Monday, 17 October 2016

Ys Book I & II: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made

A bit of a different post today. I figured I rarely post about my hobby of video gaming, so why not make post on one of the most overlooked video game franchises? The most apt choice for this topic would be the Ys series (pronounced "Eese"), and the most apt game to post on would be the first game, and technically the second too. The reason Ys Book I & II is one of the best games ever made? Long story short: everything.

Here's some back story.

Ys was a series that began in the early days of PC video game RPGs. The original game was titled Ancient Ys Vanished and it was released in 1987 for the PC-8801. It was fairly straightforward as game; the player is tasked with finding objects in dungeons before fighting the final boss at the end of the game. Adol Christin, the main character, is searching for the secrets of the land of Esteria and must find the six books written by the ancient priests in order to find out the secrets of the two goddesses that raised the kingdom of Ys into the sky. With this basic premise, that's pretty much all you get with the original game.

Ys I is a short game with incredible music, a basic yet addicting combat system, and an intriguing setting. Nowadays it might be considered too archaic, but it does what it does better than any other game. But it was only the entree course.

The sequel is a bit more involved, and delivers on the promises of the original.

Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished - The Final Chapter was released in 1988 and completed the story that began in the first game.

At the end of the first game, Adol climbs the trap-filled Darm Tower into the sky in order to stop the demons spawning in the mysterious place from coming down onto the land and hurting innocents. He reaches the top and beats the being known as Dark Fact, and gets the sixth and final volume of Ys. When he does he is filled with light and is shot off into the sky. He is sent to the ancient land of Ys, hidden for centuries. And that's the end of Ys I. What a cliffhanger, huh?

Ys II is an actual sequel. Not a sequel like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or Fallout, which usually has nothing to do with the previous game, but an actual continuation of the story and an improvement on the combat system from the first. The story is more involved, the combat now includes magic and deeper dungeons, and it is about twice as long as the short original.

Now that Adol is in the land of Ys is there much he can do to save Esteria? Exploring a totally unknown land where evil has begun to devour good, he has little chance but to explore and fight his way to the source of all evil in Ys. He has to face the reason Ys was pulled away from the normal world in the first place.

As you may imagine, Ys is based on the ancient legend of Ys: the city that was overtaken by the sea and wiped from existence, some say due to the interference of Satan himself. But the creators of the game have put their own twist on the myth. You see, Ys takes place in a fantasy world with elements of our own history and cultures. Throughout the series you will find influences and references from all sorts of ancient stories and practices that have melded into this fantasy world. In the original game, the Ys legend is about a land that embraced supreme magic which lead to corruption and the attention of demonic forces, The twin goddesses and their six priest retainers separated the land of Ys from the normal world in order to make sure the demons infested the land could not come to the ground. This is why the Darm Tower that connects the two (and as built to touch the heavens) offers no way out to the earth below. You can only climb up.

If you want to be honest, I can't think of the last fantasy RPG (western or not) video game that offered such a unique setting. In the original games, this is all background information and secondary to the gameplay, but it sure does get the imagination going.

Ys Book I & II Gameplay

Anyway, Ys I and II both told a complete story, and were hits in Japan. It wasn't until 1989 that the pair would be remade into one game by Hudson Soft that Nihon Falcom's defining games would get more widespread attention. In 1990, it was released in North America for the Turbografx-CD system and was finally given the attention it deserved. It was even a pack-in game.

For a reminder, this game was released in 1990, before CGI, scripted corridor gameplay, orchestral soundtracks, or CDs became a standard for gaming media. Ys Book I & II, in 1990, looked and sounded like this:

Once again: 1990.

But what makes Ys Book I & II one of the best video games of all time? Surely it's not just the top notch presentation? No, though that helps. It is combination of three factors.

First, the combat.

Combat in Ys is the simplest you'll ever find in any game. There is no attack button. You run into enemies until they die. That's it. You line up the enemy on the map and you run into him at an angle until he dies. This requires simple aiming of Adol so that he catches the corners of the enemy sprite to take less damage and so that you give more. The sprites on the screen also move wicked fast which can lead to a quick death if the player is not paying attention. It can get chaotic.

But it's really fun. You see, Ys Book I & II has the best combat out of any version of the game. The originals are a bit rough and later versions add in diagonal movement which throws off the simple feel of the combat. This version of the game is the best version on a combat level. The only other buttons include one for using items, one for checking status and menus, and one for magic (Ys II only), and that's it. There are no action RPGs out there that are anywhere near as simple, yet addicting, as this game can be.

This version of the game also has perfect balancing. Can't get through an area? Level up more to take some more hits and strike harder. You're never really underleveled (underpowered) enough for this to be a problem. The game is so well balanced that the top level (62) is needed to beat the final boss and the game, and yet you barely ever need to grind for experience or cash to get there. But you can if you wish. The combat is just that fun.

Another great thing is the soundtrack.

Yes, I talked about presentation earlier, but this goes beyond that. Ys establishes an excellent atmosphere at all times.

Consider these:

The default traveling across the map theme

The first dungeon theme

Now, if that doesn't get you in the mood for exploring ancient civilizations and slicing demons to pieces, I don't know what to tell you. The first game's soundtrack was done by Yuzo Koshiro (Yes, the Streets of Rage guy) and it is quite incredible. Mieko Ishikawa did the soundtrack for the follow-up, as well as the third and (both) fourth games in the series, but it's just as excellent.

A big part of the appeal of Ys is its unique presentation and respect for the fantasy genre, and it is one thing the series has never lost even after near 30 years and 8 main game installments. The entire series does well, yet it's the first game that's most fondly remembered. But this version of the game, in particular, really set the standard.

The peak of video games from the 1990s, really. Action RPGs rarely come close.

Here's a video showcasing the awesome music and magic combat:

(Yes, I posted this video once before, but I don't care. It's awesome)

The last reason that this game is so great is the story and lore. It keeps it simple and straightforward, but by keeping to its roots as a dungeon crawling RPG game it makes the background world all the more engaging. What is this world like that magic can attract demons and cause such a rift between men? Where did the goddesses come from? Who is Adol Christin and why is he so determined to save these people from evil? Who really were the six priests of Ys? There are many questions answered in the story, but none of those are. The mystery behind the setting remains as interesting as the gameplay.

Ys is a game about exploration, and yet there are still mysteries yet to be uncovered. I think this is an aspect later games in the series don't quite keep up in this aspect. They explain everything, robbing much mystique and magic from the world, but near 30 years on and there are still many mysteries in the originals that still work their magic. 

Much of this might be explained by the exit of two of the original spearheads of the original three games that left to form Quintet (who are as obsessed with mystery and purpose as the original Ys games were), a game studio that created some fascinating RPGs of their own. The fourth game was licensed out to two separate developers, including Hudson Soft, who made two separate games that were never released overseas. That was pretty much all we knew of Ys on this side of the pond. The series had one more release on the Super Nintendo in Japan, Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand, but then lay dormant for almost a decade.

The series has since been going since 2003's release of Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim, and has thankfully managed to retain much of what made the series so great in the first place. The stories of the first four games, however, have yet to be matched. And none have captured the mystery and wonder of the original two. The originals resonate so much so that Falcom made a prequel game entitled Ys Origins centered around them and their lore. No other game in the series would demand that sort of attention. But the series is still going strong, and with Ys VIII recently released and on its way to the PS4, there is much to celebrate if you're a Ys fan.

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (Admission: I have yet to play it)

As you can tell, I am a fan of the series. I didn't even play it when it originally came out. My experience with Ys Book I & II happened only 8 years ago, and I recently replayed it with much the same interest I had the first time. My praise isn't based on nostalgia.

Simply put, Ys Book I & II is pretty close to perfect as far as video games go. It's the full package. If you don't want to track down a copy of the TGCD original, it is available on the Nintendo Wii's Virtual Console service, and will hopefully be on the Wii U's version eventually.

There is also a great version of the game on Steam called Ys I & II Chronicles which is more modern. The soundtrack is not as great, and the gameplay loses part of its charm, but it is still well worth playing. You just lose some strange notions such as that of a man named Adol Christin saving a world from demons while wearing the Cloak of the Holy Spirit. Yeah, that's a thing.

But it's still the second best version of the game.

If you want something more modern (like PS1-era RPGs) I suggest Ys: The Oath in Felghana which is also on Steam. It is a remake of Ys III: Wanderers From Ys with an expanded story and combat, and it might be the best game in the series. Just about every entry in the series is great, however.

If you are a fan of fantasy and RPGs, you must try the Ys series out. Intense battling, fantastical settings, and a healthy dose of unfiltered fun, is what makes the best video games what they are.

And Ys is one of the best.

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