Easing into Ys

by Dustin Bailey,
At one time a premier role-playing franchise that stood toe-to-toe against the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, a variety of factors prevented Nihon Falcom's Ys from achieving the mainstream success of its better-known brethren. Yet despite never quite grabbing the spotlight, Ys has quietly been one of the most unique and compelling action-RPG series out there, and its penchant for tightly-paced, fast-moving adventures has helped it maintain a cult following. With a spate of English PC ports having been made available in the past few years and the Western release of Ys VIII looming, this is a perfect time to dig into what makes these games so special.

Ys (pronounced roughly like “east” without the “t”) focuses largely on the adventures of Adol Christin, a redheaded warrior who travels a fantasy realm with loose geographic mirrors to the real world. The titular Ys is a floating island that only plays a significant role in the earliest games. Each game typically opens with Adol stranded—usually shipwrecked—in a new locale, set to defend the people, defeat some demons, and restore whatever measure of peace the land typically enjoys. They're simple stories of high adventure, and the games are paced to match. In contrast to the sprawling hour count of many other RPGs, Ys keeps it tight, with most games in the franchise scarcely taking more than a dozen hours to complete.

There's no real strong gameplay thread tying the series together, beyond each entry offering some combination of action and RPG elements. The early entries are known for their bizarre-but-compelling bump system, but later games would go in a multitude of directions, from side-scrolling action to varied forms of more traditional direct control. It's even more difficult to tie things together because the lineage of the series is an absolute mess, with different developers having rebuilt, ported, and remade numerous versions of each title for a myriad of platforms.

Ancient Ys

The first game in the series, called through various ports and translations Ancient Ys Vanished, Ys: The Vanished Omens, or the Ancient Land of Ys, was released for Japanese computers in 1987, with Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished - The Final Chapter following in the next year. Ys I and II are so closely related that it's best to think of the pair as two halves of the same game, and most ports and reissues do exactly that.

This duology opens with Adol newly arrived to the land of Esteria, and he's quickly called upon as a figure of prophecy to halt the spread of an ancient evil. It's not exactly an escape from RPG tropes that had already been well-established even by the late 80s, but these early games do stand apart due to a varied cast of NPCs and loads of dialog—the second chapter even offers a spell that lets you turn into a monster and converse with nearly every enemy in the game.

Early Ys is best known for its bump combat system, which gives you no attack command and instead has you simply running into enemies in order to defeat them. Head into them straight-on and you're more likely to take damage, but make your attack off to the side just a little bit and you'll typically be safe, and you can just stand still to refill your health anywhere outside a dungeon. It's definitely not a nuanced system, though the boss battles do offer some really unique moments, particularly in the second game where the magic system gives you a fireball spell that often turns the encounters into an impromptu shmup. The bump system also offers incredibly quick grinding, and even revisiting the game today it's revelatory having an RPG move so gosh-darned fast. Any time you run into a monster too tough, you'll be spending just a couple of minutes to get the experience you need to take them on. Both games feature just a handful of towns and dungeons, but the limited scope helps each location to stand out. Ys I in particular locks you in the final dungeon for nearly half of its runtime, and battling up each floor really makes for a memorable stay.

These games are best known in the West for their enhanced port of Ys Book I & II to the TurboGrafx-CD (or the PC Engine in Japan), which featured animated cutscenes. CD music, and voice acting, and the port was considered so impressive that it served as a pack-in for the all-in-one TurboDuo system. This version's technical wow factor makes it probably the most important version of the games, and it's by far the most well-remembered part of the series outside of Japan. Most modern ports of Ys I & II are based on the Complete edition released for PC in the early 2000s, which was a full remake featuring redrawn graphics, reorchestrated music, new content, and improved controls. The most current release is Ys I & II Chronicles+, and either it or the Wii Virtual Console release of the TG16 version are the best way to play these games today. Even if the bump combat is an acquired taste, there's enough unique charm here to make these games well worth revisiting.

Wanderers from Ys

After the original pair of games, things start to get a lot stranger, with loads of ports with different plots, unrelated games bearing the same title, and a bunch of retconning remakes. Ys III: Wanderers from Ys is a franchise black sheep in exactly the way that Zelda II is, eschewing the isometric camera in favor of a side-scrolling perspective, and it would take a full remake in an entirely different engine before the story would feel like part of the series. Though this original version would make it West with ports to all three major 16-bit consoles, it would be the last English-language version of Ys we'd see for many, many years.

There are no fewer than three entirely separate games to bear the title Ys IV, none of which were developed by Falcom. Hudson, who'd enjoyed great success with their ports of the previous games to the the PC Engine, made Ys IV: Dawn of Ys internally in 1993. Developer Tonkin House worked a bit more closely with Falcom for the Super Famicom version, Ys IV: Mask of the Sun, which shared the other Ys IV's basic setting and characters, though it featured numerous different details. Both versions returned to the bump combat system of Ys I & II, and Mask of the Sun would be remade years later by Taito and Arc System Works for PS2 with the subtitle - a new theory -. None of these versions were released outside of Japan and, as with Ys III, it would take a Falcom-developed reimagining before the stories were truly integrated into the series as a whole.

Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand is a lot more straightforward. It would be the first Ys developed by Falcom specifically for a home console, and would also be the point where the series abandoned bump combat once and for all in favor of traditional Zelda-style combat from an overhead perspective. The transition wasn't altogether smooth, however, with the game's reputation being colored by stiff controls, uninspired locations, and frustrating boss encounters. After the release of Ys V, the series wouldn't see another new entry for nearly a decade.

Ys Redefined

Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim was released for Japanese PCs in 2003, and this title served as both an impressive modernization and a new path forward for the series. Though not a classic by any particular measure, Ys VI nonetheless offered a smartly rebuilt combat system with direct control that still managed to evoke the fast, fluid action of the early games by placing pre-rendered 2D sprites into a fully 3D environment.

Ark of Napishtim was successful enough that Falcom used its engine to power two further series entries. The first was Ys: The Oath in Felghana, which took the basic plot and setting of Ys III and put it into game system people actually liked, while offering further refinements along the way. The end result is widely considered one of the best entries in the series. Falcom took a similar track with Ys Origin, again building on the gameplay of Ys VI, but this time offering a prequel story that for once didn't feature Adol as a protagonist.

By the time Ys Seven released in 2009, Falcom had shifted their focus away from PC development entirely in favor of the PSP, and brought in even more elements of traditional RPGs like multi-character parties and a wider variety of weapons with different damage types. It's also substantially bigger in scope than the previous games, nearly double the length of any other Ys and offering a much more robust story—which is both a boon for its substance and a sad loss of the early games' tremendously fast pace.

Ys: Memories of Celceta released for the Vita a few years later, and took the disparate plots of the various Ys IVs and reforged them into a new, canonical, Falcom-developed game. It expands on the gameplay Seven introduced, with a big crafting system and expanded combat options, and by most accounts does a significantly better job in pacing the larger scope of its story and quests.

Ys-ing into Ys

As of this writing, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana just seen its Western release, and the early reviews have painted it as an even bigger, even better take on the action of the more recent games. Adol is shipwrecked once again, but this time it's with a group of fellow castaways who've got to build a temporary new life on a deserted island. I haven't had the chance to play it myself, but it looks to be a tremendous new entry for the series.

If you're looking to dive into the series firsthand, don't worry about missing out on the intricacies of the story by hopping into the middle. Though there are recurring characters and themes, the stories of each game are mostly episodic and standalone, and many of the entries don't fall into a linear order anyway. The best way to play most of the series is through the largely excellent set of PC ports available on your digital distribution platform of choice, and these are near-constantly in some rotation of sales and promotions.

If you want to check out the series in its most modern, sprawling format, Ys VIII is as good a place to start as any. If you want to start from the beginning, enjoy some fast-paced adventures, and see what that whole bump thing is all about, Ys I & II Chronicles+ is the most refined and best-controlling version of the early games. Otherwise, if you want something somewhere in the middle, Oath in Felghana is probably the peak of the existing series. Whatever way you come in, Ys is an entirely unique role-playing series that's well worth becoming acquainted with.

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