Though you may sometimes die in adventure games, it isn’t often that you start out dead. XING: The Land Beyond begins with just such an unusual scenario. Shuffling off this mortal coil takes you straight to the afterlife, a surreal space full of portals to different historical eras. Massive boulders float nearby, spores drift through the air, and blue stars dazzle as they move in arching curves. A waterfall streams through the sky above you and streaks of light caper among the clouds. This is a fascinating, eye-popping, ravishing place to explore, and you soon find yourself breaking through stained-glass gates to enter lushly realistic worlds. There you’ll learn the story of the hero or heroine of each era, and solve stimulating logic puzzles that remove barriers and propel you on a journey full of awe and self-discovery.
XING is, in many ways, a solitary quest, as you won’t meet other mortals. However, before you enter the first portal, you confront a sentient stone creature who is your guardian and explains that “…in death you have much still to do.” It turns out that four souls inhabit the four worlds you must enter, and unless you advance along paths fraught with brain teasers and learn the strengths and weaknesses of each protagonist in an effort to capture them, they will fade into oblivion. Fortunately, the giant has planted stone basins along the way that provide hints, sage remarks and satirical comments. And as you progress through the game, you discover an even more urgent reason to delve into the lives of these particular souls.
The places you visit include a Pacific Island, a jungle deep in South America, a mountain in Asia, and a Middle-Eastern desert, each set in a different time period hundreds of years in the past and portrayed in some of the most astoundingly gorgeous 3D graphics I have ever encountered. The environments are mostly naturalistic, but the puzzle elements are often eerily lit, giving a dreamlike quality to the rustic surroundings. The attention to detail is impressive. For instance, unlike virtually every other 3D game I’ve played where leaves are stiff and unrealistic, here most of the foliage looks pliable and alive. Footsteps show up in the sand and snow, then slowly fade. Ice melts gradually. Fruit with a tender skin is charred if you burn it and later douse the flame.
I spent hours roaming the hills, gorges, beaches, lakes, and gardens, reveling in the beauty of it all. As I wandered I could see flora moving in the breeze, watch the rippling water, and listen to the torch flames crackle. In each world you can control the day-night cycle and create rainstorms by standing on glowing circles with sun, moon, or raindrop icons. Nighttime is a wonderfully eerie contrast to the play of light and shadow during the day, and the rain and mist dampen and blur the landscape and atmosphere. You can also sometimes conjure up snowfall, which transforms the pine needles and grass into delicate crystal-like patterns.
The background music suits each of the locales. Syncopated beats are topped by a whimsical flute tune in the jungle sequences. Delicate keyboard and string melodies add an aura of mystery to the island scenery. And pensive orchestral music with an Asian influence brings a deep sense of longing to the frosty mountaintops. The only drawback is that if (like me) you spend a great deal of time exploring and puzzling, the scores become repetitive.
Bits of story written in verse are offered in each world, set in stone tablets or on parchments, explaining the life paths of the individuals whose souls you are trying to secure. The stories presented are somewhat light on detail, but thoughtful nevertheless. While investigating where they lived, you handle objects they touched and contemplate their concerns and secrets. The poetry is voiced, with the voice-overs ranging from acceptable to remarkable. One character you follow is a child, and though it’s typically hard to get a child’s voice to sound authentic, this one is spot-on.
The decision to tell a series of tales via chunks of poetry is an odd one, because it feels rather formal and tends to distance you from the characters. I read everything about the people in the first two worlds, but didn’t really feel as though I knew them. In the third and fourth worlds, however, the poetry and voice-overs began to bring the personalities to life (or perhaps I became accustomed to this unusual way of presenting them). As I progressed, I felt that I understood how these characters struggled and why they weren’t at peace, even in the afterlife, though I still didn’t feel like I knew any of them deeply. Then again, I found the ending story synthesis satisfying enough that I realized a profound knowledge of each individual wasn’t crucial.
Beyond poetry, XING also tiptoes into the realm of philosophy. The stone giant hints at a theme for each world, raising thought-provoking questions as you follow their respective stories: What does it mean to truly be alone? To see the world with the heart of a child? What happens when you insist on absolute control? Is expressing love more important than doing your duty?Continued on the next page...