Genre: Action Role-Playing
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Release Date: February 24, 2009
Nihon Falcom is not as famous a name as Square-Enix, but it has a history, and a massive library of games, that stretches back nearly 30 years to the very early 1980s. Focusing primarily on the Japanese PC market, Nihon Falcom's titles have garnered a strong following among its fans, although this has also limited its exposure in the West, leaving many to wonder who they are or what they do.
Over the years, several of their titles would occasionally be licensed by other developers and tweaked for console releases in North America. Faxanadu, an action-RPG utilizing a complex password system on the NES, was one such title, along with Legacy of the Wizard, which was actually the fourth installment of Falcom's relatively famous Dragon Slayer series. Their most recent releases on PSP, such as Gurumin or the Namco-Bandai published entries of their Legend of Heroes series, have given them a higher profile. Among those who remember their classic titles, Ys, with its stylish action and ever-present hero, will always be considered the developer's signature series.
Legacy of Ys: Books I & II has now arrived on the Nintendo DS, courtesy of the U.S. branch of prolific publisher and developer, Atlus. Although the double album had initially appeared on the Turbografx, TurboDuo and the Wii's Virtual Console for Western audiences, the collection for the DS is being advertised as the most complete translation of both games. Pre-orders also received a bonus music CD to celebrate the occasion, but when the game was delayed, the offer become standard issue across the entire first run of the release as an apology.
Those unfamiliar with the series won't need to have played any of the other games to know what is going on here, as the retro-styled gameplay also lends itself to the simple, but memorable, story. Taking place in a world of swords and sorcery, Ys was the name of an incredibly advanced civilization that existed 700 years ago. Ruled by two goddesses and assisted by six holy priests, the civilization thrived on magic and science, creating legendary wonders until the usual cataclysm brought it all to an end. The legacy that it has left behind continues to draw in adventurers who seek to discover its forgotten secrets.
Adol Christin, the red-haired swordsman who would become the right man in the wrong place throughout the series' extensive history, debuts in Ys: Book I on his way to the "cursed" land of Esteria as one such adventurer. Unfortunately, no one has told him about the Veil of Storms blockading the island. His ship is torn apart, and he washes up on Esteria's beach, where he is cared for by people who find him. Determined to explore the land and eventually defeat the evil that plagues it, Adol explores dungeons and ruins, and he recovers ancient treasures while slaughtering countless villains along the way.
The old-school gameplay of Ys easily fits in with the DS' controls, and one or two liberties have been taken in order to polish it up for today's demanding audience. Several difficulty levels ranging from Very Easy to Nightmare allow heroes to select the level of fighting challenge that they want. Players can also pick between a "normal" mode of control that uses the d-pad and the face buttons to manually attack enemies, manage Adol's inventory, and explore the world around him. In this setting, the action is seen on the top screen, and basic statistics such as experience, gold, items equipped, hit points and a mini-map are displayed on the bottom. It's interesting to note that the manual attack is a different take on the gameplay than in the original release, where players would simply run into foes.
Using the "stylus" mode switches the screens and takes some getting used to, but for longtime fans, it may offer the closest example of what was offered by the original gameplay. Instead of using a manual attack to fight foes, leading Adol into enemies using the stylus is enough to bash them into juicy experience points as he automatically swings his blade in response. Although it sounds easy, it can be deceptively deadly, since direct attacks against a foe also damage Adol more often than subtler attacks.
The stylus controls can also be cumbersome in action-heavy scenes that are crowded with monsters, especially in one or two boss encounters, when my fingers and the stylus effectively blocked out parts of the screen while I tried to avoid whatever might be coming at me. It still works well enough to drag Adol into monsters and through underground catacombs, though, making it a minor inconvenience.
Inventory is managed with the Start button, and as Adol buys or discovers arms and equipment, he can outfit himself on the fly or equip life-saving medicines in order to pull back his hit points from the brink. Saves can be made anywhere, and loads are quick. Adol regenerates health while standing still if he's out in the wilderness and not a dungeon, although certain items can change this. The only exceptions to using the Start button have to do with the boss battles. Giant marked doors are usually enough of a hint that there's something huge and brutal just beyond them so that players have plenty of advance warning to get everything ready, since they won't be able to change Adol's inventory setup, save or even load a game once the fight starts.
Everything is seen from a top-down view, with a mixture of 3-D graphics for some of the buildings and scenery with 2-D chibi-sized sprites for Adol, NPCs, and the monsters he'll be slaying all day long. It's functional without feeling old, and retro gamers who remember the early titles will get a kick out of the redone character illustrations and visuals that emphasize key moments in the game. There's also plenty of text to help embellish the story amid all of the action. The remixed soundtrack is filled with plenty of rocking tunes and quiet, synthesized movements creating a solid collection. A few good pieces, such as the Ice Ridge of Noltia or Ys 1's complete opening, are particularly noteworthy, but the rest can be something of an acquired taste.
As for the dungeons in the first game, they tend to be simple, straightforward affairs with few surprises, aside from one or two puzzles that require you to find a certain item in order to keep going. Sometimes it isn't always clear as to where to go next, but it's not impossibly hard to figure out with a little thought. A convenient "hint" bar on the status screen shows what you have to do next as something of an aid, but its usefulness is often questioned against how vague most of its clues are such as my favorite, "Gather Information."
Finishing Ys: Book I can take only two or three hours of play. Although it's not a long game, it does come with an animated introduction and a decent ending that transitions over to the sequel, Ys: Book II, which easily feels as if it were several times larger and filled with even more puzzles, making the first game feel as if it were just a warm-up.
After Adol's final battle in Ys: Book I and following the strange circumstances shortly afterward, he ends up in another land in Ys: Book II sans levels and equipment, meaning that the player has to start all over again, which is something of a tradition with the Ys series in every new chapter, even if it is a continuation of the previous story. Consider yourself warned. It won't win any awards in explaining why, and it's sure to rub some armchair adventurers the wrong way, but Ys fans will take this in stride and know that it's probably the only way in keeping Adol from becoming a walking god by the time he reaches Ys: The Ark of Napishtim. With that said, the challenge has considerably increased over the first game. While Ys: Book I capped Adol's level growth at 24, Ys: Book II more than doubles it, along with changing the experience tables so that it takes somewhat longer to level up. The harder monsters don't make this task any easier, either.
Magic is now a part of Adol's repertoire, allowing him to throw fire at foes, teleport back to certain locations, or even disguise himself as a monster so that he can talk to enemies. A magic bar is added below his health, and it grows at the same pace at every level-up; there are a variety of items that can restore its power just as there are those that can patch his wounds. Using magic is something of a key ability that Adol has to use wisely in Book II, since the bosses are a little trickier and the puzzles a bit harder.
The dungeons are also much larger, and this is where the ugly realization sets in that not everything about the sequel has aged well, which makes me thankful that the series has moved beyond its simple roots and into the evolved formula shown in its relatively recent incarnations, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim or the remake of Ys: III, the import-only Oath in Felghana. While the size of the dungeons aren't the real problem, at least not directly, the repetitive gameplay often sends you back and forth through the same areas in order to track down, collect or deliver certain items ad nauseam. Even with teleportation, it's as if the game had decided that the best way to extend its shelf life was to have the player repeatedly go through maze-like areas as often as possible. Retreading old ground isn't a new thing in RPGs, but in Ys: Book II, it comes across as so blatantly obvious that much of the end game felt like a chore that had to be performed if a reward was to be earned.
Fortunately, the refreshingly complete ending is worth the effort, with plenty of hand-drawn scenes that show off events, close out the classic tale of good and evil, and inevitably plant the seeds for Adol's further adventures. Finishing either game also unlocks their soundtrack so that players can listen to their favorite tunes on the DS. Multiplayer rounds out the rest of the package with a four-player, Wi-Fi game pitting everyone against each other in a game of "collect the orb" for added fun.
Retro gamers will likely get more mileage out of Legacy of Ys: Books I & II than anyone who expects this to redefine the way that action RPGs are played on the DS. At its core, it is Falcom fan service of the best kind, delivered by Atlus. Ys fans, especially, will enjoy both of these titles, while dungeon crawlers who are curious enough to overlook their preconceptions might be able to hold their own, despite a few stumbling moments. Adol Christin's adventures are far from over, and anyone wishing to see how it had all began should find his stylus pointing toward Legacy of Ys on the NDS.
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