Let’s get some disclosure out of the way up front.
I haven’t played a JRPG since Final Fantasy X-2 (that’s way back in the year of our Lord 2003, for those that are counting) and I couldn’t tell you the last Japanese action-RPG I played. Maybe as far back as Landstalker on the Mega Drive but I’m not giving you the release date for that because it just makes me feel damned old.
As the 2000’s trundled on, western RPGs were hitting their stride and a little company called Bioware was really knocking them out of the park with titles like KoTOR I & II, Jade Empire and Mass Effect. I was seduced, you might say, by the West Side.
You get the point: JRPGS – not in my wheelhouse any more. Stick that on the back burner for a bit. We’ll get back to it.
When I received the code for Ys Origin on the Xbox One, a port of the classic Nihon Falcom game by Dotemu, I was skeptical to say the least. I had checked in on some of the recent bigger name JRPGs of note (okay, I had looked at FFXIV and FFXV) but, to be honest, nothing was blowing my skirt up, to quote Spencer Trilby. In point of fact, I have referred to FFXV as a game where the player tools around the countryside in a classic car with their teen-beat band of male models. Harsh perhaps, but not entirely untrue.
With the additional discovery that Ys Origin is a port of a 2006 game – only three years after I had abandoned the Faith – my expectations were at an all time low.
But, when you get a review code everything goes a bit Mission: Impossible. Admittedly, there’s less (a LOT less) running, explosions, double-crossing and rubber mask shedding but once you choose to accept that code, you’re committed to seeing that game through regardless of its quality.
A TOUCH OF DÉJÀ VU
When I first booted up Origin, the prequel to Ys: Ancient Ys Vanished, I was dismayed to witness a familiar trope from back in the day: a vague and abstract opening cinematic filled with quick cuts of a mysterious case, angelic white feathers and wide open colourful vistas, before giving way to a shot of Darm Tower (the main location of the game) and our two heroes: Yunika Tovah and Hugo Fact. Bonus points for that second name.
I had to remind myself that the game is twelve years old and I shouldn’t be surprised that it feels so hackneyed. It’s also worth pointing out that this is the first Ys game ever to grace a Microsoft console and that somehow makes the game’s retro trappings seem more apt.
Still. So far, so JRPG.
On starting a new game, the player is offered the choice of playing as either Yunika, a close combat specialist, or Hugo, a ranged fighter. Each has a different playstyle as you might expect and which character you choose also affects the game sequence as well as the story, to some extent.
After character selection you’re treated to a long cinematic that explains the backstory of the game. Taking place some 700 years before the series began (and minus series protagonist Adol Christin), it appears that the land of Ys was a thriving paradise presided over by two goddesses and full of people who had access to magical abilities thanks to the presence of a black pearl.
But then the demons came (because video games) and the goddesses had to raise the land into the sky to protect their people from harm. Not to be outdone by levitation, said demons built an enormous tower (presumably they weren’t around the day that everyone else got floaty powers) to scale the heights and reach the land of Ys so they could continue their pillaging. Meanwhile, the residents of Ys realise that their saviours have mysteriously disappeared and send a search party back to the surface to investigate the tower and rescue the goddesses.
As Yunika and Hugo ascend the tower, they try to unravel the mystery of the goddesses disappearance by killing a lot of things and solving puzzles that block their progress. There are also many, many boss battles to endure but we’ll get to them. Our heroes aren’t alone in their quest (despite the fact that they pointedly choose to explore a tower designed and built by DEMONS on their own) and are aided by a whole cast of characters whom I’ve largely forgotten unless they perform some function or other.
There are several points in the game where the writers trotted out various NPCs to explain events, heighten the mystery of several unexplained occurrences or add some comic relief, but, if I’m honest, I didn’t really care. The story is doled out adequately enough through text and some handsome portraits of the characters but it’s all context, simply giving the player a reason to be in the tower and to progress ever upwards, never really engaging enough to make you invest in it.
That being said, the story does cater for those new to series as I never felt lost or confused as it unfolded. That is a tall order in itself given that there are seven other games to contend with (eight if you count a port of Ys 4 that took some story liberties and is now considered an alternate dimension).
As mentioned earlier, there are two characters to play through the campaign with and each version fleshes out the story more. A third character who is referred to in both Hugo and Yunika’s playthroughs (The Claw) can be unlocked also, and playing through as them will complete the story. So, if the narrative is a draw for you, there are reasons to go back through the campaign to learn more, as well as experiencing the gameplay of the hidden character.
Mechanically, the game functions well and caught me off guard with a surprising variety of gameplay depending on your character choice. As the melee brawler, Yunika is all up close and personal, dancing around enemies attacks and getting in their faces. (Another pleasant surprise was the realisation that coming into contact with enemies does not damage the players health, a handy addition for melee.) Hugo, on the other hand is a little slower and built to hang back, dealing damage at range and staying on the move.
With both characters there is an element of button-bashing as you dole out their basic attacks and early on this can feel quite monotonous, especially as enemies respawn when you leave a room (this revisiting can be negated somewhat by a teleport ability that can get you around the tower but you really need to lean in to the dungeon crawler grinding aspect of the game to harvest currency and XP). Soon enough though you are given gear, dashes and boosts that not only increase your arsenal but add a surprising tactical facet to your combat.
Being an RPG of sorts, there is an obligatory XP bar that you fill through combat but in practice this really only increases your health, damage and mana as you level up. Character upgrades that can be purchased through found currency allow you to tailor your build to an extent, buying perks that can make the harder levels and difficulties more forgiving, as well as temporary offensive and defensive buffs dropped by fallen enemies.
The controls are tight and responsive, something that you will welcome during the boss fights, although I did find that I had to switch from the analog stick to the direction pad to prevent accidental about-turns as the game escalated.
One of the aspects of Ys Origin that really drives home that retro feeling are the numerous boss fights. (The other being the limited save system that can prove irritating if you play fast and loose.) These are big theatrical set pieces involving enormous antagonists with multiple phases and usually involve some degree of problem solving to defeat them, all while throwing a little bullet hell your way for good measure.
The creature design for the bosses still impresses and they are largely pitched at just the right difficulty, although some of them will have you banging your head off of them for longer than they really deserve. Regardless, they are usually well placed to break up the normal game loop and force you to use your arsenal and skills wisely.
SIGHT & SOUND
Visually the game is very polished (taking its age into consideration), using an oblique overhead camera viewpoint to portray rendered environments supporting the character and enemy sprites.
The familiar design aesthetic of high fantasy fused with a touch of neo-classical steampunk translates well from the architecture of the tower itself (very talented demon builders, I hear) to the enemies, to weapons and even the gear. While pretty to look at, the background design was a little more bland than I expected. The composition of the tower is as basic as you might expect with a video game – a series of levels followed by a boss fight and then a change of scenery, rinse and repeat – but I did feel that each of the sections felt largely the same, although the environmental hazards helped to shake things up.
Along with an overall upscale and trophy functionality, the UI and HUD have been streamlined and cleaned up a little from the 2006 outing but otherwise this remains the original version of the game which should please fans of the series and retrogaming fans generally.
Unfortunately, the game looks a little underwhelming playing on a current gen console using a decent-sized 4K TV (although it ticks along perfectly performance wise). This feeling is exacerbated by the lo-res cinematics (by today’s standards) – and it’s of no surprise to learn that the game received a Vita release last year because it really feels like the game would shine on a handheld. Can anyone say ‘future Switch port’?
In terms of sound you are treated to entirely competent and wholly predictable heroic marching music that gives way to shrieking guitar riffs for the boss battles. (I know, I’m being dismissive again.) The sound effects are fun, juxtaposing the melodic tinkle of magic and muted mystery of the underwater levels with meaty impact sounds and explosions.
This Xbox version of Ys Origin has a few new wrinkles added to it for the series premiere, adding a speed run mode to complement the already existing time attack and arena modes, as well as adding some optional gore FX. Because what hasn’t been solved by adding gore?
Y BUY Ys?
So, let’s go back over to that back burner, shall we?
I’m really not a fan of these types of games any more, I think I’ve been pretty transparent about that. The story, art, characters and design all felt enormously derivative to me, and that led to an uncomfortable initial few hours with the game.
With that out of the way, the gameplay is actually surprisingly addictive (despite the aged save system and the OP actions taken by some of the bosses). It’s fast-paced and nuanced enough that the campaign length doesn’t overstay its welcome and may well leave you wanting a little bit more. If, like me, the combat is the main draw for you, you might find the time attack and arena modes are the more attractive option to running the campaign again but the combat varies so much between characters, you will probably be hooked back in to unlock that third character for use in them.
Ys Origin is retailing for £15.99 on the UK Microsoft store and $19.99 in the US. That feels a little steep for me but, again, this isn’t for me. I have no nostalgia for the series and, outwith of a few examples, I’m not much of a retrogamer. If you fall into either of these camps (or if you’re just starting out on JRPGs), I’m sure the replayablity of the campaign and handful of other modes will more than sate you.