One of the strengths of Nihon Falcom’s long-running Ys series is that, despite 30+ years of entries, any Ys game can be your first Ys game. With every sequel being another standalone adventure in the life of red-haired explorer Adol Christin, I’ve jumped around through the series in a pretty random order and still gotten a full and fulfilling experience out of each game. While Ys IX: Monstrum Nox, the latest entry in the series, is yet another self-contained experience, it’s also a very different experience compared to previous entries. Some of these differences come from gameplay and combat improvements that make this one of the strongest entries in the series, but Ys IX also plays with story development and world-building like the Ys games have never done before, crafting a narrative experience purposefully at odds with what a Ys game would typically deliver.
For one, the much heavier focus on story and narrative in Ys IX means that Adol’s previous adventures matter more than they ever have before. The game opens with our red-haired adventurer trying to enter the city of Balduq before he’s informed that, due to his curious involvement in a number of catastrophic or unexplained events from prior games, there is a warrant out for his arrest.
Adol is quickly shipped off to Balduq prison, and while one mysterious inmate helps him escape the labyrinth-like facility, another mysterious figure named Aprillis ends up shooting Adol with a mysterious bullet – granting him unexplained Monstrum abilities that help him escape the catacombs of Balduq prison. These wild powers come at a cost, though – while he’s no longer stuck in jail, Adol and the five other Monstrums that Aprillis has created are trapped within Balduq by a mysterious barrier and forced to help her vanquish the shadowy creatures stalking the city.
All of this is established within the first chapter of the game, and it’s way more than you would ever get out of a typical Ys game. Even prior entry Ys VIII, which had an impressive story and a focus on character writing, had far fewer cutscenes and cinematic scenes of exposition. I think this is a great change, though. While the first few hours of the game can drag on and the Monstrum wrinkle kind of came out of nowhere, a head-scratching twist at the end of chapter 2 made my eyes go wide and kept me hooked to the story for the rest of the game.
For the first time, Adol isn’t on a grand adventure in gorgeous colourful islands and forests – he’s trapped, imprisoned in the drab and dull walls of Balduq. The way the story plays with your expectations of a typical Ys adventure, and the way in which it calls back to prior adventures, adds a lot for veteran Ys fans. While newcomers can still get a good time out of this game and follow the core narrative, this is the only game in the franchise that I would say is improved by playing it after experiencing some of the other games first.
Something that you can appreciate and love the hell out of without playing any other games in the franchise, though, is the gameplay. The Ys series is known for fast and flashy real-time action combat, and Ys IX only sets that bar higher. Adol has crisp sword attacks and abilities like time-slowing Flash Dodge manoeuvres and Flash Guard parries that never stop being cool. He’s got a handful of special attacks that are unlocked as you level up, too.
You aren’t just fighting shadowy beasts and giant bosses as him, though. As you progress in the story, you’ll recruit each Monstrum to fight alongside you, allowing you to swap between characters in a three-man squad with the tap of a button mid-combat. You’ll have to do this a lot in order to use the weapons that each enemy is weak too, but swapping between characters just to get stylish and chain cool attacks together is just as rewarding.
Each Monstrum you recruit also grants you new Monstrum abilities that are just as useful in combat as they are out of combat. As the Monstrum named “Crimson King” (thank you for being King Crimson Fans, Nihon Falcom) Adol gets access to the Crimson Line ability that lets him grapple across rooftops and perches smoothly. Later on, you’ll get access to the gliding ability Hunter’s Descent or the ability to run up walls with Heaven’s Run. While each Monstrum gift comes from their respective characters, Adol can use all of them at will, allowing you to chain movement abilities together and explore the world with ease. You can use them in battle to swiftly manoeuvre around enemies, pull yourself towards them for extended combos, and more.
As flashy as these abilities are, though, the game regularly struggles to keep up with them. Being able to explore every nook and cranny of the world is both a blessing and a curse, as it only makes it easier to see just how clunky some of the environment models are, and how muddy almost all of the textures are. Plus, while the gameplay and story are consistently satisfying, the framerate of Ys IX couldn’t be further from consistent. Battles, cutscenes, and even simply walking around certain areas would cause awkward framerate dips and pacing issues. I would hope that this is something that could be remedied by playing on a PlayStation 5, but on PlayStation 4 it’s a frequent annoyance.