Review: Ys Origin [Switch]

The Ys series is an odd one in the annals of JRPGs. On the one hand, it is very much in the original school of these games, with the first installment coming out in 1987, and there was a definite push to bring it to North America. Unfortunately, due to a variety of different factors, it took forever before North America got Ys II, and the series didn’t have the sort of mainstream notoriety of franchises like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. For a while, it drifted back into the “no export” territory… then it exploded in popularity, and now the various Ys games are doing well for themselves.

Ys Origin is an odd new release, too… because it’s actually not new at all. Ys Origin released on Steam back in 2012, after all. It’s been there the whole time. And it released in Japan in 2006! This isn’t even meant to be a significant remaster, just… the same game, but on a new platform.

So it’d be kinda great if the game was already pretty well set up to work on the Switch by nature of the platform, wouldn’t it?

Ys Origin releases on October 1st on the Nintendo Switch, which was indeed the version played for this review.

Backtrack on the Fast Track

One of the big notable things about the Ys series is that almost every single installment features the adventures of Adol Christin, the franchise-long protagonist whose adventures are… well, actually contiguous, in contrast to some other series that always treats your sword-swinging pot-smashing adventures as a new thing for your green protagonist. But… Ys Origin doesn’t feature him at all, seeing as how it takes place about 700 years before the main series and deals with the origins of the game’s backstory.

The eponymous Ys, the Darm Tower, Rado’s Annex, the Black Pearl, and so forth are all franchise-wide features. This takes players back to the origin point. To wit, the city of Ys is floating in the sky with the help of the goddesses Reah and Feena, evading the attacks of demons. But now the Devil’s Tower is rising from the ground, and the goddesses vanished back to the surface, prompting a group of clerics, mages, and knights of Ys to enter the tower and find the goddesses themselves.

This all probably means a lot more if you’re steeped in the lore.

Unfortunately, the plot as it stands is far on the simpler side. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just sort of there. It hits all of the basic expected notes for characters and lore, it gives the villains fairly basic motivation, but it’s all setting things up for later games that will use all of this as backstory. Characters are very much rendered in arch terms, with the protagonists each getting very basic motivation, and the plot isn’t really filled with twists so much as it has an expected raising of the stakes about midway through.

All of this is fine, though. While this does make the game on the more simple side, that doesn’t make it bad, and the reality is that a straightforward plot makes things quick and breezy. While there are three routes for the story for you to see which all add some extra detail, they’re not wild deviations and instead just shed more light on the franchise backstory.

So it’s a simple plot, but it’s simple in a straightforward and reliable way. I think it actually works better that way, because this is not a game overly concerned with winding out into bizarre paths.

Slice, Parry, Jump, Cast

At the simplest level, Ys Origin is a dungeon crawl. Literally, that’s the entire game. You start in the tower, and the entire game is in the scope of climbing and exploring the tower.

Shops? We don’t have those. You can buy some special divine blessings from the Goddess Statues that serve as save points, but that’s it. No healing items to buy or stock up on, either. You want new armor? You find it. Want new weapons? No, although you can find items to upgrade your weapons. Dialogue happens periodically, but the game is about climbing that tower, and your goal is always climbing higher.

And how do you climb the tower? You slash at stuff and engage in some pretty standard dungeon-exploration antics. Oh, you can only reach one door in this area, because one is locked and one is too high to reach. Search a bit more and unlock the double-jump, then go through the high door and find the key to unlock the door. There we go. It’s all very straightforward.

It also all works, because it’s just… well, fun.

Each of the three characters controls a bit differently, with Yunica using her axe (and later a sword as well), Hugo using his staff, and the third character (locked behind clearing the game first) using weaponry that suits his name. However, in all three cases the basic rules remain the same. You have selectable magical attacks that have special attributes and can be charged up, swapping between them as needed while you hack and slash. Press X to activate your powered-up boost state, and later press it again for a burst of damage. Scurry about and hit things.

It’s solid, and the platforming/jumping elements have crisp enough controls and solid enough camera angles that you never find yourself annoyed by trying to figure out how to do things. Each magic attack has secondary uses as well, giving you a reason to try it in different areas and to traverse some difficult obstacles.

Of particular note, though, are the bosses. Aside from just being large, the bosses in this game are hard. Part of that is the aforementioned lack of any healing items for players to fall back on, but the more important element is that the bosses are not inclined to slowly break out a predictable pattern and leave you to work things out. Indeed, even with upgraded armor and weapons every boss requires you to do something before you can damage their health bars, and most of them attack quickly and remorselessly. I found myself having to take on most bosses multiple times before I could clear them away, but it never felt unfair.

In short, it’s difficult… but difficult in a way that never puts the pressure on math or stats. You just need to play better, not grind. And it feels so endlessly satisfying as a result when you watch another huge boss explode into flames and dust.

Dated Shades

So the game looks… fine. Not good, exactly, but fine. Has it gotten an HD upgrade? I really have no idea or points of comparison here.

Slight joking aside, the 3D models for several monsters look a bit on the janky side, like they were made out of a very low number of polygons (probably because they totally were). The sprites also look a touch odd in some places. But it’s also all very visually clear, and it never looks bad. Sure, the tower is a bit same-ish in its presentation, but it is literally a tower. It was always going to not have much in the way of environmental variability.

My guess is that a lot of this was already baked in. Sure, you can’t build tons of environments with different looks this way, but you can build one very solid environment from top to bottom, and that’s what you have here. And everything looks good enough, animates smoothly, and has just enough of a stylish edge that you’re unlikely to think it looks half-finished. Aside from the polygons being a bit rough on some bosses, it’s all fine… and the rough polygons there honestly feel pretty thematically appropriate.

Meanwhile, the music is catchy enough without ever quite getting into “good” territory. It feels appropriate, but it’s not going to find its way on any soundtrack rotations for me. Some of the sound effects are also oddly grating, which is bothersome.

Also bothersome are weird touches of the UI, like how the font for menu headers is difficult to read when it doesn’t need to be or how you have some weirdly specific items you need to “use” to equip that don’t count as actual accessories. It’s on the janky side there, and it drags down what is otherwise a very solid presentation.

What is very nice, by contrast, is the fact that you have access to a “teleport back to safety” option right from the start of the game. It’s not perfect, of course – you can wind up setting your progress back a bit by using it – but the fact that you can always hop out definitely makes the game more friendly for the portable element of the Switch.

Original of the Species

Part of me imagines that by this point, anyone interested in Ys Origin would have played it by now. But then… I was someone not very interested in it who hadn’t played it, and having played it now I find that this 14-year-old game is actually a really nice addition to the Switch library.

Seriously, what downsides it does have are either due to its age or just the fact that the designers prioritized a fun dungeon crawl over character building. That’s fine. The game you have here is a fine, crisp, energetic dungeon crawl that’s good to pick up and play and rewards you with bosses that are tough enough to matter but not so hard that you’ll want to throw the game in the garbage.

So let’s hear it for Ys Origin. And if you’re in the mood for any of that? Give it a shot, why don’t you?

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Dotemu for purposes of evaluation. All screenshots courtesy of Dotemu.