It’s been great to see Japanese developers localizing more and more games lately. Sure, there’s a niche audience for this kind of thing, but more choice is always better in my mind. In particular, I’ve been excited to see more localized Japanese titles on Steam; the tide’s brought us some solid adventures like the Ys series and, more recently, Xanadu Next, an entry from Ys’ sister series Dragon Slayer.
Xanadu Next is a classic console-styled action-RPG, the sort of game that we don’t see too many of in this day and age. Indie developers have been in love with pixel art for the better part of a decade now, so the 32-bit era has kind of fallen by the wayside. That’s a shame, really, since there were plenty of excellent games that deserve a little love; Xanadu Next feels like a long-lost PlayStation game, though the only console it ever actually saw release on was…the Nokia N-Gage?!
You play as a knight in an age when knights aren’t the most popular people around. The knightly orders have been disbanded, including your own, and you’re stuck wandering the world as a pariah in search of a purpose. That purpose shows up in the form of Charlotte, a childhood friend who seeks to research some mysterious ruins on Harlech Island and requests your assistance as her bodyguard.
Things don’t go as planned; that’s kind of an understatement, since you’re killed pretty early in the adventure. Death isn’t the end, though, as you’re returned to life through a magical binding spell. Charlotte’s research takes on a whole new importance at this point, since without finding the mystical Dragon Slayer sword in the ruins she’s interested in, your renewed lease on life won’t last much longer.
Exploring the ruins on Harlech plays out a bit like Ys – Falcom’s other, more well-known game series. You’ll run around and beat up enemies using melee weapons and magic, gathering loot and experience as you go. Leveling up will result in bonus points that can be spent to upgrade stats, making your character better at even more enemy-bashing. Inspiring gameplay it ain’t, but the fundamentals work and slashing up baddies is entertaining enough. You’ve also got Zelda-style boss battles and Vagrant Story-style box pushing to add a little variety here and there.
That’s not to say everything’s standard, though, as there are a few unusual touches. Most obviously, Xanadu Next is absolutely obsessed with keys. Most doors in most dungeons are locked, so you’ll need to use consumable keys to get through. These can be found in the dungeons themselves, but more often you’ll need to go spend your hard-earned gold on them; in a bizarre twist, they’ll steadily become more and more expensive, requiring you to find more key-making materials to bring the cost back down. If you don’t load up on keys before delving, you’ll often find your adventure ended prematurely as you’re forced to return to town for more. Given that the gameplay is reminiscent of Zelda, you could be forgiven for expecting to get all your keys through dungeon-crawling, which is certainly not the case!
A second twist is the Guardian system, which feels like a nod to the class systems seen in other games. Guardians are invisible spirits which bond with newborns on Harlech island, granting them a boon; your character’s unique mortality allows him to interact with Guardians to a greater degree, though, switching between them at will to take advantage of multiple blessings. Equipping a Guardian will offer stat boosts which will improve as it levels up. It’s a nice addition to a game that sometimes straddles the line between classic gameplay and feeling a little dry.
Largely, though, the game boils down to dungeon exploration and boss battles. While it’s not the most story-focused experience, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Finding new loot is always great, and there’s a certain degree of satisfaction to be enjoyed from conquering a new dungeon. In particular, Ys fans will find that Xanadu Next feels like a sort of homecoming.
It’s not the prettiest game in the world, given it’s over a decade old at this point, but Xanadu Next offers a slice of classic gameplay that’s been surprisingly ignored by retro-obsessed indie developers. It hearkens back to an era of gaming that we just don’t see much of nowadays. If you’ve got fond memories, as I do, of playing old-school 32-bit RPGs on the original PlayStation with a trusty tube TV (let alone the forgotten N-Gage), you’ll understand why Xanadu Next is worth the asking price.