Ys Origin review
A Fantastic Journey Through The Tower
My only real taste of Ys previously came from the spinoff RTS game on the DS. Needless to say the experience did not end well due to poor design and hilariously broken gameplay mechanics. However, with XSEED translating and releasing numerous entries of the core series to Steam this seemed like the ideal time to see if Ys was all it was cracked up to be.
Yes. Yes it was and you should be buying Ys Origin right now if you haven't already.
The game is set roughly 700 years prior to the first game of the series and, as the title suggests, tells the origin story of the events that would eventually lead up to the adventures of Adol. The world was thrown into turmoil when demons attacked and, as a last resort, the twin goddesses used their power to lift Solomon Shrine away from the chaos into the safety of the sky. In response the demons built a huge tower in order to continue their attack. During this time the twin goddess vanished, leading to the people of Ys to send a search party to the surface to find them.
The game actually presents three variations of the story that changes depending on which playable character you choose at the beginning of the game, although the core concept remains mostly the same. I found the storylines of Yunica and "The Claw" to be excellent, presenting the player with likeable characters. Yunica is a cheery hardworking girl who seeks to overcome her lack of magical ability with melee combat skills and has a personal friendship with the goddesses, although she is clearly inexperienced in her role as a knight. The Claw is an antagonist with connections with Ys but whose motives aren't entirely clear at first. It's clear that he has taken demonic essence into himself though. It's an interesting perspective that lets the player see more of the enemy side of things. Seeing both of them develop as the story progresses and their interactions with other characters is fantastic. Then there is Hugo, the other starting protagonist. Like Yunica, Hugo is part of the search party sent to find the goddesses but is given a second secret order to fulfill. As part of his background Hugo desires power and this is a driving point in his story. Unfortunately, Hugo is a tremendous jackass who irritates everyone - ally, enemy and player alike. While he does undergo some development towards the end of his story, it felt like too little too late and wanted to punch him several times. It's a miracle my monitor is still intact.
The graphics use a mix of 3D along with 2D sprites, which means that your PC should be able to run it smoothly unless you're working off a toaster or something like that. The environments are great as ,despite the fact that the game takes place entirely inside a single large tower, there are several distinctly themed areas to explore. In complete defiance of logic you end up going through lava filled cavernous rooms, flooded prisons and more earthen locations with quicksand pulling at your feet. The last area of the game is especially awesome looking with its mystic runes and magic circles. Enemies tend to look pretty cool and the bosses are also fantastic. Many of them are screen filling monsters that the camera ensures you get a good look at.
There's some great design work going on with the more human looking characters as well. Yunica has something of a country girl appearance with her dress that might not be ideal for a knight but gives her a distinctive charm. Hugo is more befitting of his role with the mage style garb he wears. When you meet the likes of Dalles and Zava you can easily see unsettling characteristics in their apppearances. The one problem I do have with the game visually is that the sprites used are only designed to face in eight directions. For normal gameplay this doesn't matter. For cutscenes that use the ingame graphics it becomes somewhat jarring, especially when the camera moves and rotates as it causes characters to literally flip between orientation instead of naturally turning. Sometimes the game does use more anime style cutscenes but these are quite rare. Nevertheless they do look cool when they are used.
Music is an area that the game excels in. Most of the collection consists of high intensity tracks that reinforce the action orientated focus of the game. The tone is set by the opening animation's music, continues with the level themes of each area of the tower and impresses with some excellent boss encounter tracks. In addition there are a few more serene tracks in the game designed for the more solemn moments, so when someone is hurt or a troubling revelation comes out the game still has the correct music to match the mood.
The gameplay is focused mostly on action. The idea is to progress up the tower with your chosen character defeating anything that gets in your way. Each character shares some common traits in their combat skills, like a basic attack command that can be spammed for combos strikes, aerial attacks and special abilities that can be unlocked as you progress but use a regenerating source of MP. There's also a boost mode that uses a special meter to increase your stats for a time and a special burst attack near the end for that powerful strike. But despite the core similarities, the playable characters approach these functions in vastly different ways. Yunica is a close range fighter favouring powerful swift axe strikes and her wind themed ability envelops her in a razor sharp cutting whirlwind disc. Hugo is instead a long range specialist who fires energy blasts as his basic attack while his wind power creates a shield that defends against attacks. These options serve to give the game a simple combat system that still manages to deliver options to the player and means that repeat playthroughs are kept interesting by getting the player to adapt to entirely different playstyles.
Naturally the tower is filled to the brim with monsters. At first there's pretty simple as you face slimes that barely move and simple goblins that stumble into attacks. As you move up through the floors the enemies begin to become more threatening. Later stages will have dragons that fly around the stage, undead creatures that require a specific item to stay down, plants that spray deadly gases at you and demons that charge swiftly at intruders. There's also some kind of elemental system in play with the special abilities. Some monsters are weaker to certain elements than others. It's not as significant as in other RPGs but in some cases you will notice a difference if you switch to a different skill and it gives the game some extra layer of strategy. Given that you're often fighting these enemies in groups they can provide a satisfying challenge. Sometimes there are status mixed in, like getting inflicted with poison that slowly drains your health or confusion that reverses your movement controls. These are cool things to have included and give that extra challenge in places.
Of course, it's going to be the bosses that will present the biggest challenge from the enemies. Some are quite screen filling and most of them are brutal. Unless you opt for the easiest setting on your first playthrough then you can expect to die in each encounter. That's not really a bad thing though, as you can immediately retry and you'll be eager to take what you've learned to deliver some serious payback. That's the great thing about the bosses in the game. They're very rarely unfair in their tactics as you simply learn what you need to do and then practice carrying it out. There is a sense of satisfaction when that massive behemoth finally falls.
The item system is different to most RPGs you'll play. There is an equipment screen where you can find and equip items to help you. You don't find new weapons though as characters opt to enhance their existing one instead. This whole system is kept simple while still rewarding players that explore. However, you don't really have any consumable items aside from a few panaceas that boost max HP. What this means is you can't just dip into the menu for a health potion or an attack boost whenever you feel like it. These items are available in a different form, as defeated monsters will drop all sorts of items for you to collect. These items are used instantly and, in the case of stat boost items, result in a countdown timer indicating how long they will be active. These reinforces the whole action combat angle by encouraging you to seek out the next battle while your buffs are still around and to even increase those buffs with more items. This does remove the tendency of players to overstock on a million health potions to binge on during difficult fights and makes things quite exciting. SP is also collected from monsters and can be exchanged at save points in exchange for various buffs, like increasing the duration of drop items and boosting resistance to bad status.
The one problem with the item system is that seemingly optional upgrades, like the weapon enhancements, aren't really as optional as they seem. Technically you can ignore them, but doing so will result in things like doing scratch damage to later enemies. The game seems designed under the assumption that you're picking up every such upgrade and tailors enemies to match what damage output and defences it thinks you should have at that point. This does mean that exploring the levels and find items feels less like a reward and more like a necessary part of the game. That said, the game does fairly well in terms of exploration. It's not entirely open-ended but you do find that going off the main path is possible in numerous places and will often yield some kind of upgrade or bonus.
When you're not caving in the skulls of the local residents there is some platforming and puzzle solving to tackle. The platforming is quite well done here. Sure, it's no Mario but it's not trying to be. You're given a good view of the ledges you're trying to leap about on and get increasing access to abilities that boost your aerial mobility. In addition, missing a platform is never a critical problem as it often just dumps you in a lower area not far from where you were or into some surface that is hardly damaging, if at all. There are some interesting platforming challenges in parts too beyond simple leaping, like having to get past rotating giant axes or whirling spike columns.
A lot of puzzle solving comes down to finding a key for a door or hitting a switch to activate some mechanism. Pretty standard stuff and Origin pulls it off well. Sometimes it manages to step above the normal though that, while probably not going to challenge the brightest minds around, can still get players to think more on it. Having to use a mask to seen what is hidden with only a small indication of needing to do so, smashing a cracked wall with powerful magic and finding out how to combat the deadly effect of a certain corridor are some examples of this.
As mentioned a few times, the game takes place in a large tower. On the one hand, this means there are no towns or other areas to explore, which does limit interactions to the NPCs already in the tower and also means there are no traditional sidequests that you might find in other RPGs. On the other hand, variation of settings is no problem at all. In one area you will find yourself swimming through flooded areas, navigating spike traps and dealing with moving platforms. In another you may be dodging fire traps, leaping over blades and igniting torches while bearing the heat of the flowing lava. As you progress from one section to the next the game will gladly throw some new elements at you which makes sure the experience stays fresh from start to finish. It was exciting to see what the next part of the tower had in store for me.
There is a lot of gameplay to be had in here. While it may seem odd to be running through the tower on three separate runs, it does feel worthwhile to do this as all three characters. While a lot of the core contents (area themes, general enemies etc) are the same, the experience is altered by the different playstyles and it's interesting to glimpse into the other characters' perspectives. There are also time attack and arena modes to unlock, letting you fight against the game's bosses or waves of enemies respectively. The challenge is very suitable as well, offering a wealth of difficulty options to suit various needs. Very Easy is definitely something to ease players in with and Nightmare is exactly that.
Ys Origin may lack some of the more traditional RPG elements such as towns, but it's such an action packed exciting ride from start to finish that it doesn't matter. Bringing in a fantastic combat system, an interesting location to explore and a rocking soundtrack makes this an ideal game to play. Which you should be doing. Go buy it.
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