Meet Xuan Yuan Sword: one of the longest-running RPG series’ you’ve probably never heard of. It’s been kicking around since 1990, and a combination of the recurring Chinese historical fantasy theme and homegrown appeal (developer Softstar Entertainment is based in Taiwan) has helped it grow into one of he most popular RPGs throughout Greater China. Despite that legacy, it’s been relatively unknown in the West, with no official international release until 2020’s Xuan Yuan Sword VII. That game clearly sparked enough interest for localisation house Eastasiasoft to start digging into Softstar’s back catalogue—enter Xuan Yuan Sword: Mists Beyond the Mountains, originally released in 1999, as it lands on Switch worldwide.
The third game in the main series, Mists Beyond the Mountains starts—somewhat unconventionally for a series based on Chinese history—in 750s Venice. Septem, a young Frankish knight with a mysterious past (you know the drill) finds himself on a quest across Eurasia, through the Middle East, and into China amid the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763 AD). Satan is also involved, among numerous other deities, mythical beings, and larger-than-life interpretations of historical figures—it’s historical fantasy, after all.
It’s a setting that allows Mists Beyond the Mountains to touch upon slices of history spanning half the world, at a time of increased contact between wildly different kingdoms and cultures. True to Xuan Yuan Sword form, this is certainly still a tale about China’s history, but with more focus on the Tang Dynasty’s place in a world that was becoming increasingly global. It’s not necessarily an authentic delve into historical record, but certainly an entertaining one, with action, drama, and humour in equal measure.
Unfortunately, what should be a grand, epic tale is held back by a woeful translation effort. The English script is rife with stilted, unnatural dialogue and sudden, bizarre shifts in tone—and that’s at its best. Spelling and grammatical errors frequently drag the quality down even further, making the text in a text-heavy game arduous to read. If nothing else, it’s a stark demonstration of how crucial it is to have a skilled editor as part of the translation process.
The game beneath that story is classic ’90s RPG. Anyone with a fondness for PlayStation-era JRPGs will find plenty to like here, from an ATB-style combat system to the beautiful mix of 2D sprites, hand-drawn character portraits, and pre-rendered backgrounds that defined so many games of the time. A sprawling overworld scratches the explorer’s itch, as do the game’s many puzzle-filled, mazelike dungeons.
Combat is straightforward and familiar, and while the good old basic attack spam is generally enough to get you through most battles, bosses and some stronger enemies demand more strategic approaches. Character speed and, by extension, turn order are key: “wasting” a slow character’s turn by, say, healing when you don’t urgently need to can be disastrous. Likewise, a somewhat rudimentary monster-catching system—less Pokemon, more turning monsters into items you can use in battle—belies surprising depth in the way you can fuse monsters, items, and weapons to various ends, with powerful weapons and summonable companions available to those who explore the system to its fullest.
Mists shows its age in less charming ways, too. Random encounters remain divisive, but I think even their most ardent defenders would grow weary of their frequency here. You can barely take a couple of steps without triggering a battle, to the point of disrupting the flow of exploration. Don’t even think about running away too much, though, or you’ll soon find yourself underpowered for the sudden difficulty spikes in boss fights—usually due to raw strength rather than a need to solve some particular strategic puzzle.
Even if you do diligently fight every random battle along the way, expect to have to grind a couple of levels here and there to make progress. That’s not inherently a bad thing—I enjoy a good grind session, myself—but it’s worth keeping in mind that Mists Beyond the Mountains is a game from 1999, and RPG design trends have changed a lot since then, for better or worse.
What all this means is that Xuan Yuan Sword: Mists Beyond the Mountains is a particular game for a particular audience. It’s certainly a noteworthy release from a historical perspective: a piece of the important legacy of Chinese-language RPGs that, until recently, haven’t had much traction in the West. With that comes a game that is very much a product of its time, but whether that’s for better or worse will depend on your perspective on the more frictious design of yesteryear’s RPGs. One thing’s for sure, though: the atrocious English translation desperately needs some work to do an epic adventure justice.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a review code provided by the publisher.