Review: The Legend of Tianding
By: Fernando Da Costa
Publisher: Neon Doctrine
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC
Review Console: Nintendo Switch OLED
GIVE TO THE BEGGARS! - Introduction
Fast and Furious isn’t just a popular film franchise; it’s also an apt description for action side scrollers. One would say it’s the very essence of the genre and why it’s so intriguing. From the very first trailer, The Legend of Tianding managed to captivate me. Not only is the setting attractive, but the pace of the relentless - albeit bloodless - murder was quite exhilarating. Set in the country of Taiwan in a tiny village, we witness the retelling of a classic western tale. The story’s protagonist, Liao Tian-Ding, is the Taiwanese variation of Robin Hood - he robs the rich to give to the poor. If I’m honest, there are several facets of this title I wasn’t anticipating. Thanks to that, it was a pleasant surprise to discover, but that’s more than enough chit-chat. Grab your Guqin and let’s see how this title stacks up - pun intended.
LIKE PENNING A SCRIPT! - Writing
Now, I've covered loads of Asian-developed games, and one commonality is poor English. Simply put, the localizations are nothing short of rough. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here, with a dialect that’s not only well done but has westernized nuance. Furthermore, the main characters' dialogue gave a semblance of uniqueness to everyone, but it ends there. You see most other NPCs flounder in a pool of genericism. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter because The Legend of Tian-Ding manages to do something few do - it made me invest. When a plot twist occurred, I didn’t see it coming at all. Neon Doctrine did a superb job translating while keeping the soul of the title intact. The free spirit of Liao Tian-Ding was evident, while the villain's cruelty was unmissable. There’s enough to keep me engaged through my session, and that’s all I can ask for.
What especially caught my eye is the stylized way in which the narrative unfolds. For a lot of pivotal plot points, there’s a manga aesthetic with beautifully drawn illustrations accompanying it. It’s a suitable substitution to animating the polygonal models - less work, too, I imagine. Every drawing was easy to discern as well, thanks, in part, to the tremendous detail. You know, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this couldn’t have nailed that notion more. It melted everything together perfectly. Those one-liners the action genre is known for are ever-present as well, and Liao Tian-Ding indulges. None of his quips were detrimental to the game's overall merit, though, or cause for eye-rolls. Sure, they can be cheesy at times, but the charm outshone that. For those unaware of how traditional manga works, the golden rule of reading from right to left stands.
Look, I know this is a hefty bit of literary praise for a genre that hinges on gameplay, but it’s warranted. Sure, the narrative isn’t groundbreaking and won’t leave you in awe. It honestly plays it safe, but what it does, it does splendidly. The way it’s structured felt like a mini-series, with a twist, a turn, betrayal, and humour. Make no mistake, there are still a few faults, like misspellings or text cycling by quickly, making it difficult to read. That was predominant during chapter transitions, and it’s a shame since an outline of what’s to come kicks off each one, solidifying that TV show comparison. My final gripe is there’s way more word vomit than needs to exist - sentences are long-winded. Tightening wording would help to improve flow and readability. There are times of vulgarity, too, but every instance comes with an inadequate censor job - just one letter.
A GAME OF BULLET PONG! - Gameplay
Energy drinks, coffee, and cinnamon buns are a tiny number of weaknesses I have. When it comes to video games, there’s a healthy bunch of that too. The Legend of Tianding fits wonderfully as a new addiction. The combat is so damn silky smooth and never struggles. Battles maintain their breakneck speeds without any stuttering. Dodging is flawless, and I attribute that to it not depleting the stamina bar. I didn’t have to balance between rolling out of the way and abilities. I could, instead, answer all incoming attacks or bullets instantly. Hell, I could even deflect ammunition back at the enemy with a swift slice of Liao’s knife. The action revolves around a seamless and reactive style of gaming. Despite the tsunami of foes on-screen at times, it was never overwhelming or troubling. If anything, it was invigorating to be avoiding a barrage of strikes.
There’s some nifty quality of life additions, as well as accessibility. First and foremost, remappable buttons are the reason movement and combat are so fluent. Being able to adjust prompts to make for an intuitive experience amplified my delight. Then, of course, each level has chests hidden within. Because my memory is a pile of poop, it helps that the game is actively reminding me if I gathered a treasure in a specific area. It does this with a chalk outline at the beginning of every secret part. Before worry washes in, these are rarely hard to come by. Now, once the chest is collected, an X crosses the drawing out. The items inside consist of perks that include increases to damage caused per weapon, money, and much more. If you revisit previous levels, this game also notifies you of chests you might have overlooked from the first go around.
I can’t understate the importance of rapid reflexes and reactions. Bosses are built on trial and error, which meant any first attempt was consistently met by failure - a metaphor for my love life. If I was to succeed, I had to learn every stance and movement preceding a particular attack. Then, with every death, I’d gradually come to recognize the patterns and how to act according to what was coming. While I still kept perishing, what matters is that I was learning and eventually did prosper. Furthermore, once I surpassed a certain threshold, I’d more easily do so over and over. My muscle memory was adapting, and I could pick up on the cues. There’s no sugarcoating how frustrating it can become, yet at the same time, it also bestows a strong sense of accomplishment. Simply put, boss fights are the epitome of “easy to learn but hard to master.”
There’s no denying The Legend of Tianding has some seriously great gameplay, and yet, it manages to drop the ball elsewhere. For starters, the damn quest system is ambiguous, and in one case, doesn’t even function. Each one accepted has me fetching specific objects scattered throughout the previously explored levels. The problem is, there’s no indication if what I need is ever found. I’m blind, hoping that, maybe, just maybe, I magically grab whatever it is. In the meantime, I’d aimlessly ransack the area, and typically, that’s good enough - I did eventually gather the necessary items. There’s a mission, however, that despite how much I search or officers I murder, I couldn’t do it. I ran a level ad nauseam to no results. For completionists, this will be annoying, but for the wider audience, it’s inconsequential. Thankfully, the fun gameplay does a marvellous job negating any tedium from squirming in.
THAT’S PRETTY DEEP! - Presentation
At first glance, character models seem a bit blurry. That, however, isn’t accurate as once you jump into areas with darker colours, they’re crisper - the OLED helps. Not only that, but I couldn’t help but liken them to something. Perhaps I’m crazy, but I was heavily reminded of these mini figurines I’d play with as a young lad. Not only that, but they also blend in perfectly with the cartoony aesthetic The Legend of Tianding tries to convey. The backgrounds of these levels are, sadly, bland and uninteresting when compared to the gorgeous townscape. The usage of faded-out water colouring gives it a look and feel of depth - having several NPCs helps with that. Again, it stands to repeat that the manga portion is beautifully drawn. The facial expressions do well to communicate not only what’s happening but how the characters feel about a situation.
TRANQUIL MUSINGS! - Sound Design
The Legend of Tianding is a mixture of generalized tracks with an ambiance to tracks dominated by traditional Taiwanese instruments. My favourites pay homage to the culture, with two explicitly having vocals in the native tongue. These particular songs are, in themselves, also a split between traditional and modern. In other words, while one is calming and melodic, the other is much more upbeat. An example of exquisite attention to detail here is that the slow, peaceful track is sung with lyrics based on the events in the in-game world. It went far in infusing realism and helping this universe feel alive. There’s the minor voice acting, too, but that’s relegated to grunts or light speech - it’s an alternate version of Zelda. It all works, too, and gives further life to a game already bustling with it.
AND THE THIEVING VERDICT IS…
The Legend of Tianding is a hidden gem that should be on everyone’s Nintendo Switch. While it doesn’t innovate, it doesn’t strive to do so. CGCG had one goal while developing, and they delivered on it with style and finesse. I adore all of the little mechanics and ideas implemented. The ability to unarm enemies with a sash works seamlessly, making it fun to use. Everything flows together, from dodging to striking - this is action side-scrolling done right. Weapons are purchasable from the village vendor, and there’s a myriad of collectibles to, well, collect. To incentivize seeking those out, they act as the perks mentioned above that increase various aspects like strength. Yes, a miniature army of enemies can bombard you all at once, but snappy controls and responsive dodging make that a nonissue. I could survive; therefore, it’s a dream to play.
The Legend of Tianding is fantastic, and in total, I sunk around 20 hours into it. For the average gamer, I’d likely cut that by half. Even at 10, this remains highly recommended and deserves nothing less than an 8. Oh, and help the beggars.
Neon Doctrine provided the game code for the purposes of this review.