Prince of Qin, from Chinese developer Object Software, is a historically-based role-playing game. It takes place during China’s Qin (pronounced “chin”) Dynasty, which lasted from 221 to 206 BC, and it asks the question: what might have happened if the Crown Prince of Qin, a man by the name of Fu Su, hadn’t committed suicide? In real life Fu Su was given a fake directive to kill himself, and he followed orders. In Prince of Qin, Fu Su decides to check with his father the Emperor first, and along the way he discovers that his father is dead and that evil things are afoot. And so of course he has to gather some companions and solve a lot of quests in order to set things right.
That Prince of Qin is based on real life is sort of a nice touch. You get to visit real places and sometimes you get to run into real people, and the game’s journal does a nice job of throwing out tidbits of information about what some of those people went on to do. Plus, because Prince of Qin is light on fantasy aspects -- no orcs or dwarves or ancient evils here -- it plays differently than other role-playing games. Magic is muted, and most of the time combat deals with people or wild animals (although there are some monsters). The downside to the historical theme is that it’s Chinese history, and so you have to deal with lots of Chinese names. For example, five of the cities in the game are called Wancheng, Chencheng, Yangcheng, Xuechang, and Pengcheng, and keeping track of them, not to mention all of the people, who all seem to be named Wu or Yu or Li, is a bit of a chore. Plus, the story in Prince of Qin isn’t especially exciting, since many of the plot points (like who sent the fake directive) are either strongly hinted at or simply given away in the game’s background information. But overall the Chinese theme is more a plus than a minus.
However, while Prince of Qin’s theme is relatively unique, its gameplay is pretty standard fare. In fact, superficially it sounds a lot like last year’s Throne of Darkness. But where Throne of Darkness wanted to be a new Diablo and stressed action over everything else, Prince of Qin lands squarely on the Baldur’s Gate side of the role-playing spectrum. And so the pace of the game is more measured, with a larger emphasis on quests than on combat, and there are lots of conversations to go through.
Also like in Baldur’s Gate, you get to control a group of characters (except you’re limited to five rather than six), but unlike Baldur’s Gate, Prince of Qin doesn’t have anything to do with AD&D. Its character system is actually more reminiscent of Diablo. Each character gets a class (paladin, assassin, muscleman, wizard, witch), six attributes (strength, dexterity, constitution, savvy, wisdom, charm), and 20 skills (like whirlwind and chain arrows). Then, each time a character levels, it gets to add ten points to its attributes and one point to its skills. Since skills typically have nine levels, and since characters only end up around level 50 in the game, that means you have to pick and choose between the skills, and it means you can have multiple characters with the same class in your party, since they can specialize in different areas. For example, assassins can focus on bows or short swords.
Prince of Qin is divided into eleven chapters. Some chapters might take a couple days to finish while others might take only an hour. The entire game probably takes about 50 hours to finish, and along the way you’ll get to complete something like 90 quests. Some of the quests are interesting, because you have to deal with people who have armies in the game, but most are simplistic to a fault. For example, in one quest a man asks you to help him reconcile with his estranged son. But not only does the son live in the same town, he lives right next door, and all you have to do is talk to him to complete the quest. Also, while there are a lot of conversations in the game, there are almost no conversation options, and so most quests can only be finished in one way, and your attributes don’t make a difference.
And the simplicity doesn’t stop with the quests. Despite coming on three CD’s, Prince of Qin doesn’t have a lot of variety. Since the developers eschewed a fantasy setting, that limits the sort of enemies they can have you face, but you have to fight bandits and enemy soldiers over and over and over again. Plus, the places you get to visit don’t change much. Almost everywhere you go is a city or a forest, with a small cave thrown in every so often, and eventually facing the same things in the same places just gets boring. This is even more apparent when the game actually lets you explore a trap-filled tomb. The tomb is pretty cool, and it gets creatures all its own, but it just made me wonder what happened in the rest of the game.
Breaking up the monotony a little bit is how Prince of Qin deals with equipment. Not only can you insert gems into objects to make them more powerful, you can also create objects from scratch using animal parts (like bones and tendons), plus wood and ore. I like it when role-playing games have systems like this, but Prince of Qin largely messes it up. Unlike other parts of the game, there are actually too many options here. There are something like 50 possible components, and the ones you use plus the level of your forging skill determine the object you create. That’s all fine and good, except the game gives you absolutely no hint about what the final object might be like, and so you either have to save and restore a lot so you don’t waste components on something useless, or you have to do like me and mostly give up on it and use the shops in the game instead.
Some nice documentation would have helped with creating objects, but documentation is a sore point with Prince of Qin, as is the text in the game, because of translation problems. The translation from Chinese isn’t so bad it’s funny (like with the original Gorasul translation), but it’s still generally bad. I mean, you should know you’re in trouble when a game based on BC China has a paladin class in it, and the translators regularly get words, tenses, and pronouns wrong. What’s the “art of remedy”? It’s the repair skill. What’s an “ogre”? It’s a monkey. You get the idea. Strategy First should feel a little embarrassed about how the game came out, and I hope they never again use the same company for future translations.
To make matters worse, not only is the game’s text a little iffy, the voice acting is absolutely atrocious. Did they forget about rehearsals? Did they forget about actors? Did they just pull random people off the street? Whatever the cause, the “voice actors” weren’t able to read their lines cleanly let alone actually try to act them, and certain conversations involving people dying or crying were just painful to listen to. There are subtitles available so you can turn off the sound if you want, except that the other sounds in the game, including the music, are fairly nice.
The graphics are also nice, but they’re not really notable. Prince of Qin uses a 2D engine and an isomorphic view, and so it looks like many other games. Of note though is that developer Object Software was able to create the locations using an editor, but not make it obvious they were using an editor. There’s enough variety that buildings and trees don’t all look alike, and Object Software even managed to prevent the locations from looking “grid-like.” Plus, because they used an editor, the save and load times are pretty fast.
Overall, Prince of Qin is a mediocre game -- but in a good way. It’s got some problems that are patchable, but the pacing is good and there’s always a quest to go on. The problem is simply one of timing. We’re in a golden age for role-playing games right now, and just in the last few months games like Morrowind, Neverwinter Nights, and Icewind Dale II have come out. And so it’s just difficult to recommend a game like Prince of Qin when there are so many other, better titles out there.