Strategy games look to be on the upswing in North America. After the success of Final Fantasy Tactics, more publishers seem to be willing to localize this particular breed of game. Released in Japan in 1999, Saiyuki: Journey West has made its way to the Western world courtesy of Koei. Despite its age, the title is well executed and possesses enough merit to compete in the market in 2001.
The game begins at a small Buddhist temple in China, where Lady Kannon, one of the guardians of heaven, appears to the young monk Sanzo. At Kannon's request, the monk (the player can choose a male or a female) embarks on a holy quest to gather and bring the other five guardians to the Thunder Temple in India. However, such a thing is much easier said than done. The world has grown tumultuous in recent years, and each step on the long road to India is fraught with peril.
Movement from place to place is accomplished on a large map, with each point representing a new location and a potential conflict. There are a few temporary branches in the path, but in most cases, you'll know exactly where you need to travel next. Mountains and rivers must be crossed, bandits and devils must be fought, and countless trials must be endured in order to continue the journey. Dialogue and battles will both occur on small 3D maps, and with each successive battle, the story is advanced.
While a single monk may be ill-equipped for such a dangerous quest, the protagonist will soon enlist the help of the monkey king Son Goku and others like him. In addition to varying stats and mobility, each character has a unique ability and weapon. For example, Sa Gojo has the ability to regain life by remaining in water and carries the moon pole, which raises his speed every time it's tempered. Lady Kikka can charm enemies with her bow and arrow, and Sanzo can call upon a heavenly guardian to temporarily aid the party.
Each character also has a numerical value for each of five elements: wood, earth, water, fire, and metal. Everyone will have one dominant element, but it's possible to strengthen the levels of any individual element by using spells of the corresponding discipline. Raising a character's elemental affinity will give him or her increased defense against that type of attack and allow him or her to use higher level spells of that particular element. Finding the best ways to use innate skills is definitely a key to victory, but clever customization of spells and accessories can give you a significant edge.
Battles in Saiyuki are turn-based affairs where you will fight with up to six characters. The turn order is determined by speed, so knowing who moves next can have a significant impact on the battles. Highlighting a character with the cursor will show you if that character will go first, second, third, and so on. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to see which character will go when. Making the extra effort to check up on the turn order will make you a much more efficient strategist, so it's a shame there isn't a quick display function.
There is one other factor that plays a large part in Saiyuki's combat system: the were-gauge. With the exception of Sanzo, every character has a second powerful form that has greatly increased power and a unique arsenal of attacks. Every action you take in this form will cost a certain amount of bars from the gauge, and when the gauge is depleted, the character reverts to normal. The gauge is quite small at the outset of the game, but by using your were-form to its full potential, you'll gain enough experience to raise your were-level and extend the gauge. Bonus were-experience is also awarded depending on how many turns it takes to win a battle, so you're encouraged to develop the most effective strategies possible and maximize damage.
While combat is right at the heart of the game, Sanzo and his friends aren't just collections of statistics. Through the lengthy journey to India, the six main characters are developed fairly well, although the additional characters tend to blend into the background and are never really required to participate in combat. A lot will happen during the trek to the Thunder Temple, but the game advances at a steady pace and never drags along or jerks you ahead on the way to the climax. There is an incredible number of battles, but you can rest assured that Lord Buddha will be very happy that you've deposed false monarchs, aided lost spirits, and put several hundred bandits and monsters out of commission on your way.
When a game focuses on fighting to the extent that Saiyuki does, variety in the missions and good map design are almost as important as the battle system. In this respect, Saiyuki fairs better than most but stops short of being spectacular. Most maps contain objects that can only be destroyed with a were-attack, and when destroyed, these objects could reveal a chest containing a valuable item. Sometimes a battleground will feature interactive elements such as moving platforms or a destructible bridge, but these are few and far between. The standard SRPG objectives "defeat all enemies" or "defeat the leader" are presented to you on almost every map. There are a few exceptions to this rule, though, including one optional mission that requires Sanzo to cleanse a shrine of tainted blood while the party holds off continually appearing monsters.
Outside of the battles that are necessary to advance in the game, you can also take on odd jobs from the local post. The most common jobs are delivering an item from one city to another, but there are a few unique cases, including the above example with the shrine. Successfully completing a job will net you a bit of extra money or sometimes reward you with a rare item. If you simply want to build levels, many towns have a dojo where you can participate in training battles. When you simply can't take any more fighting, the post also plays host to an interesting card game where you can earn medals to later exchange for valuable prizes.
The aural and visual aspects of Saiyuki have quite a few positive qualities, but they simply don't hold up very well on a technical scale, perhaps due to the product's age. There isn't much variety in the maps or the attacks themselves--you'll find that several of the locations and attack animations give repeat performances throughout the game. The textures show little variety, and the characters generally don't have much variety of animation. Despite these shortcomings, the game still manages to convey a distinctly Eastern atmosphere, with appropriate architecture and the many bows of respect exchanged with your party. The character portraits are very well done and show several different emotions for each character. Likewise, fans of animated movies and comics should be happy with the game's opening and postchapter recaps. The music and sound effects are not of the highest technical quality, but the same Eastern flavor carried by the graphics does add to the overall atmosphere. The music, sound effects, and battle effects can all be turned on and off at will, so if you're not fond of one of these particular aspects, you can at least minimize it.
Saiyuki is a competent title with enough depth, playability, challenge, and originality to hold the interest of the discerning strategy fan. The unique setting and story are presented with a solid translation effort, and the game should take around 30 hours to finish. This low-profile title definitely deserves a look.