For bi-cultural children growing-up in the United States, it's not easy to be proud of their ethnicity. The popular media and education system has a funny way of influencing impressionable young people into believing a distorted and Eurocentric brand of patriotism. This often leaves children of minority backgrounds often feeling ashamed and wanting to renounce their natural heritage in favor of being just like everyone else on TV, a white-bred American. That's how it was for me growing up in the town of Jackson Heights, New York. When I was 10-years old, I would have gladly taken a Big Mac over a Steam Pork Bun; I thought President Ronald Reagan would kick Chairman Deng Xiaoping's ass in a heartbeat; and I idolized Nolan Ryan rather than no one actually (I didn't even know of single Chinese athlete at the time).
In spite of the nationalistic brainwashing I had endured for years, I still managed to fall in love with story and characters of the distinctly Chinese mythical novel "Journey To The West" to which I was exposed to in bits and pieces thanks to my non-English speaking parents. The epic tale of grotesque demons, immortal Gods, magical mysticism, and perilous adventure proved to be too alluring and unmatched in imagination by anything I had seen from Western sources (A giant beanstalk and a goose who laid golden eggs? Give me a break.) Most of all, I was enamored with the brave and mischievous antics of the revered Son Goku protagonist whose ideals were drastically different and far more complex than those of the Saturday morning super-heroes I had grown up watching.
Since those pubescent years and now as a rabid fan of videogames, I always found it surprising there was never a visible videogame directly based on the "Journey To The West" novel. The wildly imaginative iconography would certainly be an ideal inspiration for any ambitious developer willing to tap into the wealth of ideas and characterizations that millions of readers the world over have fell in love with for centuries.
Thankfully, Koei, a company internationally renown for taking pivotal Asian histories and turning them into richly complex war simulations and action-fighting games, shared a similar foresight and decided to produce and release Saiyuki: Journey West for the aging PlayStation console.
Saiyuki is at it's a heart a turn-based strategy role-playing game (RPG) similar to games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vandal Hearts. Whether or not this genre is appropriate given the source material is debatable, but it's an interesting route the developers choose to take nonetheless.
Typical of its genre, the gameplay in Saiyuki consists mainly of a continuous series of battles where players control up to six warriors in a Chess-like fashion against an opposing battalion of soldiers and/or monsters. Victory is sometimes achieved by accomplishing a particular objective, but more often than not, the goal is to simply crush the leader of the opposing force.
When it comes to strategy RPGs, there are the usual advantages of having more complex and interesting options for preparation and tactical combat. Saiyuki is no different in this regard, but also typical of the genre in that suffers from monotony of repeated battles one after another after another. Saiyuki doesn't have any revolutionary solutions to re-envision this convention, but it does throw of couple of new and interesting concepts into the mix to keep things livelier than a sub par strategy RPG.
Of those concepts, the most highly touted feature that the marketing department of Koei likes to brandish is the ability for each player-controller character to "morph" into what is called a "Were-Form" which is a significantly powered-up beast. The ability to morph into a Were-Form and utilizing its special abilities is dictated by a limited power meter that all the characters must share. A substantial part of the strategy to each battle is trying to figure out the best ways to manage the meter and maximize the abilities of each character's Were-Form in the process.
Another thing that stood out with me was the transitions between each battle. Rather than having to proceed in a linear fashion from one battle to the next, Saiyuki gives players more control and choices. I don't want to give the impression that Saiyuki is open-ended by any means, but allowing players to choose its own path during branching points, play a strangely addictive card game to earn new items, and by allowing them to also take random side jobs as a means to increase experience, equipment and money, proved to have a major impact in terms of keeping me involved and excited about the gameplay.
The last thing that Saiyuki has going for it that most other similar games don't is its terrific story and cast of characters. This really isn't so surprising given the legendary status of the source material and its episodic structure is fitting for videogames. The developers make good use of the characters and plotlines from the novel and incorporate them resourcefully in the game. The chemistry between the cast of good guys and bad guys is almost instantaneously electric and I struggle to recall a group that I adore as much this one. My only criticisms in terms of narrative is the characters weren't as dimensional and vivid as they were in the novels (especially Son Goku who has been reduced to a brash hero-type rather than a fun loving mischievous prankster), and the final leg of the game is more standard RPG fare plot-wise and doesn't have the same cathartic impact and religious connotation as the novel.
Saiyuki is tantamount to a very capable and engaging strategy RPG. The graphics look a little dated and it never makes a definitive effort to innovate and go beyond the usual conventions, but its rock-solid in its design and execution and a worthy interpretation of the classic "Journey To The West" myth that I fell in love with in my youth. I can only hope other videogame publishers try to create more games based on its unforgettable story.