The Legend of Tianding Review: History Meets Fantasy In This Gorgeous Adventure
Taiwan is a fascinating place, both historically and geographically. Sandwiched between mainland China, Japan and the Philippines, it’s a coveted piece of real estate. Not only was it colonized by the Dutch, but it was also controlled by the Qing dynasty and even occupied by Japan. And while this may sound like a huge tangent, it’s also necessary to understand not only The Legend of Tianding game, but publisher Neon Doctrine themselves, since they’re based in Taiwan.
The Legend of Tianding is the tale of Taiwan striving for independence. It takes place in the early 1900’s, back when it was under Japanese occupation. Not only were those Japanese oppressive and cruel, but they treated the Taiwanese people as secondhand citizens. Enter Liao Tianding, a gentleman thief and hero of the people. Think an asian-themed Robin Hood, and you’re on the right track. While many reading this may be unfamiliar with him, his story is based on real world events. His tale is a parable about freedom, and the cost of not only attaining it, but keeping it. Keep reading this Legend of Tianding review to see how well Neon Doctrine tells this historical-themed tale.
A Living Comic Book
Right out of the gate, The Legend of Tianding impressed me with its visual flair. The whole game is displayed like a live action comic book, with panels literally springing to life to showcase the action. While the game is certainly grounded in historical events, it’s also not chained by strict reality. There’s a lot of real world problems, such as aggressive Japanese police and Taiwanese collaborators. There’s also real world locations, such as mausoleums and military factories. But there’s also things taken straight from mythology, such as cursed fates, swords that feed on blood to grow stronger, god-like martial arts and all sorts of magical mayhem. It’s a really interesting fusion, and it works surprisingly well.
Liao Tianding – Man, Myth, Hero
Liao Tianding is as much a man as he is an icon. He’s known all throughout Taiwan, and cheered as someone that fights for justice. Armed with a supernaturally agile red sash and a lightning fast spiderwire, he’s capable of turning foes weapons against them and more than able fighting singlehanded against hordes of foes. But he’s not just an action hero. The story shows he’s an affable man that cares about the plight of Taiwan. He helps the downtrodden and loathed, and makes misery for authority figures. As the plot progresses, he sort of falls from one crazy scenario to the next, somehow managing to save the day despite overwhelming odds. There’s a lot of random running around to fulfill errands for the populace (later traveling by rickshaw), but it’s all necessary to get to one of the best parts of the game – the combat itself.
Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting!
Each combat portion of the game is not only multifaceted, but also ridiculously huge. You’ll rush through vast labyrinths, fighting armed Japanese and eventually facing off against powerful bosses. This would be problematic if the combat wasn’t fun, but they did a very good job keeping it dynamic and fast paced. Though Liao is only armed with fists, feet and trusty knife, you can quickly change that by stealing weapons from weakened foes. Once you’ve pummeled them enough, you can press X to wrap them with your red sash. Then you can then fling them in any direction you choose, and in the process you’ll grab whatever weapon they were armed with. Which essentially means Liao can fight them with anything you can think of. You’ll get batons, axes, pistols and even rocket launchers.
Show Me Your Moves
Besides standard combat, you’ll also make use of stamina to execute special moves. These each cost one point of stamina, which starts out pretty limited. But the farther you progress in the story, the more stamina you’ll unlock, just by beating each chapter. You can also fulfill secondary objectives to get similar rewards, though I mostly avoided those. Reason being, they were all locked until you beat specific stages, and then required you to replay them to fulfill various fetch quests. Had the sidequests been implemented more organically, such as being visible the first time you played a stage, I would have enjoyed them more. That said, even without sidequests you’ll acquire a vast arsenal of special moves, from flying kicks to ground stomps to shadow clones, not to mention my favorite, the one inch punch. These let you chain together complex attack combinations and devastate your enemies. My only minor complaint is that once you get a handle for how the combat works, it starts to feel a bit repetitive. Which is a shame, given the potential in a game this dynamic.
Ballet of Death
On the topic of boss fights, there’s a handful in The Legend of Tianding, and they’re all pretty great. In a weird way, they remind me a lot of Viewtiful Joe. They’re all larger than life, many are ridiculous, and none are pushovers. You’ll have to quickly adapt to changing attack patterns and find the right points to dodge out of harm’s way. Once you get the Shadow Clone technique, doing so makes a duplicate that doubles your effective damage, which is helpful but not overpowered. Bosses range from bloated moneygrubbing landlords to musclebound psychopaths to Japanese military officers. By far my favorite, though, is a fight against a sneaky kunoichi that battles you with kunai, summons pink tornados and does so while being sexy and condescending. The bosses are all fantastic, but get ready to die several times as you learn their quirks.
The last important facet of the combat are amulets. You’ll find several as you wander through stages, and by equipping them you can switch up how Liao fights. Some let him recover more health from food he eats, others increase damage he deals, and some boost how fast he recovers stamina. This really lets you mix and match his attributes, and find the ideal way to take down the many thugs in your path.
Run, Jump and Skip
While the game is very much about the combat, it’s also about exploring stages. Liao can do things like double jump, wall jump and even eventually ride currents of rising air. His trusty spiderwire also lets you fling him bodily in whatever direction he’s facing, with a simple press of a shoulder button. I enjoyed how maneuverable Liao was, but found the spiderwire a bit tricky. If you aren’t perfectly placed, you’ll throw Liao into a pit of spikes instead of safely hurling him to another platform. I wish the game froze for a moment so you could line up those shots better, but overall it’s a minor quibble.
Besides running around and beating up foes, you also have the opportunity to partake in a mini game. It’s a popular Taiwanese card game called Four Color Cards. It has you trade cards with several AI opponents, trying to match up 4 identical pairs before anybody else. It’s cool in theory, but I found the explanation for the mini game a bit overloaded and somewhat confusing. I admit I only played the game once, when the story required me to do so. However, if you enjoy spending more time mastering it, it’s a good way to acquire some excess coin to pay for more amulets and item upgrades.
Stunning Visual Flair
Though I already talked about the amazing art style of the game, let me talk about it some more. The comic book aesthetic really adds a lot of flair to The Legend of Tianding. I generally take plenty of screenshots as I play Switch games, and over half of the hundred or so that I took for this were of the cutscenes. Besides that, the game also features impressive Hokkien voice acting. Admittedly I couldn’t vouch for the accuracy of what they were saying, but thankfully there’s pretty capable subtitles. I always feel hearing the native tongue spoken by those fluent in it lends a lot to any game. That said, the translation work was somewhat mixed, though not too rough. Overall, The Legend of Tianding is beautiful and features many catchy tunes.
I enjoyed most of the time I spent with the game, but the following kept it from a higher score. Firstly, even with many save points in each expansive stage, I still found myself wishing each chapter’s stage was split into halves. After all, there’s only 6 chapters total in the game, why not double that and make the stages a bit less overwhelming? And while the game definitely borrows ideas from a lot of popular series, and does a good job juggling them, I never felt it truly stood out. Sure, the plot of political turmoil and rebellion is somewhat unique, but the arc of the adventure is comparable to many other videogame stories.
A Bittersweet Tale
Ultimately, The Legend of Tianding is a great game that is only slightly held back by the scope of its ambition. While the historical setting and focus on Taiwan is undoubtedly unique, it never quite did enough to come into its own. It also probably doesn’t help that the ending I got wrapped things up on such a somber note, showing the often painful cost of rebellion. That said, it’s a very well balanced and enjoyable game that can be beaten in a few short hours. Combined with the affordable price point, this is an easy one to recommend, especially since it’s a really impressive first outing by the developer. Here’s hoping it’s not the last such historical adventure by Creative Games and Computer Graphics Corporation and Neon Doctrine.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), PC; Publisher: Neon Doctrine; Developer: Creative Games and Computer Graphics Corporation; Players: 1; Released: November 1, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen – Blood, Mild Language, Violence; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.