Saiyuki: Journey West, a new tactical RPG from Koei for the Playstation, won't be released in North America for another two weeks. Until then, plenty of information has sailed our way to tide console strategists over.
Based on the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, Saiyuki: Journey West puts players in control of a party led by the young monk, Sanzo, on a pilgrimmage to India. Accompanying Sanzo are a diverse cast of characters including Son Goku, the Monkey King; Cho Hakkai, a Chinese chef; Sa Gojo, a solitary wanderer; Shu Ryorin, Princess of the Eastern Dragons; and the Lady Kikka, leader of the dryads, just to name a few. Sanzo's quest is not without peril either. The Leader of the Demon Eight, Asra, stalks Sanzo and his friends in order to steal the monk's magical staff, which will grant the power to overthrow Heaven and to remake the world in his twisted image.
With this classic tale and cast of characters, Koei hopes to create a fun and in-depth strategy RPG for the PSX. Saiyuki contains a play format similar to that of previous strategy RPGs such as Final Fantasy Tactics in which one's party enters a town, uncovers some plot tidbits, enters a battle, wins, and then re-enters the town to buy supplies before moving on to the next town. Koei hopes to add some flavor to this by-the-book formula with branching pathways, excellent storytelling, amusing characters, and numerous twists on the battle system.
The first such twist comes with the party's "WereForm" abilities. Except for Sanzo, each member of the troupe can temporarily change into a powerful animal form. For instance, Son Goku can transform into a gigantic monkey and Sa Gojo, a fishman. Although Sanzo has no "WereForm" he can summon "Guardians", mystic beings that will perform some task for the party, such as healing or attack bonuses, for as long as he/she is on the screen. Sanzo may also use the guardians for powerful direct attacks with their own weapons. The correct timing and usage of these powers will be crucial in battle.
The customization of a character's inventory also plays a large role in a battle's outcome. As each member is only able to carry a headpiece, body piece, and eight items, each inventory choice is extremely critical. Magic can only be cast from those scrolls carried in one's inventory, adding strategic thinking in the use of magic. Scrolls also rely on "element power" with each spell representing an element such as water or earth. Each character is primarily aligned with one type of element, so only party members associated with the element of a particular scroll may successfully use those spells. Powerful items also abound on the journey to India. Charms, beads, and power items can pump up a character's stats or provide protection from ill effects such as confusion or poison. Only by balancing items and scrolls can victory be attained.
Released in Japan in 1999, Saiyuki graphics may seem dated compared to Dreamcast and PS2's clarity. Still, with art by Akihiro Yamada, who has worked on titles, such as Square's Front Mission 3, the graphics surely won't disappoint.
Other touches also cause Saiyuki to stand out among the current crop of games. Instead of Final Fantasy Tactics-style active-time battles, Saiyuki uses a classic turn-based system. Minigames dot the path to add some variety to the quest. Even small things, such as the ability to choose Sanzo's sex at the game's beginning (even though Sanzo is a male in the legend) show Koei's commitment to pleasing a wide spectrum of gamers with their new title.
Saiyuki: Journey West will be released in North America late July, possibly the 28th, and with Koei's excellent track record of fun, historical strategy games, i.e. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, desktop commanders should prepare for an excellent entry in the PSX's swansong software library.