Saiyuki: Journey West


   In the final months of every successful console, there are always a few quality RPGs bringing up the rear ranks of the release list. These usually fall into a few well-known categories -- big name sequels, high-profile projects, Working Designs games -- but Koei's new strategy RPG is none of these. In the two years since its Japanese release, Saiyuki: Journey West has gone completely unnoticed in America; no one ever started a "localize Saiyuki" petition. So it was more than a surprise when, out of the blue, Koei announced the game itself would be coming west. And while it may not have the force of big names, big hype, or a big budget behind it, Saiyuki manages to stand out with its unique setting, appealing characters, and deceptively deep gameplay.

   Saiyuki takes its inspiration from the Chinese novel Hsi Yu Chi, or Journey to the West. The classic tale of the trickster monkey king Son Goku has inspired dozens of pop culture adaptations in Japan (including the original Dragon Ball), but Saiyuki takes up the tale from a slightly different perspective. The game chronicles the travels of the young monk Sanzo as he (or she - the player can choose Sanzo's gender) makes a holy journey to India. The developers took some creative license with the source material, but on the whole the game sticks closely to the original tale.

 Mountain area
Knives out

    Saiyuki's literary foundation is perhaps responsible for one of its chief appeals - a lighthearted, well-paced story, complimented by likable and strongly developed characters. Unlike the Russian novel-sized casts of some strategy RPGs, the party in Saiyuki is kept relatively small. With the focus firmly on the core half-dozen travelers, each is given the chance to play an equal part the overall story. The early portions of the game nearly resembles a picaresque, but fortunately all of the situations Sanzo encounters in his journey remain interesting. The result of all this is a game that feels closer in tone to the lighthearted, character-based RPGs of the 16-bit days, rather than the epic tales of political warfare that normally populate the strategy genre. The success of the narrative isn't entirely due to the source material, however; Koei has also taken the time and care to give the game an excellent translation.

   Like its storyline, Saiyuki's battles are fairly small in scale. Your own forces are restricted to six or less, and the enemies often number less than a dozen. The battlefields themselves are small as well, often fitting on a single screen, but the smaller scope only gives the gameplay more focus rather than restricting it. The maps also have a high level of interactivity. The fields are littered with switches, moving platforms, and destroyable scenery, which often hides valuable items. The feature isn't exploited quite as well as it could have been, but it does lead to a number of unique and memorable battles.


   At its core, Saiyuki is a strategy game much like Final Fantasy Tactics or Vandal Hearts. Players move their units in turn-based fashion across the 3D grid map and attempt to eliminate the enemy forces. Although all the units have innate abilities, they're still customizable to a small degree. Characters can be equipped with spells or special items, but the bulk of the game's strategy comes in the battles themselves, rather than troop customization.

   The gameplay isn't without a few twists however. Each of Sanzo's companions can change into a more powerful "Wereform." For example, Goku can metamorphose into the flame spewing Great Ape, while Ryorin can transform into a flying dragon. The Weres have access to unique attacks, special abilities, and increased hit points, but they are also a magnet for enemy attacks. Using the abilities also depletes a special meter, so they never become overly powerful in battle. Sanzo himself has no Wereform, but he (or she) does have the power to summon Guardians. These helpful spirits grant the entire party special abilities, such increased defense or regeneration, but they only last three rounds and have a high casting cost.

You and whose army?

   While none of the individual elements are terribly deep, Saiyuki's challenge, balance, and sheer playability more than make up for its straightforward gameplay. Outside of a few of the tougher boss battles (including an insanely difficult end boss), there are very few points in the game where you will find yourself having to level up, but neither is it a walk in the park. The game's aggressive AI will exploit any weakness in your strategy, and the enemies won't hesitate to pick out a single character, usually your team's strongest attacker or healer, to take down first. The difficulty is partially counterbalanced by the fact that defeated allies are automatically resurrected after the battle, so a last-ditch attempt can still carry the day.

    Like most console strategy RPG, Saiyuki is extremely linear. Though Sanzo's path branches occasionally on his way westward, there isn't much room for exploration. The game makes up for this somewhat with a unique system of side quests. There are no random battles in the game, and you are free to wander the map as you please. If you are looking for a fight, however, the local post offers a number of jobs with varying risk and payoff. Most of these are simple fetch quests or deliveries, but often you'll be offered something more interesting, which will result in a special battle or a new location being revealed. None of the jobs are important to the main thrust of the game, but they do make a pleasant change from traveling between two locations in search of a fight.

Akihiro Yamada
The Tourist(s)

   Saiyuki's gameplay may have held up remarkably well in the two years since its release in Japan, but the graphics, unfortunately have not. The maps are often bland and repetitive, and the spell effects fail to impress. They also take far too long to animate, but the game fortunately provides the option to turn them off altogether. The visual monotony is broken up, however, by the imaginative character designs from Akihiro Yamada, whose work was last seen in the US in Front Mission 3. Though his work is mostly confined to the game's small character portraits, animated cutscenes at the end of each chapter help bring the characters to life.

   Strategy RPGs are still a niche genre in the US, but that hasn't stopped them from developing a standard set of clichés, full of civil war, grim seriousness, and political backstabbing. Saiyuki's fresh setting and lighter mood come as a welcome change of pace. While Saiyuki certainly isn't the most innovative game to come along, it packs more than enough playability and sheer charm to keep strategy fans captivated.

Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
Saiyuki: Journey West
Developer Koei
Publisher Koei
Genre Strategy RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Release Date  Fall '99
E3: Saiyuki: Journey West impressions
169 screenshots
3 character designs / character collage
US box art
Director Minoru Honda
Producer Kazuta Imamura
Character Design Akihiro Yamada
Main Theme Song "Magic Goku" Yukihide Takekawa
Full game credits