When a series goes on for as long as Ys has, you’d expect it to have lost steam and lost the magic it was once known for. My time with the Ys franchise started just earlier this month with the re-release of Ys Seven, but I’ve explored the rest of the series since then and what stuck out to me the most about Ys is that, as time goes on and technology advances, the developers at Falcom have never been afraid to grow and advance the Ys games to keep up. In making these changes and upgrades, they’ve never lost the core appeal of Ys, the heart of the franchise that has been maintained since even the very first entry into the series.
After seven years and a few console generation leaps, Nihon Falcom have delivered the next entry in their flagship action JRPG series. Ys VIII continues the tradition of following the fable-esque journeys of the adventurer Adol Christin. Much like Sinbad the Sailor, every game in the series sees Adol embarking on a fresh adventure in foreign lands, discovering new people, places, and mysteries, all sprinkled with a healthy serving of deadly beasts. The comparison to Sinbad is especially apt with this entry, as Ys VIII sees Adol and his longtime partner Dogi working as sailors and ship-hands on a luxury cruising vessel.
Most Ys games see Adol exploring towns and villages, taking requests from kings, and plenty of other rote JRPG narrative elements. Ys VIII takes a risk with its story by abandoning nearly all of that. As a sailor on The Lombardia, Adol gets a chance to briefly meet all of the passengers onboard before an enormous sea creature attacks the vessel, capsizing it and washing everyone ashore on a mysterious island thought to be a mere legend. From here, Adol and the closest survivors have to juggle tracking down the rest of the passengers, building a settlement to survive on the island, and figuring out how exactly to get off said island. All of this begins to blend in with a series of mysteries and secrets tied to the island itself.
While the narrative does eventually build into a grand tale as expected of most Ys experiences, the bulk of the games story is anything but. The setup of a shipwrecked group of strangers trapped on an island together is such a fresh JRPG tale, and it gives way for unique character interactions and personal development that constantly kept me engaged. I was always wondering which passenger I would find next, and getting excited when it seemed like it might be a notable character I met at the beginning. Finding these new passengers always meant not just a new vendor or party member, but a new set of stories and character interactions for me to explore.
My love for the story also comes from how much the improved visuals and cutscenes help flesh out Adol as a protagonist. Ys VIII is the sharpest looking game in the series by far. Despite some environment details being held back by it being a joint PS4 and Vita release, character models, lighting, and colors all complement each other beautifully. The game runs perfectly on PS4, and while Vita visuals are obviously a bit more pixelated, the framerate and clarity are still top-notch for the system.
All of these elements feed into the cutscenes of the game wonderfully, most notably the detailed character models. In Ys Seven, I never really got a feeling for Adol’s personality or emotions; he had no voice and only rarely gave dialogue responses. In Ys VIII, however, not only does Adol have voice acting sprinkled throughout all his actions, he also has an emotive face and body that characterize him as a veteran adventurer who’s been through this kind of thing way too often to be surprised. I felt a lot more invested in him both as a character in the story, and as my personal anchor to this world.
As interesting and refreshing as the story of Ys VIII is, the gameplay is largely unchanged. Of course, that really isn’t a bad thing at all. Ys games have always had fast, frantic, and satisfying real time combat, and it’s a tradition that Lacrimosa of Dana only builds on. Like previous games, you have a party of characters who each have different attack styles and attack types. Different enemies have different type weaknesses, and you’ll need to switch characters in real time to play to those advantages. Along the way you’ll also learn and equip a variety of special moves, which use a replenish-able meter to dish out powerful attacks. There’s also a bullet time styled flash dodge/guard system that lets you slow down time and deliver rapid attacks if your timing is just right.
As you move across the world, exploring dungeons and looking for new survivors or bosses, you’ll sometimes be stopped in your tracks by an attack-alert. Enemies will often attack your home base and trigger a tower defence mini-game. While most of the time it’s optional, there are a few times when it’s a mandatory encounter. Being deep into a dungeon and close to the end, only to be forced to stop what I’m doing and teleport over to a tower defence game was rarely fun and mostly annoying.
I played Ys Seven and Ys VIII on the same difficulty setting, but I often felt that the latter was a bit more forgiving than the former, especially in the realm of boss fights. Many early fights in Ys VIII didn’t require as precise of a strategy or movement pattern as older games did, mostly because of the expanded movement options and altered camera position. Late game encounters quickly ramp up the difficulty, but it felt like too little too late. Thankfully, the iconic Ys style boss music is as bumpin’ as ever, and even the regular music for dungeons and normal combat is catchy and enjoyable.
Ys VIII is, without a doubt, a huge step for the franchise. In stripping away a lot of the usual narrative tropes the series is usually known for, Nihon Falcom have put a fresh spin on the franchise that puts characters and small moments over grand adventures and vast mysteries. Tied together by a fast-paced combat system and great music, the negatives of Lacrimosa of Dana are far outweighed by the positives, and this is a game that any JRPG fan would be a fool to sleep on.
Versions tested: PS4, PS Vita