The original Xanadu was released for Japanese home computers back in 1985 as the second entry in the Dragon Slayer series. An incredibly long running franchise that was known for changing up its core concept and general gameplay almost completely with each installment, and went on to inspire a multitude of subseries, most notable the Legend of Heroes or Trails series. Xanadu itself was more of an offshoot title, one that was expanded with an additional scenario and even a Hudson developed spin-off for the NES by the name of Faxanadu.
Following this brief stint that lasted only about two years, the initial installments were remake for superior hardware a decade later, and to mark the twentieth anniversary of this small scale series, Falcom chose to revive and reinvent it heavily in the form of a far more modern action RPG with the ever so creative title of Xanadu Next. A game that was only released for PC in Japan, in 2005, almost certainly dooming it to obscurity. However, XSEED is a ready and willing company when it comes to many things, and brought it upon themselves to bring this fairly obscure title to western audiences. Likely having something to do with the spiritual successor Tokyo Xanadu, which was announced shortly before this game’s localization was leaked. But this is becoming a history lesson, so I really should begin my review.
Xanadu Next Review
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Xanadu Next centers around an unnamed knight and adventurer who visits the misty Harlech Island along with his childhood companion Char in hopes of uncovering mysteries and finding adventure. A humble journey that results in the brave knight being sent on a quest to uncover the sacred sword, Dragonslayer, after he is permanently disabled and only given mobility by the flighting benevolence of a local guardian deity. Unsurprisingly, this journey has him discover more about this land, the lost kingdom of Xanadu, and a great evil sealed away centuries ago.
I know it sounds simple conceptually, but Falcom’s game worlds are often rich with small personal stories of townsfolk, ample supplies of lore about the world itself, and generally a surprising level of detail. This is felt heavily in Xanadu Next, with many ancillary of downright pointless characters having their own stories that the player may learn as time goes on, and a backstory that is so detailed and presented in such a way that I honestly thought it was the story of a prior title, when the game really only has tangential relations to the original Xanadu. As in, they could change a few names and it would be unrecognizable as a successor.
This can be seen narratively, but also with regards to gameplay, as Xanadu Next takes inspiration from popular titles of the time, and has notable similarities with the likes of The Legend of Zelda, Diablo, and then recent entries in the Castlevania series, along with a liberal amount of inspiration from Falcom’s own Ys series. As previously mentioned, Xanadu Next is an action RPG, and one that is set in a small interconnected world with various expansive dungeons scattered throughout it, a strong emphasis on leveling and stats, and a level of variability with one’s playstyle due to a frankly brow raising amount of equipment and a wide array of abilities.
The core combat is largely inspired by the indirect attacking strategy that characterized the earlier Ys games, particularly I, II, and IV, as the game is built around a system that incentivises maneuvering around opponents to strike them in the side or the back. It sounds simple, but when compounded with the sheer number of enemies present at points, it can be challenging to not take copious amounts of damage, especially when taking into the ranged attacks many enemies have, and the fact that there is no form of invulnerability after getting hit.
A decision that, when combined with the fact that there are only a handful of savepoints in the entire game, I think only five in total, make Xanadu Next seem like more of a challenge. At least until it is revealed that health potions are available in ample supply, though I refrained from using them most of the time, most enemies can simply be run past, and that it really does not take that long to travel from one area to the next, especially after getting a skill that enhances the knight’s running speed.
As for whether or not this all makes for an enjoyable gameplay experience, I have reservations about wholeheartedly saying yes. The core gameplay captures a very satisfying sense of both power and vulnerability, as enemies satisfyingly burst into a colorful explosion that leaves behind collectible shinies to pick up, and the audiovisual feedback for attacking is a minor reward in itself. And while the obscurity of some secrets bothered me, I ultimately did exploring and trekking through this world. However, other things, such as the ample amount of grinding that must be done to level up the knight, their weapon proficiency, and even their equippable guardian buffs made the experience lesser than it should have been.
Grinding itself is to be expected with this sort of game, but I truly do mean it when I say that is feels slow, with hundreds of enemies that need to be killed for each level, and rarely a mindless way to do it. It truly felt as if a good fourth of my time was spent grinding to get another level, to get another few attribute points, to get another piece of equipment, which would maybe last me another two hours before being outdated. While not annoyingly tedious, as I really do enjoy this game’s combat, it makes the game more boring than it should be, and left me wishing that the game had been kept as simple as Ys has traditionally been, with its small number of equipment upgrades and faster combat that made grinding more enjoyable.
Things are also muffled by the fact that this is very much a PC RPG, and as such uses the mouse for much of its interface. Due to the confusing controller configuration methods, I could never figure out what exactly I needed to do to enable a mouse cursor with my controller. As such, I often switched between the gamepad and the mouse to rearrange inventory, change skills, and mess around in an inventory that does not pause the game, and is needed to regularly access due to how the knight only has four ability and four item slots they may use. Combined with the large amount of clicking, dragging, and swapping required to do much of anything, I was actually annoyed when I had to manage the inventory, but I would not be surprised if stuff like this was simply common from PC RPGs of the era.
There is also something about how the game handles save points and teleporters that just baffles me. Basically, there are both save points, which fully restore the knight, and teleporters, which cut down on constant backtracking. However, there is really no reason for these to be two different things, seeing as how the knight can A, warp back to town from early on in the game, and from any point in the world, and B, go out of town to the nearest save point in three screens, or 15 seconds. So why not just replace the teleporters with save points, like in the Ys games Falcom was releasing and developing while this game was being made?
As if these minute frustrations were not quite enough for me, the game also employs block pushing puzzles of all things, which are inserted periodically, and range from dirt simple to time consuming to just aggravating. It does not relate back to the core combat in any way, and is simply a way to delay the player from getting goodies by testing their skills with either 3D block puzzles or the sliding ones, which I have downright hated since I first encountered them in Pokemon Silver. Most of the time I just looked up a solution after giving up on the overly complicated puzzles, and after my patience was eaten away by the energetic tracks that often played in the background.
Speaking of which, Falcom regularly delivers a quality soundtrack with their games, and Xanadu Next is no exception. While many tracks focus on a more reserved and mellow tone when compared to something like the score behind Ys games, the soundtrack does build up a nice tone and atmosphere for the game, from the pumping yet slightly foreboding theme of Castle Strange Rock, to the more tranquil and calming theme of the town center. While the sound effects continue to reinforce the satisfaction with the combat, and accompanying visuals capture the same rewarding combat feedback loop as the Ys games Falcom released around the same time.
While the combative flare is similar to their other titles, Xanadu Next marks a notable departure from the anime and manga inspired art style of most other Falcom games, as it largely adopts a more western fantasy aesthetic. One that includes far less fantastical and vibrant locales than one might expect, with the forest, sewers, volcano, and castle environments all seeming generic. At least conceptually.
Something about the composition of each room, the why certain things are angled, and the detailed textures that fill everything manage to grant this game a level of visual appeal that seems almost unwarranted and is far better looking than it actually should be. It’s just a shame that the camera can sometimes be a problem during combat and the like, even when in a fixed position, and many of the environments are not quite well enough devised to not easily get lost in certain areas without abiding by a map.
As for the actual character models, I really do think there was something strange going on at Falcom around this time, as much like the Ys and Trails in the Sky titles Falcom was putting out at the time, Xanadu Next features awkward looking character models, the studio’s first attempt at making realistic humans in 3D, that distinctly reminded me of something from the Dreamcast due to their low polygon count, weird faces, and omission of many things that had become standard when this game was released. Such as opposable fingers. Even the humans in Sonic Adventure, a game released in six years prior, looked better than this.
Xanadu Next is a genuinely solid action RPG that is unfortunately marred by irksome mechanical minutia, occasional difficulty spikes, and grinding sold under the guise of adding more depth and complexity to a game that likely should have kept itself simpler. It manages to capture the appealing environments, quality soundtracks, and great feeling combat that I have come to recognize the developer for, yet also comes across as a bit dated, being a decade old title, and while there is a lot that could be liked about it, I would only recommend this to action RPG buffs or those who have run through every Ys game and are still thirsty for more of that distinct Falcom flavor.