Legacy of Ys: Books I & II Review
The Ys (pronounced "ease") franchise is a long running series by Japanese developer Falcom. Started in 1987, Ys has gone on to spawn over half a dozen core installments, as well as many remakes and off-shoots. However, most gamers would not be aware of this, as the majority of installments have never come to North America. Until recently, the installments that have been released in NA were Ys for the Sega Master System and PC, Ys II for the PC, Ys Book I & II for the TGCD and Wii VC, Ys III for the TGCD, SNES, and Genesis, and Ys VI for the PS2 and PSP. Of these releases, the most memorable and enduring has been the TGCD release of Ys Book I & II, which featured simple, but detailed 2D sprites, simple and addictive action-rpg gameplay, and an incredible soundtrack consisting of both system generated music and prerecorded audio. For most NA gamers, this is the benchmark for which the DS version is to be measured, though others are familiar with the SMS version or the Japanese PC-only remakes Ys I & II Eternal. However, my review will do it's best to help those unfamiliar with the series, as well offer some insight to long time Ys fans who are still unsure about this version.
In Japan, Ys Books I & II for the DS were released as separate, full-priced games, on the same day. When Atlus USA approached Interchannel Inc. (the developer of these two games, and not Falcom) with an interest to publish these games for the NA audience, they requested both games be put on one cartridge. Amongst Ys fans, it's been a long known fact that these games were meant to be played together, as the story picks directly were the first ends. Both games are also incredibly short on their own, so it made sense to merge them again. Also unique to the NA version is the option from the start to play either Ys I or II, unlike the TGCD version that required you to play through Book I first. Now that some brief history and differences have been explained, it's time to move onto the game.
When the game is booted, players are going to be met with either excitement or disappointment. The first thing that you'll notice is the music, and depending on your source material, you may or may not like the new arrangements. Aside from that however, is the game's audio quality. It's not present all the time, as the majority of the game's music is cleanly presented, but some tracks do feature a fair amount of clicking, hissing, or popping. You can get around this by listening to the game through high-quality, bass-enhanced headphones, or a sound system, but that's a bit extreme for a handheld. The DS sound hardware is simply incapable of producing some of the sounds the game is trying to generate, and it can be distracting, especially at lower volumes. Thankfully, Atlus packaged the game with a 30 track OST for the game, packed with 70 minutes of clean audio. And for those wondering, this game has no voice acting, which is welcome because I'm sure that would have been garbled as well. So, once you've made it past the select screen, you are ready to start playing either Ys I or II. Let's begin.
Once you select the game, you are presented with a few options, new game, load game, as well as some greyed out options like sound test, time attack, or multiplayer (Ys II only). When you select new game, you are given four difficulty choices, ranging from easy to nightmare, with only nightmare slightly changing the gameplay. The previous three difficulties only affect enemy parameters, whereas nightmare does all that, but negates health regeneration on the fields. While this might sound difficult, none of the difficulties pose a threat to Ys veterans. Unexperienced gamers will curse the game, however. Now, with your difficulty chosen, the game starts with an animated cutscene of abysmal quality. Heavy compression is the name of the game here, as the audio and video quality are undeniably low. If you are of a sane mind, you'll probably skip it, but for those with a morbid fascination for benchmarking the lows of video games; enjoy.
Once the game starts, things don't get any better. If you chose Ys I, the first thing you see is the playable character, Adol, lying in a bed, recovering from a recent injury. Washed ashore after a shipwreck, Adol finds himself in the small port town of Barbado. The problem here isn't the altered story, but the graphics. Utilizing 2D characters over a 3D world doesn't work too well in this game. The 2D sprites are detailed enough, reminiscent of the style from the Playstation 1 era. The 3D environments also seem to come from the same place, using simple textures and geometry to barely get the job done. On the flip side, the game does move at a constant 60 frames per second, keeping the pace of the game close to the originals. However, the problem lies in how to the two planes mesh. Any 2D object, either enemies or the things they drop, float above the 3D surfaces, and it reeks of low-budget development. At any rate, both games use the same graphic engine, all though part II has better animated enemies and bosses.
The presentation, menus, and character portraits fare better though. Any time, outside of a boss battle, you may pause and access your save, load, and equipment menus. Both Ys games allow you to save anytime you want (with the exception of boss battles), and you are also given three save slots for each game. The menus in this game are simply done, as they are simple selection menus over a static background image, and are more function over form. The game itself is played on the top screen, with the lower screen representing your HUD. It details your current and max hp, current and max mp (Ys II only), current exp, exp needed to level up, enemy hp remaining, gold, and an incredibly detailed map. The lower screen, especially the map, is one the game's greatest assets, as it is a time saver in some of the more labyrinthine areas. It also means the top screen is clutter free, with the exception of a tiny hp counter in the upper-right corner. Another high note for the game are the character portraits. Ripped directly from the exceptional Ys I & II Eternal, they are incredibly detailed, but seem out of place in this game, as they stand in stark contrast to the games super deformed sprites.
What is not out of place however, are the exceptional controls. You have two schemes to work with, but only one is superior. If you are familiar with the Ys games, you'll remember the old bump-based combat system, and the lack of an attack button. These remakes do away with that, for better or worse amongst its fans, as you now have direct control over your attacks. In all reality, the old combat system couldn't work in this game and I'll tell you why - you can't pass through enemies. In both remakes, enemies are solid and can't be pushed around. For me, this wasn't a problem, as I felt the game needed the change, but others will find fault with it. Anyway, the remakes give you a choice between two control methods, d-pad or stylus. If you choose the d-pad, you have a greater degree of control for both movement and combat. It's easier to attack enemies in this mode, as well as dodging and general movement. If you use the stylus, combat is handled automatically when you bump into an enemy, and depending upon your approach you will either deal or receive damage. In practice, the stylus combat offers nothing that the d-pad can not do. It's not difficult to run around environments while frequently swinging your sword (since you can attack and run at the same time) to dispatch weak foes, making the stylus mode an unnecessary addition. It's also very difficult to cast magic and move at the same time in Ys II if you use the stylus controls.
The remakes also have another addition of a new area. In Ys I, there is a whole new area with new enemies, equipment, and even a boss. The new area was added as a means to "expand" upon the story, but it just feels tacked on. The reason it feels tacked on is because it has very little impact on the story, of which I'll explain. Both of these games are very light on story, more or less a guide to push you from one area to the next. It also doesn't help that Adol is a silent protagonist, apparently following in line with the lawful-good mentality because he will take up tasks, from complete strangers, that will constantly put his life in jeopardy. Early on, it's understood (if you read the manual) that Adol has an interest in studying the legends of the land of Ys, but the way in which his travels starts could have been handled much better. Then again, we are talking about a two decade old game, and I really can't deduct points for the thin narrative. We are dealing with simple quests and simple goals, and Adol's quest is to unravel the mysteries of Ys, by any means necessary.
Now let's address the nuts and bolts of this game, from gameplay to glitches. In both games, when you dispatch an enemy, they explode into a bloody/chunky mess (depending on the enemy type), and leave behind one of three items - money, a healing herb, or nothing. Money adds to your total, and herbs immediately heal you. Enemies always give you experience, which doesn't diminish as you grow in levels, making power leveling a breeze. In Book I the level cap is 24, and in Book II it's 55. For Book I, it's impossible not to reach the max level, as enemies give tons of experience. This is mostly done as a precaution, as certain bosses require you to be a certain level in order to defeat them. In Book II however, you have to utilize the combo system to increase the speed at which you level, especially late in the game, as enemies just don't give you the copious amounts of exp like in the first game. Yet in both games, if you successfully strike an enemy several times in a row and kill it, you will get a bonus multiplier towards the gold and experience it gives. Very useful, and if you use a weaker weapon you can get a higher chain and a higher multiplier. Moving on, there is a strange discrepancy between the two games regarding enemy damage vs player defense. In Ys I, no matter how high your defense is, enemies will always have the ability to do one point of damage. In Ys II, if your defense exceeds an enemies attack capabilities, you will receive no damage. The inverse is also true, so watch out. There is nothing worse than going into a boss fight, only to realize you can't damage it. Also worth mentioning is the magic system in Ys II. Early on in the game you get access to a fireball spell, which quickly becomes your main method of attacking. Of course you still have access to your sword (Y swings your sword, and A shoots fireballs), but being able to harm enemies at a distance is a huge advantage and because you will be using the fireball quite a bit, the game has a special magic system. When you shoot a fireball, you'll notice your mp bar will quickly deplete. However, in a few moments the bar will refill. What the game is doing is utilizing you current mp stocks as a stamina bar. After a few fireball shots, your mp will decrease, thus shortening the bar. What happens as you level up is that your max mp goes up, and then you can discharge more fireballs before the bar empties. In all reality, it's impossible to run out of mp just shooting fireballs, unless you are just wildly spamming it. Also, the only way to regain your mp is to either rest at a town, or use one of the games abundant restoratives (that respawn in the areas where you found them).
Let's talk about the glitches now. In Ys I, when you remove the contents of a treasure chest, leave the area, and revisit the same chest, it will be closed. This is dangerous and confusing, especially when you are looking for specific items and can't remember which ones you've previously visited. This is not a problem in Ys II, however. Another oddity occurs when you retrieve the contents of a chest. Their is a jingle that plays when you get an item, along with a picture of the item you found. Unfortunately in both games, that image may or may not appear, and usually when it does, it appears for a split second. And yet another problem surrounding chests occurs after the jingle ends and you regain control. The music takes a few moments to start up again and before it does, the game will pause for a second or two. This happens in both games. The game also has either pausing or loading issues in Ys II when you talk to shop keepers, or any one else who has a menu accompanied with a portrait when talking to them. Also, Ys I has some strange environmental issues during the final dungeon when you are running around the exterior. Nothing game breaking, but worth noting as it's easy to see your character blinking in and out of existence.
And that's everything about these games. Atlus themselves did a good job localizing the games, even going back to retranslate area and character names. However, through all the work they could possibly do, fixing the issues with the games was out of their hands. The impression one gets from playing these games, whether or not they have any prior experience with the franchise, is one of slight disappointment. From the plain and functional visuals, to the issues with the audio and game engine, it becomes apparent that these games were cheaply developed. However, even with all those problems, the core gameplay does shine through. These games are still incredibly fun to play, a testament to the 22 year old source material. But in the end, it could have been better. For those who have played Ys I & II Eternal for the PC, or those who still have access to the TGCD version, this game might be hard to swallow. All you are missing out on is a polished localization job and a new control scheme, and nothing else. For every one else, it's best to wait for this game to go on clearance if you are truly curious about it. At full retail price, you are looking at a total game time of 10-12 hours for both games combined, which isn't very attractive. Better yet, if you own a Wii, you can download the excellent TGCD version for the VC for a few bucks. In short, for a game that demands such reverence and respect for pioneering the action-RPG genre, it deserves better. For it to arrive in North America in such condition is a horrible misstep, and all it will do is leave gamers pondering about the real legacy of Ys.