I’ve never been a massive Role Playing Game player. I can definitely appreciate a good one for what it is. But the complexity and math in many of the deepest ones have always drained me. I always preferred the twitch, hand-eye coordination focused experiences of platformers, shooters, fighting games, beat ’em ups, and other action genres. That isn’t to say early TSR versions of Dungeons & Dragons games on my Commodore 64 weren’t good or fun. But growing up, worrying about mapping and spreadsheets felt more like playing Excel than action games ever did. But as I got older, I began to understand why other people preferred a more cerebral experience. Ys (along with Ultima) is one RPG series that made the genre more palatable to action fans like me.
PROS: The deepest storyline in the series yet. Excellent combat. Massive world to explore.
CONS: The world still isn’t 100% open. Don’t expect Skyrim or Breath Of The Wild.
HOURS: One of the longer games in the series. I spent 53.7 hours on my play through.
Ys as a series has always had a great blend of action and JPRG mechanics. It’s still very much an RPG. You need to find items, talk to specific people at specific times to get specific information. You need to go explore large sections and dungeons for gear. You need to grind for experience to defeat later enemies and bosses. You need to visit shops for key items. At the same time, you don’t have to worry about spreadsheets and such. You simply delve into a menu, grab the thing you need and go. You don’t have to have long drawn out menus in equally drawn out turn-based battles either. Combat is as immediate as playing Golden Axe. Early Ys games used a “Bump” system where you ran into bad guys off center to do damage. But later games replaced attacks with button presses and flashy animations.
Most of the Ys games have the typical fantasy lore, and storyline you would expect a general JRPG to have. Adol (and sometimes his pal Dogi) end up washing ashore in unfamiliar territory and somehow end up having to solve the problems engulfing the land. Usually some evil sorcerer is behind it. Sometimes it’s more of a sympathetic villain comparable to Darth Vader. Sometimes it’s something else entirely. But now and again the series will shake things up with new ideas. Ys Origin took place centuries before the original game, and explored a lot of the back story, introducing three character arcs to boot. Ys 7 had a robust party system. So what does this game do that the other games didn’t?
The big thing here is the world. Ys VIII gives you a massive map. One you can see things in the distance and get to. It’s so big that it’s easy to go into it thinking you’re going to get a major dose of Western CRPG influence in a huge world you can go anywhere in. And while at later points in the game things open up, this is not going to be like an Elder Scrolls game. So don’t make the mistake of thinking it will play like Morrowind or Oblivion or Skyrim. While the map is quite vast there are yellow lines around every major section of the map. These lines presumably do two things. First, they hide some loading. You can tell this by the fact that it resets and respawns the same enemy sets specifically for each section. Second, it blocks you from going into a section before the game wants you to. This ties into the storyline because some of the sections pretty much require you to have seen a particular cutscene or complete a certain event leading to said cutscene before you can go there. So as expansive as the world is, it isn’t like a Western RPG where you’re crafting much of the story through exploration. The main story progression demands some parts go in a particular order.
Fortunately, you’re probably not going to mind being stonewalled once in a while, because this is one of the best storylines in the entire series. Like most of the Ys games you will end up shipwrecked. But that’s about the only similarity to the narrative of the other games. Things start Adol and Dogi off on a cruise ship headed to what can only be compared to Bermuda. Near the island is a section of ocean where ships disappear and the crews are never heard from again. When things open up though, you don’t just get a setup cut scene. You play through a fairly interactive ship, talking to the crew, meeting the other passengers, and even getting some foreshadowing that doesn’t reveal itself as such until much, much later. Things culminate with a surprise battle against a giant Octopus like boss. Defeating the boss sends you to the meat and potatoes of the game. The ship is destroyed in the chaos and Adol is once again washed ashore.
But this time it’s a massive island. Marooned, prepare for quite an arduous trial. Getting off of the island is going to be much, much more involved than you would imagine. You’ll have to not only find other survivors who expand your party, you’ll have to built a new settlement with them. This gives it a bit of a Tower Defense element. Once you have found enough of the passengers, your hideout becomes an RPG style village where you have item shops, a medical doctor’s office, food shop, and more. One of the people you can rescue will also be able to tailor costumes for playable characters. In addition to those you can also buy costumes as DLC for the game. But I never felt the need to do so. There’s already so much stuff under the hood here it felt rather pointless to me. The game also has an underlying mechanic where you can choose to help fellow survivors by doing side quests. Doing so builds your reputation with them, and they’re more prone to helping you out either with beefier items, or in terms of the game’s story. Ys VIII also has multiple endings, so getting the best of them often means doing what you need to do to help your village.
Another new feature this entry adds is a horde battle/defend the base mashup, which gives things a bit of a Dynasty Warriors meets Plants Vs. Zombies. You’ll have to put up barricades, bait traps, gongs, and other stuff to impede monsters from getting into your makeshift town. But then you have to go out and attack the invaders with some hack n’ slash action. Doing this also gives you certain benefits although if it’s not your sort of thing you can choose to ignore most of them. There are a handful that tie into the story, so you will be forced to play those.
Combat also has a few changes. You can change between different combat styles which effects certain enemies in different ways. It is possible to brute force your way through without paying attention to it. But that also means grinding for a lot of health options like potions, and finding food supplies. Speaking of food, this game does take one page from Nintendo’s Breath Of The Wild by implementing a cooking system. Although it isn’t as Deep as the Zelda game’s it does come into play with the food, medicine, and general crafting. You’ll have to find so many pumpkins, or plants, or enemy bones or what have you to make dishes. The higher tiered dishes will refill more of your health, and revive fallen party members in fights.
That’s right, party members. As in Ys 7, you can recruit many of the characters you meet into your system, and change characters on the fly. Some are ranged characters that use magic or guns, others are more up close and personal. On top of this, some of the people you rescue will have talents that turn into even more shops. Shops that let you create new costumes with perks or a blacksmith that can level up whichever weapons you’re characters presently have.
And if all of that isn’t enough for you, you’ll still need to spend hours exploring the world, finding entirely new items, clues that lead you to other characters, and even shortcuts and entrances to new areas once you’ve rescued enough people. You’re also going to need to play a lot of the Sega Bass Fishing inspired minigame they’ve thrown within the game. Getting some of the exotic fish leads to key items as well as needed treasure and food ingredients. And you’ll run into some other NPCs who can level up your attack’s effectiveness as well.
Frankly, if you’re the sort who wants to 100% your RPGs there is a lot of stuff to do in the side quests alone. Even if you don’t, you’ll still find yourself doing a fair amount of the side stuff so that you can get a leg up on some of the harder points in the game. And while the game may have those narrative driven walls I talked about, that doesn’t mean there’s a straight linear experience. You’ll still be backtracking to areas you already visited to find alternate routes. You can still discover some things far earlier than I’m sure many intended.
Once you get pretty far into the storyline, you’ll start seeing elements that might seem out of place. But the narrative does do a fantastic job of tying it all together. The island features many, many secrets, most of them are intrinsically tied to our heroes escaping the island. And over the time you spend uncovering them, you’ll learn more about each of the characters various lives and backgrounds. One of the things that really struck me with this particular entry is how important everyone feels. Even characters that on paper might not seem to add importance to the story, still add a lot to the world building. Most of the characters do grow over the course of the storyline and come out richer for the experience. Some learn lessons. Some don’t. But the change in setting really reinvigorates the overall mythos while doing something different. It’s a far cry from the typical “Evil wizard wants to take over the world” fare you might be used to. And things feel really cohesive too. The answers might not come when you would like them to, but they do wrap up the loose ends pretty nicely. There are several endings as well. So there is a bit of replay value for those who want to experience everything.
As the story unfolds you’ll discover that the island is actually populated by dinosaurs. But before you can say “Jeff Goldblum” you’ll be peppered with numerous monsters and mighty reptiles. Before long Adol begins having dreams of a bygone era. You’ll play through these typically upon finding settlements to rest in. At least initially. Later in the game you’ll have to go into the past to affect the present and vice versa. Sometimes it will be necessary in order to make an area accessible. Other times it will be necessary in order to fill in gaps of the story. One of another new things are campsites which in turn tie into the food system. As you can set up a campfire and cook meals. Before long, the dreams partially become reality as the past and present begin to affect one another. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t played it yet, you’ll begin to learn the secrets of the island, the lost civilizations that once thrived there and how all of it is tied to the characters’ current predicament.
Returning from previous games’ are the fast travel crystals that allow you to get between large areas without having to grind away for miles. It’s also handy when your village gets raided by enemies as you can choose to get back and do the tower defense horde mission if you want to. Also, as in most of the series you’ll find items you’ll have to constantly swap in and out of use. Some of these let you climb to seemingly impossible to reach areas. Others let you breathe under water so you can explore for new areas or treasure. Still others let you walk over water letting you get through some of the swampy areas a little more quickly.
And no Ys game is complete without a plethora of major bosses. Ys VIII features a metric ton of them. Many of them are even optional fights but all of them are worth fighting and defeating. Of course, you can still run into some of them when you’re too low on experience or you don’t have enough healing items. So be sure to save often. That is one nice thing here, in most cases you can save whenever you want. Although during the aforementioned boss fights you cannot, nor can you change your party roster during a battle. So you’ll need to make sure you do that before encountering a boss. There are also a couple of times when the game is going to make you think you’ve gotten the final encounter over with and you’re ready to see the credits roll. Only to surprise you with more story. More grinding. More questing. Ys VIII is a massive game.
Beyond all of that are going to be a bunch of other side quests, and optional goals I didn’t get to touch much on. Like the giant Gorilla you’ll meet who can level up your characters and give them some new skills. You fight him in mini boss battles to do this. Win and you get the new moves. Fail, and you get to scour the world for food so you can pay them to do it again. Every playable character can be powered up this way, so you may find yourself swapping party members to give all of them a fighting chance near the end of the game. And the end of the game leaves you with a variety of emotions. Elation, poignancy, contentment, and perhaps some regret. But after beating the game it was nice enough to tell me that there are multiple endings depending on your choices throughout the game. So it does lend itself to replay value. Especially since it does so in a vague way. So unless you’re going to look up how to definitively get the best canonical ending, you may find yourself coming back to this one a couple of times every few months to play a bit differently and see if you’ve altered your literary destiny.
As you can see, the game looks terrific. As mentioned, you can see way off into the distance, and for the most part if you can see it you can eventually get to it. It isn’t so much the technical aspect that makes it happen here. The game doesn’t really have a lot of geometry at work. It’s almost all being done with texture work and art. And it’s all fantastic. On the technical side though there are some impressive lighting effects at play, especially when you find yourself in dungeon sections, caves, and underwater where you can see it at work. Falcom has always managed to do so much with so little in the Ys games and this one is no exception. This game is also on a wide variety of platforms so even on the less powerful options you’re getting something tremendous.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the soundtrack. While this is another entry that experiments a bit more with different genres it still gives long time fans their hardcore, symphonic metal. Each area of the island seems to get its own score. Which is nice as it makes the games feel a bit more distinct. There are orchestral areas, rock areas, electronica areas and others that have more of a world music influence. Of course, encountering bosses introduces the majority of the crunchy guitar solo driven heavy metal the series is known for.
Anyway, Ys VIII could very well be the best game in the series. And while it might have launched with some well documented translation problems, I only recently got around to playing it. So for me the problems were nil. Though I suspect even with some inaccurate or broken dialogue one could have still gotten a rough approximation of what was going on. In any case, if you’ve been curious about this one for a while, check it out. And while there are other longer RPGs out there, this one never felt like it was wearing out its welcome to me. I never got bored or overly confused with menus or felt like I was doing anything pointless. Whether you’re a hardcore fan of the series, or a dabbler looking to try something new, Ys VIII is worth picking up. It’s got great mechanics, wonderful characters you’ll care about as well as loathe for the right reasons. It’s got a bunch of subtle and not so subtle influences. And the storyline will keep you interested over the entire 50 plus hours you’ll likely spend playing it. And the multiple endings might be something you want to go back to the game to in order to experience it all.
Final Score: 9 out of 10