The Legend of Tianding review - “Platforming fun with an old-school twist”
| The Legend of Tianding
Video games have been an effective medium for regaling tales of the past, either from the historical figure’s or third person’s perspective. It’s in stark contrast to the lines of words in a dusty textbook or on a wiki page that can lull you to a deep slumber. Games, as a creative medium, leverage a myriad of ways to give an immersive experience, as well as being able to learn history as the icing on top. Soft-world inc., in collaboration with Neon Doctrine and Taiwan Tech, has used the 2004 Flash game as a base to create Legend of Tianding. It’s a 2D side-scrolling platformer where players don the mantle of the popular Liao-Tianding. He is a vigilante and pursuer of justice, with historic Taiwan as his arena.
Players navigate the dystopian and old streets of Dadaocheng Castlevania-style. Genuine care has been put into designing and replicating the 20th-century streets of historic Taiwan under Imperial Japan’s colonisation. Every corner is teeming with life and chaos alike, befitting its setting in an era where people are going through tumultuous oppression. Though I would argue the vibrant colour palette masks the melancholic tone the game tries to convey with its setting.
In sharp contrast to Detention's surreal and depressing colour palette, players can interact with common NPCs to gather intel, ranging from idle banter to grouses about conflict with the Japanese. During Tianding’s downtime, players can opt to accept mini-quests to foster a stronger camaraderie with the townsfolk. They will also come to appreciate the numerous quality-of-life decisions that make exploration much easier, including a teleporter in the form of a rickshaw, and enjoy peace of mind as there are multiple checkpoints dotted around dungeons to fully heal up and save progress.
Legend of Tianding is a mastermind of presentation. There is much to enjoy with its rich old-school Dong Hua style sprinkled with bits of the light-hearted wholesome moment, enhanced with full voice-over delivered in authentic Taiwanese Hokkien. Players (particularly me) will find themselves warped into the comfortable cradle of old Taiwan.
They will closely follow Tianding in his mission to thwart all evil lurking in all corners as he blitzes through gritty, grim, and claustrophobic dungeons: starting from trivial tasks like foiling a local counterfeit business, to thwarting Imperial Japanese base of operations and ultimately stopping a group of power-hungry lunatics from attaining absolute power. The worldbuilding itself is a surreal mix of reality and fantasy. On the one hand, you see the clanks of blunt weapons and firearms. As you progress you get to see some otherworldly magical stuff unfold before you.
Following the progression, players find appeal in its mature story writing. The story is a roller-coaster endowed with mature themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Many vital characters are humane and well-fleshed out. The characters are written in good faith for both parties without necessarily making the Imperial Japanese out to be the big baddies.
The same goes for our beloved Tianding, there exists a minority who showers him in disdain instead of glory. While the main cast is a colourful bunch, the villains, unfortunately, got the short end of the stick. The majority of them are one-dimensional goofballs and solely exist to receive an ass-whooping. In its roster, we have a stereotypical exploitative merchant as the first boss, an Allen O’Neil gun archetype that dances with bombs and bullets, even leading up to the final boss General Shimeda who, in essence, is a reflection of the hideous Hideki Tojo with his lunacy and power-hunger cranked up to astronomical levels.
After booting up the game you are guided step by step through a relatively straightforward tutorial. While mashing buttons is simple, pulling off a satisfying combo requires the player to go through a steep learning curve and near-perfect synchronisation of muscle memory. Mastering Tianding's skills and elevating him from zero to hero rewards players with a gratifying payoff.
He can alternate between run and gun or choose to hack and slash. To traverse dungeons and terrains, Tianding can double jump, wall jump, glide, and perform some damning acrobatic swings from platform to platform. His most remarkable trait is the arsenal of special kung-fu shenanigans at his disposal. They include an upward kick, ground slam, and forward thrust kick, and each has a cool name. For instance, Soaring dragon kick. To spice things up, the Red Sash allows you to disarm enemies and grab their weaponry.
Most are very handy and players can adjust playstyles around enemy weapons. In addition, the red sash can allow Tianding to swing enemies around like rag-dolls, a good opportunity to stack up various combos. As a fervent fan of the Megaman Zero series, I cannot help but draw parallels between this red sash mechanic and the Zero Knuckle mechanism. The joy of platforming also comes from collecting upgrades and being rewarded with a growth spurt. To aid Tianding in dishing out more damage, Talismans are scattered throughout towns and dungeons. These trinkets can give various bonuses, from minor stat boosts to a guaranteed pistol snatch from enemies, regardless of their type.
The stage design (particularly boss fights) complements super well with the well-calibrated combat mechanics. Each sprawling section of the dungeons is a rich ground ripe for exploration as trinkets and power-ups are hidden to provoke a sense of exploration. The stage designs are calibrated in a way that many elements, parkour, and obstacles (both immobile or mobile hazards) utilize Tianding’s playstyle and control extremely well. However, there are still cracks as the screen crunch can get horrible and effectively blind players from what's beneath. It’s particularly egregious when you land in a pile of spikes or toxic waste.
The endgame content is also designed to scratch a completionist’s itch. Legend of Tianding features multiple mini-quests players can get from civilians that can unlock new scenes and acquire new items. These items can then be a permanent boost for Tianding, while also containing educational value with blurbs describing the item of a bygone era. For the more hardcore players, there’s speedrunning with a self-imposed challenge, such as under the condition of no damage and difficulty set to Hard mode. Certainly, the best aspect is the boss rush, which is Unlocked after you complete the main campaign. Here players can battle bosses one after the other to truly test their skills. It's a great avenue to unwind.