Ys, however you’re supposed to pronounce it, has been around since 1987, the same year as the first Final Fantasy game. With only its eighth mainline game compared to Final Fantasy’s fifteenth, it’s clear to see that maker Falcom like to take their time between iterations. While never a huge success, it’s a series that’s always had a bit of a niche following, especially in the west. Although, counter to the usual trend, it seems to be a series on the rise after Ys Celceta a few years ago.
The story is usually the first and most important point with regards to JRPGs. The story follows the lead protagonist Adol, a young adventurer, and his older friend Dogi as they hitch a ride on a ship sailing across the ocean to somewhere adventure lies. As part of their entry fee they are required to work on the ship as sailors. As with any ship in any JRPG ever, the fate of the ship is of course in doubt and it’s not long until you’re attacked by a giant sea monster.
Let me tell you, the beginning of the game gave a bad first impression to me personally. It didn’t set the game on the right foot for me, what with the introduction dialogue between characters and exposition being completely ham fisted, with two main characters basically explaining things each other already knew without much subtlety or intrigue, just laying down the facts. 20 years ago this would have been far more acceptable story telling when writing for games wasn’t considered as important, but these days it comes across as a little amateurish. Needless to say, after the first segment of the game, I was prepared for a dull, poorly written game.
Now Ys fans, before you slam that dislike button to oblivion let me finish. Never has a game so quickly gone from a negative impression to one that I could simply not put down. Right from the epilogue to the first chapter I went from dismay at having to review a crap 40 hour RPG to counting my blessings at having to review it.
It’s not that the writing improves into something to be particularly proud of, although it does hold back on treating you like an idiot, but more the fact of what it develops into. As Adol finds himself washed ashore after the ship was taken under by the monster we now begin a deserted island survival story, finding your fellow castaways, building a base and making the most of what you have, all while discovering the secrets of the cursed Isle of Seirens.
Without wanting to spoil too much, right from the beginning Adol has constant dreams about the sub-titular Dana, which of course don’t make sense until a little late on until things start to come together.
As stated, it’s not the best story in the world and has a few too many tangents for my liking at times, it’s just the situation that appeals to my tastes as an RPG gamer from a time gone by. Exploring, recruiting people, building a base is just something that is often found in my most beloved RPGs: Suikoden, Skies of Arcadia, Dark Cloud, Azure Dreams just to name a few of my favourite games of all time and it’s not coincidence they all share some sort of base camp mechanic. There’s not a huge amount of depth or micromanaging going on here, but it’s enough to keep me wanting to do more and more.
Combat is a huge part of RPGs. As far as I’m aware, Ys has always been an action RPG game and this iteration is no different. It’s incredibly action orientated. Now, unlike normally, I’m not going to tell you which buttons do what for the simple fact that I remapped most of the default face buttons. I found the default settings to be unsatisfactory. I’ve played too many Dynasty Warriors games to deal with what Ys VIII presented to me at first. I was very grateful for the option to change them.
You have your normal damage dealing attack which can be spammed as much as you want. This is usually perfectly fine for taking out smaller enemies or ones you’ve levelled up beyond. When things get a little tougher you’re going to want to take advantage of each of the characters unique skill attacks. These are more powerful, of course, and offer a little more to the battle. You can equip up to four at a time and these can be used by holding the right shoulder button + which ever face button an attack is mapped to. At the beginning of the game I tended to avoid using them, but around 10 hours or so I started to realise their incredible usefulness. While they use up SP, this can be quickly gained back by attacking normally so you can be fairly liberal with them.
When things get really, really tough you can use your super attack which has its own special gauge that takes much longer to fill up. These are generally worth saving for boss fights or some of the larger enemies that roam the fields. This can be activated by holding both shoulder buttons together.
It’s not all quite so mindless though. There’s strategy here, especially useful if you play on the harder difficulties. Of the three characters you’ll have in your battle party at any one time, you’ll want one of each that specialise in different beasts. For example, Adol and Sahad are pretty useless against flying enemies and will do little damage to them. Lexia, however, can do real damage to them and “break” the opponent, lowering their defences and allowing the others to do real damage too. Sahad is good at taking on enemies with hard bodies such as sea monsters with shells, while Adol is good against monsters with soft bodies. The other characters that join you will also share one of these preferences. Thankfully you can switch between team mates with a tap of a button, allowing you to utilise your allies to their most usefulness, instead of relying on the AI to know where they’re the most useful.
There’s also a dodge mechanic and a guard mechanic, each of which if timed correctly can grant you a bonus. So, there’s generally a lot to the combat. It may sound like too much but I don’t think it’s all entirely necessary if you don’t want it to be. Obviously on high difficulties you’ll need to utilise everything you can muster, but on easy mode you can just stroll through. That’s another plus point about this game.
So aside from rescuing other castaways and trying to find a way off the island, you can help them with anything they need. For example, if the doctor wants to experiment with a new medicine then he may ask you to find ingredients. Some reward you with items, others improve your base and all of them improve your affinity with the character, allowing them to be more useful in defending your base. I don’t think you really need to do them, but I actually enjoyed seeing the side stories of all the characters you help out.
In terms of comparison, I had very strong vibes of Xenoblade Chronicles mixed with a Monster Hunter-lite kind of experience. If that sounds up your alley then you’ll probably love Ys VIII as much as I have. It’s a high praise comparison but that’s genuinely how I feel while exploring the island of Seirens.
As far as the graphics go, it’s a nice and colourful game that doesn’t stretch the Vita’s true graphical capabilities, odd then that the game doesn’t appear truly optimised for the system. It has a less than impressive frame rate for whatever reason, especially objects in the distance which seem especially poor. Obviously, I’m no game developer by any means, but I can’t understand why this would happen. It’s not an especially huge problem and doesn’t significantly hamper the experience, but it’s noticeable for sure.
The music is impeccable. From sweet, considered tracks in safe zones to full on blood pumping goodness out in the field and during boss battles, get your ear phones plugged in and inject it straight into your eardrums. You won’t regret it.
A last point about the presentation is the English voice acting, somewhat of a low point for the game. While some of them are decent, others are downright poor, especially Sahad’s character who’s voice actor delivers lines awkwardly more often than not, as though he’s lacking context or stressing on the wrong words. There are other poor characters but this one stands out purely for the fact you spend the most time with him.
Overall though, maybe I’m just a complete sucker for games with base building stuff and I’m willing to accept that, but to me after a really poor opening, Ys VIII is an excellent action RPG for the Vita and of course the PlayStation 4. It may not have a story or writing that you will remember for a long time to come, but it’s still good and will maintain your interest throughout. I genuinely couldn’t put this game down even when I had far more important things I needed to be doing. The battle mechanics are great, it’s accessible enough for anyone, the music is incredible and of course you rescue people and build up your base. What more can I ask for? This is actually my first ever Ys game and I’m suitably impressed. One of my favourite Vita games for sure and an RPG fans delight.
Game provided by NIS America.