Liao Tianding was a real historical figure in early 20th century Taiwan, a Robin Hood-style thief rebelling against Japanese colonial rule.
But this game is no biography. In Taiwanese developer CGCGC’s vision, he’s a cocky action hero defined by a roguish chuckle, reminding his enemies that he’s a step ahead of them, and can beat them even when he isn’t. The man and the period inspire a cartoon folk yarn with an Indiana Jones sense of adventure. Fortunately, like Liao, The Legend of Tianding has the slickness and confidence to make it work.
In part, that’s down to its episodic comic book styling. Neat cel-shading and black borders create a clean, dynamic look. Cutscenes resolve with pace, with still panels slapped across the main view. It’s as fluid as the animation of Liao’s signature flowing red sash, as he conspires to break into the city’s mansions and military depots, facing down treacherous collaborators and hapless Japanese police.
Liao’s personality equally shines through in the game’s knockabout brawls, combining skill and thievery to evoke classic Jackie Chan. Weaken an enemy with dagger slashes, and a secondary attack sees Liao instantly wrap them in his sash, pilfer their weapon, then fling them in the direction of your choosing, perhaps to add juggle damage with a rising kick, or send them careening into hazards.
The result is a series of hectic, dancing scraps full of improvised weapon switches, executed with remarkably tight controls. Indeed, progress is often surprisingly breezy, whether tackling police squads or platform challenges constructed from grinding buzzsaws, poison pits, and swinging axes. Screens that look destined to serve up pain fall to unfussy chains of air dodges, grapples, and flying kicks, making you feel like a badass kung-fu outlaw.
So much so in fact that it’s a shock when one of the game’s bosses hands that badass right back to you. These are fair fights, with clear tells for their attacks and reliable means of avoiding them – if you’re quick – but expect to stall on them increasingly in later levels while you study their patterns (unless you reduce the difficulty level). Depending on your stance on such things, they’re a bodycheck against an otherwise smooth flow, or precisely the kind of grand show that chief villains should put on.
Indeed, they’re probably worth savouring since downtime between action sequences is a little excessive, despite the entertaining story. While the main missions are substantial, there are only four, which feels one or two short, and a lot of toing and froing between, as you zip around town seeking out allies who invariably ask you to fetch supplies before offering help. Side quests, too, are half-hearted, simple errands or contrivances to revisit previous stages and search for hidden items.
The Legend of Tianding doesn’t quite have the perfect balance of its protagonist, then, but crisp presentation and action more than do him justice. Despite some unevenness, you should have the last laugh.
The standout sequence takes place on a speeding train, an extended action film set piece in which you clamber onto the roof and battle against the wind as well as your foes, then drop down into carriages full of traps, all accompanied by furious backing music.
A classy comic book action adventure.
Genre: Platform brawler
Format: PC (tested) / Switch
Developer: Creative Games and Computer Graphics Corporation
Publisher: Neon Doctrine
Release: Out now