Xanadu Next – Starring a mostly dead hero

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This is my first entry in the Xanadu series aside from a short playthrough of Faxanadu, though I don’t think that matters too much as the games aren’t really connected to each other. I am very familiar with Nihon Falcom’s other works however. I made sure to do as much as possible of the game before making this review, but I didn’t go for a full 100% completion since I am not a masochist. The game is only available on Steam, and I recommend playing with a mouse and keyboard instead of a controller. The controller support is there, but this clearly is a game designed to be played with the former.

It sure has been a while since I last covered a Nihon Falcom game huh. I feel like something is not right here. To counter the imbalance of the universe, guess I’ll have to review another game of theirs!

I’ve always been familiar with the Xanadu spin-off franchise, but I never really took the time to delve into the games. I had played Faxanadu over at a friend’s house which was very enjoyable and something I should probably resume one day, but that’s all the experience I’ve had up till that point. There’s also Tokyo Xanadu but I was never really in the mood to play that, but maybe one day when the universe is at stake again and I need to review more Nihon Falcom games. Xanadu Next definitely intrigued me as it was the game I knew literally nothing about before starting it up, except that it came out during what I consider to be Falcom’s golden age. I like going into games completely blind, and this is the definition of doing exactly that. So today, let’s take a look at a new experience for me!

Xanadu Next was released in 2005 on the… Nokia N-Gage? Anyone remembers that thing? Surprisingly though, this version is quite an impressive feat for the system. Of course I can’t judge about how it plays since I’ve never owned an N-Gage but looking at the gameplay, I definitely recognize parts of the game in the complete version on PC, which released a few months later. This title was released to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Xanadu, a spin-off to the very first Dragon Slayer game. The Xanadu spin-off series draws its loose inspiration from the fictional tales of the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan, while still keeping faithful to the story of the original game. The N-gage version did release worldwide in 2005, but it took until 2016 till we would see a release of the PC version in the west, done by faithful publisher XSEED Games. The N-Gage version has mixed reviews, but the PC version was generally well received.

The game takes place on a mysterious, small island called Harlech. Not much is known about this place from the get-go, except that there are a lot of ruins and a mysterious castle tends to pop up when it’s foggy. Like with most Nihon Falcom games, you get the gist of the main story by just playing the game, but talking to villagers multiple times after each event and translating optional ancient tablets and manuscripts adds a ton to world-building. My favourite example of this was reading a tablet just before fighting a boss, and because I read that specific tablet, I understood more clearly what exactly was going on and what the boss’ role was in the story. World-building has always been Nihon Falcom’s strongest asset, and Xanadu Next does not disappoint on this front.

Quickly after making yourself known in town, you can go ahead and explore a bit. The first area serves as a good tutorial and teaches you pretty much everything that you need to know about dungeon exploring. I should make it clear though, that Xanadu Next is clearly a game designed to be played with mouse and keyboard. I initially didn’t know as I started with a controller, but it just doesn’t feel right because of the weird button layout. They are remappable, but it will always play better with a mouse and keyboard. That said, I hate how the game has the tendency to control the mouse for me when in dialogue or menus, as I often misclick due to it.

I feel this statement is further helped by the fact that there are two main inspirations for this game: Diablo and Nihon Falcom’s own franchise, Ys. If you are familiar with Diablo, then I don’t think I have to mention how much better it feels playing these games with mouse and keyboard. Especially when the other inspiration shows its face, as the combat itself plays more like the Ys games; get on the sides or behind an enemy to do more damage. The only weapons you have access to are swords and two-handed swords, with magic joining the party later down the line. I’ll go a bit more in-depth regarding combat, armour and the likes later, but let’s focus on the tutorial part for now.

Xanadu Next Combat

The other mechanic you learn about in this tutorial are the main puzzles being box-shoving–and you better get good at it because they have a tendency to be quite difficult later on. Either that or I’m just dumb, but that’s impossible. There’s also a lot of doors which you need keys for, which you can obtain from killing enemies or from the shop. Apparently every single key he makes works on literally every door in the game. Maybe it’s not the imminent treat people should watch out for but this shopkeeper. Anyway, it’s not a bad idea to stock up on as many as you can as you’re going to need them a lot. Like, a serious lot. Do not ever think you have enough. You’ll regret it, just like this scrooge called Nepiki has done multiple times. I think the key system is okay though, but it was a bit tedious at the same time due to me having to return so often.

Make your way to the end of the dungeon and your reward is… getting killed by some random guy! Best tutorial reward ever. Unrelated note by the way, but that dude that just cut you down and left you to die? At one point he learns more about you and regrets his decision, but instead of pleading for mercy and kissing your feet for the next 7 days, he… invites you to get drunk after everything is over? Dude, you tried to KILL me! I was 99% DEAD before miraculous plot armour saved me, and you invite me to go drinking?? …Sure, but the bill is yours.

Joking aside, you’re pretty much 99% dead now and are basically a walking husk. If the mysterious castle wasn’t already enough motivation to pique your interest, now you actually have a reason to go there as there is a magical sword of love and friendship that will somehow restore your lost constitution. Getting to the castle isn’t as easily said as done though, as it only very rarely appears and even then, entrance isn’t guaranteed. So what else to do than my favourite part of this game: exploring the island!

Exploration is, in my opinion, handled very well. The story is good on its own, but was driven forward by my continuous desire to keep exploring new dungeons and paths to see what is coming next. There are a lot of branching paths and even though some may not lead to your destination, they’re almost always rewarded with something. A lot of secrets are to be found as well, especially when you get items that allow you to pass obstacles you previously couldn’t. In that regard, it’s actually not too far-fetched to call this a Metroidvania as well… wait a sec. So we have Diablo, Ys, The Legend of Zelda and now Metroidvanias? Is this my dream game?

Xanadu Next Puzzle

I was actually just staring in front of me while thinking about it but yeah, that’s actually not too bad to describe this game’s exploration: it’s a 3D Metroidvania. Very comparable to Dark Souls even, but that game came later so Dark Souls is confirmed a Xanadu Next rip-off… which is most likely a rip-off to something else, Kings Field or something. Sarcasm by the way before I get shot. But yeah, there’s an interconnected world here with shortcuts that open every once in a while, and dungeons can be revisited to potentially take a different exit to a whole new area, or exploring rooms that you previously couldn’t. And the environments themselves are also a lot of fun to go through; there is even a maze forest where I’ve taken out a pen and paper for to draw the map, haven’t done that in ages!

I was actually just staring in front of me while thinking about it but yeah, that’s actually not too bad to describe this game’s exploration: it’s a 3D Metroidvania.

Didn’t I say the main protagonist is 99% dead though which would make exploration tough to begin with? Yeah, he still is, don’t worry about that. But through some magic called summonable guardians that are bound to him, he’s more alive than I am on a Sunday morning. These are passive buffs bound to the protagonist, with initially only having one but with more to be found by exploring. You can only have one with you, but the buffs can make a world of difference depending on your playstyle. What’s more, these guardians also have their own levelling system, making the passive buffs even better over time. I always had the experience gain guardian with me since more experience = more levels = journalist mode, but the difference in buffs was good enough and not focussed on stats aside from the first one.

But talking about stats, I figured now would be a good time to talk about combat itself again and more specifically: skills and armour. I already mentioned how combat works by getting behind- or next to an enemy and then using your sword or a two-handed sword, which is the base for combat that won’t really change over the course of the game. The combat itself therefore isn’t very deep, and is mostly dictated by what skills you have and what monsters you are facing.

Weapons are where you learn all of your skills from, as there are a total of 30 skills to learn. 10 of them are active skills, and will make combat feel a bit more fluid due to their area coverage. I didn’t use them as often though, just because I preferred the passive skills and you can only have four slots that are also already occupied by spells. My favourite passives to use were the ones that gave an elemental effect to my weapon, allowed me to wield two-handed weapons with one hand even though there weren’t enough two-handed weapons to make it justified, and the power increase from fighting at lower HP because I love being risky. So far that surprisingly hasn’t come back to bite me either, hurray!

Xanadu Next Inventory
I will put everything in strength. I refuse to hear otherwise.

I also barely used active skills because magic is a thing. Even if I prefer to get up close, having an offensive elemental spell that can be used from both close and far away was just more beneficial. I would say the variety in spells is good enough, but I’m surprised by the lack of recovery spells. There is an item you can get later on that steals enemies their HP, but it’s activated on chance and the result is barely noticeable. Given that you can only carry a maximum of 10 of each potion at a time, a recovery spell would have been useful. Granted, there were rarely any situations for me where I was in direct need of healing that potions couldn’t provide, most of the times only when there were quite a lot of magic users which brings me to my next point.

I’m going to be mixing two different subjects with each other so bare with me for a second. First, let’s start with the levelling system that gives you attribute points to spend after every level up. There are a total of five stats to spend your points in; your usual basic stuff like strength and intelligence. Me being me, I figured I would spend everything on strength because the best defense is a good offense and nobody can tell me otherwise. As much as I wanted to do that however, I wasn’t allowed to. Weapons, shields, armour; they all require a specific spread of stats. So even if I wanted to wield this totally not magic-infused sword that is only meant for physical damage, I would still need several points in intelligence for whatever reason. Aside from the post-game due to there being less armour and more than enough points, you can’t really decide yourself what stats you want to improve on.

Even if I wanted to wield this totally not magic-infused sword that is only meant for physical damage, I would still need several points in intelligence for whatever reason.

Which brings me to the armour. There is not a single piece of armour that reduces damage from magic attacks, as they only raise your normal defense instead. The variety in armour already isn’t that big, so this could have been improved since there are quite a lot of enemies- or traps that use magic attacks. This would also have been the perfect chance to spend fewer points in defense because of the armour, and more in magic defense. But yet again, that has barely been a possibility due to the required stat spread to equip the armour to begin with.

To make a long story short: what this all comes down to is that the game doesn’t necessarily give you the freedom you might desire from a game like this. You could technically become a spells-only character, but there wouldn’t be any weapons or armour to enhance your magic abilities–not to mention that you have a magic points bar that can only be restored by magic potions that are not able to be bought easily. You could also be like me who considers physical combat the one and only way of combat, but you would still be forced to spend stat points in intelligence. The combat is basic and you only have swords and two-handed swords to fight with. This personally wasn’t an issue for me as I enjoyed combat regardless, but not everyone is me. There can only be one Nepiki.

Xanadu Next Boss

I guess the restriction in freedom was done to keep a consistent difficulty, as Falcom always does with their other games as well. The experience gain here becomes less against the same enemy the higher your level is for example, just as with The Legend of Heroes franchise. This game isn’t necessarily as hard as Falcom’s other franchise, Ys, but it does have its moments where a careless approach will mean the end. And since we’re talking about Falcom anyway, might as well finish this review with the bosses. They are known for having gigantic demonic bosses with intimidating attacks, but their attacks follow a pattern so they are good to deal with. I really enjoyed fighting all of them, though the second boss was quite annoying to deal with. Good selection overall however!

Nihon Falcom shows us yet again how they are able to create an intriguing adventure through their expertise in world-building. The constant motivation to explore these unknown lands and learn more about the places you visit through optional conversations and lore lives up to my expectations, though people who don’t care about world-building won’t be left in the dust either. And since the world-building goes hand-in-hand with the exploration, that part of the game is also very fun to execute. There’s a lot of secrets to be found in this interconnected world, and new areas unlock occasionally after finding a new tool to help you progress just like how Metroidvanias handle them. The combat is perhaps the weakest point of the game though, limiting you in playstyle due to how armour- and weapons require a specific stat spread, and also having only swords and two-handed swords as weapons to choose from. I personally have no issue with combat whatsoever, but it is something to keep in mind.

9.0

Nepiki's Rating

Overall rating

Game Score
9.0
Fun Score
9.0
Positives
  • Excellent world building through the use of mystery and exploration.
  • Good amount of different skills and guardians to choose from, keeping combat fresh.
  • The interconnected world is fun to explore.
Negatives
  • Combat is limited due to the player pretty much being forced to work with a required stat spread.
  • Armour is limited with no options to become strong against magic.

Thank you for reading! Been quite a while since I’ve made a long review like this one, but I had a lot to talk about! I probably could have made it shorter though, but there were some parts of the game that I felt strongly about so I wanted to go a bit more into detail with them. And hey, I also tried to add some humour to the review so hopefully that worked out as well! Oh, and also the reason why I mentioned that I wasn’t going for 100%? There is an achievement where you need to beat the game in a low amount of hour with no deaths, using save points and potions to a bare minimum and even taking as little damage as possible throughout the entire game… while also opening every chest in the game. Yeah, I have better things to do.

We’ll be returning in 3 days with a very special review! I won’t spoil anything yet (even though I have on Twitter), but I’m looking forward to it and I hope you will as well!

What do you consider the most important driving force that motivates you to keep exploring?

My most obvious answer would be to beat the game and get more items, thus making me stronger. But ignoring the former two answers, the sense of mystery definitely keeps me on my toes. Exploring the unknown always feels good because in the game itself, almost nobody has done so yet (otherwise there would be maps after all). The story definitely helps driving me forward as well, but you could throw me in an unknown world without and story to boot and that would probably already be motivation enough for me.

About author

Nepiki

A gamer and writer at heart who wants to combine his hobbies into one. I am 25 years old and I'm from the Netherlands. Having played many games over the years, I wanted to express my love for them, however obscure they may be!

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[…] lot of reviews followed since well, that’s what I do after all! We started with Xanadu Next because it was too long since I covered a Nihon Falcom game, followed by a review of The Legend of […]

Alienor @ a fox's wanderings

I love metroidvanias and I agree, the sense of mystery definitely plays a huge part on my exploring enjoyment! Also, I had literally forgot that the Nokia N-Gage existed but omg, that was something! (not that I ever had one, lol). Thanks for the great review!