Rarely does a series have a history so deep and yet so obscure as Ys. Although the series has always had a huge following in Japan, it has failed to generate much buzz in the West. The series has a lot of interesting qualities, from the original game’s unique (or unique-ish) way of handling combat, to the fact that each game has managed to be about the same hero, in defiance of most other JRPGs.
The story of Ys (yes, the whole series) follows the adventures of Adol Christin, a red-haired swordsman with a hankering for adventure. In Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, Adol and his longtime companion, Dogi, end up shipwrecked on a mysterious island. Apparently, the island is legendary for sinking ships, and since this makes the chances of rescue unlikely, Adol and the other survivors must save themselves.
Apart from this, your main character also seems to be having mysterious dreams of a monastic order and a girl named Dana whose visions of the future bring about a great sense of foreboding. There are also many strange things happening on the island, and a grand adventure soon begins to unfold.
As you can probably tell from the story description above, the game starts out as a simple adventure story akin to something like Treasure Island or Robinson Crusoe. Eventually, as the grander mystery begins to unfold, the narrative strays into more familiar JRPG territories featuring giant monsters and innocent maidens.
The gameplay is action oriented in the same vein as games like Kingdom Hearts or Dragon’s Dogma. You have a basic one button combo attack and can perform different skills by holding down R1 then tapping one of the face buttons, meaning you can have 4 abilities mapped in total. As you can probably guess, you can also jump as well to help you explore the game’s overworld. Your final move is an ‘extra ability’, basically a super-powered move you can use after filling the extra gauge, which fills when you use your special attacks.
One of the most interesting features is the ability to instantly switch the player’s character with one of your two party members. Each person in your party has a certain attack type (one of three), and each attack type is strong against one type and weak against another. This means that you can quickly switch between your characters on the fly to give yourself advantages against tough enemies.
The combination of each character’s abilities, their types and the power to switch between them on the fly, adds up for some fast paced combat. At higher levels of play, you become a whirlwind of force as you tear your way through hordes of enemies, switching between heroes with abilities best suited for each situation.
Adding to this sense of speed are the dodging and blocking mechanics. While holding R1 will bring up your shortcut list, it also blocks enemy attacks, and tapping L1 allows you to do a short dodge. If you manage to pull off a dodge or block just before you were about to get hit, you can activate one of two abilities. When you pull off a good dodge, the world slows down and you have a short period of time to perform any action you choose at hyper speed. On the other hand, if you block just right, your ability gauges both fill up and all your attacks become critical for a while.
Enemy attacks can be hard to read, and it does take a long time to get used to the dodging and blocking. However, once you’ve mastered the abilities and learned how to capitalize on them, you can become basically untouchable in all but the hardest fights.
A huge element of the gameplay, aside from the combat, is exploration. You and your scouting party are tasked with searching the entire island to try and find other castaways to join your settlement, as well as materials to ensure your survival and eventual escape. This means that you have to keep pushing further and further across the island using the people you’ve saved to help you break down obstacles. You also have to utilize different field gear to get access to different areas, like a set of gloves to climb vines or special boots that help you float across sinking mud.
The exploration in the game is pretty fun, giving you plenty of places to go, treasures to find and secrets to uncover. You also unlock special areas called landmarks, some of which give you good sources of rare materials. The only issue with the exploration is that sometimes it can be difficult to tell where you need to go to continue the story, even with map markers. There were numerous times during our playthrough where it turned out that we had simply missed a path because it was a few centimetres wide and pitch black.
The materials mentioned above have a variety of uses back in your main camp. Firstly, you can use them to trade for different items once you unlock the shop. You can also use them to cook food, which provides you with your main source of healing and buffing during exploration. There are also your token weapon and armour upgrading systems and accessory creation to provide you with stat bonuses.
The final use for these materials is to upgrade your home base, something which becomes very important very quickly. As you wander around the island, you’ll occasionally get called back to the base with a message warning you that it is under attack by beasts. When you return, you have to fight off waves of enemies while trying your hardest to protect the gates that lead into your village.
These raids come in various levels of difficulty, and you can help by building defences, such as distraction posts, barricades, and catapults. Sometimes the raids will end with special boss monsters, and they can even occur because of story elements instead of during random exploration of the overworld.
As well as raids and story missions to complete, you also have a classic RPG quest board filled with missions that the survivors have tasked you with. These missions can vary slightly, but most of them have a tendency to fall into the category of ‘bring me X of N’. The rewards are a different story, however, with some of the best accessories and equipment being obtained through completion of these side missions.
Visually, the game benefits from both very competent art direction, as well as a huge variety in the different environments available to explore. Instead of opting for the highest fidelity in visuals, the game instead sticks closer to the ‘anime’ aesthetic which is present in a lot of the artwork and extras for the series. Everything is presented in very vibrant colours, and even in greyer or browner areas, there are still plenty of hints of colour that can pop out at the player.
The island you’re exploring is home to a huge array of different environments. You start out mainly sticking in safe beaches and plains territories; however, things quickly start to become more varied with areas like swamps and glowing caves. Every general area you come across is distinctive enough to be instantly recognisable once you’ve spent enough time familiarizing yourself with them, which comes in handy when heading back to previously explored areas with new abilities.
The music has a very heavy melodic focus and also has a tendency to evoke other games, especially other JRPGs. There were several times during gameplay where music seemed familiar but couldn’t quite be matched up to a memory. It is clear that plenty of time and effort went into the music as almost every area has a score as memorable as the visuals themselves. If you’re a fan of game music or already have an extensive JRPG official soundtrack collection, then be sure to get your hands on the melodies on offer here.
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: NIS America
Platforms: PS4, PS Vita, PC
Release Date: 15th September 2017