The Legend of Tianding is a Taiwanese game. Asia is comprised of many small countries but very few are actually powerhouses when it comes to video game development. Japan more or less created the video games industry in the first place (Nintendo created the worldwide mass market with the NES and everything derived from there), then Korea created the online PC gaming market before anyone else, and… that’s about it. China has its owned closed market that nobody knows (or cares) about, so it’s kind of irrelevant. Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan have a few devs here and there but by far and large nothing major. So I had very low expectations to begin with. Well, virtually anyone with half a brain can make a 2D platformer, but doing it well requires talent and experience. In that context, The Legend of Tianding is an excellent surprise.
A Bit of History
The story is simple, yet the background is going to be new for most Westerners who are not familiar with 20th-century Asia history. Late 19th-century, Japan invaded the island of Formosa following a war with China in 1894. During peace negotiations in 1895, Japan took the opportunity to occupy Taiwan and the Pescadores and the property of the territories was sealed with the Treaty of Shimonoseki in the same year between China and Japan.
However, the local population of Taiwan did not see well to the new occupants and resistance ensued. Japan had to send numerous troops to keep the order on the island - this is background of The Legend of Tianding, occurring early in the 20th-century. Nevertheless, progressively the Japanese imported some parts of their culture in the island (for example beer manufacturing was imported by Japan) and this continued until the liberation of the island at the end of WW2 (1945).
You play the role of the legendary Liao Tianding, who was a kind of Robin Hood figure, fighting the occupants and the rich who benefited from the occupation to help the poor and destitutes. The folk hero is the subject of numerous works in art.
The game is apparently a remake/reboot of a very old Flash game made in 2004 that you can actually find on itch.io - they evidently worked with the original creator. If you are interested you can check that old game here:
It works perfectly on Linux with WINE. It’s all in Chinese so you might have trouble to follow the story. The newer game from 2021 has an English version to make it easy for everyone to enjoy it. I use the term “reboot” loosely, the game follows similar mechanics but it’s been pretty much remade from scratch for modern platforms and 3D graphics. The 2021 opus is still a 2D game at heart but uses 3D backgrounds to add a lot more depth and details to the world.
The New Tianding
So what do you do in Tianding, 2021 version? The game is mostly centered around fights and avoiding traps set on the way, with scenes mixing both of them too. Fights have good mechanics: you have a set of standard moves (kicks and punches), and you will progressively learn special movies (triggered through a combination of buttons and directions). On top of that, you have this kind of ribbon that you can deploy to wrap enemies in it - and once you retract the ribbon again the enemies will drop their current weapons: this is how you can use sabers, knives, rifles, pistols and bazookas against your opponents. Add to that a number of moves to avoid direct confrontation, and you have a very extensive palette of options when it comes to dealing with people who want to hurt you.
The game throws plenty of enemies at once (most of them Japanese military men or policemen), with sometimes no less than 5 or 6 guys trying to kill you at once. The fun part of the game is that you can use the surroundings to get rid of enemies as well: there’s a hole with spikes near? Throw them in! There’s bombs falling regularly at some place? Make sure they get exposed as well. And so on.
The levels are mostly linear, but not always, with some back and forth needed in some places to activate a switch to open a specific door or opening. Still, this is much simpler than what you would expect in a Metroidvania, hence why I refer to it as a platformer.
Between some key moments in the game, usually at the beginning and end of chapters, you will have some cut scenes in manga style, with voice over. Boss fights are probably the most difficult parts of the game: you can usually breeze through a level without dying too often, but bosses are relentless and have a large energy bar. Getting rid of them is very challenging even at the normal difficulty level. You typically can carry a few health buns/sandwiches with you to pump up some blood in your life bar, but that’s barely enough when bosses can kill you with a few hits anyway. For example, the second level’s Boss is Nakamura, a huge beast who’s akin to Goliath if you were David, who jumps around and shoots his machine gun in all directions whenever he stops, making it very hard to avoid being hit. There’s always going to be some tricks and patterns to exploit, but the room for error is rather thin. You’ll die a lot.
What stands out the most is the quality of the whole execution. The Legend of Tianding is very well made. Graphics, music, even the animation follow very high standards. There’s very little to mention in the way of improvements. I am very keen to learn more about how the game was actually made, and who actually worked on it… and what are their plans next!
Last but not least, you may wonder how well the game works in Proton? Well, almost perfectly. There’s only some weird graphical glitch when you load your saved game. A comic book opens with an animation to show you when you were, context-wise - sometimes one of such pictures that appear for just a few seconds anyway is glitchy (distorted texture). Apart from that little detail, nothing to report. The whole game works as expected. By the way, the game requires a discrete GPU to run (at least a modest one), but I managed to make Tian Ding run on my 10-year-old Thinkpad with integrated Intel graphics by using ProtonGE and FSR (720p resolution to 1080p). And I could play the game fine at 30 FPS. Not as beautiful as 60 FPS, but the fact that it even ran at decent speed on such old hardware was fairly impressive.