[NOTE: It is difficult to discuss the story of Ys II without mentioning plot points of the first game. This review will have spoilers for the end of Ys I]
Halves of a Whole
Direct story continuation across video games sequels is relatively uncommon. After all, most game creators want to be able to attract a large audience with each release. If a game requires the knowledge of a previous game, it effectively locks out those who did not play said game. The issue is not unique to video games; most forms of entertainment media go to lengths to avoid locking out any potential audiences. Even if a game’s story is created as a direct sequel, there is a good chance the sequel will go out of the way to explain the previous game’s major plot points so as to avoid confusion in any newcomers.
Ys II, released in Japan in 1988, did not do any of this. Upon original release, Ys I and II were distributed as separate games. Ys II, though, is a direct continuation of the first game. There is no recap nor helpful hints as to what happened in the previous game. If this was your first game in the series, you’d just have to jump in and hope you’d understand what was going on. Future releases remedied this, as after the original release, most versions of Ys II were bundled with the original game. It didn’t even see a standalone release in the US. The first taste of this game in the West came as a dual pack, Ys I & II, on the TurboGraphx-CD.
As with the first game, this review is based on the Chronicles release of Ys II, released on Steam in 2013. However, aside from graphics, little to nothing has changed between releases.
To the Heart of it All
As mentioned, Ys II‘s story begins immediately where Ys I left off. At the end of the previous game, Adol had scaled the Darm Tower on the continent of Esteria to gather the last two Books of Ys. At the top, he met Dark Fact, an ancestor of one of the priests of Ys, who was set on collecting the Books to release evil upon the world. Upon defeating him, Adol reads the final Book, and we see a beam of light shoot off of Darm Tower into the sky.
Ys II begins with Adol waking up in the land of Ys. It turns out that the land was not lost, but had broken away from the main land and floated into the sky. Civilization still thrives, but unfortunately, Ys is facing the same problem as the rest of Esteria: a demon onslaught. It becomes Adol’s goal to find out why he has been summoned to Ys, who or what is flooding the land with demons, why Ys broke away from the mainland, and to discover the mysteries behind the people that he has met along his journey.
Compared to the first game, Ys II is much more heavy on story. The game is no longer “collect the books, defeat the demons.” Just about every town and dungeon visited has its own story and problems behind it, and the history of Ys comes into play with this entry. More characters are added with relatively good characterization, and seemingly insignificant characters from the first game have their stories expanded. Just about everybody from the first game at least makes a cameo, and many become more important to the plot overall.
Upon the Floating Land
Not only is the story expanded, but the gameplay is as well. Ys II still makes use of the “bump” system, where Adol is rammed directly into the enemy to deal damage. This system remains unchanged from the first game. However, a new ability is added to Adol’s attack arsenal in the form of magic. Within the first hour of the game, Adol gains the ability to use various kinds of magic. While a few varieties are acquired throughout the game, the ability to shoot fire becomes the new primary means of attack. While “wall of death-ing” everything with the bump system remains the best plan of attack, many enemies’ patterns have become more complex, requiring the use of magic to prepare them for a ramming.
This new ability adds complexity to the bosses as well. As Adol now has a ranged attack, bosses will now do everything in there power not only to keep Adol from drawing near, but to keep him from standing in one place for any significant amount of time. Boss battles can become walls of projectiles, at times resembling a bullet hell shooter. While a few of the early bosses can only be damaged by magic (perhaps to acquaint players with the system), later bosses require juggling of magic and direct attacks and knowing when to perform what.
This game’s scope has also been greatly expanded from the first game. This game’s length is more that double the first, with this review’s playthrough clocking in at eleven hours. The level max is now much higher, with this review ending at about level 43. There are three towns spread out through the game, with seven much larger dungeons to explore. Like the original, dungeons tend to be maze-like, but rarely infuriatingly so. Unfortunately, the first dungeon of the game does fall under the infuriating category, with a maze of dark screens and no real indication of where to go or what to do. Once completed, though, the game opens up into much more interesting environments.
The game has also become somewhat more lenient with hints on where to go and what to do when. While a few points remain confusing (finding a small city to acquire a required item about halfway through the game comes to mind), NPCs have for the most part become more helpful in hinting at what’s to be done next. It also helps that Ys II is a bit more linear. While Ys I required the player to hunt through a main field to figure out where to go, this game pretty much takes the player from point A to point B, although it does open up more in the final dungeon areas.
Ys II also contains a playtime-spanning dungeon in the form of the Solomon Shrine. Luckily, this game breaks up the monotony associated with this. While Ys I‘s Darm Tower was a two-hour climb up samey environments, Solomon Shrine has a number of sub-dungeons that must be explored, with a few points where you have an option on what task you’d like to complete first. Solomon Shrine also takes up only about a quarter of the game’s playtime, with plenty of side trips to other areas, rather than locking you into one dungeon for the rest of the game.
The View from Above
As noted earlier, this review is based on the 2013 Steam release of Ys II, so this section does not apply to the much older releases. The graphics in the Chronicles version of Ys II remain great for its style, and have gained a significant upgrade from Ys I. Environments are much more alive, from active lava flows to shining cliffsides of ice. The world and dungeon design, outside of the first dungeon, has also become much more varied. While the now-cliche ice and fire levels are present and in full force, they are a welcome change from Ys I‘s infinite rock wall and brick dungeons.
Character and NPC design remains the same, with detailed, well-animated sprites. Bosses, though, have received a major change. Rather than sprite-based designs, the bosses of Ys II are done in a 3D style. Their designs have become much more imposing, but the trade-off is that their animation is a bit more limited.
The Song of the Goddesses
Not much needs to be said about the music. Much like the first game, Ys II has an excellent soundtrack. Power rock and metal remain the name of the game, and the music has no problems setting up the mood for the various set pieces throughout the game. The same segment of the Ys I review applies here in full force. Unlike the rest of the game, there isn’t much difference to be noted.
The Sacrificial Bell Tolls
In summation, Ys II is pretty much Ys I expanded and improved in just about every way possible. The story becomes more in depth and interesting, the gameplay is expanded, graphics have been upgraded, and the music remains excellent as always. Other than a disappointing first dungeon and a few stumbles in direction, Ys II is an excellent action-RPG adventure in every way. As with the first game, just about every port of Ys II plays in the same way, but unless you’re in the mood for old-school graphics, the Chronicles releases on Steam and PSP are the best ways to experience this game. If you are a fan of the JRPG genre, you would be doing yourself a disservice by not playing this. However, if you care about story in the least, I would highly recommend playing through Ys I before giving it a shot.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review copy purchased by reviewer for PC. Screenshots courtesy of XSeed Games.