(Side note: "Saiyuki" is just the Japanese spelling for the 3 words in the title to the famous Chinese saga, "Journey to the West". There are a lot of things based on or inspired by it in both cultures, including a Japanese manga series and Goku from Dragonball.)
The game's main character is Sanzo, a monk sent on a pilgrimage to India at the request of the goddes Lady Kannon (Guan-yin). Lady Kannon gives Sanzo a staff that s/he must take to Thunder Temple. (er, note that at the beginning you can choose what gender you want to play. The male and female Sanzo look different, have different voice actors, and have some differences in the dialogue. I'm playing through the game as a female.) In the first chapter, you travel through China and pick up the 5 main companions for Sanzo. In the first battle, your bodyguards from the temple get killed by monsters, so you free Sun Goku, the Monkey King, from the rock he was imprisoned in and he defeats the monsters for you. Sanzo's staff, as it turns out, was meant to carry/hold Guardians, spirits that fell from Heaven. But of course, there are complications along the way. There's someone who wants to capture Sanzo because it's rumored that eating the flesh of a priest increases longevity. There are also some mysterious people who don't care about Sanzo, and just want her staff and the Guardians. In the second chapter, you pick up another 6 characters, although they're optional - there are a handful of dialogue options along the way and if you pick the wrong ones you don't end up recruiting the characters.
The ending is actually very good, and quite satisfying. (My friend who's lending me the game showed it to me.)
Cast of characters (so far, I've just finished Chapter 2):
The characters are so much more loveable in Saiyuki than in FinalFantasyTactics. :P
Not a big fan of Lavian and Alicia, I take it ;-)
The game uses a 5-element system: Fire is weak against Water, Water is weak against Earth, Earth is weak against Wood/Life?, Life is weak against Metal/Gold?, and Metal is weak against Fire. (If you ever forget what elements are weak against what, it shows the circle of relationships in the character-information view.) Everyone has 3 pieces of equipment - weapon, armor, and helmet/hat. The weapon can't be changed, only upgraded. Characters also have 6 slots for scrolls and accessories; equipping a scroll enables you to cast that spell, but you must have the required level in the appropriate element to be able to equip it. (Characters level up in the different elements separately in addition to general levels.) So, even a Water-elemental might be able to equip a Fire or Earth scroll, if his element level is high enough. Also, (obviously), characters of one element will take more or less damage from a character with an element they're weak or strong agains.
All of your characters except Sanzo are "Were", meaning that they can transform from (mostly) human-looking to some sort of monstrous/giant-animal form. Only one character can be in Were form at a time during a battle, and turning to Were form uses up one point from the Were Gauge. (It also does non-elemental damage in a ring around the character.) Once in Were form, the character can only move, wait, change back to human form, or do a WereAttack?. Any experience earned in Were forms goes towards increasing the Were Level, which increases the Were Gauge and adds more WereAttacks? to the various characters.
Sanzo can't transform to a Were, but she can summon Guardians from the staff. This uses up MP, and the Guardians stay hovering over her head for 3 turns. While summoned, the Guardian grants some sort of bonus (e.g. Mother heals everyone by a certain amount each turn, healing people by less the farther they are from Sanzo). It also enables Sanzo to cast a special, 0 MP attack spell that's the same element as the Guardian. (There were a couple of battles where the strategy was "Protect the monk while she whacks the boss with her one attack spell.")
As a nice little feature, you can save at any time during battles (and on the World Map, of course).
Most towns have at least a Chemist and a Dojo. In the Dojo, you can choose from Basic or Advanced fights, and eventually fight the Dojo Master. You can't turn to Were form during these fights, but even if everyone or Sanzo dies, it's okay because it's just training. Some places also have a Store (for equipment) or a Smith, where you can upgrade your weapons. The biggest towns also have a Post, where you can get Jobs or Gamble. Most jobs from the Post are marked "Del. [item]", with a destination and a cash reward. There are some special jobs, like "Gather Dye" and "Calm Rowdy Priest", with specially scripted cutscenes, and sometimes item rewards.
Well, I haven't finished the game yet, but I like it a LOT better than FinalFantasyTactics. A major reason, gameplay wise, is that characters that die in battle don't die permanently. (Except for Sanzo, if she dies, it's Game Over.) In Tactics, I had to win overwhelmingly or end up screwed for the rest of the game - any dead characters were lost forever, and I'd have to "raise" a level 1 character back up to their equivalent level. That makes the game as a whole a lot harder, even if the individual battles might not be. Also, the characters are much more loveable, and I feel like there's a lot more character development that goes on.
The special jobs from the Post just amaze me. They run out eventually, but still... Like, there's one marked "Deliver Letter", which looks like one of the generic jobs, but then when you get there, you get served drugged tea, which everyone except Sanzo drinks, and she has to fend off two bandits. (She totally ownz them, by the way. :P)
Err, something. I'll go back and write a more complete review after I finish the game. :P
I found the game to be less gripping than was FinalFantasyTactics, due, I assume, to a difference in taste. The battles are fairly varied, and provide some resistance (although I concur that the game is easier than FFT). I was particularly amused by the braid-theory battle near the end of chapter 2. The characters are, by and large, cute, and provide amusing dialogue in the various plot scenes (which I appreciate more now that it's fresh in my mind).
(should someone move this somewhere now that the text it's responding to has disappeared?)
The game is reminiscent of others of its genre, particularly the Tenchi Muyo! SNES game, which is to say that it does little mechanics-wise that is spectacularly original. This should not be taken as much of a negative thing, however; the game mechanics are all solid and play well (something a few other games might do well to emulate...).
Ryorin also reminds me a great deal of Moneymaker from FrontMissionThree.
Is the legend on which the game is based available for perusal anywhere (cf [Romance of the Three Kingdoms], the source material for Dynasty Warriors (also made by Koei))?