As a relatively active gamer, I always marvel at those series which reach the high sequel numbers without catching my attention previously. Not to say I’ve played them all; for example, I’ve never tried out the Dragon Quest series, but I’ve at least heard of it and have some idea of what it is. Ys, however, is an almost entirely unknown action RPG to me despite the latest release, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, being the eighth in the series. Having only briefly tried “Ys Seven” in the past couple years, but stopping early due to a dullness in the story, I was intrigued to see how a Ys game fared on a complete playthrough.
Ys VIII follows Adol, the protagonist of the Ys games thus far, and all those others unfortunate enough to be aboard the same passenger vessel as him. They are intercepted and left stranded upon a mysterious island, which leaves us, luckily, needing to know nothing of the previous Ys games as the tale is about this group’s attempts to survive and escape this island. The majority of your time here will be spent exploring the heights and depths of the island and gathering any other castaways you can find. In between, you’ll be doing frantic real-time battle with any and all beasts that should bar your path, using a familiar range of tools: standard attacks, special attacks, an ultimate per character, and so on.
It’s immediately evident that the ‘action’ of this action RPG was considered first and foremost. There’s rarely a dull moment as you wander the island you find yourself trapped upon, with enemies in large numbers across every zone that respawn every time you leave a screen. Luckily, offensive gameplay has been designed with the player in mind; your character is responsive and quick, enemies crumble beneath your more powerful moves, and stringing a combo is effective, even when stringing in other characters. Successfully destroying an opponent with a series of well-timed cleaves has rarely felt more satisfying.
This is perfectly balanced out with the requirement for an effective defence. While you may be able to destroy your opponent with ease, your limited health-pool means that it is just as simple for the enemy to make you quite dead. Your attacks do not prevent the enemy from executing their own moves, so defensive measures are pivotal for survival. To further encourage this, dodge-rolls and blocks come with some satisfying rewards, such as slow-time and guaranteed critical hits. The result is a rhythmic flow of battle: dodge to get the aforementioned buff and use it to unleash another round of beatings upon the creatures of the isle.
I feel the need to stress how well these two components work in tandem, as the crux of engaging action is the fusion of both attack and defence. Designers in this genre will find their own way to interpret and implement this into their games, but I have frequently found their solutions to be clunky or irritating. Dodging might be deliberately clunky, or certain attacks I want to execute often will result in me being immobile for just long enough to get me hit squarely in the face. Obviously, this is all done for the sake of balance. Ys takes a different approach, however, giving the player the power to pull off all the moves they want and still often have the option to dodge or block, but then expects them to use it to its full extent by punishing them harshly for any failure.
The freedom and speed present in the combat permeates into virtually every aspect of the game. Navigating the landscape is almost hilariously fast, keeping you involved even when journeying between two points. Load times are remarkable given the standard I’ve come to expect these days. Even the menu has been fine-tuned for quick performance. All this means that there is no ‘load-time-fear’ that so often hinders creativity in modern games. You can feel free to try that piece of equipment for a couple fights or make a quick journey to pick up the one resource you’re missing to finish crafting that cool item, without the feeling the burdening thought of ‘Ugh, how many minutes will I lose to loading?’
Removal of this common fear is pivotal to how successfully Ys VIII encourages refinement of your own preferred skillset. While your characters can only set active a limited selection of their pool of special attacks and only three party members are out at a time, I was frequently jumping into the menu to change out one ability or character to suit a new enemy or take on a boss from a different angle. It’s this kind of creativity that prevents burn-out and keeps the combat from straying into repetitiveness, which is a valid concern for a game with so much focus on killing swaths of enemies across a range of zones.
Exploration through these zones is especially enjoyable and matched to the style of game perfectly. Environments are pretty enough without being distracting so that you can fully enjoy the range of views while sprinting around at the absurd speed your party is capable of. Different areas of the island are also diverse enough to be distinctly memorable but still with enough similarity that the island feels like a unified whole. As the completion of your world map is a goal second only to the eradication of local fauna, as proven by the fact that map completion is measured as a percentage to three decimal places, this is important to pull off correctly.
Speaking of the map, I am impressed with just how thoughtfully it is implemented, given a strange tendency in modern games to assume that they can just throw a vague image of map-like proportions onto the screen and call it a day. You have access to different layers depending on your needs, whether it’s a more global zone-to-zone comparison of the entire island, an idea of how different screens of a zone connect, or specifically how the screen you’re currently on is put together. They’re marked cleanly for key features and plainly readable from any angle. It’s hands-down best map I’ve used in a long time.
Putting all of this together, I feel like the most important idea to take from these points is that Ys has been designed to be fun to play. For example, every time I took out a pack of wolves in a single swipe, or when I finally got the hang of dodging the stupid octopus creatures, or when that boss taught me that I really should have tried to dodge that move by caving in my skull. I was awake and alert the entire time and eager to keep going and delighting in every moment. It’s truly refreshing to see a release that clearly had so much attention put towards keeping the player involved and excited in all elements of their journey around the island.
Moving away from the active elements, the story of Ys VIII is relatively simple, for the most part. This is to the benefit of the game, which is much more about the action and adventure than telling a tale. The overall premise of the story became increasingly apparent as the things advanced and was enough to engage, but not distract from all the monster-killing that needed to be done. Some of the late reveals were unique and got me thinking, but ultimately the story is there to hold the game together, not as the main selling point.
Unfortunately, the characters are the weakest element here by a staggering degree. Each and every character is bland and monotonous: there’s no significant development of any character, their input to events is predictably lined up with their personality, and the dialogue between characters is poorly written in itself. At times, it’s downright confusing: the tone seems to swing wildly between childish humour and darker themes like death and philosophy. It’s likely some of this has come from the localisation process, but it’s hard to say how much of it isn’t already present in the original language. It is a blessing that most scenes are short, sparing the complete package from being overly tainted.
It’s due to this that I feel like I can’t be too hard on the voice actors: it’s understandable that they would have had a hard time pulling off an acceptable performance with the lines they were given. There aren’t any stand-out performances here, with most struggling to get feeling put into lines that were written without any consideration for human emotion, let alone how normal speech sounds. Once you meet Ricotta, you’ll understand why I would have muted the game henceforth if I hadn’t been reviewing it. Oh, the things I endure for you all.
Even with significant failings in the character performances and writing, it would be impossible for me not to recommend Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana. It’s been a while since I had such consistent fun while playing an action RPG as I eliminated hordes of enemies and deftly deflected their many blows. As long as you’re willing to take the game for its gameplay and just enjoy the experience, there’ll be something here for anyone looking for a fast-paced spot of action. Maybe just turn the volume down a little and chuck on some epic music to compliment it – you don’t really need to hear the next thing Ricotta says, trust me.