Ys Strategy review
Breaking away from its more traditional roots, Ys Strategy delves into the world of Real Time Strategy by allowing players to gather resources, build structures and raise an army big enough to put an evil empire to shame (while in the process of flattening them, of course). The actual result is a product so haphazardly put together that you have to wonder just what kind of quality control allowed it through the door.
Perhaps it is fortunate that the visuals don't build up any real expectations then. Well, the box art is certainly nice including several key characters in prominent positions and a well animated 3D opener that has an even more jarring difference between it and the ingame graphics than even Final Fantasy IV managed. Once ingame though you are treated to an assortment of stick figures with barely discernible features to tell different characters apart and animation done poorly. Spells and similar special effects are similarly poor. Mages just seem to throw out white orbs and explosions are so painfully just layered on top of objects.
To its credit the landscape and buildings aren't too bad with some very clear designs that do indeed vary from country to country and the top screen displays a handy minimap of the area that allows you to see positions of all objects and units, but that's about it and the rest just looks like it came from some NES game. Hardly pushing the visual capabilities of the DS, which makes the slowdown that often hits even more irritating. Soundwise it doesn't fare much better. There's some nice composition to the tunes but the quality is iffy and the sound effects are not exactly awe inspiring.
Ys Startegy has a few games modes on offer, with Scenario mode being the main single player option. Here you'll advance through a story of sorts through three different campaigns, handing you control of different armies in a game where you'll most likely be bored half to death before the first scenario has reached its conclusion.
The story telling is extremely mind numbing for a start. In the first place it's hard to empathize with stick figures and the mini icons they display for characters are static and small, which does not help in the slightest. Other strategy games tend to use half-body sprites for cutscenes that, while not fully animated, allow for a multitude of expressions and a better appreciation of the art. I guess that was too much here. It also doesn't help that every sequence is dragged out as long as possible with a lot of time effectively doing little to advance the plot, which in itself is a generic evil empire collecting gems of power to revive ancient evil stuff, complete with a hero with amnesia to boot. Such cliches would be acceptable if the delivery was good, but such is not the case. If that isn't enough to turn you off then perhaps the fact that the text appears onscreen slowly with no option to just skip ahead (short of hammering A to max text appear slightly quicker), and goodness help you should you fail a mission as save points are always planted right before a huge wall of text event, forcing you to rewatch the entire damn thing again. Rage.
The first scenario acts as the tutorial that teaches you the basics, with only a few missions allowing for complete control. Well, "tries" to teach you the basics, because by the time the tutorial is over half the available icons are still a mystery and many of the explanations are decidedly half-assed. Diving into custom battles against the computer and constantly having the instruction book to hand is easily a better way to learn via trial and error. Even worse is how slow the tutorial sections go. One teaches about resource gathering. First you plant a field. OK, cool. But then instead of moving onto the next resource step as you would do in proper gameplay you're forced to watch this lone worker fully complete his task. You're forced to do this with every tutorial, right up to building a tower that takes freaking ages for your lone worker to finish because, despite having the resources, the game literally won't allow you to deploy more workers to finish the task faster.
A bit much?
Gameplay is split between resource gathering, construction and offensive tactics, although one of the available buildings makes that last one entirely optional. You start with a base camp, and sometimes with a few workers and maybe a hero in Scenario mode. You can deploy more workers via the base camp, although each command has a countdown timer so you don't get units immediately upon request. These workers are the only ones capable of gathering resources, such as killing local wildlife for food, planting and tending to farm crops, chopping down trees and mining cleria (this game's version of gold). Farming is potentially a bit broken since farm fields never disappear through overuse but otherwise it's an interesting system on its own merits. Gathering resources is important because deployment and building actions all consume a certain amount of resources (though frustratingly you're not told what uses up what until you select it).
Once you have enough resources you can start commanding works to build things. Houses increase the number of units you can have on the field at any given time, arrow firing towers and walls can be built to fortify defences and military deployment facilities can be created ready to start building your army. During these periods you still need to be gathering resources so the action becomes split between resources and construction. You can also put in upgrades to your settlement and buildings, as long as you have the required resources. Era advancements let you move from 1st era to 2nd and 3rd. Certain actions are only possible by reaching a set era. Building upgrades increases the statistics of said building (mostly defences but some have offences that increase too). In the case of deployment buildings you can boost the units through this method. Sounds great.
However, there are already problems arising. One issue is the slow pace of the game, and I don't mean traditional RTS slow. The action is jerky and sluggish, with even character movement down to crawling pace which really drags out engagements, and this gets worse as you add more units and buildings to the play field. Most likely the number one reason players won't want to touch the game again. THe touch screen isn't 100% accurate when you're not able to use the click and drag method. Try directing a worker to cut down a tree and sometimes it doesn't work because the game is very picky about what part of the screen is the tree. There are also view problems when you can't rotate the field of view. For a game set in an isometric view this becomes a serious problem when you group objects together.
Less pronounced problems tend to come from the unbalanced gameplay. You can build a barracks to deploy normal troops or a temple to deploy special troops. However, there is no tactical reason to bother with the barracks since you can easily have a hero, heroine and an army of monsters to crush anything before the enemy makes its first offensive move, effectively turning your base camp into an unbeatable home ground. In fact, the hero and heroine units are the definition of broken. Abilities differ depending on which country you are fighting for but what they have in common is that they have the advantage against everything else and will take seriously unfair numbers to take one down. If that wasn't enough you can take direct control of one and receive boosts in all stats. This means that, yes, you can feasibly go ahead and solo an enemy base camp as soon as you deploy the hero/heroine and run rings around everything, even if single handedly destroying the lot might be a little much to ask for. This is not helped by every unit being able to heal itself through a regen tactic - a tactic the computer never uses. This allows you to rush in, causes a lot of damage, retreat, heal and repeat.
Other features are notable in being fairly useless. You can build a harbour, and several tutorial missions take not of boats and their use. Which is undone by all other maps having very little water at all rendering the whole thing pointless. Why build a battleship when the enemy is always 10 miles inland? Planting trees is useless when it's often much better for resources to build a reserve near any huge patch of trees and benefit more. Digging instant kill pits might sound awesome except not only does your own worker digging it kill himself with it (seriously, what the hell?) but chances are the enemy won't be stupid enough to fall into them.
Should have just built a tower.
There are two ways to win in this game, and it's here that the imbalance really shows. The two methods are the offensive tactic that involves killing everything alive on the enemy side and a defensive tactic that involves building a special tower and defending it for 10 minutes. THese methods are also known as the long winded boring tactic and the instant win game breaker tactic.
Obliterating everything on the enemy side of the field is oddly not as awesome as it first seems to be. Perhaps it comes down to how long it takes to build an offensive force of any reasonable strength to mount a proper attack, or that actually advancing to the enemy camp is slow due to most attack units have the speed of snails or perhaps that direct player input is limited and you're hoping against hope that the computer can understand instruction well enough to not get confused by the terrain layout on the way there. You might opt to do this once or twice in the Scenario mode just for the heck of it since it's not all that hard to do but the deeply unsatisfying nature of it and the fact that there is a much faster method means that you won't use it much.
So about that tower then. Once you have advanced to the third era your workers gain access to the Emelas Tower. It takes the longest to build out of anything and the highest resource cost (1000 of each, which still isn't much if you've been mass spamming workers throughout the mission). However, the tower becomes an instant win, as once build a 10 minute countdown begins and when it hits zero you win. Just to understand how horribly broken this is you need to understand that it is highly possible to complete a mission using this method before the computer enemy makes any kind of offensive attempt, leading to the entirely laughable situation where you can win without a single soldier on the field. Due to the otherwise slow plodding nature of the game this method becomes the immediate choices for clearing missions and turns already easy challenges into laughable jokes. Even if you're willing to put up with the problems, the appeal quickly fades when every mission boils down to rushing to 3rd era, building the tower and then waiting for 10 minutes.
Multiplayer mode helps remove some of these issues since both sides have access to the Emelas Tower option and therefore won't be quite as dim as the computer opponents. Unfortunately, this does not help offset the serious balance issues and the sluggishness of it all. There are much better multiplayer experiences around.
I endured through the game but honestly there is not a whole lot here worth going for. After wading through the confusion of the interface you then sit trying to figure out the idiocy of the computer only to resort to using the game breaking defensive victory in every single mission just so missions don't drag on for ages. It's a poor RTS with way too many problems to be a worthwhile purchase.
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