For many years my only connection to the Ys series was the music. The OST accompanying each release is always really, really, very, quite good. There were always so many barriers keeping me from actually playing any of the games, though. For starters, the series is 30 years old and packed with eight main releases as well as several reimaginings, spinoffs, and console ports of varying quality. Secondly, Ys would go on to find its home on portable systems, particularly the PSP and the Vita—neither of which I am particularly fond of. As a result, Ys was absolutely impenetrable to me.
That would all change with the release of Ys Origin on the PlayStation 4 in February 2017. Finally, an Ys game that I could play with a controller on my TV! From my outsider’s perspective, Ys Origin had the reputation of being the game in the series to play, so I bought it—and then proceeded to not play it for nearly six months. It wasn’t until I saw that Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana would be localized for Western markets that I finally got the motivation to start playing Origin. When I did, I found the action was fast, the music was loud, and the story was, well, there, I guess. Truth be told, I never finished it. What can I say? Hugo’s campaign was so much more boring than Yunica’s. But I digress. Even though I only ever finished one-third of Ys Origin, I now got it; I finally understood what I had been missing. I decided that Ys VIII would be the first title in the series I would play to completion.
Ys VIII is a continuation of Adol Christin’s grand adventure throughout the globe, with Adol and his faithful companion, Dogi, aboard a passenger ship called the Lombardia. From what I understand of various Ys tropes, it would seem that Adol and boats are generally a bad combination, and Ys VIII holds true to that: the Lombardia sails just a hair too close the mysteriously mysterious Isle of Seiren and is attacked by a large kraken-like creature. Even though Adol put forth a valiant effort to defend the ship and its crew, the kraken eventually wins out and the Lombardia capsizes, leaving Adol and the rest of the passengers to wash ashore on Seiren, a land from which no one has ever returned. Once Adol regains consciousness, he salvages some equipment that washed ashore up with them and prepares to set out on his latest, however impromptu, adventure.
As Adol, the player’s task on Seiren is to build and maintain a sustainable community of survivors called Castaway Village as well as to map the uncharted territory of their temporary home. Most of the survivors, though not all, either offer a service to Castaway Village or act as a combative party member to journey alongside Adol. Ultimately, though, all survivors do have a role to play in the game’s story progression—during your adventure, you’ll be faced with a variety of obstacles that require a certain number of survivors to overcome. The particulars of each obstacle vary, from landslides to rocks and collapsed pillars, but the details really don’t matter. Their sole reason for existing is to act as progression gates.
Gathering survivors and clearing obstacles comprise the overarching mechanic throughout the entire 40- to 60-hour adventure. The fast-paced, button-mashing combat and the always fantastic music never failed to keep me engaged, and I never felt like Ys VIII dragged along at all. Combat is, from what I understand, very similar to if not lifted completely from the previous entry in the franchise, Ys: Memories of Celceta, which was available on the Vita. You have a completely interchangeable party of what will eventually be six characters, each with a specific attribute: slash, pierce, or strike. These attributes act as a rock-paper-scissors mechanic to employ against the foes you encounter through your adventure. Some foes have no particular weakness, but most do, and by exploiting it you can render a break status on your enemy, stunning them and making them much more vulnerable to all attacks. You can switch between any of the three active members at any time to best suit the given battle. Along the way, your party will unlock new skills, which vary in strength and break rates, and increase those attributes by leveling up existing skills. Additionally, there are the Flash Guard and Flash Move mechanics. By either guarding or dodging at just the right time during an enemy attack, you’ll momentarily either increase damage output or slow down time, respectively.
My only complaint with the system is that there really isn’t much reason to change your party beyond the initial three members, Adol, Laxia, and Sahad. Each represents one of the aforementioned overarching attributes, so you effectively have a perfectly functioning party at the adventure’s outset. I did sometimes find myself wanting to switch out either Laxia or Sahad for another particular party member, but it ultimately made no sense as I would then have two slash types and be down either a pierce or strike type. I could easily bring up my inventory of party members and switch them in or out according to the situation at hand, but that’s much more menu navigation than I’d prefer. Thus, I stuck with Adol, Laxia, and Sahad for 95 percent of my time on the Isle of Seiren.
Being chained to Laxia and Sahad wasn’t that bad, because the rest of the party members (save for one) are either entirely uninteresting or hyperactive anime tropes. Laxia and Sahad are easily the more charismatic of available party members. Laxia is borderline uninteresting but does develop in interesting ways over time; Sahad is 90 percent farts and fart jokes, but that’s still more personality than Hummel. As for the NPCs of Castaway Village, they really don’t serve any fulfilling narrative purpose other than the particular service that they offer to the settlement—item shops, a tailor, and a blacksmith, for example. Each survivor has a back story that you can explore though gifting items and doing quests. While I did do the gift giving and the questing (which adds to a completion percentage necessary for unlocking the “true” ending), I found myself skipping through their dialogue, as it was almost wholly uninteresting. The stories of your fellow castaways are just side content, really.
The real overarching story thread doesn’t truly begin until Chapter 3, a good 10 to 15 hours into the game, when you are introduced to Dana, the maiden of the great tree. Dana is plagued by visions of her kingdom, Eternia, destroyed and left in ashes, as well as the adventures of Adol and his band of followers. I don’t think it’s a plot that I’ll likely remember for years to come, but it served its purpose. I get the impression that nothing more than a serviceable story is ever expected of an Ys game—the series’ main draw is generally the combat and music.
The graphical prowess certainly isn’t a big selling point, either. I’m not a stickler for graphics by any means, but if Sega Dreamcast were an aesthetic, then I would certainly use it to describe Ys VIII. It’s certainly very bright and very colorful in spots, the environment draws in nicely, and there were absolutely no performance issues that I noticed, but the character models and textures on the environments are just so flat and bland. All throughout my time with Ys VIII I couldn’t help but wonder what if: What if no Vita version existed? What if Falcom had that Square Enix money and could pay for the man-hours it would take to make this game look like something from 2017 instead of 2004? Given the creativity and variety to the environments in Ys VIII, there’s a lot of potential here, but the outdated presentation holds it back.
However, Falcom returns with another banger of a OST to make up for the only-serviceable story and less-serviceable presentation, and there are tracks here that stand among my favorites from previous entries. I’m always impressed with Falcom’s mastery over so many different genres—every battle theme is appropriately high energy and gets you in the mood to mash buttons, and each environment’s theme can be equally upbeat in the more bright beach areas of the game, while the music is appropriately mellow and somber for darker, cavernous areas or some of the more emotional story beats. The whole OST is fantastic, but after hearing “Sunshine Coastline” immediately upon arriving on the Isle of Seiren, I thought it was so good that it kind of made me wonder why they bother playing anything else. Also, consider this my officially unofficial request to play “Ricordo” on loop during my funeral.
Overall, my first real foray into Ys was a positive one. Having heard so much about the series, I went into Ys VIII with appropriately metered expectations and was only truly let down by the graphical quality. The combat was a slightly more featured style of what I played in Ys Origin and was the biggest draw for me. And actually playing an Ys game along to its music made the OST that much better. I can’t say for sure that I’ll go back and play some of the previous entries, but I can say that I will almost certainly be onboard for the next entry.