In the past few months I’ve discovered a new game series which I may have mentioned a dozen times by now. They’re not new games; in fact they go way back to the 80s.
Developed by Nihon Falcom, Ys is a long series of eight games released and re-released in the span of 20+ years. While most games in the series never made it out of Japan, thanks to the good fellas at XSEED Games, we’re slowly getting most of them on this side of the pond.
I first found out about the series not through gaming sites or any such media, but through Steam Specials and Sales, and saw The Oath in Felghana on sale. At the moment I didn’t buy it, I was so broke I couldn’t even afford this relatively inexpensive game. Then Ys Origin released and at another sale I nabbed them both. I decided to give Origin a try. I loved it. I’ll get into details later on. I was about to go into Felghana when I found out it was a remake/reimagining/epic-scale-upping of Ys III. I had a dilemma, how could I play this game without I & II? Luckily for me, Ys I & II Chronicles+ released on steam a few months later, so I bought it at once and started playing through it. I finished Felghana and Ys II a couple of months ago, so I’ll review them while my mind is fresh with the memories of hours spent addicted to the mechanics and story and characters.
Let’s being with Ys I & II Chronicles+.
I don’t think there are games with more remakes, re-master, rebrands, repackages and re-releases than Ys I & II. They were originally releases in ’87 & ’88 respectively, and since then they’ve been re-released separate or as a package on pretty much every system under the sun. Ys I has been re-released on its own at least 6 times, Ys II at least 5, and both of them together almost 10 times already. That means pretty much every generation has had a chance to enjoy these games, which is awesome.
Ys I introduces the main character of the series, Adol Christin, a silent protagonist who has just arrived in Esteria (the country where Ys I & II take place) by sailing through the dreaded Stormwall, which is pretty much what you imagine, if you’re imagining a massive storm filled with lightning, hurricanes winds and even tornadoes. For the locals, and pretty much any character you meet, the fact Adol survived that is uncanny, and that he went through it is insane. Adol barely survives his voyage and you begin your game in the local doctor’s clinic.
Well, Adol isn’t exactly mute, when asked for information or introductions, a small text will appear with “Adol introduced himself and…” or “Adol explained the situation…”, meaning he’s not silent, he’s just a man of few words.
Adol Christin, our hero, aka Adol The Red
In the next town you meet a fortune teller who tells you your arrival is part of a prophecy or a red-haired warrior coming to save them from monsters (Adol’s hair is crimson by the way), and entrusts you with one of the Six Books of Ys, which hold a mysterious power. With your McGuffin firmly in place, you go out to collect the books and save the world.
The game is relatively short, to explain how short let me just say this: It’s an RPG where the max level is 10. Yes, it’s that short. Thankfully it comes in a sweet package with its sequel.
While the game may be short it doesn’t mean it’s not good. The story is good, as are the characters. The only problem I have with them is with the game’s length most feels like an introduction to the real adventure or the real game, but it’s a fantastic introduction and an indispensable one.
The true stars of this short venture are gameplay and sound.
The game is 2D and isometric (top-down view). Adol moves quite fast, something extremely welcome with the game’s combat system. The combat in Ys I (and II) isn’t your typical RPG combat, in fact, it’s out there, and it’s jarring for first-timers as it’s completely different from anything else you’ve ever played or are likely to play in the future. Ys uses the Bump System for its combat. What does that mean? It’s extremely literal, you bump into enemies to damage them, tackling them if you will, but it’s not as easy as that because you can’t bump directly against them, head on, or you’ll be the one taking a ton of damage. Instead you need to bump into enemies slightly off-centre, as if you were tackling their shoulders. In fact, hits anywhere but direct center mass deal damage and push your enemy back. I found in my play-through that bumping enemies into walls made killing them really easy.
Speaking of enemies, they don’t use the bump system, instead they flash white for a second before using their own attacks, telegraphing them so you can try to get away. It might sound ridiculous, but it works wonders with the bump system, because to hit you’re always trying to get close. Thankfully, once you’re bumping into the enemy, it’s stun-locked for as long as you’re bumping them correctly. When they die, enemies blow up in pieces, something that is striking at first but becomes increasingly funny as the game progresses. This monster-blow-up feature is present in future games as well.
While the Bump System is a bit odd, it makes level grinding extremely dynamic as you never stop moving, you’re always on the run, just going through enemies, sometimes quite literally.
Boss fights work the same but are a lot more complex because of the different boss abilities. In fact, these fights are very much the highlight of Ys’ combat, something that keeps being true for every other game in the series. The only exception is Ys I’s last boss, since the fight is way more about luck than skill.
The game’s difficulty curve is steep, so much it’s more of a vertical line than a curve. You will die repeatedly, probably more often than in Dark Souls if you can believe that. Some of it will be getting used to the combat, making mistakes and simply getting your ass kicked for biting off more than you can chew. While in the overworld, you heal as long as you remain stationary and later in the game you find an accessory that lets you heal while in dungeons.
This being an RPG there are items and equipment in the form of armors, shields and sword. Some you find and some you buy. The only problem with such a short game is there’s not really much sense buying the more powerful weapons because you’ll be getting more powerful ones in the last dungeon and items and by the end you’ll have a ton of useless money since there’s nothing to buy after you’ve purchased the equipment. Aside from those there are also accessories, giving you slight boost either in defence, attack or letting you heal inside dungeons. There are items as well, both consumables and story items, but consumables are few and far in between. In fact, you won’t be using them much.
Stage design ranges from the straightforward to the frustrating, a certain mine being the worst. Underground locations are often circular and feature interconnecting passages, which can result in hours wasted going around in circles.
The game’s music has to be one of the best I have heard in my life. From soft pieces with violins and flutes to some hard rock pieces (that somehow remind me of Dragonforce) for the “overworld”, the music keeps you in the right mood at all times. Music ranges from the hard rock to more “Mega Man X Techno” influences, but no matter the style, it’s always good. In fact, the music quality keeps its high standard throughout the series, with the music in Ys II being some of my favorites. Some people might find the guitar riffs to clash with the fantasy setting but in my opinion it’s fantastic, similar to those upbeat rock-ish battle themes in old-school Final Fantasies.
Ys II picks up where the first left off, and while much of the game remains the same, the story and game are much longer. I finished the game at level 52, which should give old-school RPG players an idea of its length (I only grinded a couple of levels near the end to help me with a boss). The story this time unfolds with a much better pacing and comes to a really good and satisfying conclusion.
Ys II introduces a new mechanic: Magic. Throughout the world you find staves belonging to the Six Priests of Ys and each staff gives you access to one particular spell ranging from the Fireball (with Charge Shot feature) to a spell that transforms you into a monster and lets you speak with your enemies!!! Something I’m pretty sure everyone will agree is extremely rare in video games.
Just listen to this music!
With a longer game and a progressively higher difficulty, items bought and found become way more useful than they did in the first game. You will most likely keep buying/searching for them up until the last boss, making money not as useless as it was in the first game.
Speaking of bosses, the inclusion of magic adds a new layer to the already awesome mechanics. The Bump System is still used for them but more often than not you’ll need to rely on your magic to survive and it often feels like an isometric Mega Man, which I think we can all agree is awesome! And unlike Ys I, all boss fights depend on your skill rather than luck.
Confusing mazes and dungeons make a comeback, but thanks to the user friendly Return and Light Magics, it doesn’t get to be as frustrating as Ys I, where you only had a Wing Item to return to the previous town and which you pretty much held onto for dear life for a real case of emergency.
Ys: The Oath in Felghana is a re-mastered/re-designed version of Ys III. While the original on SNES handled much like The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Oath returns to a isometric look, but unlike Ys I & II, where both the environment and the characters were 2D, here the environments are 3D but the characters remain in 2D with the exception of Bosses, which are fully rendered. The result reminded me quite a lot of Ragnarok Online and allows for some fantastic level design.
Oath takes place about three years after Ys II with Adol and his pal Dogi arriving in Felghana, a neighboring country and Dogi’s country of birth, and as is usual with Adol, he quickly gets involved with local trouble, spanning another adventure of epic proportions.
Gameplay is completely different from the one seen in Ys I & II. No more Bump System. Now you button mash for attacks. Jumping is also a big part of the game, both for exploration and combat and I’ll be completely honest when I say most top-down games need a jump button. Sidetracking for a moment, imagine the greater depth you could give mechanics in Torchlight and Diablo if you had to jump to avoid attacks or traverse the environment? Jumping complements combat itself with rising strikes if you attack just as you jump, letting you hit flying enemies, and a downward stunning attack if you press the button during your fall.
Back to Oath. Another part of the combat system is the Boost Gauge. Every attack fills up the Boost bar, and once full you go into boost mode with the press of a button. While boosted, your attack speed becomes ludicrous, you deal enhanced damaged and you take reduced damage. For balance’s sake, boost doesn’t last very long, but it can be a real life saver.
Magic makes its comeback, but unlike Ys II where you had Mana, here your magic powers come from Rings you find, and the “Mana” is called Ring Power. Ring power is a self-regenerating power source that depletes every time you use the ring’s power. Rings are further supported/enhanced by Gems: Rubies, Emeralds and Topazes, one for each of the game’s rings. The first one you find allows you to charge up the ability, resulting in a powered-up version. Further gems reduce the charge-up time. Rings come in three elements: Wind, Fire & Earth. Wind lets you do a Link-like spin slash that when combined with a jump lets you extend it, useful for wide gaps. Fire shoots a fireball similar to the Ys II fire magic. The earth ring will give you a dash attack that makes you immune to damage for its duration and breaks through hard objects and defenses.
While Ys I & II had items you could consume to replenish life and/or mana, there are no such items here, not that you can carry. Enemies drop gold and potions/herbs that heal you and improve your base stats for a while. The more items like those you pick up, the greater the bonuses received and the longer the buff lasts. This makes the game significantly harder because there’s no item to save your ass during a boss fight and being in low health becomes a very dangerous affair. Thankfully, boss fights have a Retry option when you die, so you don’t need to retrace your steps.
Unlike Ys I & II where you could save pretty much anywhere (excepting boss fights), Oath uses a save-point system. Later in the game you get an item that allows you to teleport from save point to save point, which with the size of the maps is a welcome addition.
Equipment, for the most part, works exactly the same as in the other two games; you either buy or find Swords, Shields and Armors, but as a new addition, there a special ore found only in Felghana you can use to enhance your equipment, making it stronger and boosting its stats. The equipment comes in tiers, and each tier of sword, shield & armor is a set, and once you’ve acquired the whole set, Adol’s appearance changes to match the new gear, which is visually pleasing.
The game’s story is strong despite some predictability issues and certain characters that either lack much in the development department or are extremely “anime” stereotypical. Chester and McGuire come to mind here.
The boss fights are once again the highlight of the game and most bosses will kill you repeatedly until you figure out their patterns. The last boss fight is beyond any other fight before, becoming the most epic fight so far in any Ys I’ve played.
The game boasts six different difficulty settings: Very Easy, Easy, Normal, Hard, Nightmare, Inferno. Normal is already quite hard and I’m currently replaying in Nightmare and dear lord it’s hard.
Oath also introduces the Boss Rush mode, accessible after you finish the game. In this mode you fight all the game’s bosses in sequence. I’m still not masochistic enough to give that mode a try.
Oath handles extremely well with a keyboard and mouse combination, but if you have the chance to play with a controller, do so. It’s much more comfortable for this fast paced game.
Ys Origin is the only “original” Ys I’ve played so far, in the way it’s not a remake or re-master but a brand new story, a brand new prequel to be precise. Ys Origin tells the entire backstory for Ys I & II, taking place some 700 years before the events of the first games and in one single location: Darm Tower. The tower is huge and filled with different environments, ranging from the water and desert sections to others filled with magma. As you can guess, the game reaches its climax in the last few floors and the final boss is found on the tower’s top.
For the first time you have multiple protagonists: Hugo Fact, Yunica Tovah and Claw.
Visual and gameplay styles are exactly the same as Oath in Felghana so there’s nothing new to explain there. So let’s go over the characters and story.
Hugo is a mage, and his play style resembles Gradius quite a lot. He’s armed with a staff and the “Eyes of Fact”, two orbs floating above him that fire magical missiles. Once you start spamming them, you’ll get the Gradius reference I feel really old making. He’s a long range fighter.
Hugo is your typical antisocial elitist magical character from Japanese media, with cold eyes and even chillier demeanor, but slowly becomes more sociable, though in a refreshing move he never stops being a dick, not completely. By the end, he’s House-level sociable, a step up from the beginning, but still not the typical anime antisocial who becomes a good guy.
Yunica is the melee hero and if you’ve played Felghana, she handles extremely similar to Adol Christin. Yunica is strong, loyal and chipper though she has some confidence issues. Anime female protagonist 101. By the end she’s much more confident and independent, making her a cookie cutter character.
Claw is the last character you can play, and is only available once you finish the game with either of the other two characters. Claw handles like Wolverine, he’s extremely fast and agile. I won’t go into much detail with him because it would spoiler-y.
The story is quite strong and the supporting cast is good, not extremely good but they do their job. The best thing about the game is while each character goes through the same environments and same bosses, each see different aspects of the story, expanding the plot into a more complete affair and increasing the re-playability factor. There are a few character-specific bosses as well, with Hugo meeting and engaging some characters Yunica barely meets and vice-versa.
Unlike Oath where you could buy equipment in a store and enhance it there, because of plot details, things don’t work exactly that way in Origin. Instead, finding ore and taking it to one of the supporting characters will enhance your weapon. You never change the character’s weapon but there are plenty of armors and boots (no shields this time around). You find new armors/boots while traversing the tower and improve them using Spiritual Power or SP, on save points. SP is dropped from enemies and serves as the game’s “currency”.
Oath’s save point system and fast travel is also present in Origin, only the fast-travel is available from the start. With such a long tower to explore, it’s almost necessary since you’ll be backtracking to base camp quite often for story reasons.
Magic is once again present, and in the same way as it was in Oath, with certain pieces of equipment conferring special powers and a self-replenishing magic source. However, and this is an extremely good design choice, each item works differently for each of the characters. For example, the game’s wind magic acts as a shield for Hugo but as a Link-ish spin slash for Yunica (mimicking how the Ventus Ring worked for Adol in Oath). The Fire Item is a fireball for Hug and a BF Sword for Yunica; and the earth item as remote-controlled mines for Hugo and a massive hammer for Yunica.
Boss Fights and Music take the center stage again, and while Felghana bosses where hard, Origin ones take it to a whole new level. It’s almost a given you’ll die, repeatedly so. Normal enemies will rarely kill you unless you’re not careful enough, but just like Felghana, being at low health is not fun.
The music is once again fantastic, so much so that even after dying hundreds of times in the same section, you won’t get sick of it!
My only problems with the game are its main characters. Unlike Adol, they’re not silent and their personalities leave much to be desired, coming off quite stereotypical. While there is a degree of growth, the “where”, “when” and “how” are quite predictable. If you’ve played Ys I & II there aren’t any surprises in Origin’s story, and vice versa, playing Origin first (as I did) ruins any “surprises” in Ys I & II’s story, though it doesn’t make it less enjoyable. In fact, I’d recommend playing Origin first, as it makes certain plot elements make more sense in Ys I & II.
My other gripe about the game is a particular design choice later in the game where you have to fight three enemies to “charge” a ring. The three enemies boast tons of health and are all but immune to all your damage, taking 1 point of damage for every hit, making their dispatching somewhat tedious and stressful to be honest.
To conclude, I really recommend playing these games. As you can see I have very few “bad” things to say about them. They are also extremely cheap on Steam and you should definitely buy them. You will thank me for doing it. You’ll have days and weeks of fun and you’ll want to keep playing them for a longer time still, and think about it, there aren’t many games you can say that about, right?
I don’t own a Vita and the only thing that’s ever made me want to get one is Ys IV’s upcoming remake for the handheld.
- The music.
- Ys I & II: Tearing through enemies on the run and never stop running.
- Boss Fights, with the Felghana last boss as a particular highlight.
- The wind magic in Felghana & Origins is extremely fun to use.
- The nigh-immortal enemy charge quest in Origin.
- Dying from massive damage due to an unsuccessful bump in Ys I & II.
- Predictable character and plot development in Origin.
- Some predictable characters in Felghana
- Ys I’s last boss is more about luck than skill.
Verdict: BUY THESE GAMES NOW!!!
- In Defence of the Silent Protagonist (thementalattic.wordpress.com)
- Nihon Falcom
- XSEED Games
- Ys I & II Chronicles+ Steam Page
- Ys The Oath in Felghana Steam Page
- Ys Origin Steam Page