It’s always interesting to look back at a long running series and see how its changed through the years. Final Fantasy going from turn-based fighting to its “Active Time Battle” style, now experimenting with real-time nowadays. The Tales series taking the same basic battle engine and putting new spins on it with each new entry. Evolution like this fascinates me.
The Ys series is no different. Starting off with the infamous “bump” combat in the originals, messing around with a little Zelda II-style romp for a game, then moving into pure button-mashing action – every phase Ys has gone through has had its peaks and valleys, but all have been interesting to experience.
It seems, though, that developer Falcom has settled on an engine and has set its sights now on fine-tuning it. Introduced in Ys Seven, the games now blend the aforementioned button-mashing action with juggling multiple party members; series staple character Adol hasn’t been the sole controllable character now for years.
The engine arguably reached its peak in the last series entry, Lacrimosa of Dana. At least, I believe so. So where does Falcom go from here?
Developed by Falcom and published by NIS America, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox was released on February 2nd, 2021, for the PlayStation 4. This game was reviewed using a PlayStation 5 console through the use of backward compatibility.
A Monstrous Mystery
Ys IX finds Adol and his long-time traveling companion Dogi in the city of Balduq, famed for the absolutely massive prison that takes up a major part of the city. Unfortunately, the city is under the control of perennial franchise “bad guys,” the Romun Empire, who immediately arrest Adol when he attempts to enter the city.
Finding himself in the famed prison, Adol takes an opportunity to escape…only to find himself face-to-face with a strange gun-wielding woman. The woman shoots him, infecting Adol with the “Monstrum curse,” giving him cool powers…but also supernaturally restricting him from leaving the city.
The woman, Aprilis, tasks Adol with helping her and her team of other “Monstrums” in some nebulous tasks, lest he never be able to leave Balduq. Thus begins a mystery tale: who is Aprilis, what exactly are the Monstrums, and what secrets does Balduq and the prison hide?
Despite the overarching mystery presented by the main plot, Ys IX seems happy to forget about it much of the time in favor of more character-driven mini plots. Broken up into chapters, each part of the story for around the first 2/3rds of the game focuses on the other Monstrums – their backgrounds, personalities, motivations, and how they each eventually get drawn to Adol.
This style of storytelling is a bit…unusual…for the Ys series. The franchise has been moving from being known as Falcom’s “light on story, heavy on gameplay” series to weaving some genuinely interesting adventure tales, Memories of Celceta and Lacrimosa of Dana in particular. Both featured decently large and well-developed casts, but their development was woven well into the overarching tale of each game.
Ys IX feels restrictive in comparison. An entire half of the game feels like a series of formulaic introductions: meet a Monstrum, discover their identity, learn a bit of their background, do some dungeons, then finally get a piece of the overall plot before the next chapter begins and we do it all again.
That’s not to say the story is bad. Far from it, in fact. Most of the cast is well-written and greatly entertaining (except for the character Hawk, with a painfully one-note personality), and the overarching mystery had me enthralled whenever it decided to rear its head. It’s just the way Falcom chose to tell it that often makes the storytelling feel disjointed.
The Lure of the City
The question is, after Lacrimosa of Dana, where does Falcom take the “party system” engine of recent Ys games next? Well, judging from Ys IX…nowhere new, really.
Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The game is still a bundle of button-mashy flashy goodness, which is just what I want from a modern Ys title. Sprinting around a battlefield, switching between party members to take advantage of weaknesses, pulling off perfect dodges to slow down time for a moment and get a good strike in – everything is still as satisfying (and addicting) as ever.
The biggest change this entry brings to the table comes in the exploration side of the game. The entirety of Ys IX takes place in the city of Balduq, and Falcom seems like they really wanted the player to be able to explore every bit of it.
As the game progresses, Adol and the Monstrums unlock various new mechanics that can be used during exploration, such as “zip-lining” to various points and running straight up walls. Balduq and the various dungeons within are completely built around these mechanics, adding an entire new layer of verticality to a system mostly ripped out of Dana.
By the fourth chapter, enough abilities are unlocked that the exploration of Balduq gains a wonderful flowing feeling to it. Zipping across the skyline, running to higher points and gliding across the sky, you’d be forgiven for feeling like you’re playing a budget Spider-Man game at points. I do have to take some points off for the camera occasionally going insane during climbing walls, though.
Unfortunately, despite how good the exploration feels, there really just isn’t much to see. Balduq is a very uniform city, and most of the districts unlocked over the course of the game all blend together aside from one or two landmarks. Ys isn’t a stranger to basing an entire game in one setting (see Ys Origin, taking place entirely within a single structure: Darm Tower), but it typically changes up the specific areas within the setting radically. Not so here in Ys IX; Balduq all feels the same, most dungeons are just caves or tunnels leading to the prison, it all just kind of blends together.
While this game brought over the best parts of Lacrimosa of Dana, it also included the low points, too. Namely, the tower-defense style “raid battle” sequences.
At least once per chapter, Adol has to team up with all the Monstrums in an alternate dimension to fights off waves of enemies while protecting a central structure. These were the most boring and tedious part of the previous game, and they remain a stain here in Ys IX as well. At the very least, you’re no longer randomly plucked out of adventuring to do one of these raid battles – they are very much telegraphed and instigated by player agency this time around.
Lastly, if you’re experienced with Ys or action games in general, do yourself a favor and set the game’s difficulty to “Hard” at the very least. I typically review most games on “Normal” settings as a baseline difficulty, but the “Normal” here in Ys IX is borderline simplistic, removing every bit of challenge the franchise is known for. I played half the game on Normal before realizing I had yet to even touch a health-restoring item. Notching the game up to Hard reintroduced some of the challenge I was looking for.
Life in Grayscale
Falcom isn’t exactly known for high-end graphics, but Ys IX in particular is fairly lackluster in the visual department. When it comes to character design and general fidelity, again, this game is almost exactly the same as Lacrimosa of Dana…probably because they are running on the same engine. Adol and the Monstrums have great designs, and animate well, especially considering this game is the first time Falcom has worked with motion capture for some animations.
The issues come down to the setting itself. Despite how interesting a city entirely defined by its massive prison may sound in concept, Balduq’s design is just plain boring. Ys IX is clearly going for an oppressive gothic-style presentation (hell, the first weapon Adol receives is called the Gothic Sword), but winds up with a setting that doesn’t provide an iota of variety. The city just isn’t interesting to look at, a huge step back from the colorful environments of the previous game.
The soundtrack, as well, just doesn’t quite reach the highs I’ve experienced in previous entries. The composition does fit the design and mood of the game well, but when said design isn’t all that great…it reflects on the soundtrack as well. I can say, though, one dungeon’s track definitely stood out with a scratchy sax providing the melody.
Adventurer in Chains
Overall, despite all of my complaints, I did have a great time playing through Ys IX. Despite the boring setting and the frustrating continuation of tower defense segments, the core of the game is still Ys. Battles are fun and frantic, and the new exploration mechanics just feel amazing and satisfying to use.
The problem is the game feels like a major step back from the previous entry in the series. The stilted storytelling, boring setting, and just decent soundtrack all feed into my feelings of disappointment. Lacrimosa of Dana was one of the best games I played in 2017, and the fact that Ys IX doesn’t reach that high is frustrating.
If you’re in the mood for more Ys, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is still worth a play. This isn’t a bad game in the slightest…just a disappointing one compared to the highs of recent series entries.
Review copy provided by NIS America for PS4, reviewed on a PS5 console. Screenshots taken by reviewer.