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Visit the Past
Saiyuki: Journey West is a strategy RPG from Koei. With the recent wave of PlayStation strategy games, the challenge is putting the spotlight on the ones that aren't made by famous teams, but instead on those that try to stand alone. Saiyuki definitely qualifies in this respect, as it tries to cross the Pacific.
The story of Saiyuki is loosely based on the sixth century Chinese story of "Hsi Yu Chi", or "Journey to the West". The story speaks of an ancient Chinese legend about a Monkey King and his companions who travel from China to India in the 6th century. Saiyuki: Journey West starts with the player choosing the gender of the main character. Given an inconsequential name, the monk is not respected by the others in the sanctuary. That night, however, the monk has a vision. In this vision, Lady Kannon sends a message to take a sacred staff to India. During the time period in which the game takes place, this is a very long and dangerous journey. After some convincing, the head monk permits the journey, and bestows the name Sanzo to the monk.
The next day, Sanzo, accompanied by only a few others, departs for India. The dangers of travel become apparent quickly. A short while into the journey, the party is ambushed by thieves. Sanzo's companions sacrifice themselves for the sake of the monk, but Sanzo is forced to flee. While he is running, a voice speaks out, telling Sanzo to free him from a tall rock nearby. Sanzo rushes up the hill to the rock, and sets Son Goku free, providing Sanzo with a new protector and companion.
Son Goku is not a typical person, though. Goku, like others Sanzo meets on his journey to India, has a very special talent--turning into Were. Akin to a werewolf, Sanzo's new companions can each change into a different monster, but only one at a time. This affects battles a great deal, as Were have increased attack options, as well as defense and Hit Points. By use of the Were Gauge, time and effectiveness of the enhanced abilities are limited. The player must decide carefully when and where to use the attacks, or else face the enemy without changing the tide of the battle.
In fact, there are many factors that can sway the tide of battle. Using the same battle design as Tactics Ogre, Saiyuki places Sanzo's party in a rather small part of the world. Sometimes the player will choose the locations, and sometimes not. Another factor in battle is guardians. Sanzo can use the staff given to him by Lady Kannon to call upon guardians he has rescued. A guardian~Rs powers affect all allies, and there are six different ones to choose from. Some examples of these powers are HP restore, extra defense, or raising attack power. In addition, Sanzo can use special techniques while the guardian is present. However, after three turns, the guardian returns to the staff. Sanzo will have to spend the Magic Points once again for another three turns of assistance. Since Sanzo doesn't have an abundance of Magic Points, timing and selection of the guardians is critical for victory.
One annoyance is that for each Were change, or each time Sanzo summons a guardian, the same visual effect must be played out. While there is nothing wrong with the motion on its own, seeing the same thing over and over and over, at about 20 seconds per instance, drags out battles, and hints of a tedious battle system. If the player decides to turn them off, the battle moves faster, but is more static. If not for the many differences from the normal strategy RPG, this game could easily become monotonous. Fortunately, this was not the case.
In addition to the unusual style of characters, Saiyuki also mixes in special conditions for victory from time to time, something SRPG players ask for with every new game they play. Typically, is has been the tradition that as long as you kill everything in the area, the actual objective doesn't need to be fulfilled. This does not hold true for Saiyuki. Sometimes the objective can be as simple as defeating a specific person, but it can also vary from protecting someone, or a task specific to that area. One battle that comes to mind is at an old haunted ruin. The goal is to wipe up blood left on the ground, so the girl can finally rest in peace. The enemies are numerous, but defeating them does not assist in finishing the scenario. As enemies are defeated, more appear from the edge of the screen. The only way to win is to do what the game says.
Another change from the typical strategy RPG is something else to do besides complete scenarios and progress through the story. As the player progresses well into the game, towns start containing Card Shops. The Card Shops allow the player to take a break from the journey and try and earn valuable items. The rules of the game are the same from town to town, and are fairly simple to learn. All cards in the game are played face up. The player starts with 4 columns, and the dealer has one. One card will be placed in each column. The player must decide whether or not to add a card to each column, up the three. Each card has a number, from 0 to 9. The object of the game is to get the sum of the cards in the column to be as close to 9 as possible. If the sum goes over 9, the counter simply resets to 0 instead of 10 and continues. For example, if the first card is an 8, and the second card is a 6, the sum of the column is 4. Once the player finishes with their cards, the dealer will play out his column. There are also special combinations of cards that are explained in-game, which add to the strategy and conditions of winning.
After each column has one card, the player will be able to bet on any or all or the columns that have the chance to beat the dealer. Bets are limited to 50 medals per column. Once all the cards have been played, the winner of the hand has to be decided. Any column sum the player has that is higher than the sum of the dealer is a win, any columns lower is a loss, and any columns equal to the dealer have no effect. Each column is counted separately, so it's possible to win some columns, and still lose the hand. Once the medals have been collected, the player decides to keep going, or quit and possibly exchange medals for special items. If the player runs out of medals, the dealer will always be happy to sell more--for a steep price.
Saiyuki has a fairly simple story, the dialogue is not a key element to the game's enjoyment. This is a good thing, since except for the bickering between party members, town discussions and exploration chats are fairly flat. Each character acted the same way pretty much every time something happened to the party, or something supposedly surprised them. There is very little background building for these colorful characters, and the majority of the text is only for actual progression through the game.
The music was catchy, but unmemorable. It was good quality, but lacking in variety. However, each type of land did have a specific music type to help the feel of the area. Other than that, however, most of the sounds and music were for short scenes of the story. Fans of Oriental music would find the selections appealing.
Saiyuki is the latest of strategy games to come out this year. Koei has made a good selection in bringing Saiyuki to North America. Not only does Saiyuki avoid the commonalities of the SRPG genre, but it also brings a fresh, light-hearted approach to a story more than 1400 years old. Most RPGamers may be saving their money for the next generation console, but it is games like Saiyuki that make us cherish the consoles we already have.
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