Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: February 22, 2005
Final Fantasy VII ignited an American passion for RPGs that has yet to die out, but the love hasn’t been spread around evenly. While American gamers will go nuts for Final Fantasy, Xenosaga, and Suikoden, a lot of franchises that are just as big in Japan have been unable to find a receptive American audience. Ys is practically the poster boy for such nearly-forgotten RPG lines; even the quirky SaGa series and grueling Dragon Quest line have made a bigger impact in the US market. Given the series rather poor history, it’s pretty surprising that Konami is publishing the sixth Ys game, The Ark of Napishtim, in English. Ark of Napishtim is not a radical departure from the early Ys games in any way; in fact, much of the game’s design is clearly modeled on 16-bit RPGs and adventure games. This makes it appealing from the retro fan’s point of view, but as a PS2 title, it has some crippling problems.
The plot of Ys is an interesting blend of modern and retro RPG sensibilities… when you get to it, anyway. Unfortunately, the game opens with a series of dramatic cut scenes that are clearly meant to help the story pick up where I presume some earlier Ys title left off. Unfortunately, no Ys game has been released in the US since Ys III in 1991, so the opening cinemas are probably going to strike most players as simply incomprehensible (if very beautiful). Anyway, the long and short of the setup is that Adol is adventuring at sea when his ship is attacked by an enemy Romun fleet, and during the battle Adol is thrown overboard. He washes up on the shore of an island called Quatera, which is inhabited by a tribe of humanoid dog-elf creatures called Rehda. Adol is found by the village’s young priestesses, Olha and Isha, who immediately take him back to their father’s house and nurse him back to health. This causes more than a few problems at first, as the Rehda tribe is currently at odds with a settlement of humans on the neighboring island.
But it quickly becomes apparent that Adol’s arrival among the Rehda was no accident. After he defeats a terrible monster called the Wandering Calamity to save Isha, the tribe’s Chief Ord rewards him with a blue sword, named Livart, made of the super-strong magical crystal called Emelas. When Adol passes through the ancient ruins near the Rehda village, he comes across a blue door that will open when struck with Livart, a red door just like the blue one, and a mercenary named Geis who seems quite unhappy that Adol might try to get in his way. After passing through to the human settlement, more clues that point to something great and sinister happening in Canaan begin piling up, but it’s up to the player to figure out how they all fit together. This makes Ark of Napishtim the rare game where you enjoy talking to every NPC you can find for reasons other than making sure you aren’t missing any loot. Every clue you can glean adds some more depth and meaning to Adol’s situation, and wanting to solve the mystery really helps draw you into the game’s story as an active participant. It helps that, as RPG casts go, Ark of Napishtim has a large and engaging one. After playing for a bit, it’s easy to start really caring about the secondary characters and following the NPC sub-plots with interest.
Ark of Napishtim uses a similarly old-fashioned approach to its graphics, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable as the story. While there are some impressively designed backgrounds and environments, the actual graphics themselves look more like something from the PSP than a late-generation PS2 title. The characters are modeled after the tiny super-deformed sprites often used in 16-bit games, but are rendered in 3D. This strips most of the detail from the in-game characters, making them barely-recognizable polygon blobs. The game uses a fixed camera, so zooming in to get a better look at anything isn’t possible. This doesn’t hurt the gameplay much, some tedious jumping puzzles aside, but it does make the game a remarkably bland visual experience and a crushing disappointment after the beautiful graphics in the opening cut-scene. The 2D art shown of characters during dialogue sequences is basically the only way you know what anyone is supposed to look like, and while the character art is really beautiful, it’s also frustrating that they couldn’t make 3D models or even sprites that reflected those designs more faithfully in play.
Controls for Ys are simple as the graphics, but this is a good thing. You can move Adol around with the D-Pad or left analog stick, juggle between his different swords with R1 or L1, and access your inventory menu with the start button. Tap the square button to attack, cross to jump, triangle to use equipped items, and circle to use your sword’s magic power when its meter is full. Managing the inventory screen is also a breeze, as the menu interface is graphical and extremely intuitive.
Unfortunately, the simplicity of the gameplay doesn’t make good use of the promising controls. Combat in Ark of Napishtim is utterly shallow, to the point where there is little difference between the game’s default Normal difficulty and Hard mode (where items are more expensive and enemies have more HP). In battle with normal enemies, your sword-strikes will stun and temporarily immobilize then, so it’s easy to beat basically any single enemy after the first strike by just pounding on the square button until it is dead. In theory you should be worrying about the properties of the three elemental swords and executing chain combos with them, but this barely matters. Most of the combos just involve whaling on the Square button in differently timed patterns, and you can do most of them without even bothering to try. Playing on Hard mode just makes fighting take a bit longer, and the boss fights are already fairly tedious even in Normal mode. While there are a few genuinely fun battles, like the fight against the Ruins of Amnesia boss, most of them are just simple pattern bosses that require standing in a safe spot on the screen, then darting in to do damage at certain times. Since the bosses tend to have lots of HP, you’ll often spend upwards of 30 minutes killing a boss – and most of this time will be spent standing still or running in circles, waiting for it to cycle through its attack patterns.
In theory juggling between the three magic swords Adol acquires on his quest should add depth to combat, but in practice they simply aren’t different from each other. You’ll spend most of your time using Livart against groups of enemies so you can abuse its whirlwind combo, and the more hard-hitting fire sword Blirante against lone enemies and bosses. The different magic spells are hard to target and for the most part not too useful, although Livart’s giant cyclone spell comes occasionally in handy. The lightning sword, Ericcal, is rarely useful, as it has no particular strengths and an awkward thrusting combat motion. The elemental properties of the swords never seem to factor into damage, so you mostly just need to make sure you amass enough emel (randomly dropped when you kill enemies) to regularly upgrade your swords.
Sound is the only aspect of the game where it really shines as a PS2 title. There’s full voice acting for every character in the game except for Adol, including even the humblest of NPCs. The only voices available at default are the English voices, with acting that ranges from somewhat irritating to rather good. The lack of voice for Adol is clearly just a stylization, a nod to the silent RPG heroes of the 8 and 16-bit eras that works fairly well. Ark of Napishtim’s soundtrack is absolutely superb work, a blend of lively folk music, ambient techno, and soaring overtures that always help enhance the mood of a given scene or location. The game’s sound effects are a little too repetitive, but this can be easily forgiven since you can mix the BGMs, Voices, and sound effects to your satisfaction at the Options screen.
Ultimately, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is a very mixed gaming experience. While retro fans are sure to appreciate its nostalgic sense of game design, the simple-minded combat and primitive graphics severely take away from its entertainment value. And since the main selling point of Ys is that it plays just like old games… well, why not just put this game down and go play some actual old SNES RPGs? Its superb music and strong sense of storytelling save it from being completely forgettable, but Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is still a fundamentally shallow gaming experience.
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