Falcom’s works are largely unknown to the masses, despite influencing both Square and Enix into creating role-playing games, creating the first game with a fully developed soundtrack, almost single-handedly inventing the Action RPG genre (and JRPG’s to a lesser extent) and being one of the oldest role-playing game developers in history. While their flagship Ys series is by far their most famous series being only second behind Square Enix in terms of game releases, it never really gathered the same popularity that other similar JRPG series enjoyed, such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and even Shin Megami Tensei.
At the time, Falcom’s practice of releasing games of the same high standard as the previous installments with little fanfare won them a cult fanbase who were happy seeing the same style of gameplay formatted into a new mold (think Zelda). Square Enix was happy doing this until Final Fantasy VI where they took the series in a new direction with Final Fantasy VII. A byproduct of this change was that it allowed Square Enix to experiment with the genre to create what I consider to be Square Enix’s magnum opus: Vagrant Story. Falcom decided to get around this endeavor by making the large bulk of their games PC exclusive (their earlier games were usually ported to the Famicom/Super Famicom later on) however this would later change as they switched from sprites to 3D models for games such as Zwei!! and Ys: Oath in Felghana. As with Square Enix, it is during this period of transition where I believe they would create their “Vagrant Story“, Xanadu Next.
Even though Xanadu Next plays nothing like any of Falcom’s previous games, as the title would imply it is the next game in the Xanadu series. Xanadu (named after the summer capital of Kublai Khan: Ruler of the Mongol Empire) was itself a side series of action RPG’s from Falcom’s other series Dragon Slayer and while they’re not the most fondly remembered of Falcom’s backlog, they were considered some of the better games on the PC-Engine at the time. This is why it came as a surprise to most people when Falcom released Xanadu Next an entire decade after the last Xanadu game.
Falcom games tend to waver a thin line between absolutely no plot at all (most of their PC-Engine games) or amounts of unneccessary detail that would make even Leo Tolstoy blush (Ys Seven), Xanadu Next wavers the thin line between these with the story of an adventurer arriving on an unknown land hired by a small town in search of a missing girl who disappeared after an attack on their town. After exploring the first area in search for clues you are then killed by a powerful warrior after you decline his request to leave the premise. While the townsfolk bring you back to life, you become cursed with an illness that only the power of the Dragon Slayer sword can stop. This kind of character arc has been done before numerously but Xanadu Next provides a gravitas to the events that most tellings of this arc lack, creating a new experience out of it.
While the visuals may seem a bit outdated for a game made in 2005 (the lack of voice acting is also a bit of a surprise outside of a song that plays during the credits which is in English for some reason), the level design and more importantly the world design is some of the best I’ve seen in a video game. There is only one town in the game however this serves as more of a hub area as you explore the area as an entire world rather than a series of set pieces masqueraded as dungeons. It follows the Zelda tradition of each area giving you a new item for more exploration but it feels more natural than in the Zelda series as even with limited abilities at your disposal none of the area feels artificially contained compared to other modern “exploration” games such as Skyward Sword. In fact despite taking place in a fully fleshed out island, the game’s dark tone works really well. The music does a great job of being haunting and atmospheric while retaining a melody that gets stuck in your head after playing, the areas such as the quaint town the game takes place and charming forest with a set of decaying ruins do well to juxtapose themselves when you are fighting minotaurs on an icy mountain or when you go inside said mountain to discover it’s an active volcano.
The gameplay is the JRPG equivalent of Diablo. To move you character you hold the left mouse button and push the mouse in the direction you want your character to go, the number buttons are reserved for item hotkeys, the functions for spell hotkeys with the right mouse button being to activate your chosen spell and the scroll wheel to change the camera position. These controls are the closest I’ve seen to a PC game successfully replicating the feeling of a controller in your hands with the amount of precision and control you feel as though you have over your character. The standard “move mouse over to enemy and left click to attack” contains a lot more strategy than you think because, as with Wachenröder, your position in terms of where the enemy is determines how much damage you can do. As while the appeal of charging head first into the enemy clicking at the enemy so fast it turns the act of killing fire-breathing troglodyte into closing an annoying pop up window, it may be better to go behind the enemy and launch an attack from its back to gain the upper hand. As you level up while you gain bonuses in all of your attributes, you also gain points that can be spent to increases your stats as you see fit. These can even be changed later on to change your character entirely if you feel like your current set is becoming boring. This could be seen as the first and last time Falcom ever embraced Western RPG mechanics, even if it was probably unintentional.
I’m going to finish this by saying that Xanadu Next can be summed up as the 128-bit Vagrant Story, a game that creates a world and makes the character merely exist in it as the hunter wanders into the unknown cave the same way Ashley entered Lea Monde. Both games embrace travel systems such as teleportation and other shortcuts in a way that creates one giant level rather than a segregation (Vagrant Story through a linear line and Xanadu Next as a linear circle) and both games are a grand departure from their creators known works to create something that is not just unexpected, but most welcomed and in some ways a wish to go back to said stories. unfortunately Xanadu Next never got the cult status Vagrant Story did. Some of the reasons include that the PC version never got an english translation until fairly recently due to a group of fans and while it was ported to the short-lived N-Gage, the game had been toned down to meet the N-Gage’s specification which likely soured a lot of people’s opinions who had the port as their only way to access the game. Here’s hoping that the recent translation and to a MUCH lesser extent this article brings this game into the gamer public’s eye and to show Falcom that their best game will be played for many years to come.