When players take a trip to the fictional world of Kyrat in Far Cry 4, it will be a tourist's guide to Southeast Asia in more ways than one. Once players have had their fill of the mountainous country's action and story, they are free to journey into the supernatural, and explore the mystical paradise of Shangri-La. And after playing it ourselves, it's the most surprising side of Far Cry 4 that we have yet to see.
During the same preview event where we tried our luck at assassination-by-bear, the developers revealed the work of Ubisoft's Toronto studio, bringing a mystical side to the game's central story. Drawing on the same real world inspirations that have shaped the game's setting and characters, the player's journey through Shangri-La is also promised to be a walk through Nepal's mythology as well.
In the time since, Ubisoft unveiled the Shangri-La missions while revealing the first look at the vibrant, gravity-defying world and the enemies contained within - along with the deadly white tiger prepared to fight at the player's side. But how does this side of the game inform Ajay Ghale's return home to Kyrat? The details on explicit connections are still vague, but the gameplay alone will be enough to grab fans' attention.
Players will discover the legend of Shangri-La through five poems, or chapters scattered throughout the world of Kyrat. When players uncover one of these markers, they will being to meditate, and step into the legend themselves. As an ancient Kyrat warrior sent by his king to discover the mountain paradise, the player soon finds the utopia invaded by dark forces. With the paradise's feline protector at their side, the cleansing begins.
As we first stepped into the world of reds and yellows, and the subtitles teased the larger story being told to both the warrior and player, the fact that this world was embedded within a game filled with gunfire and gyrocopters gave us pause. How did the team behind a game like Far Cry decide to step away from a fully-realized game world, and dabble in Southeast Asian mythology?
Luckily, Ubisoft Toronto's Matt West, Level Design Director on the Shangri-La portions was on hand to explain:
"It started from examining the lore of the world that had already been created. Kyrat was so rich and complete already, we felt that if we tried to go sideways and expands its breadth, it would just be superfluous at that point. So we decided to dive down, and the logical spot for that was the legend [of Shangri-La].
"Once we had this notion that there was a legend, that we had to tell the legend of Kyrat, we did a deep dive on all of the mythology we could get our hands on. We read every scrap that we could find. I found this fantastic website that still to this day boggles my mind... I think what it was was a message board for farmers in Nepal to post ghost stories.
"So we combed through all of this stuff, and then distilled it down. And the most common element is the bell. The bell is a common theme in a lot of the mythology from that part of the world, and it gave us a really interesting angle to craft the rest of the narrative around. Because a bell, in the mythology of that region can be heard in not only the real world, but in the underworld. So there was an automatic appeal in bringing some kind of conflict into that world."
West wouldn't elaborate on whether the invading forces to be fought in Shangri-La are literally connected to the forces of Pagan Min that have brought Kyrat to its knees, or if the parallels are simply thematic ones. And in gameplay terms, it's just as difficult to decide how much the mystical portions of the game have in common with Kyrat's open world design.
As in previous Far Cry games, the floating islands and ruined temples of Shangri-La offer ample opportunities for scouting, marking targets, and approaching with stealth - or letting your six hundred pound partner do the talking. The feline protector can be directly commanded to attack enemies near or far, or left to select its targets at random. While the combat encounters may end in chaos or silent takedowns as often as Ajay's real world versions, the tools given to player are surprisingly different.
Equipped with a magical bow that can slow down time when drawn, even the fastest enemies can be brought down in a plume of blue smoke, ridding Shangri-La of one more tainted inhabitant. But not all enemies are easily dispatched, and when defending an area in numbers can present a serious threat.
It isn't just their arrows that sting - blurring the player's vision and summoning haunting voices - but the strength and vulnerability that are brought in equal measure. Evading bullets and deadly wildlife is hard enough for Ajay, but when the bullets are replaced by arrows or a gout of flame fire by the enemy Scorchers, and the animals are summoned to do the invaders' bidding, a battle can turn quickly.
Fortunately, the actual objectives are straightforward enough to keep even panicked players on mission. A bell of enlightenment awaits the player at the end of their mystical quest, bringing who knows what kind of influence to the world beyond Shangri-La's borders. Matt West claims that the decision to provide a more directed experience was made to give the story's beginning and ending more impact, but the philosophy of giving players the tools to make their own story persists:
"In my perfect version of the world, our players are actually writing the legend of Shangri-La for us, and then telling the world what Shangri-La was."
Although the paradise was crafted by a separate team, we can say that both aspects of Far Cry 4's world were equally as memorable. For one, the lunacy and emergent stories that required little plot to give them context; the other, the unmistakable feeling that players were being ushered along through a story they would come to understand quite differently.
Stay tuned to Game Rant in the coming days for more details and impression of Far Cry 4, and feel free to leave your questions in the comments below.
Far Cry 4 will be available for PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4 on November 18, 2014.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.