Ys never seems to get into the pantheon of JRPG franchises. Everyone gets their thumbs, and sometimes pitchforks ready with every Final Fantasy. Everyone has at least heard of Dragon Quest aka Dragon Warrior. Look at the aftermarket prices for the Super NES version of Chrono Trigger. Yes, JRPGs are a large subset of the Role Playing genre. They have been since the days of 8-bit console systems.
PROS: Pretty good story. Cool characters. Responsive, and fun combat.
CONS: Short length. Story requires beating the game thrice to see it all.
ADOL: Isn’t in the campaign. This is a prequel folks.
So why hasn’t Ys been more popular here? There are probably a lot of factors. One of the most widely accepted theories involves platforms. Ys started out on the PC-88. A computer only ever released in Japan. When released stateside, games in the series have appeared on many of the less popular platforms of their time. Ys I made an appearance on the Sega Master System, then Ys I+II would see release on the Turbographx 16 CD add-on. In other parts of the world Ys would be on all sorts of computer, and console formats including the Famicom.
The series doesn’t have turn based combat. It instead takes action game cues. Going for more of a Legend Of Zelda style of combat. It retains plenty of item gathering, and exploration. It builds up a lot of characters, even minor ones. It still feels decidedly JRPG, yet has enough twitch game play for novices, and action fans. So while it’s more accessible, the fact that it’s an action RPG hybrid probably kept some of the purists away. Where am I going with this? To the chronological beginning. Because thanks to XSeed, Ys has been getting a little more attention over the past few years. They’ve been given porting, and translation duties for many of the games in the series. One of those games is Ys Origin.
Ys Origin is a prequel. It takes place 700 years before the original game, and attempts to set up a lot of the back story for the series. Ys is a story about a kingdom in the sky. When evil threatened to doom the kingdom, two super natural beings elevated it into the heavens above. These beings are known as the Goddesses. They, along with a council of priests advise the kingdom on matters. They also have a stable of holy knights that they call upon in times of trouble. Like a lot of great fantasy stories, it involves different family blood lines, mysticism, and interpersonal drama. Some of the stories can be pretty deep, others fairly simple.
Ultimately the game will make you want to beat it three times, because that is the only way to see every aspect of its story.
Without giving too much away, the story in Origin centers around the Goddesses, and their relationships with the three main characters. The two disappear mysteriously from the sacred Solomon Shrine, and head off to the surface land below. Eventually they head into a tower overrun by evil demons, and other monsters. The tower also happens to be the same one featured in the original Ys game.
Worried about the Goddesses, the leaders of Ys send our heroes to find, and return the Goddesses. But of course, a band of evil demons attempt to get to the Goddesses before the heroes can. Along the way you’ll run into many of the JRPG conventions you might expect. From game play conventions, to character archetypes.
In Origin you can take control of one of three characters:
Yunica Tovah is a young woman who is the daughter of one of Ys’ high priests. She is the only one in her lineage who doesn’t have a mastery of magic, and so using her means you’ll be doing a lot of hand to hand combat. She earns an apprenticeship with the Holy Knights of Ys, and embarks on her mission to find the Goddesses.
Hugo Fact is a sorcerer. He has a recklessness in him, and so he follows the trope of the edgy, devil-may-care, anti-hero. Being skilled in magic means that most of your attacks will be ranged. So if you love projectiles in your action RPG you’ll probably choose Hugo.
Beating the game with either one of these characters will open up a third character quest. Toal Fact is the mysterious brother of Hugo Fact, and has a story arc that crosses paths with the other two character storylines. Interestingly, Toal Fact’s storyline is considered canon, while the other two are not. Toal’s storyline also has a unique perspective in that he is actually helping the demons trying to capture the Goddesses, rather than the heroes trying to rescue them.
Ys Origin differs a little bit from Ys I&II. While it follows a similar formula, it has a slightly different combat system. The original games featured something called the Bump System. Running into your enemies would damage you, while hitting them off-center, would damage them. This game follows the path of other action RPGs, and gives you an attack button. There is also a jump button for use in some light platforming sections. You will also have a button to activate your boost mode, as well as a spell ability attack.
Attacks feel pretty accurate. Hit detection is pretty solid in this game. Battles generally feel not only fair, but satisfying as well. As you level up your character by grinding kills, and finding items, some of these moves can be upgraded. So a mystical force field can be increased in size, or a fire attack made more powerful. The game also features a checkpoint system similar to Metroid Prime’s Save Rooms. In certain areas you will find statues of the Goddesses. Here you can save your progress, or use the currency picked up from fallen enemies to upgrade your items. There are all sorts of items you can find like better weapons, and armor throughout the game. There are other items that are paramount to solving certain puzzles. For instance, there is a mask that allows you to find hidden paths one couldn’t find otherwise.
Other items are needed to further the storyline you are playing. You may need to find a certain item, and back track it to an NPC you found earlier. All in order to acquire a new item to get further along. Initially, the game will feel a little bit linear. Early on, the game makes things fairly easy to figure out, and you won’t really feel much need to explore or backtrack. Thankfully, after the first segment or so, it really begins to open up in its level design. Once that happens, you’ll find yourself exploring every nook, and cranny for potential items. From there you’ll constantly try to find another statue to buy upgrades, and save your progress.
There is only one major drawback to the level design aside from some early linearity. That is that the entire game takes place in the tower featured at the end of the original Ys. Because of this, it limits some of the environment variety. There aren’t any outdoor environments to really explore. There are certainly a lot more than steel or stone structures mind you. There are areas that have a sandpit theme, volcanic foundries, a flooded section, as well as some fantastical sections. They do fit the themes of the storylines nicely, but one can’t help but miss exploring large swaths of land, and finding towns, or other structures. Still, when the game opens up, again you will do plenty of exploring. So it isn’t a complete deal breaker.
Upgrading your character is also very important in Ys Origin. Because while this game may be more action oriented than many standard RPGs, leveling is still a big deal. Some of the regular enemies will seem impossible until you do, as taking one or two strikes will probably kill you. On that front, enemy variety is quite large. You even have access to a log book that adds entries describing each new type you discover. It will also add entries for NPCs, and even boss characters. There are goblins, orcs, killer turtles, phoenix birds, and countless other monsters.
Bosses in this game are also grand, and amazing. Some of them return from the original Ys games with retooled attacks. Some of them are entirely new. While the game may not be a technical powerhouse, these bosses still come off as imposing. Each of these boss battles will feel like an event. Even after you solve an attack pattern, or find the right item. The enemy variety continues in the run of bosses. You’ll face towering demons, NPC’s, and more.
It goes along with some excellent presentation. Ys Origin combines modelled environments with 2D sprites. Sprites are very detailed, and colorful. As in other Ys games characters have a super deformed look, while the cinema screens, and dialogue HUDs feature a more traditional manga style. Cut scenes vary. Some of them are done in the game’s engine, while others are done in FMVs. The FMVs look right out of an anime, featuring some really nice animation, and colors. Unfortunately the FMVs do have a compressed look to them, with some grain.
The audio in Ys Origin is one of the highlights here. The hard rock chip tunes are really well crafted, and mesh nicely with orchestration. Most of the songs have catchy hooks, and will bounce around in your head hours later. Some of these are remakes of classic Ys games’ songs, while others are new. Sound effects are terrific. Fighting enemies have nice punchy sounds, along with some excellent clings, and clangs during blocks. Enemies growl, scream, and even explode while accompanied with some wonderful cues. Even little details you would find important in other games from other genres are here. Footsteps, Doors opening or closing, you name it, it probably has a nice sound effect to go along with it.
Depending on the difficulty you select, Ys Origin can take anywhere from six to ten hours to finish. It isn’t a terribly long JRPG. However, playing through each of the character quests can get you as many as thirty hours, as the storylines will artificially lengthen the game in doing so. Even though the game is short compared to most RPGs where there are hundreds of hours of side quests, or activities, Origin delivers. It has a large roster of likable characters, the game play is rewarding, and has one of the better storylines in the genre. Even if it isn’t entirely original, it takes a few chances. Some of the swerves you’ll see coming, and others will surprise you.
Ys Origin doesn’t have very high requirements by today’s standards, so almost any modern PC should be able to run it with little trouble. The Steam release also features some achievements, and support for widescreen monitor displays. Ultimately, it is a really cool game. JRPG fans, as well as retro gamers would do well to check out the prequel to this under looked series. Especially those who would like to see more Japanese developers produce games for computers.
Final Score: 8 out of 10