If ever there was a video game series I know little about and want to understand better, it is Nihon Falcom’s action RPG series, Ys. A bungled history of confusing development issues, localization attempts, and countless ports on consoles and ancient Japanese home computers that are impossible to find anymore have cursed Ys into a legacy of obscurity. It’s a shame, but the series tends to come up short on the amount of praise and recognition that is piled on Japanese franchises that spawned around the same time. We’re talking The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Castlevania, and Metal Gear.
Ys first came into being during the creative prime of Japanese video games, just after Nintendo and its followers exploded onto the globe. Perhaps another reason Ys never clicked in the States, apart from its silly name, is that Nihon Falcom often backed the losing team, launching on consoles like the Sega Master System, TurboGrafx 16 CD, and old PCs from long before the established standards of today.
The fact that the latest game came out exclusively on the Vita shows it hasn’t learned from these mistakes either.
And yet, to this day, Ys lives on. Thanks to a recent effort from XSEED over the last half of a decade, this franchise is finally getting some long overdue recognition. And not only is the franchise finally being talked about, it’s even thriving with a brand new installment coming to PS Vita and PlayStation 4 this year! To think, we’ve lost so many classic and beloved Japanese IPs over the last thirty years, and this cult-classic series has weathered the tide more than any of them!
In my experience, I’ve only played the Steam remake of the first game and the most recent game on the Vita, Ys: Memories of Celceta, and I walked away from both mildly amused. I could see the appeal but merely dismissed it as nothing more than a sidebar curiosity. However, thankfully, I didn’t give up and finally decided to hammer out my knowledge of the series as 2016 New Year’ Resolution.
And boy am I glad I started with Ys: The Oath In Felghana because it would be an understatement to label this as anything less than a stellar game and one of the best action RPGs of this decade.
What the heck is an “Ys?”
Before we dive into this entry specifically, let’s talk about what the series is in brief. Every Ys game stars a young, red-haired adventurer named Adol Christin, a wandering legend and one of the greatest travelers on his continent. During his travels, he island hops to many magical realms, greatly contributing to a running gag that he’s a terrible sailor. He might be a master swordsman who can trek from the highest peaks to the ends of the Earth, but nearly every game in the franchise starts with him being shipwrecked and washed up on a sandy beach.
On these islands, he will often stumble across a cute anime girl who finds herself in trouble, and Adol, being the world renowned handsome warrior that he is, will help them. Coincidentally, every island he lands on and every girl he aids leads him on a quest that would otherwise have catastrophic consequences all over the world had he not gotten involved.
Boy, it’s certainly great that Adol shipwrecks on these islands coincidentally… every single time the world is about to end.
At their core, Ys games copy the traditions of The Legend of Zelda dungeon exploration, but instead of a focus on puzzle solving, exploration, or treasures, Ys is about combat. Pure and glorious combat. Adol is a much more agile hero than Link in every regard.
This focus might make Ys’ gameplay come off as more about shallow thrills than Nintendo’s classic franchise. In some cases this is true, but this is where Ys: The Oath in Felghana sets itself apart from other entries.
Pattern recognition out the wazoo
In addition to the light exploration and intense combat found in other Ys games, The Oath in Felghana adds a touch of what most call “pattern recognition.” This is an old technique used by NES gamers when taking on boss battles, knowing how to react and how to counter an enemy based on its battle animations. Mega Man comes to mind as the definitive series to push this idea, and possibly Dark Souls is the example most gamers would recognize nowadays where it is important.
Ys: The Oath in Felghana is a true master at this art, presenting 17 challenging boss battles that will push players to the brink. Each will pummell poor Adol into submission while its patterns reveal themselves slowly over subsequent playthroughs. Once learned, each battle changes from a learning experience into an endurance run to see how long Adol can survive while exploiting these patterns and learning mutations as the boss weakens.
Finally, after the player has mastered each individual attack and counter, all of that practice and memorization must come together for one successful run. Killing a boss in Ys is a true reward because every battle feels like an earned victory. Hacking and slashing a mindless pathway through these bosses is impossible. Careful memorization, trial and error, and patience are key here.
Keep in mind that this will test the patience of a good many modern gamers, who are used to boss fights that are gimmies after one or two attempts. It might even create a sense of insecurity for not being able to overcome a boss after a dozen attempts. However, Ys: The Oath of Felghana succeeds because it delivers a fair challenge with the polish of crisp visuals and smart design, the best facets of both modern action RPGs and grueling classic 8-bit action games.
And the rest just simply works
Aside from the boss battles, the rest of the game falls into place like a normal game from the genre. Adol can uncover a few treasures and trinkets that will unlock secrets in the dungeons, granting him new abilities. A dash, a double jump, and the cyclone attack will be all you need by the journey’s end.
Armor and swords can be uncovered through exploration or expensive purchases at the local store, and a good amount of time can be sunk into improving the performance of Adol’s tools at the blacksmith.
Another important decision in the challenge comes from there being a lack of any healing items in the game! Adol can restore his hit points at any save crystal, but that means he must backtrack to restore his life or die. Death isn’t forgiving in this game either, dealing out huge losses by removing players of all their progress since the last save. This leaves it up to the player to see how long they can push their fortunes. No stockpiling potions for Adol. He’ll need to either grind up his level or find a way to flawlessly push through a dungeon if he wants to see the other side.
This makes the teleportation item one of the most important in the game. It doesn’t help Adol progress deeper into dungeons, but it does allow him to at least easily restart with his experience, gold, and items intact.
And there is the best aspect of all when it comes to Ys: The Oath in Felghana… its pacing. At the sacrifice of being a very deep, exploration-heavy game like The Legend of Zelda, Nihon Falcom counters with a very brisk paced game that can be completed in under 10 hours if the bosses don’t prove to be too challenging. Adol hacks his way through enemies, bounds through surprisingly strong platforming sections, comes to a boss, defeats the boss, and moves on to the next section of the game somewhere on the noticeably small world map.
Although it is rarely required, except for maybe right before the final boss battle, Ys: The Oath in Felghana is never about slowing Adol down to grind for experience points or Gold. Everything he needs to complete a dungeon is right in front of him, and only when a boss proves too difficult should he dive back to start gathering points.
Any complaints about the game should be directed at its sub-quests. Ys: The Oath of Felghana moves so quickly that it is easy to overlook a good many items, secrets, and missable requests from the townsfolk. And once they become unavailable, that’s it. They’re gone forever. Many of these require a walkthrough and aren’t naturally discovered unless an NPC drops a very obtuse hint.
Luckily, as I said, the game is only ten hours long, so any items can be picked up on a swift second playthrough. 10 hours isn’t that much of commitment. Ys: The Oath in Felghana isn’t not long, but it hits that “short and sweet” target most games miss these days. On the flip-side, it definitely doesn’t linger past its welcome either, like most games do these days.
Gateway into new adventures
What those 10 hours do provide though is pure immersion from beginning to end. Ys is never about the deep stories or complicated gameplay, but despite all that, Nihon Falcom packs a lot of content and emotional punch into these 10 hours. The thrill of beating bosses, the adrenaline of cutting through enemies with a full powered Adol, and even the story, which is shallow as a kiddy pool, does have a certain level of grounding to it.
Ys: The Oath in Felghana is absolutely perfect for what it tries to be, and both its brevity and lightning pace make it a game that doesn’t require too much commitment if the player wants to experience it all over again.
I will certainly revisit this game in the future. For one reason, I played the beautiful PC version, which runs at a perfect framerate in glorious HD. I honestly don’t know what’s the most charming part about its presentation: the cheap 3D, the goofy pre-rendered character sprites, Nihon Falcom’s iconic and tackily amazing guitar riffs, or overly cliche character designs. Each go so overboard on the cheese and cliches that it is impossible not to fall in love.
I want to see if the PSP version is up to speed because I don’t think the game could be done the same justice on a smaller screen or with anything other than a DualShock 4 controller. That being said, those using a DualShock 4: Beware! This game requires a few hurdles to get the controller to work.
Ys: The Oath in Felghana is also a remake of the Super Nintendo, SEGA Genesis, and TurboGrafx game Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, often considered the “black sheep” of the older games. I’m interested in seeing how the story diverges from the original version as well.
For now though, consider me a convert to Nihon Falcom’s hugely underappreciated franchise, while I consider Ys: The Oath in Felghana among the best that the classic genre has ever offered. A perfect gateway into a series that is overdue for the spotlight and a rare treasure that perfects old-school ideals with a marvelously cheesy modern-day presentation.