Blades from the Willows by Huanzhulouzhu

I write a lot of reviews for Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese wuxia movies, but the wuxia tradition actually began as literature sorely underrepresented in translation. Even after the financial success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Wang Dulu’s "Iron Crane pentology" languished in obscurity as Simon and Schuster sat on the license (the books remain untranslated more than ten years after the fact). It seems the only modern Chinese author of heroic tales of martial arts and adventure to receive due attention from English speakers is Jin Yong, and those who want to plumb the depths of the genre must do without or find fan translations over at wuxiasociety.org, wuxiapedia.com, and spcnet.tv.

Some count classical novels like The Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants as examples of wuxia, and these at least have readily available English translations. But they hardly count in my book, as the term “wuxia” came into the Chinese lexicon only recently, through unusual circumstances as recounted by Stephen Teo in his book on the history of the cinematic portion of the genre, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. I want to read the genres earliest exponents from the early Republican period, written by authors who knew that their tales were “wuxia,” rather than books grand-fathered under the label. And only one such example exists for the enjoyment of those of us unfortunately illiterate in the Chinese language. Thankfully, it comes from a capable translator and an author whose other works inspired, however loosely, Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain.

Huanzhulouzhu wrote prolifically throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, and Blades from the Willows (Liu Hu Xia Yin) is the first in a long series of interlocking volumes, and thus the first to be translated. It tells the story of three martial artists from a secluded village in the middle of a wilderness, founded by Song dynasty loyalists fleeing from the pursuit of the Mongolians who would eventually form the Yuan dynasty. These three men, Zhao Lin, Zhu Man-Tiger, and Wang Jin, serve missions outside of the village, The Willow Lake haven, usually gathering resources unavailable in the pristine environment of their settlement. On one such mission, they encounter a powerful martial artist dressed in green, who invites them to visit him at the Mountain of Verdant Spots.

When they arrive, they find themselves caught between a battle of poison breathing, flying monsters, and under the care of powerful Daoist scholars who cultivate inner strength in search of immortality. Zhu Man-Tiger, a pernicious man of more-than-healthy libido, also attracts the unwanted attentions of a couple of Miao sorceresses, the nominal friends of the Daoists living on the mountain.

In certain ways, the conflicts between the differing social customs of the Chinese characters and the Miao provide the novel’s actual plot. The Miao women, Moon-Maid and Cunning-Maid, also come from a secluded clan that studies esoteric knowledge -- in their case, the control of vicious, mutant animals that do their often violent biddings. Their clan, the Dragon Clan, expects that when men marry their women, they should retreat to the Dragon Mountain villa to live there forever. Zhu, slightly addled after an encounter with the venomous Emerald Distentor, makes some lewd suggestions to the Miao girls, which they take at face value. They expect that Zhu will make good on his suggestions post-marriage.

Zhu already has a wife, however, as well as a child and an important political position at Willow Lake, and Zhao and Wang want to cultivate the Dao and learn the powerful martial arts and magic of the Wanderer in Green and their other benefactors at the Mountain of Verdant Spots. So they try to escape from the Miao ladies, which leads to a great deal of situational comedy that would seem not out of place in the works of Li Yu.

While the conflict between Cunning-Maid and Moon-Maid and the three adventurers from Willow Lake is the main of the narrative thrust, Blades from the Willows packs so many digressions, so many characters, and so many dangling plot threads that it the reader can only hope to keep up. The amount of content rivals that of any door-stopping, shelf-filling fantasy series out there, typical of fiction written for serial publication.

In fact, Blades from the Willows' greatest problems come from its author’s overly fertile imagination. The situation caused by Zhu with the Miao women would make for a tight, funny narrative by itself, but the Daoists have all sorts of odd interpersonal drama and what seems to be the main villain, the Barbarian Monk in Red, is mentioned in the second chapter but does not figure into the story until the very end of the first volume. All of this never fails to interest, but it also never completely gels. And the protagonists, except for Zhu, seem rather lacking in personality compared to the freaks that surround them.

We see most of the action from Zhao Lin’s perspective, and his character sometimes contradicts itself. When dealing with Moon-Maid, who takes a creepy interest in him and tries to win his affection often and unsuccessfully, the author tells us that Zhao lacks any interest in relations with the opposite sex. But earlier in the novel, Zhao has this amusing exchange with Soaring Cloud, the beautiful young lady who saves Zhao and his companions from the Emerald Distentor:

“Perhaps I could go visit your Willow Lake sometime, do you suppose?”

Zhao Lin’s response was automatic: “Yes indeed!” The girl, seeing that his thoughts were elsewhere, did not press him further.

Aside from the gently humorous narration in this section (shortly after his meeting with Soaring Cloud, Zhao bumbles and accidently drinks a powerful elixir) Zhao’s character never ceases to be impossibly virtuous and heroic, which, particularly in scenes where Moon-Maid throws herself at him, rings very, very false.

Another odd facet of Blades from the Willows is its obsessive detail. Again, its origin as a serial written for newspapers makes itself evident. The first chapter starts out:

A large lake feeds the lower reaches of the coiling river in souther Yunnan Province. One end is enfolded in the plunging gorges of the Grief-at-Toil Mountains, forming fjords fed by mountain streams, and the other drains into the Coiling river far away. In between spreads a wide sheet of water, where endless waves lap over crystal depths. Because of the live current flowing from one end to the other, the lake bed is deep, and the water level steady…

And blah, blah, blah. The second paragraph:

The climate of the region is mild. Amid a perpetual spring, flowers bloom over wide forests and green meadows throughout the year. Blossoming plums, peaches, willows, and cinnamon thrive everywhere about the lake, and among them grow a profusion of rare herbs and wildflowers. During the spring and autumn…

Is when you’ll finish reading the descriptions should you start in winter or summer, respectively. Translator Robert Chard notes in his introduction that the financial interests of both writer and publisher account for the deficiencies in style. He actually planned to make a particularly long digression the second volume in his English translation; I could only thank him, but for it never seeing publication.

But do not mistake my ambivalence about the first chapter as representative of my opinion of the work as a whole. When things actually happen (second chapter) the writing hooks the reader like a flying claw. Fans of classic martial arts movies might not expect mutant beasts like the Linked Culmen or the Emerald Distentor, their appearance in the films imported into the west rare and unusual(War of the Wizards is one of the few dubbed films of this type that comes to mind). But this sort of fiction provided inspiration for the oldest wuxia films, and for the Cantonese language productions also long due for reappraisal and attention from genre fans.

If its status as the only translated work of its genre and vintage were its only point of recommendation, if its relationship to a particular brand of cult cinema were its only distinguishing factor, it would be enough to make it worth reading. But boy is it genuinely fun, filled with bizarre, well-realized characters (not Zhao Lin) and humorous situations.

Sadly, the second volume never saw publication. In fact, I know of no other books from publisher Wellsweep press, with their website perpetually under construction. (Their printing is a bit strange as well, as it includes some ugly digital illustrations packed in an odd place that fits neither the tone nor the structure of the book) Robert Chard deserves no small praise for giving us this enormously enjoyable glimpse into the real beginnings of an underappreciated genre. I’d rather read more Huanzhulouzhu than anything by Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind. Neither do ersatz-Chinese fictions written by western authors compare to the unfettered imagination contained in this dangling volume.

Although I have to wonder what Chinese word translates to “verdant.” It seems to be a favorite of Chinese authors.


Hungry -- Why Play?

I too am flummoxed by the Japanese food obsession. Most of those who would even care probably point to “Iron Chef” as the obvious media exponent, although actual food stuffs from Japan prove better symptoms of this strange syndrome. Japan, after all, created the wonder that is Kobe beef and a million bizarre, sometimes amazingly delicious Kit-Kat bars with flavors as reasonable as hazelnut (which, I can say, are delicious), as odd as ginger ale, and as bewildering as Camembert cheese. If those who would even care also guessed that this bevy of esoteric, often seasonal Kit-Kats played into the Japanese love of collecting, they would probably be on the right train of thought.

The food obsession actually extends not only to TV, but to Japan’s (possibly) largest cultural export: video games. A cursory glance at GameFAQs reveals no “Iron Chef” video game of Japanese origin -- it might well reveal a bit about the shoddy research I put into an average blog post -- though Cooking Fighter Hao attempts to capture the same sort of silly atmosphere in the anime/JRPG style typical (pre-Disgaea) of its developer, Nippon Ichi. Still, food pops up in games where it has seemingly no business.

My first baffling experience with the Japanese food obsession came from Star Ocean: The Second Story, a Tri-Ace developed RPG that I spent inordinate amounts of time breaking, usually in competition with RockManXZ24 (one of our contests involved obtaining one of the best weapons available before the post-game content during the first half of the game, before the second CD). The Star Ocean series’ claims to fame include a few interesting, sometimes time consuming systems, one being the option for the party characters to learn a craft and create items. Alchemy, chemistry, weapon and armor forging seem de rigueur, but one of the first available is... cooking.

As a less than critical teenager, this felt odd, but not insurmountably so, and I took to the task of turning one of my characters (Rena, the female protagonist and walking cliché) into a master chef with as much gusto as one can while engaged in as solitary an experience as playing a two-disc Playstation Japanese RPG. The first few attempts ended in frustration, usually in the form of a “wilted salad” or a “spicy cake.” In order to make a character proficient at any of the item creation options, the character must have right the skills and the talents. The talents are either randomly assigned or randomly unlocked, and the skills bought with ability points gained after a level-up. So I did what any kid with enough time and the inclination to do so would: I played through countless random battles in order to unlock the skills, one of which was “Kitchen Knife.” That skill gives a “Strength x 20” bonus, which would have proven useful if I used that character to attack, ever.

The dishes I eventually created in the game probably made me into a food-nerd, at least to the point that I once thought I would use the “food and food products” category on this blog for more than complaints about energy drinks and the foul marketing campaigns associated with them. I knew what a risotto was and had a vague idea about sea urchin and abalone, but found items like konyaku, ichinogi, and steamed aspic intriguing, if sometimes scary and unappetizing.

Perhaps the great triumph of Star Ocean: The Second Story’s cooking system is how appetizing it made little clumps of polygons and textures seem, thanks mostly to the accompanying descriptions. The game inspired me to actually try cooking, although my attempts to make my own orange soda and risottos never really turned out. Thankfully, doing so in a video game was easier and more fun than learning to carefully measure my ingredients and time my cooking, and it restored my HP and MP on various occasions. Give me a break; I was thirteen.

Star Ocean, for what it is worth, never really made me hungry; that honor goes to Odin Sphere, the 2007 side-scrolling brawler cum RPG from George Kamitani’s studio, Vanillaware. The game’s gorgeously animated and highly detailed 2D graphics generated a lot of hype, but the game’s item management system (and slowdown issues) made more than a few eyebrows arch after its release. I love it, personally, if for no other reason than Café Pooka and the Pooka Kitchen, where the player can order dishes made out of items bought or found during the actual gameplay.

The graphics, as previously stated, are stunning, and the illustrated food looks more delicious than the real French dishes they’re based on. Neither the dainty eating animations nor the gorgeous environmental graphics, with their warm color schemes and ambient motions, hurt the effect, although I could do without the repetitive, squeaky saccharine quality of the voice acting.

Part of the game’s appeal is its evocation of faerie, and the dreamy quality of the eateries fits right in -- if Alfheimr has restaurants, they look like this -- but they serve a more utilitarian purpose too! To increase a characters hit points in Odin Sphere, he or she must eat, and preferably only the best, most expensive foods. Why? I didn’t know, but apparently, saving the world from intergalactic wizards or from a convoluted pseudo-Ragnarok requires the gastronomic development of a true epicurean. The twilight of the gods can wait until I've finished my pork chops. And will Expel and Need please stop careening towards each other? I'm trying to brew some sake, but it's never truly dry enough for my tastes... and my MP is low.

But y’know, I think the Japanese have it right. I would not pay a cent for a wasabi flavored Kit-Kat or watch a single episode of “テレビ朝日/Ai no Apron,” but at least the Japanese respect the inherent goodness of food. I wince at the snobbery shown to certain regional cuisines; I despise the pervasive notion of food as caloric fuel almost as much as the prevalent use of food and eating for self-gratification rather than pleasure. Food unites humanity in a more dignified manner than what we do with it biologically (especially towards the end), and Tri-Ace and Vanillaware, whether consciously or otherwise, recognize that saving the world requires good eating.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but unless Dragon Age 2 recognizes the glorious nature of bottom fermenting yeast and parsnips and mutton, I shall resign myself to the fact that at least one section of the occidental world just doesn’t understand food. It’s the same one to which Gamer Grub and Mtn Dew Game Fuel were marketed.


Shaolin Brothers (Yang Ji-You, 1984)

When I still had enough financial means to buy a cheap DVD whenever I wanted, I set about trying to grab all of the readily available kung fu movies from Mainland China made in the wake of Jet Li’s debut, Shaolin Temple (Zhang Xinyan, 1982). Aside from inspiring thousands of Chinese youth to learn martial arts and making considerable profit, the real success of Li’s first film was the authentic location shooting. For the first time (possibly) ever, the Shaolin Temple looked like the actual monastery, because it was the actual monastery and surrounding areas in which the film makers shot their movie.

Zhang Xinyan, the director of Shaolin Temple, came from Hong Kong, where he had made a number of films for left-wing studios like Great Wall (including the important Mandarin language 1966 wuxia movie, The Jade Bow). Native Chinese film makers swooped in to emulate that success. That success varies from film to film. Sun Sha’s Undaunted Wudang is great. Hu Mei’s film, Jiang Hu Ba Mian Feng (江湖八面风 1991) is maybe less so (an aside: as is her recent Confucius). But whether directed by Hong Kong or Mainland film makers, the wave of traditional martial arts films from 1980’s China have similar virtues: attractive and authentic location filming, usually serious-minded plotting and characterization, and Wushu champions and coaches in leading roles. Not least of these are the Wushu performers.
I wish not to get involved in the debate over the authenticity or efficacy of varying styles and heritages of Chinese martial arts, as this has little to do with art of film making, even martial arts film making. The difference between the fight choreography in Chinese and Hong Kong films is still striking. Much of the choreography in the Mainland films looks like Wushu demos; Hong Kong and Taiwanese fight choreography often looks like just about anything, but mostly looks like Hong Kong and Taiwanese fight choreography, influenced by Chinese Opera (the proper term, I believe, is Jingju, but that is, again, another matter) and wuxia novels and a long tradition of genre films. Mainland film fight choreography operates on a different rhythm and showcases different physical skills.
Shaolin Brothers, sadly, is the foremost example of a Mainland film that exemplifies this in all the wrong ways. It showcases lots of horsemanship -- stunt riding techniques for which most of the actors look to be doubled -- as well as weapons not often utilized by Hong Kong film makers, like rope-darts and whips; but, even for all that, the fight scenes look bad. These fights do not look like two-man Wushu demos, usually. They most often resemble the kung fu movies of the early 1970’s, made around the same time as Bruce Lee’s films, but exhibiting little of the intensity. Arms and legs flail, sometimes at the camera, followed by a reaction shot, and the audience longs for the graceful movements Li Lianjie and the sensible filming techniques of Zhang Xinyan.

Actually, Shaolin Brothers stars Ding Lan, the female lead from Shaolin Temple, and the reason I bought the Tai Seng DVD in the first place. She’s ill served by the choreography, as are the rest of the performers, many of whom I recognized from other films. I also recognized locations. The eponymous Shaolin sees several scenes, as does a large fortress that Zhang Xinyan filmed more cinematically in Yellow River Fighter. The production feels much like it’s tagging along behind other films calling “me too!”
Up to this point I have said nothing of the pic’s story or characters, and for good reason. I believe that Tai Seng’s “Martial Arts Theater” DVD, likely sourced from an Ocean Shores video print, was at some point re-edited by monkeys with scissors. From the obvious problems, like split-second establishing shots with un-synced music, to the less so, such as characters who disappear and reappear with no explanation, the film I watched makes little sense in continuity, let alone plot; I highly doubt that “the film I watched” is the same as the one that writer-director Yang Ji-You turned in to the Censor Board. I also doubt the Censor Board made this mess either. I’m also fairly certain that the dub team is the same that worked on Nine Demons and Attack of the Joyful Goddess, about which, enough said.

Here’s as much of the story as I gleaned: An acrobatic troupe of street performers including Hung Cai-Xia (Ding Lan) and Hung Cai-Yun (Lee Bing) runs afoul of the lecherous Monkey Ho, whose father, the Shaolin trained crime boss Ho Lien, controls much of the countryside by threat of violence. They beat up Monkey and run, pursued by Ho Lien’s men, and eventually ask for help from their brother, a Shaolin monk himself, who eventually helps them to kill Ho Lien and his minions. The early Republican era setting recalls those early 70’s kung fu flicks which feature similarly limp fight choreography.
I really wanted to see Yang Ji-You’s other film, 1990’s Three Great Kingdoms, one assumes a Three Kingdoms era historical drama, I believe focusing on the eminent Guan Yu. Now, I’m not so sure.


I Survived the Season of the Witch

And only a few of the audience with which I saw it on Sunday can rightfully claim that. A young couple walked out after only half an hour, starting a chain reaction. An old couple followed the younger one fifteen minutes later, after a burial scene for one of the party members which I found more laughable than offensive, then a guy huffed loudly enough for six people left in the theater to hear and stomped his way right into the cold of Dallas’s (apparently) annual snowy day. I made it through and want my t-shirt.

Sunday was a bleak day, meteorologically, but hardly as bleak as the trailers for Season of the Witch. What did this audience expect? I can tell you what I did not expect at all, and that is an homage to The Seventh Seal. My brother tempted me into joining him and my dad in a little family outing by claiming that Roger Ebert asserted that Season of the Witch contained many veiled references to Bergman’s cheesy (yeah, it is) classic. My brother also convinced me to brave the hipster d-bag audiences at the local “arty” theater to see Black Swan by saying it was like “The Red Shoes by way of Cronenberg.” It was not.

Neither, of course, does Season of the Witch pay homage to The Seventh Seal in any meaningful sense. A returning crusader with a crisis of faith is the only real link between the two, but Nicholas Cage’s apostate crusader, Behmen, never plays chess with death, though his buddy, Felson (Ron Pearlman, laughing to himself), does head-butt the Devil. The film’s opening sequence shows the unfair trials of presumed witches, a scene that seems determined to employ every possible cliché about the medieval period until we find out that one of the three murdered women really is a witch, and oh shit she just came back to life.

The film then treats the audience to a series of brief fight sequences across the Arabian deserts, as Behmen and Felson discuss who saved whose ass and who will buy the next round of drinks. Even with the anachronistic dialog forgiven, the montage of thirty second fight scenes goes about ninety seconds too long, as the only relevant scene is the one in which Behmen loses his faith after accidentally killing a young woman, apparently the only time it happened in twelve years of rape and pillage. So he and Felson desert, and finding themselves in their home town, are conscripted into delivering a witch (Clair Foy) to a monastery where they can remove her powers and defeat a nasty plague that’s killing everybody, including Christopher Lee in a too-brief cameo.

Nic Cage doesn’t attempt an accent, or a facial expression, or even a vocal inflection, but, somehow, the Cage brand of deadpan still soars over the proverbial top. He struts and poses his way through the movie with an overblown sense of his own space that belies his ludicrously bland recitation of badly written dialogue; and his jowly, gibbletty face renders the whole of his performance even more incongruous. As previously mentioned, I actually had trouble not laughing at a funeral scene in which one of the characters asks what they will do now that another of their members is dead, and Cage turns, hand on his sword, head cocked towards the camera, and says, “let us not allow his sacrifice to be in vain.”

Cage’s performance actually fits; Season of the Witch can’t decide between being genuinely scary or inanely fun; neither can it decide whether to depict the Church as backwards and superstitious or ultimately justified in its zealous pursuit of spiritual evil (it leans towards the latter). Hard to believe that Dominic Sena, director of Kalifornia, made a movie like this, unless, of course, you also know that he made Gone in Sixty Seconds.

Is this the worst movie of the year? So far, it’s only been eleven days, so I couldn’t say. It’s the dumbest fantasy flick of recent vintage not crafted by the Teutonic hands of Uwe Boll. And, I’m certain, it’ll be great for the sort of parties I throw.


Bastard Swordsman (Lu Chin-Ku, 1983)

We Shaw Brothers fans write a lot and often on what killed the Shaw movie empire, but the most agreed upon theory is that Hong Kong audiences wanted verisimilitude and fresh ideas that the studio could not provide with its assembly line film factory. I agreed at one point, and some films show that the studio’s awareness of its audience’s shifting preferences, but the real reason must be more complicated than that, if for no other reason than movies like Bastard Swordsman.

Bastard Swordsman is the film version of TVB’s “Reincarnated,” a 1978 television series also starring Norman Chu that attained at least some notoriety with both its plot and its action scenes. Although, having never seen it nor having been in Hong Kong during its showing, I couldn’t hope to explain the significance of the television serial, I can examine this film update from director Lu Chin-Ku. Shaw Brothers released this film and its sequel in the wake of Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and Ching Siu-Tung’s Duel to the Death. Buddha’s Palm, Shaw’s update of a fantastically inclined Cantonese serial from the previous year, was relatively successful and it is clear that the studio hoped to compete with the new wave of special effects driven wuxia films, helped by their audience’s familiarity with a respected property.

And so we have Bastard Swordsman: one part soap-opera revolving around family secrets and clandestine love affairs, one part standard Shaw Bros. wuxia, and two parts wild visual excess. Yun Fei Yang, the eponymous bastard, is the put-upon servant of the Wu Dang clan who learns martial arts in secret from an anonymous benefactor. The film starts with the clan’s students using him as a live target for their dart-throwing practice, all while taunting him about his uncertain parentage. When he complains at the behest of the clan chief’s niece, the elder members punish him for his temerity. The clan chief, Qing Song, plans to face Dugu Wu Di, the chief of the Invincible Clan, having lost two consecutive fights with him. Fei Yang really wants a chance with Qing’s niece, Lun Wan Er, as she treats him with some amount of respect, but his status as the clan’s least favorite servant prevents him from making his feelings known.

And all that is just a set-up. Less complicated than, for example, some of Chu Yuan’s adaptations of Gu Long’s novels, Bastard Swordsman still relates a hefty amount of familial intrigue amongst its feuding clans and secretive martial artists, but it never gets bogged down by them. Character relationships are clear and the movie moves at a brisk pace. Late in the film, a couple of plot points introduce some moral ambiguity, which is mostly glossed over as the movie never stops long enough for the characters to wax contemplative. That is not to say that Bastard Swordsman is poorly written -- it’s a coherent movie with some unusually deft characterization -- but for the most part, it’s a standard, if competent effort from writer/director Lu Chin-Ku.

But Lu Chin-Ku also served as an action director (along with Yuen Tak), and he continues the madness he started with Holy Flame of the Martial World. The first few fight scenes look fairly standard for the era, but as the movie progresses, the wire effects become a larger factor, the editing speeds up to match, and colored lighting gets put to use as a crude visual effect. By the finale, all of these elements combine with animated effects to create one of the most visually absurd fight sequences in the whole of the Shaw Brothers catalogue. Lu orchestrates overblown images of such the highest, most delightful order, seemingly banking on the weirdness and intensity of his visuals over the more technologically sophisticated special effects of his competitors.

So why did Bastard Swordsman -- and the Shaw studio system -- fail so hard? That question is a bit harder to answer. If one actually looks at the numbers, Duel to the Death hardly hit it big at the box office, and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain fared as poorly as most of the similar films from Shaw’s that year, and had a considerably larger investment behind it. The Shaw Brothers might not make a large profit on a film, but they developed a system so that they would never lose too much on their biggest flops.

That’s probably the real reason for the end of the Shaw Brothers: television. TVB production was low risk and profitable. The local audience had moved on, certainly, but their disinterest extended to wuxia movies generally, not just to those from the Shaw studio, and the genre had already become more popular on television and remains so to this day.

The sequel, Return of the Bastard Swordsman, followed its predecessor into theaters only six months later, and is actually more bombastic while less ambitious. But they make a fantastic duology of Hong Kong weirdness that are now freshly available on Region 1 DVD from Funimation.


Ys 7 (イースVII) -- Thank You Falcom; Thank You Xseed

I cannot express too much my joy in publisher XSeed’s decision to license not one, but six Falcom games for the PSP. As mentioned in my review of Cladun: This is an RPG, the PSP is a challenging system due to both rampant piracy and consumer disinterest. I bought the special edition of Ys 7 in thanks, and listen to the bonus soundtrack CD at ear-damaging volume while on the road, with the windows rolled down for the benefit of my fellow drivers, who tend to look at the large, bearded man in a tiny Ford Focus head banging to Japanese synth-rock with looks of dismay and confusion.

I am also a fairly recent convert to the tiny cult of dedicated Falcom fans. The Ys series received only sporadic releases in the United States, the most impressive on relatively obscure consoles, with much fanfare regarding the incredible soundtracks. Not being one of the two people I have ever known who owned a Turbografx-16, nor having played Ys III (the other game in the series released in America, a much wider one at that), I remained generally ignorant about Falcom until a friend bought Ys: The Ark of Napishtim for the Playstation 2. Since then, I’ve played through the majority of the virtual console port of Ys 1&2 on RockManXZ24’s Wii, downloaded Vantage Master Online for free (legally), given up on Gurumin for the PSP, and toyed with Sierra’s port of Sorcerian utilizing DOSBox emulation. Ys 7 is sadly the first only Falcom game I own on physical media for its platform of origin. As such, it holds a special place in my collection of nerd-memorabilia. I stopped just short of actually putting the cloth map that came with the deluxe edition on my wall.
Geeking out over the game would be pointless, though, if it sucked. Ys 7 is a good game with some minor flaws, the growing pains of a very conservative series attempting new things. For the past decade, Falcom developed almost exclusively for Japanese PCs, where their original development started, not coincidentally, and for a relatively niche audience. For the first time since 1995’s Ys 5 for the Super Famicom, the developers at Falcom have designed a game specific to a console system, and a portable one at that (another first for the series). For the first time in the series, the player controls a party of characters rather than series protagonist Adol alone, and the game provides a considerably larger amount of traditionally Japanese RPG elements: weapons, equipment, party customization and dialogue sequences.

Typically, in an Ys game, the player controls series protagonist Adol through a tightly woven adventure. From a cursory view, the series seems similar to Nintendo’s earlier Zelda games, with minimal equipment and items, but Ys adds stat-levelling and adrenaline raising, arcade style boss fights that require analysis of attack patterns and weak points. The hybridization proved itself a strong point of the series, especially in the recent PC titles, for which Falcom designed a fast-paced, fluid combat system.
Ys 7, while still quite linear compared to, for instance, a Bethesda title, adopts a lot of looser mechanics. Aside from controlling three characters, the inventory has expanded due to a crafting system. The player can now make new weapons, armor, equipment and items from materials collected either from killing enemies or from drop points on the map. To make this worthwhile, there’s a large amount of equipment, much of it specific to one or two characters. The boss battles also lose some of their difficulty from the party mechanic, if one of the characters dies, healing items can revive them, and even without an item, two other characters remain to continue the fight.

The sheer amount of dialogue gets in the way too. Ys 7 does what makes a number of Tri-Ace games infuriating: it forces the player to explore a town environment and sit through an almost mind-numbing set-up before actually getting to the actual gameplay (before any Tri-Ace fans get upset, I happen to account at least two Tri-Ace games among my favorites). The last portion of the game even brings all the characters together for a tedious excursion in back-tracking.

If these complaints sound peculiar, it is because the Ys series (and Falcom as a developer) has peculiarly avoided them while many other Japanese developers wallow in such dated conventions. But for all that, Ys 7 is not only a good game; it’s one of the best in a genre now largely indistinct: the action RPG.

Ys 7 plays as though games like Magic of Scheherazade and Beyond Oasis continued on a steady course through the previous two console generations. The battle system is something of a marvel; the three party characters have speed, power and balance attacks, all of which move quite fast, and switching between characters at the press of a button makes the fighting both breezy and hectic. The addition of a “dash” button speeds up not only the combat, but exploration, and the party AI also works quite well, with the non-player characters behaving properly (i.e. actually attacking nearby enemies). The dungeons expand on themselves with simple “collect item/use item” puzzles that make the most of the environments spatial relations.

And the music is fucking great, a considerable boon to the player, given how often he or she will be hearing the tracks. Falcom made its name amongst a lot of players because of that specialty, rightfully so, though they also deserve credit for their actual art design. Other reviewers have noted that the developer has not pushed the PSP hardware graphically, which is true, but the actual art direction is peerless. Altago, the game's setting, is analogous to ancient Carthage in the Ys milieu, and the game's environments display an appropriately fantastic rendering of old Mediterranean architecture and scenery. Even with the general sloppiness of the pacing (and some of the writing), the story feels like it came right out of a mid-80’s OVA, hardly as overwrought as many of its peers, and a often a good deal more charming (the self-awareness in much of the dialogue does no hurt either).

And that’s Falcom’s gift. Ys 7 is one of their most recent titles, and it makes more concessions to contemporary design than most of their other games, but it still feels like a classic title made by people blissfully unaware of what people say about how games are supposed to be these days. And what a relief that is. Games that feel as though people made them rather than automated factories come by less and less often these days.