In this week’s Breaking Down the Backlog, I made people explode into a shower of gore by bumping into them repeatedly.
I had no idea what to expect when I started playing Ys. I went in completely blind and was met with a cool little action RPG with interesting, if simple, mechanics and some frustrating difficulty spikes.
It is a RPG boiled down to the basics. There are characters to talk to, monsters to slay and a land to save – but it doesn’t have a great amount of depth. The people you meet have no personality. You get a little note on every person you talk to, and all their models are different, but it isn’t necessarily reflected in the game what they think, feel or even how they act. Balder’s Gate this ain’t. There are a couple of interesting characters like the mysterious female bard, the noble thief and a wizard who was stranded in the evil Dema Tower but they aren’t particularly memorable. The story, too, is pretty much non-existent. Adol, the protagonist, is stranded on an isolated island that has a monster problem and he is tasked with…I can’t actually remember. But he eventually falls into a quest to collect these powerful books that unlock secret power from an ancient civilisation and stop the main villain – who is only described as a man with a black cape – from doing the same. The fact that I can barely remember what actually happened in the game speaks volumes.
I wasn’t too bothered though as the game is under no pretence that it is nothing more than a whimsical adventure, nothing more. The graphics are obviously dated, but they are bright and colourful, everyone is smiling and the music is ridiculous. When you go out into the wilderness you are subjected to sick guitar solos straight from Dynasty Warriors which makes you want to: a) die and b) kill some monsters. Not all the music is so overblown however, when you enter dungeons, the music becomes much more moody and atmospheric. That is, however, until you fight a boss then ‘Wicked Sick Guitar Solos’ by Japanese Composer starts up again.
The game-play of Ys reflects this simplicity. ‘All’ you do is run into monsters until one of you dies. The challenge comes from where you hit the monster. If Adol runs into a monster to the side of it then he doesn’t take damage. If you hit it face on, however, you both take damage. And early on in Ys you die obscenely quickly, so you have to be very careful when you engage in combat. on top of this, all the typical RPG mechanics are in there. You gain experience which levels up, making you stronger and give out more damage, and you can find better equipment around in the environment or buy it with gold taken from the monsters. It is all very rudimentary stuff until later meet a boss.
Ys doesn’t hold your hand. I had to use a guide a couple of times because I just didn’t know what to do at certain points. And when bosses happen, all bets are off. They will kill you repeatedly until you spend the time and effort to work out how to destroy it. No hints and no help (you can’t even use healing potions and buffs don’t work). There were a couple that really, really messed me up. I have a high tolerance for challenge, I mean I finished Dark Souls and its sequel, but a giant bat boss earlier and the last boss were probably some of the most frustrating enemies I have ever faced. This lack of guidance also manifests in one really unfortunate way: if you don’t have specific equipment, then some enemies are impossible to kill. Some of the NPCs cryptically mention it, but it is almost pure luck that you could find them by yourself. That is bad game design any way you look at it in my opinion.
Ys was a lot of fun to play. Once I had got used to the pseudo-Zelda perspective and the slightly dated controls, I was blowing through the game. Yes, it does lack a lot of depth. But for a game that is older than I am, I was surprised how much I actually enjoyed playing it. I have heard that the sequel is much better. Which is great news as I have heard that they should be played consecutively.
Next time on Breaking Down the Backlog: Ys II