Story & World
The setting of ancient China is well established throughout the game. Everything from the story to the monsters to the graphics and sound just ooze of the Orient. The main objective of recovering mystical and unique "named" blades seems well-suited to the period as well. As opposed to China itself, each of the four chapters of Shinsenden exist within a tiny overworld map. Quite often it is possible to see a dungeon entrance right after leaving a village. With the encounter rate being as high as it is, the small map size is a plus but the thrill of exploration is sorely missed. Dungeons are likewise short and, worse still, very linear. 10/20
There are three main stats that occasionally decide to increase when levelling and even when they do, it's by a small amount. Hit, magic, and technique points raise a little more reliably but most important is the acquisition of new spells (of which there are many). There are no items or anything available to alter stats, giving no control over the character's development. Purchasing new weapons and armour is a crapshoot; often a new item will only increase attack or defense power by one or two points (not even noticeable in combat). They also all have very asian-sounding names, which is good for story flavour but bad for knowing what the hell I'm buying. A small number of weapons have a special ability, usually duplicating an attack spell. 4/20
Combat & Monsters
The difficulty of the regular battles ensure that every encounter will end up draining magic points, either from using attack spells or having to heal after if sticking with straight melee attacks. In order to save on MP, the spirit-holding gourd has to be heavily used in every encounter. The potential of the gourd could have made for some interesting battles but unfortunately that only happened in the boss battles. The gourd basically just becomes an enemy vacuum cleaner in regular encounters, sucking them up and cleaning them out for more room. Still, a very cool idea. There are lots of spells to choose from and older spells eventually get overwritten with more powerful versions.
The majority of the monsters are taken from Chinese folklore, I assume. I didn't recognize much, other than the jiangshi (hopping vampires). Every new place brought with it a strange and surprising bestiary. I never knew what was going to kick my ass next! >:| There are also some goofy creatures as well, such as the shark fin soup or the several tofu-based ones. 11/20
Graphics & Sound
While the artwork design is nicely done, I found the colour choices to be either too uniform or too clashing. Many monster sprites use only one or two colours but do make good use of shadowing. The music is superb and consistently keeps the oriental feel flowing throughout the game. The village tune was even good enough to get the virtual wife humming it from time to time. 15/20
If I hadn't failed so badly in properly testing items out, I think Shinsenden would still classify as a difficult game but not stupidly difficult. The very beginning and the solo quest during the middle are the most frustrating parts but it eases up towards the end. Once the final blade is possessed, regular attacks finally start doing decent damage. Grinding (and there's a lot of it) was mostly done not for levels, but for gold to purchase the best equipment available and as many healing potions as could be carried; for most of the game, it's not remotely feasible to tackle a dungeon otherwise. The momentum of the game is kept strictly on the rails; there is no freedom to explore (not that the encounter rate would let one get far anyhow).
Controls are fine; the only problem is navigating through the spell list during battle. The list only displays three spells at a time and the words are often crammed close to each other, making selection cumbersome. This is likely due to the nature of Japanese to
English translations; Japanese is a more compact writing system than
English is. 7/10
Final Ranking: 47/100