Wandering Sword Review – A Chinese Epic That Rivals Blockbuster RPGs

Wandering Sword is an amazing martial arts epic, a beautifully woven tale full of fantastic characters and moreish combat.
Wandering Sword RPG game review Steam

Wandering Sword gave me that moment. The moment that hits you like a truck when you realise the true scope of what’s in front of you. The sunlight blaring in your eyes for the first time as you exit Vault 101 in Fallout 3; The arrival in Velen after The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s opening hours. A chunk of the way into Wandering Sword, my mouse hit the side of the screen as I traversed the overworld, causing the map to start scrolling… and scrolling… and scrolling even more.

Dozens of locations across several regions – Tigeroar Mountain, Villain Valley, The Cave of Tribulations – begged to be explored. Incredible location names aside, my expectations for a 15-20 hour straightforward indie RPG with a novel battle system had already been somewhat shattered hours earlier – thanks to some brilliant narrative thrusts, but we’ll get to that – yet the scope of this world caught me completely off guard. Like a night sky filled with beautiful paper lanterns rising slowly towards the stars, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

The marketing around Wandering Sword puts the focus toward something every great RPG needs to get right – its battle system. A turn-based affair set on a battle grid, combat is a lot of moving your little guys around like chess pieces, then using a handful of moves with different ranges/areas of effect to take down all the other little guys. The novelty comes in when you learn that this can be switched to real-time mode – a free-for-all all where everybody just moves and attacks in a flurry of action – a more realistic conversion of a chaotic battle, to be sure.

The combat serves its function well – it’s engaging enough to keep battles interesting, and helps all of the different upgrade systems fold in on themselves in that satisfying, lizard-brain way. Every move can be upgraded with Martial Points (XP) from battle to increase their power. When you upgrade Cultivation Methods (buffing skills) you gain permanent HP and MP increases, as well as Meridian Points (skill points) to upgrade on a different table full of skill trees for upgrading stats. There’s gear galore to find and equip; half a dozen non-combat skills like smithing, alchemy and fishing to level; a whole huge system around sparring with NPCs for items, learning moves from them, and so much more.

However, as well as all of these RPG systems gel together, Wandering Sword’s best strengths lie elsewhere.

A Classic Wuxia RPG

Wandering Sword is a Wuxia game. Set in a fictional land where martial arts are essentially mystical powers, young protagonist Yuwen Yi – a simple Outer Lands lad with an honourable heart – gets caught up in the middle of a fight between two factions at war, as his caravan traverses a blistering desert. After a brief dance with death, the young hero begins his path to become one of the most powerful martial artists the world has ever known. 

You might expect the said two factions were the good guys and bad guys, and that the Hero’s Journey takes Yi through settling their ultimate dispute and bringing peace to the lands. But after a much quieter opening section, where Yi settles in with a kung fu master to learn the ways of the wuxia, the duo are ambushed in a cave by representatives from no less than six other factions. They’re working together to hunt down your master, but there are immediate cracks between many of them as they start bickering.

This is your first indication that this world not only has many shades of colour amongst its tapestry of sects, gangs, cults and schools, but this world is rich. Rich with history. Rich with flavour. Rich with individuals of varying motivations, grudges, kinships and connections. 

Wandering Sword features a world where, while you play the role of the protagonist, you are by no means the only one with control and agency. The game will introduce you to hundreds of characters who have their own goals in life, large or small, across your journey. All you can do is be true to yourself while trying to do what’s right along the way.

An Intricate Tale

More than a dozen hours into the game, I was progressing through a series of plot points concerning rumblings of pirate rebellion. Yi had by this point joined the Wudang Sect (essentially the Righteous Good People Guild) when a senior member of the Liushan School (government-backed cops/detectives) requested aid in investigating the situation.

What at first seemed like a more involved side quest unfurled into its own adventure, complete with its own lead and side characters, unforeseen twists and shocking reveals. I had to double-check my quest log to make sure it wasn’t a part of the main story thread. This tale in itself was gripping, a story that could have been a smaller game of its own. The most apt comparison point would be the infamous Bloody Baron quest in The Witcher 3 – a comparison I don’t invoke lightly. 

Aside from several more of these world-expanding adventures, some of the best aspects of Wandering Sword are the companion quests. These personal side stories are not only often heartfelt or even downright tear-jerking in their own right, they also help flesh out the world, its history and its locales in such wonderful ways.

That’s not to discount the main thrust itself – Yi’s journey from zero to hero really takes some genuinely unexpected yet delightful turns. Because the world is so well thought out, with such a huge array of meaningful, individual actors, the times in which these strong personalities and their intricately political factions come in contact with one another create incredible intrigue through friction.

At the beginning of the game, it is easy to immediately get lost in who’s who and what’s going on. This feels very deliberate. Over the course of dozens of hours, the world of Wandering Sword is fleshed out so brilliantly, that by the time you get to a point where you’re once again seeing the convergence of 6 or 7 factions at once – each with multiple named characters you’ve already gotten to know – following along with the political machinations is second nature.

The most tense scenes in the game were rarely tough battles against seemingly insurmountable odds; instead, they were moments like participating in a ceremonial sword fighting contest, watching sect leaders clash verbally as their subtext reveals or misleads others towards furthering their own goals.

It does need to be said that Wandering Sword is a game developed with the Chinese language as a priority, which affects its writing in particular. Some of the translation to English seems very literal – what would traditionally be a herb is instead a “crude drug”, for example. At the very beginning this is a little jarring, but the further into the game I got, the more I came to appreciate this approach, one that feels similar to how RPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were originally presented to Western audiences. This is not a mis- or poor translation – this is a well-thought-out body of work that contributes a very distinct flavour of storytelling. 

Wandering Sword is otherwise, for the most part, very smooth sailing and relatively bug-free. Poor controller support was ultimately my biggest hangup – I played on PC with a mouse and keyboard for most of the game, with bouts on Steam Deck, but the developers at The Swordsman Studio have since been quick to resolve many of the issues I encountered.

In a time when absolutely massive blockbuster RPGs are sucking up all the oxygen in the room, Wandering Sword stands out as an amazing independent RPG that crushes every goal it sets out to achieve. Small issues aside, its easy to become besotted with its all-encompassing world; a huge recurring cast of fantastic characters blossom amongst a beautifully woven tale of loss, growth, strength, history and consequence. Wrap that up in moreish combat and wonderfully interlocking RPG systems, and it feels like a modern classic.

4 Stars: ★★★★

Wandering Sword
Platform: PC
Developer: The Swordsman Studio
Publisher: Spiral Up Games
Release Date: 15 September 2023

The PC version of Wandering Sword was provided and played for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are scored on a 5-point rating scale.

When not playing games, Chris enjoys chilling with their Fiancé, cats and dogs. Will probably never stop banging on about how amazing Outer Wilds is. Forever in search of the best Margherita pizza. Chris writes on Latji Latji and Barkindji land. Find them on Twitter @lawnch1