Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Evils of Ys

Falcom’s enduring Ys series was quite busy this week. The Vita received Ys: Memories of Celceta, a pretty extensive and extensively pretty remake of the fourth game (or games, because Ys is strange like that) in this long-running line of action-RPGs. To commemorate this, XSEED discounted all of their PSP-based Ys games, including Ys Seven and fan-favorite Ys: The Oath in Felghana. It’s a darn good deal even if you’re not a huge fan of Ys. And I’m not. We’ll discuss that later.

In the thick of all this modern Ys news, the fan translation of Ys V: Kefin, the Lost City of Sand finally came to fruition. Ys V is a strange study. Though it’s not the most wayward entry in the series (that’d be the original Ys III: Wanderers from Ys), Ys V was controversial when it hit Japan late in 1995. The Ys series touched just about every major platform by the early 1990s, but it loomed largest on the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16. That was where Ys games used new-fangled CD technology for impressively animated cutscenes and some downright gorgeous music. The first four Ys games received this treatment, and PC Engine/Turbo fans lauded them for it. Then Falcom, possibly wooed by the profusion of RPGs on the Super Famicom, decided to make the fifth Ys game a cartridge-based deal on Nintendo’s console.

This did not sit well with the Ys faithful. In North America, much of the outrage was confined to pockets of fans, as Ys V was never localized and few magazines reviewed it. The exception was GameFan. Nick “Rox” Des Barres, Casey “Takuhi” Loe, and Dave “E. Storm” Halverson were ardent Ys followers, and they had much to say about Ys V’s direction.


GameFan’s review wasn’t my introduction to Ys, but it was my introduction to just how much the series meant to people. Before this I’d known it only through the Super NES version of Ys III, and I had only a vague sense of just how influential and groundbreaking the early Ys games were in appearances and sounds. Nick's confession that Ys had changed his life and Takuhi's exclamations of “It’s EVIL! How could you sell out Ys?!” made more of an impact than pages of praise for classic Ys games.

Then again, Ys V isn’t so awful. As the three GameFan editors grudgingly admit, it’s a decent action/RPG once divorced from its heritage. The game puts redheaded protagonist Adol through the usual round of ancient secrets and mystic legacies, with yet another troubled young woman to kinda-sorta fall for him. His quest goes to mostly drab places, yet some scenes show the detailed atmosphere akin to late-stage Super NES RPGs like Final Fantasy VI. Most importantly, Ys V lets Adol go around like a typical action-RPG hero. No longer running into enemies to simulate battles, Adol swings his sword, blocks with his shield, jumps around, and generally feels a like an adept warrior instead of a brainless battering ram.


GameFan was right to upbraid Ys V for its inferior sound quality, short playtime, and simple approach, but I think I would’ve enjoyed it in some passive way had the game actually come to North America. That’s because I was never much of an Ys fan.

Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to like Ys just as much as I wanted to like every RPG series I glimpsed in game magazines when I was a kid. Two things stood in my way. I can forgive the games for gorging on fantasy clichés; after all, the first three Ys odysseys practically introduced RPGs to those clichés. Yet I’ve never cared for Adol himself. While the games pitch him as some romantic wanderer and inspiring travelogue author, he’s bland even by the standards of silent, player-identification RPG avatars, a tabula rasa among tabulae rasae. Nor do I care for the way each game tells a routine, compartmentalized story, usually focusing on doe-eyed girls who get mixed up in arcane conspiracies and then stare wistfully into the distance as Adol sets off for another trite adventure. Adol is a boring jerk.

Then there’s the battle system shared by Ys I, II, and IV. Attempting a rapid-paced distillation of the typical RPG encounter, the games give Adol no direct means of attack. He just walks into foes, preferably off-center, and hopes for the best. Fighting in Ys V may be a touch generic, like the rest of the game is, but it’s a good deal more satisfying than the awkward combat dances of older Ys games.

And that’s one thing Ys V got right: the old system had to change. Contrary to initial reports, this was not the last of the series, and subsequent Ys games adopted the same sort of conventional controls. The modern Ys entries, including Origin and The Oath in Felghana, grant their heroes the traditional arts of slashing, defending, and sometimes jumping. The pace of combat is almost as quick as it was in the oldest Ys games, but it's now varied and enjoyable.

This seems a good time to give Ys another chance, with Memories of Celceta out and the PSP’s lineup half-off (at this writing, anyway). So I’m plunging into it all. Will I emerge a devoted fan driven furious over past and present wrongs visited upon the artistry of Ys? Probably not, but I hope I’ll have fun.

4 comments:

gangrelion said...

I am not a Ys fan either because my first Ys game was Memories of Celceta! I was expecting something epic like Legend of Heroes, but it was not even close! It's generic to the root! Not only that, but the story is also super simplistic! The best example is the legendary city of God that is located a few minutes from the initial village. But I heard that Ys 7 is MUCH BETTER than Celceta, so I recommend you to try that one first!

a dude said...

having just finished Ys V, I'm rather disappointed in it, although not for the (exact) same reasons the GameFan trio was. It is too short, yes, but brevity and pacing was one of the strengths of the series beforehand, and V's biggest flaw in that area was Falcom's half-assed compromise between that style of design and the attempt they made at SFC JRPG-style grandeur. And while the music obviously doesn't match the energy of Yonemitsu's redbook arrangements, it's still high quality stuff that Falcom made very little effort to properly emphasize or utilize. In previous Ys games and the best of V's contemporaries, a new musical theme was almost a kind of celebration, a way of signaling the player's progress and pushing them onward. V chews through its BGM like a child through a bag of candy.

Makes me wonder as to how I would feel about the ArcSys/Taito PS2 remake...

As for the combat...well, I think I like the brush-em-up style of the earlier games more than you (and more than the Lagoon-esque suicidal combat of Ys III), but Ys V definitely did seem like it was going for something more enjoyable and refinable, even though it seems to have been distracted along the way (the magic system in particular being a somewhat baffling non-starter).

I have a soft spot for the way that Mantra's Ys II Special handled things, though - the speed and collision detection isn't that great, but they had a pretty good idea at the core. There's an attack key that will cause Adol to swing out his sword in a fairly agreeable arc, and against enemies you've just encountered, this is your only real hope of damaging them. As you gain levels, however, you can begin to do damage to them by clipping them from the side in the classic style (or running into them from behind by preference), and when you're powerful enough, you can plow directly through them head-on like Mario high on stardust. The point at which this became comparatively revelatory was when I realized that how I could best attack was determined by the length of Adol's life bar relative to that of the enemy. If it's about equal or longer, there's rarely a need to draw your sword. But if it's shorter, you'll need to be cautious (and if you're significantly underleveled, you might not be able to hurt them at all).

why did I type this all out good grief

Anonymous said...

Any reason why they patched the vanilla edition of Ys V when the superior Ys V Expert exists?

a dude said...

Gideon Zhi posted several places saying that certain crucial sections of data are stored differently in Expert, making it both more difficult to hack than the original and also unlikely to immediately follow from this patch.

Expert is mainly known for upping the difficulty through number tweaking and some further adjustment of monster behavior (apparently), as well as the time-attack bonus dungeon, but it supposedly also fixed a lot of bugs. I only ran into one obvious game-breaker when I played through the original, but given how the game feels like Falcom waited until the last moment to file off/cauterize all the unfinished bits, I wouldn't be surprised if Expert really is very different internally. The team probably spent some serious time cleaning the code up and figuring out how they could optimize it, and the tighter a game is wound, the harder it usually is to hack.