The Ys series (pronounced ‘eese’) is a long-running action-RPG from obscure Japanese developer Nihon Falcom.
Nihon Falcom is a name that might be familiar to a few of you as the developer behind the well-received Trails in the Sky: First Chapter for the PSP. Although the developer has held a strong long-standing presence in Japan as a mark of ‘hardcore’ game development, their forays into English speaking territory have been few and far between. But now, publisher and localization outfit Xseed has seen fit to bring Ys Oath in Felghana over to Steam.
There are so few offerings from Japanese developers on the PC and Ys comes in at a good price; it appears to be a no-brainer for JRPG fans. However prospective buyers should be aware that this game has some issues with difficulty consistency that prevent it from reaching the heights it could have.
The Ys games are mostly disconnected from each other in terms of story. You normally play Adol Christin, a red-haired adventurer who always seems to run into trouble. In tow is your partner and muscle, Dogi. Some stuff goes down which sets the backdrop for 15-20 hours of hacky-slashy, boss-smashy fun. In the case of Oath of Felghana the game opens with the two arriving at Dogi’s at the titular nation of Felghana. It soon becomes apparent that something has gone very amiss; monsters run rampant, a power-hungry noble in his quest for power is impinging on the livelihoods of the locals, and one of Dogi’s childhood friends has been missing for six months.
The story may set itself up for being the stuff of a massive role-playing epic, but that really isn’t what it is about; the game world is set on a peninsula of a single island, there is only one hub-town, and only around 30 or so NPCs. Oath in Felghana may only have a small cast but it takes time to flesh them all out a bit; all have their own names and their own artwork. There is no ‘generic old man x’ or ‘generic little girl y’ here.
Sadly the potentially intimate character relationships that could have been forged through this narrative device never really pan out. Instead the characters (the story as a whole in fact) simply color the experience of playing Ys and inject a little character into proceedings, rather than defining them.
The story takes a backseat to what Ys is really about: high-speed hacking and slashing accompanied by the blaring of background guitar music that makes this reviewer want to use words like ‘awesome’ and ‘radical’. The gameplay is all about guiding Adol through dungeons and fighting through rooms of monsters. The tools at your disposal are a combination of running, jumping and running/jumping slashes peppered with some magic.
Most enemies you encounter are low level fodder for your sword; they die after being pressured by a few hits. What makes things interesting is the combination of the generally high difficulty of the game (enemies can deal out deceptively large amounts of damage) and managing crowd-control; fighting airborne enemies requires you to run around and bat at the air with your sword, but trying to do this whilst simultaneously handling several grounded enemies that use projectiles or melee attacks can get messy, in a good way.
There really isn’t any strategy to it; the enemies even broadcast their attacks with a telltale white flash. What Ys offers is white-knuckle action at a frenetic pace. You simply ‘get’ the enemy attack patterns which leaves you free to spend the rest of your time running around their attacks plowing through them with like a chibi-version of death incarnate.
Enemies explode en masse into showers of gems, coins and blood. It’s fast, responsive, messy and above all, satisfying. Some would describe the Ys games as dungeon crawlers but for all the gusto and sheer momentum with which Adol decimates each successive wave of enemies, the term ‘Dungeon raider’ might be more accurate.
‘Fast’ wouldn’t just describe the pace of the combat in Ys; you’ll level up frequently, getting new equipment (which in turn can be leveled up quite fast) and running into one of the games’ many boss encounters. You’re never more than 20 minutes away from the ‘next thing,’ which pushes you on that much further. It goes without saying that every time you see a save-point—which indicates something terrible is just around the corner—you should max out all of your equipment upgrade options and, if it is viable, level up to the next level.
Speaking of bosses: without a doubt, they’re the most memorable moments in Ys. These bosses are the ultimate result of the very old-school design mentality that went into this game. They’re hard, requiring twitch reflexes to get through and above all necessitate an enduring observance to their attack patterns. They even change up their attack patterns as they go, stacking together multiple attacks and getting progressively faster. At their best these are hair-on-end, edge-of-your seat intense encounters. At their worst though, they show up the biggest design flaw in this game: the pliability of the game’s difficulty.
Small stat increases in this game can make for massive differences. This is problematic because most bosses in this game are borderline impossible without doing the aforementioned preparation to an extent, but it is also problematic in that leveling up smartly can make some encounters go from challenging to laughably easy. One boss fight pits the player against flying enemies at the same time; something that this reviewer was unable to clear for almost over an hour of tirelessly dodging and weaving. A quick run through the dungeon prior netted enough cash and XP to get strong enough to not only get through the encounter but to leisurely romp through it.
By putting as little as 20 minutes towards grinding for cash and XP (as with the combat and general pace of the game, even grinding is fast) the game becomes so easy that no attempt has to be made avoid attacks because the increase in DEF had rendered the bosses virtually impotent. It’s a shame because Ys is at its finest when it presents the player with a challenge that it practically dares you to stand up to. The higher difficulty levels in the game get around this to an extent by assuming you are going to do more preparation than it assumes on lower difficulty levels, but these higher difficulty levels might be too high for a new player…and in any case aren’t available until you’ve already completed the game once.
By the end of my playthrough, the in-game clock claimed that I’d been playing for around 20 hours. In reality, I’d spent so many hours retrying some of the harder (and better) encounters and sections in the game that the true figure was closer to 25 hours.
For the modest asking price Ys: Oath in Felghana isn’t a bad proposition. The game is rarely frustrating; surprising given how hard some parts can be at times. Often, it’s so cathartically brilliant in its mishy-mashy violence that it feels like playing a speed-run of another game. It comes recommended, just keep in mind that sometimes it flip-flops from being hard to being trivially easy.