Gujian 3 comes close to being the Final Fantasy of Chinese RPGs

Unlike the burly, roguishly handsome action heroes of most western games, the protagonist of Gujian 3 is slender, androgynous and impossibly graceful. It's an archetype you might recognize in Chinese martial art shows like The Untamed and House of Flying Daggers. But sprinkle in some Chinese and Taoist mythology and you get xianxia, one of the most pivotal and popular genres of fiction Chinese pop culture. Gujian 3 takes those often melodramatic motifs—gods warring alongside mortals, civilisations existing entirely in dreamscapes, and dramatic, high-flying duels—and weaves them into an intricate action RPG that often comes close to feeling like a Chinese take on The Witcher or Final Fantasy. It's an excellent introduction to a genre that sadly gets so little exposure outside of China.

If this is the first you've heard of Gujian 3, that's because it first launched on Steam back in 2018 and was only available in Chinese until late last 2019. Despite that, Gujian 3 sold more than 1.3 million copies. It even peaked at 10,183 concurrent Steam players according to SteamDB, which is more than any of the Yakuza games. Gujian 3's low-key success might be surprising to players outside of Chinese speaking countries, but it's actually a part of a storied series that has even spawned live-action TV shows.

The word "xianxia" is made up of two Chinese characters, which loosely means "immortal heroes"—something that Gujian 3 has in excess. Like the fiction that inspired it, it's a grandiose RPG filled with dexterous swordsmen, immortal beings, demonic beasts, and talking woodland creatures. That might sound a lot like most fantasy games, but Gujian 3 is deeply infused with ancient Chinese folklore that often subverts expectations cemented by centuries of European-based mythology.

Swords and sorcery

It's liberating to play an RPG that's always on overdrive, making it easy to be swept up in the over-the-top majesty and grandeur.

Similar to games like Yakuza, Final Fantasy, and The Witcher, Gujian 3 is a sprawling RPG with lots of distractions, but the story is largely centered around Beiluo, a free-spirited fey swordsman who's unwittingly caught in a centuries-long conflict between demigods and demonic forces. Naturally, it's a battle that threatens to upend the delicate balance of the world, but Beiluo resents being dragged into the whole mess.

He's the heir to the Shadowchasers, a powerful celestial race, making him effectively a demigod. But, for reasons that soon become clear, Beiluo wants little to do with his divine heritage or the power (and conflicts) that come with it. Demons, for instance, have been relentless in their attacks against the Shadowchasers, and the magical shield that has long defended their realm is weakening. 

It's a universe that’s drenched in lore—some of it directly inspired by Chinese mythology. But Gujian 3's complicated universe comes alive through its charismatic and likeable characters. The reformed demon Yun Wu Yue, for instance, belongs to a demonic race known as Dreamhaunts, and struggles against her animalistic instinct to hunt and destroy what was traditionally her prey: clans of interdimensional nomads who venture across dreamscapes. 

Sadly, Gujian 3's English translation isn’t perfect, and voice-acted conversations are still in Chinese with English subtitles. But despite the occasional spelling mistakes and awkward phrasing, Gujian 3's story is easy to get wrapped up in. It’s genuinely captivating tale, and exposes an entire cultural heritage tragically underrepresented in most games—especially RPGs.

It makes for some spectacular moments, particularly when players are making liberal use of qinggong, a martial art technique that grants the ability to perform gravity-defying acrobatics like leaping off walls and flying across long distances. These high-flying antics pair really well with the melodrama of Gujian 3's cutscenes as characters like Beiluo struggle against eons-old destinies and celestial monsters. It's liberating to play an RPG that's always on overdrive, making it easy to be swept up in the over-the-top majesty and grandeur. As someone that has feverishly binged on xianxia fiction since childhood, I love how Gujian 3 brings all these things to life, and it does a fantastic job of evoking some of the best xianxia classics. 

(Image credit: Wangyuan Shengtang)

Gujian 3 also knows when to play it subtle, too. Take the blossoming but slow-burning friendship between Beiluo and Yun Wu Yue, who were only brought together by a promise they made to the previous Shadowchaser king. They quickly bond over their statuses as outsiders to their clans, but their deepening relationship is often expressed only by long, meaningful glances or subtle gestures and comments.

These moments work because Gujian 3 is generally gorgeous to look at and features a rousing orchestral soundtrack. There's also the standard stuff you'd expect in an RPG: quests are often found in one of the few bustling towns, each brimming with glorious temples and castles reminiscent of imperial China. There's a lot of devils in these details, making the otherworldly environments and divine kingdoms fun to explore.

A dance of swords 

The difficulty is so punishing that it can verge on frustration. Gujian 3 doesn't believe in hand-holding.

Xianxia isn't just about sprawling interdimensional universes and thousand-year-old demigods, though. The real fun comes from elaborate, impossibly acrobatic fights between swordsmen, demons, and everything in between. Fortunately, Gujian 3 features a complex and fluid combat system that lets me unleash fatal combos and wield powerful magics. It doesn't let me dance around rooftops like Li Mu Bai from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it's fast, furious, and surprisingly punishing.

Like a lot of action RPGs, the goal is to string together a continuous chain of attacks, by artfully weaving in and varying my slashes and dodges, with the odd supernatural ability sprinkled in to exploit an enemy weakness or save myself from a powerful attack. But I'm surprised just how demanding even the most basic fights often are. Run-of-the-mill demons can obliterate me within seconds if I'm not paying attention, and the frequent boss fights often had me mashing the dodge button as I desperately tried to memorize elaborate enemy attacks or discover a hidden weakness. 

(Image credit: Aurogon)

The difficulty is so punishing that it can verge on frustration. Gujian 3 doesn't believe in hand-holding, which became obvious during the first boss fight in the tutorial against a colossal monster with tentacles that lashed me to pieces. Even worse, I only had a limited time to kill it before the mountain-sized beast eviscerated my home planet. It's a lot to manage at first.

Thankfully there's a lot to do outside of getting my ass kicked. I can craft equipment by finding resources while exploring or go fishing if I need some extra gold, and there's a ton of sidequests to chew through, too. These are to be expected in a big RPG, but I didn't expect Gujian 3 to have full-blown base-building, where I can tend to a farm, decorate my courtyard, and build furniture to display in my house. All this is introduced within the first act, which took me around 14 hours to get through with another three acts to go.

Even though the translation may occasionally falter, or doesn’t fully capture the nuances of the Chinese language and the game’s lore, it's exciting that Gujian 3 so faithfully evokes an underrepresented genre of Chinese fiction in English. Many of its developers belonged to the studio behind China's most iconic xianxia games: The Legend of Sword and Fairy series. Playing like the earliest Final Fantasy titles, its influence in China is comparable to other RPG classics such as Elder Scrolls and Planescape: Torment. You might never know that because until recently few Chinese-made games would release outside of Asia. Steam is changing that, though. As more Chinese games are made accessible to English audiences, Gujian 3 is easily one of the best I've played.

The power fantasy central to the xianxia genre is so alluring that there’s even a tourist spot in Fujian, China that lets people replicate exaggerated qinggong moves as they glide through the air on wires amidst a backdrop of waterfalls and temples. As a kid who grew up reading all the xianxia I could, it's a fantasy I've dreamed about for years. It'll probably take some time before I ever get to go to Fujian, but Gujian 3 offers a great alternative, allowing xianxia fans—and any anglophone players curious about Chinese culture—to wield a sword as a hardened martial artist against legions of murderous demons.