopted by the temple monks and has lived a solitary life ever since. His quest begins when Kannon Bodhisattva appears before him, urging him to take the Staff of Thunder to the Gold Temple in India "to quiet the great unrest." Kannon disappears, leaving the staff behind. When it is later discovered that Homei, the temple elder, had the very same vision, Sanzo is chosen to make the 18,000-league journey west. The path to India is know to be fraught with monsters, so Sanzo is giving a compliment of servants. Unfortunately, they are quickly dispatched by the first enemies the party meets, and it's here we are given the first glimpse of Saiyuki's battle system.

   At its heart, Saiyuki is a turn-based strategy game similar to Final Fantasy Tactics or Vandal Hearts. Players move their party around grid-based maps, selecting attacks, using items and casting spells. While it doesn't seem to have the depth of a game like FFT, Saiyuki is not without a few innovations. Most interestingly, the 3D battle maps offer interactive elements where your characters can influence the terrain. In the opening battle, for example, there is a wooden bridge that can be destroyed to prevent enemies from following.

   Sanzo is alone for this first mission, but an unknown voice guides him to the top of the map and instructs him to remove a charm from a large boulder. The rock disappears, revealing Goku, imprisoned inside for attempting to invade heaven long ago. Kannon Bodhisattva has instructed the Monkey King to aid Sanzo in his journey and, despite his unwillingness to help, Goku joins the party.

   Goku, and Sanzo's later companions, have the ability to transform into more powerful WereForms. The transformation can be selected from the standard battle menu and, as long is there is power left in the Weremeter, the characters gain access to special attacks and devastating spells. Goku's Great Ape form, for example, has several powerful attacks and a "Cloud" ability to teleport around the map. Sanzo himself has no WereForm, but the monk can call upon summoned guardians to help him, though none of these were available at this early point of the game.

   All in all, Saiyuki is leagues better than one would expect from a two year old game that no one had heard of before its announcement at E3 and one more reason for strategy fans to be thankful for the PS2's backwards-compatibility. Look for more on Saiyuki as the game's fall release approaches.

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