Ys: A Video Game Review

I’ve played a lot of video games with stupid names. Boktai, Tactics Ogre, Irritating Stick, Dissidia: Final Fantasy. The list could go on, but I think we have a new champion here. Ys Chronicles+: Ancient Ys Vanished ~ Omen is one heck of a mouthful and basically says nothing at all about the game. Well, it sort of does, but do you think that someone who’s never heard of the Ys series before will have a hot clue how to parse it?

I mean, Average Joe wouldn’t even realize that the word “Ys” is pronounced “ease.” And even I only know that because I’ve been hearing people say it on podcasts for years now.

But that’s all besides the point. Ys is a video game. The first in its line, in fact! Well, not the one I played, though. I played the remade version of Ys. But I also watched a speedrun of the original version, and it’s actually surprisingly faithful to the original, while adding a bunch of extra stuff and making some little tweaks here and there. Not unlike the remake of the original Resident Evil. So I guess what I’m saying is, it’s more or less the “ideal” kind of remake.

What is this game, though? I’m glad that you asked! Ys is a top-down action-styled RPG. It looks maybe a little bit similar to a certain other video game series that’s turning 35 this year, and you might even be predisposed to liking Ys if you’re a fan of that certain other video game series. But they are actually vastly different! Look at Ys’ title screen below, for example. Not a triangle in sight! I told you, couldn’t be more different!

Naked girl holding a magical orb? Yup, this came from Japan, all right.

Ys opens with your character, Adol Christin, waking up in a “hospital” bed in a small beachfront town. His ship was wrecked in a storm, and now he’s stranded on an isolated continent that is knows as cursed by other nations. After licking his wounds clean and talking to the people of the town, he heads off to nowhere in particular, because you are given literally no direction at the start of the game. In fact, several characters urge you not to leave town due to the ferocious monsters that prowl the lands. What is the story here? You won’t know until you hike up those boots, run past all the monsters who will kill you almost instantly, and start asking around at the next town, which is conveniently only one screen away.

If you do decide to engage monsters on the way there, you will learn that Ys does not have anything even slightly resembling a typical action RPG combat system. To paraphrase the speedrunner I watched: “Adol is far too manly to swing a sword. Instead he just runs headlong into enemies and hopes that they die before he does.” And that’s a fairly apt description of how fighting enemies works. You bump Adol into them, and then one or both of you lose some HP. Repeat until one or the other explodes into bloody giblets. There’s some finesse to it, where you’re less likely to take damage if you bump into a monster slightly off-center, but both Adol and the enemies scoot around so quickly that it’s tough to line up a solid hit. Or, to not line up a solid hit? I don’t know. It’s weird. Also monsters have wee little hitboxes, so that doesn’t help either.

Then you get to the next town, which has not one but three shops, and also a fortune-teller who will point you in the right direction. But she won’t do so until you’ve equipped yourself with a sword, shield, and armor. This may or may not necessitate a bunch of grinding, depending on how much you trust a surly-looking man in the local pub to reward you handsomely for spending all your starting money to buy his ring back from the local pawn shop. One way or another, you get equipped, and the fortune-teller finally decides to tell Adol that he is the hero of legend, and that it’s his destiny to collect six magical books that are strewn about the land. Also the first stop in his new job as mystical librarian is to go visit her grandma in the final town of the game.

Pop culture references aren’t common, but they are jarringly out of place.

I made that sound like kind of a big to-do, but there are only three towns in this video game.

This is where Ys starts to open up: you have equipment now, so you can actually fight back and defeat all the ghoulies that roam the lands. Said lands are also free to travel at your leisure. The overworld isn’t huge, maybe like nine screens total, but they’re fairly large screens. You can find a bunch of neat stuff while exploring, like trees that prompt mysterious cinematic sequences, a mine shaft with massively overpowered monsters, and several treasure boxes that may or may not be locked. The world is your oyster! Run around and explore your little heart out!

Trees can speak to you via telepathy. Because video games.

Eventually you’ll start piecing together how to move on in the story, which is in grand RPG fashion, usually by talking to townsfolk. Some will point you towards your next major goal, and some will give you hints about optional quests that you can complete. Most of said optional quests will reward you with some cash or an item, but there’s at least one time where you turn in an item to the dude that wanted it, and he just says “Nah, nevermind. I don’t want it anymore.” Who does that!?

By the time you end up completing the Solomon Shrine and Abandoned Mine dungeons, you’re going to start getting the feeling that Adol’s quest is coming to an end. And you’d be right. Much like towns, there are only three dungeons in Ys. The twist here is that the final dungeon is more or less half of the game. Darm Tower is a massive 25-floor maze that will take quite some time to complete, especially if you make it to the top and realize that you missed an item 18 floors down.

It’s also worth mentioning that long before you first set foot into Darm Tower, you will also have attained the maximum level. I was thrown for a loop when Adol hit level 10 and the “EXP to next level” counter showed a big, fat zero. Yup, level 10 is the highest you go, and at that point, the game is pretty much yours to steamroll through (with a few exceptions). I imagine that it’s not such a walk in the park on the Hard or Nightmare difficulties, but during my Normal playthrough, Adol was nigh unstoppable. And I was happy with that, because the times when Adol was stoppable could get intensely frustrating.

The points I’m talking about, specifically, are the bosses. The game’s bump-combat system just doesn’t work well with boss fights, as it turns out. Most weren’t too bad, but two in particular stood out as prime candidates of craptacular game design:

The boss of the Abandoned Mine is a large bat monster who has the capability to split into multiple smaller bats that fly around and damage Adol, not unlike a great number of video game vampires. The problem is this: the boss is only vulnerable when in Giant Bat form, which only lasts for what I can assume is a single frame. His hitbox may be single pixel, as well. So that led to me constantly running in circles around the room, with my health slowly being chipped away by tiny bat kisses, trying in vain to ram Adol into the boss for that split-second that he became whole. It wasn’t hard, necessarily, but it was tedious as heck and awful.

This boss will either be impervious to your attacks, or die in two hits. Balance!

Even worse is the final boss. This fellow flies around the room, bouncing off walls at 45-ish degree angles. Not so bad on its own. But the whole time, laser beams are constantly flying at Adol, and when they miss, they split and spread out into somewhere between eight to ten tiny bullets. So now you’re chasing the boss around and roughly a million projectiles are on the screen at all times. This alone is enough to put a hard time limit on the fight, since if you’re not getting hit, it’s purely luck. To top it all off, every time you damage the boss, a chunk of the floor falls away. And if you aren’t moving, you fall into that hole and die instantly. If you don’t fall in, there’s a very real chance that you will eventually get trapped in a corner and laser blasted to death with no chance for recourse. I think that about 50% of the floor is gone once the boss is down to about a third of his HP, so you can see how this could get aggravating.

It took me at least two dozen attempts to claim victory, and a rational persona would have given up once they realized what a trash fire this boss fight is. But the saving grace is that those two dozen (or more) tries went by very quickly. Probably less that ten minutes, total. Not only is the boss fight very short (even shorter when you fall in a hole), but reloading and starting it up again takes virtually no time at all, so it’s not really a slog to keep trying over and over again.

And that leads me into some nice quality-of-life features that Ys provides to players. Number one: You can save literally anywhere, at any time. See a boss door? Save your game so you can give it another go without needing to traverse the dungeon again if you die. Want to sequence break? Just savescum your way past deadly monsters to the treasure box containing a powerful piece of equipment! Number two: Adol’s HP restores automatically while standing still while outside a dungeon, so there’s never any need to run back to town and spend money to heal up. You can even find an equippable item that lets you heal while in a dungeon. So in addition to planting a save right in front of a boss door, you can also easily heal up to full before heading in. How convenient!

The last, and most important thing about Ys is that the soundtrack is friggin’ incredible. And take your pick: both the original and remake have excellent soundtracks. The town and event themes are fairly standard RPG fare, though I think the compositions are easily much more complex than in most other games from 1989. The tracks are surprisingly long; like, they’re legitimately complete songs and not just 20-second tunes. But the best part, the best part of all, are the dungeon themes on the remake soundtrack. Holy Hannah, the organ riffs! The pounding drums! The guitar solos! There’s so much shredding, it’s like an aural paradise! I can forgive myself for not having played Ys game for roughly 32 years, but I feel like I’ve really missed out by not having known about this spectacular soundtrack until now.

In fact, you know what? Here’s a YouTube embed of the whole soundtrack for the Ys Chronicles+ duology. I’d recommend listening to the whole thing, but feel free to skip ahead to “Palace of Destruction” at 24:29 if you have any interest in having your face thoroughly melted.

My Steam library says that I’ve played Ys for five hours, and that includes some noodling around in a new game after rolling the credits. On the strength of the soundtrack alone, I would say that those were five hours very well spent. But I did also enjoy exploring the game’s world, and talking to its NPCs, and even tearing through monsters like a god once I realized how broken the experience curve was. The low points of Ys are centralized very squarely on the two bosses I’ve described above, and while they were very bad, they weren’t bad for very long. I would give a hearty recommendation to anyone that likes video games to give Ys a try. After having been so thoroughly contented by my back-to back playthroughs of Ys and the 2006 prequel-sequel, Ys Origin, I am absolutely looking forward to checking out the rest of this series.

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