Ys VIII - Lacrimosa of DANA Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Sony PS Vita
It may come as a surprise that, as of 2017, Ys is thirty years old. This makes Nihon Falcom’s action-RPG franchise the same age as other titles such as Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Mega Man, and Street Fighter. As to be expected of a series that has been around for so long, Ys has quite a back catalogue of games under its belt. In fact, Ys VIII - Lacrimosa of Dana is the 15th release.
Now, you'd be forgiven for thinking twice about jumping in this late given how, unlike Final Fantasy, all of the games are canonically tied to one another. As each game follows the exploits of the same protagonist, set in the same world, it would only make sense to play them in order. Fortunately for newcomers each of the newer games can be played completely independently of the former titles. This means that, even if this latest game is the very first Ys you have played, you can still enjoy it to its fullest.
On first starting up the game, after picking between English and Japanese audio, players are treated to an animated opening. Given the sheer amount of characters it attempts to introduce it does go on for a bit, however the real star is the music. Exciting and nostalgic at the same time, most pieces are catchy enough to stick in your ear hours after playing; the music sets the perfect backdrop to the story that is about to unfold.
Like other Ys games, Ys VIII starts off with the hero Adol Christin on a boat. A long running joke in the series dictates that the boat will not fare well with Adol onboard and indeed, as soon as the captain mentions ‘cursed island nearby’, the ship's fate seems sealed. After being attacked by the obligatory sea monster, Adol wakes on the aforementioned cursed island. Alone and stripped of all prior equipment, Adol sets out to find any survivors, and find out the truth behind the strange dreams he has been having since arriving on the island.
The core of the game focuses on finding fellow castaways, collecting various resources, and building up your island home, all while filling in a comprehensive map at the behest of the captain. It's a huge undertaking, but not one that requires much effort. Since you are rewarded for every 10% of the map you uncover it's well worth checking every nook and cranny for loot or other castaways. Some parts of the island are even sealed off behind various blockages such as rocks, fallen trees, ruined buildings, and can only be accessed after you rescue enough people to help you shift the debris.
The more people you bring back to the castaway village the captain has built, the more facilities become available to make use of the items you pick up on your travels. Saving a blacksmith unlocks the ability to make better weapons and armour, a tailor unlocks costumes and accessories, while saving a merchant opens up a rudimentary bartering system; allowing you to trade lower level items for rarer ones. Some survivors even join Adol on his trips into the island, fighting alongside him against the many ancient and deadly creatures he comes across.
Being an action-RPG any combat you get into is performed in real time. The X button has you attack, while circle jumps, and so on. Unlike other games of its ilk, Ys VIII puts a lot of emphasis on timing in its fighting mechanics. Dodging with the L1 button can see you roll away from attacks, but dodging at the last possible moment will slow the enemy's movements to a crawl for a few seconds. Blocking works much the same, insofar as tapping the R1 button just as an attack lands will leave you invulnerable to all damage for a short while. It can take a bit of practice to get used to, as certain characters move faster than others and have shorter attack animations, making not all of them as suitable for dodging.
All combat takes place on the field, meaning no flashy transitions into isolated arenas; if you see it you can kill it where it stands. This also means that if other things see you they can do the same, making it not that uncommon to go from fighting one solitary mole to fighting ten wolves, a mole, and two dinos in the blink of an eye. Many tight corridors also compound this issue, often leaving you surrounded and outnumbered. Fortunately all of the skills your characters can learn hit multiple targets, so making effective use of different skills can make traveling these densely populated areas much easier. It's not just a case of spamming the largest AoE (Area of Effect) move you have though, as enemies have strengths and weaknesses that must be taken into account.
Almost every single enemy has one of three weaknesses, denoted by a symbol next to its health bar: weakness to blunt damage, slashing damage, or piercing damage. Every one of your possible party members is assigned one of those damage types. This results in a constant game of rock - paper - scissors, continually switching between characters with the square button to maximise damage output. There's no real way to brute force your way through either, not without making the game extremely difficult for yourself. Attacking an enemy with anything other than its displayed weakness will result in you doing negligible damage, often in the single digits, whereas abusing its weak point can deal damage in the hundreds; it just isn't worth stubbornly sticking to your favourite character at all times.
Out on the field isn't the only place you'll find battle either. As you progress across the island, discovering new and interesting places, you may find yourself called back to the village for an emergency. Occasionally monsters will attack the settlement, triggering special battles where you are tasked with fighting waves of enemies, while keeping them away from the village. People you have rescued will lend a hand in the form of special skills they rain down on attacking enemies, while resources you have gathered can be used to strengthen the villages defences. These interception battles, as they are called, serve to break up the monotony of island exploration, while not being frequent enough to cause a nuisance. The PS4 version even allows for suppression battles, instances where the roles are reversed and you are tasked with going into the monsters’ den, in order to keep their numbers down.
This all contributes to Ys VIII being a genuinely refreshing experience. Repetitive gameplay is broken up with enough side elements, be they interception missions, completing side quests for your village friends, or even simply fishing and preparing meals. The grind of filling in the map is sprinkled with enough surprises that it honestly doesn't feel like that much of a slog to accomplish. The lack of self reference to the series makes it accommodating to newcomers, and multiple endings give it a degree of replay value - on top of being over eighty hours long.
But while the story can be engaging, the mystery of the island and the girl in Adol’s dreams curious enough to keep you wanting more, there is an issue with the language breaking the immersion somewhat. Japanese language traits aren't adjusted for in the writing, resulting in awkward-sounding conversations. One particular bugbear is how one character insists on referring to Adol by his full name every time she says it, this includes random lines in battle; this doesn't sound like much, but after a while it really begins to grate as it doesn't sit well in a western ear. Also many translations come across as a bit literal, the most obvious of which are in boss and place names, resulting in - for example - craters and valleys being referred to as ‘big hole’.
The colours are another problem, not only the map being a little tricky to read thanks to its brown on beige colour scheme, but the world can come across as over saturated. Everything is far too bright, leaving the eyes reeling after just a short amount of playing. This is fine in areas with not a lot going on, such as the largely grey and brown village, but stepping into a lush jungle can leave you so inundated with colours that you become blind to the detail. It's definitely a case of needing to fiddle with the gamma settings, as the default is simply too high to be comfortable.
Aside from the one or two issues it has Ys VIII is a magnificent game, it's fun to play, with mechanics that suit both casual players while giving more hardcore gamers a challenge. The plot is compelling and the characters memorable, while the music is not only enjoyable but also instills a sense of adventure and nostalgia that serves to endear the whole experience to the player. It’s the perfect starting point for new players while remaining true to the saga’s long legacy.