Lofty Sky Entertainment
PC, Mac, iOS, Android
December 6, 2017
An iOS copy of Shuyan Saga was provided in exchange for an honest review.
Shuyan Saga is a fun kung fu game that looks to reflect and share the traditional values of Taiji through an understanding of the balance of combat and timing. After a PC release in 2017, the game has recently come to mobile platforms such as iOS and Android, with gameplay that works well for touch screen devices.
There are many types of kung fu, but Shuyan Saga chooses to focus on one: Taiji, which, in Shuyan Saga, teaches the player about an inner search for the balance of Yin and Yang and an understanding of how that balance behaves in the natural world around us. By combining story and mechanics with Taiji in mind, this kind of fighting method makes for an engaging game on multiple levels.
The game follows a young princess who prefers fighting to finery. Her kingdom, Nan-Feng, is threatened by a powerful, evil conqueror who wants to bend all of the Five Kingdoms to his will. The beautiful artwork and setting enhance a comfortable, familiar myth about a royal young person saving their kingdom. The story’s unique properties urge the player onward to discover what will happen to Shuyan during this time in her life. The princess loses loved ones and is cast out of her home as she tries to escape with some of the people from her household. Her pampered life spent training for fun becomes a serious journey to save her kingdom. Shuyan must move beyond simple combat and employ the lessons that she and the player have learned during the training sessions.
The game employs the principles of Taiji, an inner martial arts study, uniquely within its combat. The philosophy of Taiji teaches many things, but one of the central tenets is the necessity of looking beyond our present feelings and interpretations of the world to find the truth behind the scenes. In other kung fu and fighting games, often it is easy for a player to “button mash” and win the game. Precision and accuracy improve one’s chances of winning, but it is possible to play and win without them. In Shuyan Saga, this is not so. The kung fu Masters of the story, Master Long and Master Shan, teach an elevated form of thought that requires a precise grasp of timing, which becomes necessary as the plot advances and the battles against enemies become tougher.
As I played the game, I realized that I was losing battles because I had ignored the ideas that Master Long and Master Shan had tried to teach Shuyan during the visual storytelling scenes. I had assumed they were there for the sake of the story and the central character, but the inner calm required to time a “greet” properly and dodge a serious blow repeatedly and rapidly was something I had to practice for myself, too. Before I knew it, Shuyan Saga’s gameplay had me reconsidering my own quick temper and button mashing habits.
Not all players shared my experience, as Shuyan Saga is not limited to mobile devices. The game was released on Steam for PC last year, and then again recently for mobile devices. Early PC players seemed to find the combat “too easy” with the click and swipe that was required to greet and counter during game battles. Swiping on a touchscreen is far more subtle than swiping your mouse across the desk, especially when the player is swiping left, then right, one motion directly after the other, on a mobile screen. There is more accuracy required for mobile gameplay, it seems, than for PC gameplay, so that thoughtful, deliberate timing that Shuyan Saga taught me on iOS was not everyone’s experience.
Mindfulness is not the only aspect that pushes Shuyan Saga beyond a simple fighting game. The storytelling is simple, yet enchanting. Writer Meg Jayanth is known for her work promoting diverse voices, and this game is no exception. In an interview with The Guardian, Jayanth said, “I like making games and creating worlds where women, queer people, people of colour and those who are under-represented in mainstream games and culture can be heroes.” Jayanth’s work on the story of Shuyan reflects many of those values.
Art Director Daxiong led a team of a dozen artists, and they worked together to create over 1400 2D panels for Shuyan Saga’s three chapters. Throughout the game, as the visual graphic novel parts come alive, pan and zoom effects work with the sounds and original soundtrack to create a sense of animation. Composer Aaron Tsang is well known for his soundtrack work on Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and many other games. The score for Shuyan Saga is elegant, so perfect for each scene that it begs to be listened to; it’s a game players will want to enjoy with the sound on. There is even a careful note from Tsang at the beginning of the game, asking players to please listen to the soundtrack. These are the thoughtful details that show the composer’s mindful thinking during the creation of the game’s score.
The voice acting is also immersive, and most notably includes Kristin Kreuk as Shuyan. Kreuk is famous for roles like her lead role in the movie Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Playing Shuyan in the game was a big deal for Kreuk, who said she wants to play complex characters who must overcome a personal crisis for the greater good of the community around them, which echoes the game’s themes. Kreuk is drawn to Shuyan, and though voice acting was new for her, she does a great job of embodying the character in the voiceovers.
Shuyan Saga teaches the principles of Taiji, such as mindful thinking, while immersing the player in a beautiful world with its unique combat gameplay style. Concepts like examining the harmony of the world around me, or trying to let go of my feelings to find the balance of Yin and Yang, stuck with me after I finished the game. A huge part of this story is a focus on remaining empty, unlocking the pain, anger, or doubt within and allowing the heart to be open. These are valuable lessons that typical fighting games do not impart. For that reason, Shuyan Saga stands out. Not only is it a beautiful visual and aural story that follows Shuyan’s spiritual journey, it shows players how to consider their own journey, too.