I’ve been really quite stressed recently: I’ve spent all of my savings on a replacement sword, because my old one isn’t doing enough damage to protect me anymore. At my current level though, I can’t use that new sword, and I could always reallocate my levels to fix that, but then I wouldn’t be able to equip my armour, and I really can’t live without my spells. I’m running dangerously short on keys, and without them, I won’t be able to explore any new dungeons, and then I won’t be able to level up efficiently or find extra gold!
Then it occurred to me that I really need to be writing a review, and so here I am. Xanadu Next is a strangely entrancing RPG that first released more than a decade ago, with an English translation dropping only last month. I really didn’t think it would be my cup of tea, but once I really got into the swing of the combat mechanics, I found myself falling in love. Being real-time, Xanadu urges the player to make full use of the space, dodging attacks from an enemy’s front before slipping in the back for bonus damage. Due to the slow, methodical tells that many enemies give, one on one fights typically end effortlessly; fighting groups, however, requires a lot more thought and dexterity, and the player is incentivised to make full use of the abilities that they are given at the start of the game. Such abilities are tied to individual weapons and are either characterised as active or passive. Once a weapon is equipped, its ability is unlocked in the player’s inventory and can be placed in one of four ability slots. It goes without saying that once the weapon is swapped, so too is the ability unless you have earned a “proficiency” of 100% by killing enemies with that weapon; at that point, the ability can be used without holding the weapon it’s tied to. That flimsy sword with the fire-damage passive? Probably worth sticking with if you want to set your Zweihander alight later on (and believe me, you will). There is also the dilemma of passives versus actives versus spells: all three types take up a slot and you only have four to play with, so planning out your strategies before a fight begins is paramount to whether or not you’ll come out on top.
As the player proceeds through the game, they will be faced with perilous dungeons full of dangerous monsters, traps and puzzles. It’s all fairly standard role-playing stuff, but Xanadu, for whatever reason, introduces a twist: doors. Virtually every room in every dungeon is locked behind a bloody door that requires a one-time use key costing twenty gold. These keys are also the only item in the game affected by real-world economics: the more you buy, the less there are, the more they cost. These prices can be reduced back to their starting rate of twenty gold a pop by selling the shopkeeper a monster bone for a measly one gold. Sure, it’s an interesting mechanic, but feels more like a way to pad out the play time than anything else: a play time that, I might add, hasn’t felt lacking in the slightest anyway. It really makes me grateful that the game was made a decade ago, because you know for a fact that a modern developer would have tacked microtransactions to something like that.
Another gripe I have with the game is the levelling system. It isn’t that it’s bad; on the contrary, it’s a particularly good one, with every stat feeling useful and every weapon feeling viable. My issue is that there really is only one way to play, and that is by using everything. If I have no choice in how I build my character, is there really any sense in giving me the choice in the first place? I found this most noticeable while fighting the second boss; I struggled against this behemoth for a good half hour, only ever managing to last two or three seconds and only damaging the thing by one point per hit. As it turned out, I needed to use my fire spells rather than my sword, and so I was just thankful that I did level my magic to a suitable level beforehand.
I almost don’t want to talk about presentation due to the age of the thing, but I don’t really have anything bad to say. The music really manages to draw me in despite often being very simplistic (something especially true of the village hub), and the themes presented are enforced fantastically through the whimsical score. Visually the game does show its age, but never in a way that feels jarring or unpleasant; at the very least I can always tell what it is I’m supposed to be looking at, and I can say confidently that the Japanese themes are evident in enemy and armour designs, at the very least.
Yes, it’s old, but that doesn’t make it bad by any means. The lack of choice in levelling and destination might be a little disappointing, but I feel as though the game retains a greater deal of structure as a result that I actually kind of like. The relative viability of every weapon, on the other hand, means that although your character will be levelled in very much the same way, the way you decide to play them and the combinations of abilities you decide to use can vary just enough to keep things fresh, even if it doesn’t particularly warrant multiple playthroughs. I love the combat and I love the narrative, and although Xanadu might not be an outstanding example of any one videogame element, it brings together some of the best bits to make something quietly satisfying.
Xanadu Next (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
One of those games that can be appreciated regardless of how long it’s been around – Xanadu Next makes some brilliant use of videogame elements that we have all come to love, and although the player often lacks meaningful choice the game is never truly restrictive.