The Obscure Third
In the 1980s, there were three big names in the JRPG genre. Two of them are well-known to just about every gamer in the West: Square, the company that rose to prominence with the release of Final Fantasy, and Enix, whose Dragon Quest series exploded in popularity in the East. The third pillar, while just as influential in Japan as the other two, was relatively unknown in the West, and remains so even now. This company is Nihon Falcom.
Falcom was the first of the big three to exist in the gaming world (Enix was founded earlier, but didn’t break into gaming until a year after Falcom). Many of Falcom’s games, while major hits in Japan, went mostly unreleased in America and Europe. Unlike Square and Enix, who were mainly known for one series, Falcom had three to its name. The first was Dragon Slayer, a dungeon-crawing action-RPG. Only three of eight installments of this series were released in North America, and none released in Europe. The most well-known release from this series in the West is its fourth installment on the NES, titled Legacy of the Wizard in the US. A spinoff from this series went on to be Falcom’s next big hit, The Legend of Heroes. This series remained mostly unknown in the West until the third through fifth installments were released on the PSP. Following this, the release of the sixth game, Trails in the Sky, gave the series some niche popularity in the West.
Falcom’s third series would be the one that would gain at least some name recognition in the US. This series would be Ys. A straight action-RPG series, the first installment, Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished, was released in 1987 in Japan. A North American release came in 1988 on the less-popular systems of the time: Sega Master System and TurboGraphix-16. The series would continue in the West on the TurboGraphix-16 for two more installments before releases fell off in 1991. Ys wouldn’t be revived here until the release of Ys VI, The Ark of Napishtim, on the PS2 in 2005.
In this review, we will be looking at the first installment of the Ys series. While the review is based off of the Chronicles version released on Steam in 2013, little to nothing has changed in the game’s various ports other than graphics.
A Long Forgotten Empire
Most versions of Ys I begin with the hero, Adol, arriving in the town of Minea, in the country of Esteria. The Chronicles release adds a short prelude with Adol washing up on a beach outside of Minea after his ship is destroyed in a storm. The quest in Ys I is simple. A large storm has surrounded the land of Esteria, and nobody is able to pass through except Adol. A swarm of demons has taken over the land, forcing people to remain in their towns and homes for safety.
Adol is called upon by a fortuneteller, who believes that he is a man foretold of in local legend that will save Esteria from the demon swarm. To do so, Adol is asked to collect the six Books of Ys, ancient manuscripts from an Esterian land that vanished long in the past.
That is just about all there is to the story. “Collect the books, defeat the demons.” A few characters are encountered that seem to show there’s more to the story, but that’s saved for another game. Along the way, Adol does discover the existence of an antagonist who is also trying to collect the books to use them for evil. Unfortunately, this character only makes one appearance, and his story is nothing more than “Collect the books, defeat the humans.”
The Journey of Adol the Red
If you speak to any gamer about the Ys series, one thing many are likely to mention about the older games is the battle system. Ys I does not have the typically-thought-of battle system for an action-RPG. Rather than having the ability to attack enemies with a button press, this game uses the “bump” system. You run Adol right into the enemy, and he automatically attacks. There is a small amount of strategy to this, as attacks have to be off-center of the enemy (lest Adol suffer a quick death) and enemies have a wider range of attacks than Adol does. The bump system takes time to get used to, but once you have it down, it does become quite fun. Adol becomes a roaming unstoppable wall of death, destroying everything on the screen without even slowing down.
This game also set the ground for the Ys tradition of high difficulty. It’s not on the level of gameslike Dark Souls, but Ys games are known for having a high level of challenge to them. Don’t be surprised if you suffer a few deaths on the first few monsters you encounter. On the other side of the scale, gaining levels in Ys give a much more noticeable effect than in many other JRPGs. A single level can spell the difference between a horrible death and a cakewalk. The ease of the bump system does make the level grind move quickly as there’s no need to slow down, wade through attack menus, etc. However, the game has a level cap of 10, which will be quickly reached before the game’s halfway point, and that doesn’t stop the enemies from getting harder as the game goes on.
The game is incredibly short as well, with this review’s playthrough clocking in at around four hours. The game world is small, with only two towns and three dungeons. The last dungeon, Darm Tower, takes up approximately half of the game’s total playtime. Dungeons are very maze-like, although not infuriatingly so. Finding passages to continue through the dungeon is occasionally difficult, but it is easy to keep track of where you are and where you have to go.
Advancing the story, though, is not quite so easy. The game is very stingy with hints as to what to do to advance the story. For example, there comes a point where Adol must find a specific weapon set to enter a dungeon. Obtaining a piece of this set, though, requires finding an out-of-the-way treasure chest in the prior dungeon to get an item, bringing it to a screen on the world map you likely did not know existed, and then using the item on a certain part of the certain screen. As far as I experienced, there are absolutely no hints pointing toward doing any of this, bringing this part of this game down to simple trial and error.
Finally, it wouldn’t be Ys without mentioning the boss battles. The Ys series’ trademark is its huge, elaborate, difficult boss battles against grotesque enemies. This being the first game in the series, elaborate is probably not the word to use, but the battles themselves are quite fun. As the game runs on the bump system, many boss battles rely on dodging a large number of attacks and environmental hazards to land a hit on the boss. Boss difficulty, though, is all over the place. The first boss of the game is quite possibly one of the hardest, while the next one not half-an-hour later goes down with little-to-no effort. Every boss requires a different approach, and the fun is in finding the way through all the mayhem to land a hit.
The View From the Tower
As noted earlier, this review is based on the 2013 Steam release of Ys I, so this section does not apply to the much older releases. The graphics in the Chronicles release of this game, though, are quite good. All of the characters are very well-designed sprites, and the animations on them are quite fluid. The world map and dungeon designs look good as well, but can become somewhat repetitive, especially in the half-game-spanning Darm Tower.
Speaking of Darm Tower, the background scenes when running along the outside of the tower are beautiful. You can see the whole landscape of Esteria in these sections, and the view gets higher up the further you climb the tower. Character portrait designs are done in a modern anime style, with a number of poses and expressions to give a bit of life to the dialogue.
The Devil’s Music, The Goddesses’ Instrument
Falcom’s trademark is its soundtracks. The company has its own in-house band, Falcom Sound Team JDK, that composes the tracks to all of their games. The group is widely known among the JRPG fandom to create some of the best music to come out of video games, especially in the 1980s, when most music was chiptune beeps. In fact, the TurboGraphix-16 releases have the soundtracks encoded to Red Book standard, which means you can put the game disc in a CD player and listen to the soundtrack.
Driving synth-rock and metal is the name of the game for the Ys I soundtrack. Dungeons and battles are accompanied by loud, upbeat tracks that contribute perfectly to the environment and gameplay. Not to say, though, that the game can’t do emotional pieces as well. The game’s main theme, “Feena,” sets up the quiet setpieces perfectly, and is a good track in its own right. The track went on to become the main theme for the Ys series.
Uncovering the Goddesses
It is easy to see why the Ys series became the only series from Falcom to catch on in the West from the get go. With great music and fun action without much story to get in the way, it is an easy game to jump into for just about anyone. As mentioned earlier, there have been multiple ports and rereleases of the game, but just about every one of them plays exactly the same, outside of the Nintendo DS remake. The PSP and Steam releases of the Chronicles version of Ys I are currently the most up-to-date ports, and unless you specifically want to play the game in 8 or 16 bit, they’re the best choice to experience the beginning of the Ys saga. While the game does come up a bit short in story and length, it does not overstay its welcome, and wraps up just as things start to get a bit tired. I would fully recommend this game to anyone looking to get a taste of one of gaming’s most underrecognized JRPG greats.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review purchased by reviewer for PC. Screenshots courtesy of XSeed Games.