Over the past year, the Ys series has gone from unknown quantity in North America to a hot commodity in the RPG genre. The franchise, which has been going strong in Japan for two decades, is suddenly taking America by storm, and it's easy to see why. The latest release, Ys: The Oath in Felghana, offers great combat and fun gameplay for the PSP. If it weren't for the painful platforming segments and the uneven difficulty, this might be one of the best titles to grace Sony's handheld.
Though it was released in North America after Ys Seven, Oath in Felghana is actually an earlier game in the series. The title is technically a port of a PC remake of Ys III, which was called Wanderers. Confused yet? Don't worry if you don't have a deep knowledge of the series; you don't really need to understand what's going on to appreciate the game. While Oath in Felghana retains series hero Adol Christin and his faithful companion Dogi as the main characters, everything else stands on its own.
In this particular adventure, Adol and Dogi return to Dogi's homeland of Felghana, though things aren't quite the way the big oaf remembers them. Monsters have popped up and begun attacking villagers, and there are rumblings that the land's governor is tinkering with dark and forbidden magic to solidify his power. Of course, even though he has only just arrived and has no real business interfering, Adol offers to investigate. Since he's an adventurer, I suppose he's contractually obligated to do such things.
One of the more interesting feats of the Ys series is how it manages to keep just enough of the core gameplay intact to feel familiar yet completely reinvent gameplay so that each entry in the franchise is able to feel completely fresh and different from the others. This creative drive is alive and well in Oath in Felghana, with most positive results.
The new game retains the hack-and-slash combat that fans of Ys Seven will recall, keeping the battles fast-paced and the action fresh. This time around, though, players don't collect characters and control a party; they spend the entire game with Adol alone, a one-man wrecking crew of justice and purity. The potential boredom that accompanies playing as one character for the duration of a 10- to 12-hour adventure is offset by the game's streamlined yet deep magic and equipment system. Throughout the game, Adol picks up a few armlets that grant him basic magic attacks, and he also obtains a handful of accessories that prove critical to traversing the game's dungeons.
If this is starting to sound a lot like The Legend of Zelda, then that's because it does indeed feel very similar. Even though Oath in Felghana is pretty blatantly ripping off a more famous series, it seems to do so lovingly, working hard enough to put its own spin on things so that it doesn't feel like just another copycat. Though the inspiration may spring from Hyrule, the execution is pure Ys.
One difference between Ys Seven and Oath in Felghana that doesn't fare so well is a heavy emphasis on platforming in the new game. Most dungeons feature tricky jumping puzzles that can send you tumbling down several floors if you miss a hop. At this point, you must battle your way back up to the offending room and try again. The upside is that the developers seemed to realize how frustrating such a system would be and mercifully included a "No Fall" option, which can be toggled on and off at will. Miss a hop with No Fall enabled, and Adol merely resets at the beginning of the room, without penalty. Some may claim it's too casual a feature to include, but it really helps alleviate potentially game-crippling frustration.
The same can be said for the overall difficulty level, which often spikes to levels that are near unbearable. Adol doesn't really carry a pack, so players can't take healing items into battle. Thus, death is a much greater threat than in many RPGs, as clearing one room filled with tough enemies often merely segues into another room full of powerful baddies. There are a few mechanics built into the game to ease the chances of getting stuck, but players who find themselves badly hurting and caught far away from a save point may be caught between a rock and a hard place.
The difficulty issue really rears its head in boss fights, nearly all of which are designed to see you fail over and over again before you finally manage to triumph. Most battles are composed of pattern memorization and reaction, and picking your spots to allow Adol to attack without getting blasted to pieces. The bosses often exist on a plane far above that of rank and file enemies, though, so you may head into an encounter confident in your level and preparation only to get your ass handed to you six times in a row. Much like the platforming issue, the developers built in a workaround solution, allowing players to temporary bump down difficulty for boss encounters after dying a few times. This is an inclusion that all but the most hardcore will likely utilize multiple times, as some of the foes are simply too cheap to beat without a little help from the game itself.
Ys: The Oath in Felghana is another incredibly strong entry in the series, and it's a great option for PSP owners looking for an RPG fix. While a few gameplay elements border on irritating, they're never frustrating, and though the visuals don't quite match up with some other titles that appear on the system, the game still looks just fine. It's hard to believe that a port of a remake of a game that only existed in Japan until this year could be so enjoyable, but it truly is. This franchise is quickly becoming a force in the RPG realm, and Oath in Felghana is a sterling example of why. Move over, Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts: There's a new series in town, and its stock couldn't be soaring any higher right now.
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