The Legend of Tian Ding Review
Playing a Taiwanese version of Robin Hood set in the 1900s might not immediately spring to mind when you consider side-scrolling beat-em-ups, but you can always trust the indie market to find a niche. The Legend of Tian Ding transposes a folklore hero into a colourful comic book adventure, shining a light on a culture and history of which much of the western world is mostly ignorant.
Set in the early 1900s, just after Taiwan was ceded to the Japanese, Liao Tian Ding — a character based on a real-life person — is doing his best “rob from the rich, give to the poor” act. Portrayed here as a light-hearted felon who always remains one step ahead of his pursuers, the game packs in a surprising amount of history, as well as a no-nonsense depiction of animosity between the Taiwanese, the Chinese, and the Japanese oppressors of the time.
All very well, but how does it play? Fantastically well, as it happens. Even though Liao’s knife attack seems basic, it’s bolstered by the ability to use his sash to whip the weapons out of any of his opponents’ hands once they’ve taken a few punches. Transitioning from battering a guy, grabbing his rifle, spinning and shooting enemies approaching from behind, cartwheeling over and snagging a massive axe from a meathead and then using it to send a cluster of goons flying — well, it sounds complex, but it is all done with a few button presses. The animation is incredibly fluid and very satisfying indeed.
As well as the sheer variety of weapons you can pinch (including a rocket launcher for some hefty AOE damage), Liao has a series of special fighting moves which use up your stamina bar. The equivalent of a one-inch punch sends enemies horizontal across the screen, taking others with them, and a dragon kick can assault them from the side or from above their heads. Even better, the environments you play through over the course of six chapters include hazards and obstacles that can take out your foes as easily as they can damage you. Things getting too heated? Punch a goon into some lava, or triple jump up to a ledge, kick a guy off it, grab his gun as he plummets down and use the high ground to your advantage.
It isn’t all about the clobbering, which Dark Souls fans will appreciate. Dodging is absolutely pivotal to your success, especially against bosses. A split-second perfect dodge can provide you with a bonus: either a shadow clone that mirrors your moves and deals more damage, or the option of turning invisible. You can even deflect bullets back at gun turrets and marksmen. Each successive encounter with groups of henchmen might start to feel samey in a different game, but the snappiness of the controls and the colourful manhua aesthetic are simply delightful. The gameplay is reminiscent of early 90s arcade beat-em-ups, but with the speed amped up considerably.
There is a levelling up option of sorts. Money can be distributed to beggars in return for gifts that give stats boosts to your weapons, health regeneration, defence, dropped items and more. You don’t get any choice about which upgrades you receive, but each of the 145 collectables offers up a small piece of Taiwanese history. Learning about the culture of a country which is known mostly in the Western world for its conflict with China helps contextualise its struggle — especially given the game is set during Japanese rule. You can also buy weapons from a guy on the street, and upgrade your pouch to allow you to carry more consumable health bao buns. A rummy-style game called Four Color Cards is also thrown in, which feels a bit like an abbreviated version of MahJong, though here it seemed like luck played a huge part in whether I won or not and I got bored with it very quickly.
Side missions are also available, but most are little more than fetch quests that offer literally zero challenge. In one, I was asked to get three ingredients for a chef, all from the same town area. I went there, spoke to each person, got the goodies, then returned. There was no interruption, no surprise attack, zilch. I could have an upgrade, but I had to spend three minutes walking around, talk to specific people who were highlighted so as to be impossible to miss, and then return to the quest-giver. It was the very definition of padding. In other tasks, you have to return to areas you’ve already cleared in order to obtain an item that someone wants. That is, assuming you haven’t already picked it up on your travels, in which case: instant quest completion for you! You might not realise that, though, without immediately speaking to your paymaster again, prompting a frustrating fruitless wander before accidentally triggering the completion cutscene.
Quirks like this stop The Legend of Tian Ding from reaching appropriately legendary heights. For the genre, the story is overwritten and any plot twists are signposted several chapters beforehand, which dulls their impact considerably. Ultimately, this is a side-scrolling brawler and not an action-adventure, despite its best endeavours. It’s not at Streets of Rage 4 levels of ridiculousness, but perhaps it might have been more endearing if it was; far too much time is spent ploughing through banal conversations and expository text when all you really want to do is get stuck into the combat. Traditional comic strip interludes barrel you through the plot between areas, though using a Comic Sans-style font for the lettering was certainly a bold choice for 2021. The text isn’t particularly high quality either: it’s as if an image of the English translation has been pasted over the top of each speech bubble, and the localisation could also do with some work. The difficulty options are binary — either smash your way through everything easily, or smash your way through everything easily until you reach a boss, at which point get your ass handed to you. The switch up is so noticeable as to be almost ridiculous; an additional median difficulty level would have proven a boon since only the most masochistic will want to grind their way through the last three bosses. At least you can flick the difficulty toggle at any point.
Replay-wise, there are a couple of endings, the availability of which I only discovered when I hit the “bad” one on my playthrough. The “true” ending is there for the collection fiends, a group to which I happily do not belong; that’s what YouTube is for. It won’t take you too long to blast through the whole game — depending on your stomach for the bosses — but this is a rich and polished delve into history, complete with segments of voiced dialogue (both Japanese and Taiwanese), riffs on traditional music and some wonderful arcade gameplay.
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