"Chronicles is a great gaming history lesson that will grow on you, should you allow it."
There is no good way to start this review. So I'm going to start in a fashion that works for me, but will probably bore the ever-loving crap out of you (thanks go to Strong Bad for the phrase).
I've been stressing my love for Falcom since I arrived at RPGFan about a decade ago. But at that point, I was a poser. My professed love came from only one aspect of the games: their music. Of course, I was right to love the music, but I was no die-hard Falcom gamer. I routinely ignored Ys for years, calling it "Wise" until someone corrected me early in my RPGFan tenure (in case you haven't heard, it rhymes with "peace").
Though I would go on to play Ys titles III (Felghana), VI, and SEVEN, as well as all the Legend of Heroes I could get my hands on, I never really dug into the original product. I downloaded the TurboGrafx 16 version of Ys: Books I & II for Wii Virtual Console, but couldn't get past the initial hurdle of farming for gold just so I could begin the game proper. I figured, "well, I'll just wait for a remake."
A remake came on the DS, and Atlus published it in North America. And, lazy me, I skipped it. Now, with Ys I & II Chronicles for the PSP, I finally have my chance. What did I come to find? It's hard to say briefly, so let's start in the territory I know best...
Adol Is Ready To Rock!
Ys and Ys II have, hands-down, some of the best game music ever made. As one of the earliest works from VGM legend Yuzo Koshiro (whose recent works include the Etrian Odyssey series), the music from this series holds a special place in the hearts of many game music fanatics. The original music also includes work from Mieko Ishikawa, who has stayed with Falcom for the long haul and still does supervisory work on remakes. These games are Falcom's most-frequent remake (always packaged in the I&II pairing), and their music has undergone dozens of transformations. Having appeared on PC-88, NES, SMS, PC Engine (TurboGrafx), PC, PC again, DS, and now PSP (and I'm sure I'm missing a few ports), this game has really covered a lot of ground.
So it comes as a real treat that this most recent remake offers you the opportunity to change the "version" of the music throughout gameplay. You have three music options to choose from: the original PC-88 audio (from 1987 and 1988, respectively), the "Complete" version audio (2001), and the new "Chronicles" music (2009). But as awesome as the music is – trust me, it's face-melting and tear-inducing all in one – there were so many more options available. Arguably, the "Eternal" music (a PC remake from about 7 years ago) is the best in-game version of the music. Had they wanted to really stretch the UMD disc space, Falcom could have also included the PC Engine redbook audio, Ryo Yonemitsu's "Perfect Collection" arrangements, and many others.
But here's the point: even with a relatively limited set of audio, it's safe to say that enjoying this music is something you'd have to struggle not
to do. That goes for the old synth-tastic stuff as well as the new recordings. Additional audio was written for certain parts of the game as well (Lava Colony in Ys II, for example, now has its own music). Whether you're jamming out to "Subterranean Canal," getting punched in the face by "Termination," or crying your eyes out to "Feena" and "Too Full With Love," you'll be moved by this music. The years and years I've studied this music had a profound effect on my first official play through this groundbreaking set of Action RPG goodness. The music is all the more powerful now that I know it in context.
Adol Is Ready To Bump'n'Grind!
Our red-haired swordsman may know how to rock out to the tunes created specifically for his adventures, but it's not all about rocking. You see, Adol knows how to "bump" and "grind." Let's take on each of those R&B-influenced terms separately.
All entries past the original Ys titles allow Adol to actually swing swords, and starting with Ys VI, Adol was doing some serious jumping in 3D environments. But back in the days when Adol was running headlong against Link for Action RPG supremacy, Falcom sacrificed swordplay for sheer speed. This was changed for the DS version, but the PSP version brings back the classic bumpity-bump-bump-bump.
That's how Adol fights, you see. It's also how melee enemies fight back. You bump into them, you hurt them. They bump into you, and you get hurt. If you go face-to-face against an enemy, you both take damage and get knocked back. So what's the trick? At first I thought I'd have to run in circles and flank the enemy, but this quickly proved impossible. It didn't take me much longer to discern the real trick: go diagonal. The enemies only walk in the four cardinal directions. They never face diagonally. So if you run at them diagonally, you have a mighty fine chance of doing a crazy combo-run into them, essentially bowling the enemy over (depending on Adol's attack power vs. their HP bar). The only real dangers Adol faces in combat is being swarmed by enemies or facing enemies with special attacks, including projectiles.
So that's the "bump" factor. What about the "grind?" I think you know where I'm going here. The first Ys isn't too heavy on the level-grind factor, but Ys II definitely is. For the uninitiated (which included me a few days ago): Ys I is little more than a prelude. It takes a solid 3 hours to clear, and Adol's level caps out at 10, which is something most players will reach before entering the final dungeon. Ys II, on the other hand, requires some hefty grinding to move forward. Not only to raise money for the best-available gear throughout the first half of the game, but also to be able to survive dungeons and take down bosses. In other Ys games, I found that a level difference of 2 or 3 levels wasn't significant enough to give me a real edge over the bosses. Ys II is much worse. It would've been near impossible for me to clear 80% of this game's bosses without a solid 15 minutes of grinding before each one. And I was playing on the 2nd of 4 difficulty levels. If "Normal" was that challenging, I'd hate to see what "Nightmare" is all about.
To be fair, Ys II offers Adol a host of other abilities thanks to the powers of magic, including a very handy fire projectile. Adol also learns how to light the darkness, warp to towns, turn into a friendly monster (avoid all fighting and
talk to enemies!), freeze time, and put up a magic shield. But, for the most part, the combat is all about the bump and the grind.
Adol Is Ready To Get Lost
Aside from the combat, which is actually the more interesting (and weirdly addictive) part of the gameplay, all that's left is exploration. And it's here that Ys I & II could have probably benefited from some intentional streamlining. That didn't happen. Admittedly, this is my first time playing the game, so I can't say that for sure, but the mechanics sure do feel like the 1980s.
I can't tell you the number of times I got "stuck" in a dungeon, unable to figure out where to go next. Answer? I was supposed to go back to the town, talk to an NPC or two, and then get a key to move forward in the dungeon. Seriously, the amount of forced backtracking is ridiculous. And while the game often gives you clues to let you know, "hey, it's time to regroup," that's not always the case. And, because the large dungeons are often labyrinthine enough to give even natural cartographers a migraine, you'd be right to suspect that your missing key is not
in the town, but instead in some hidden corner of any given dungeon. The brave few who reach the Shrine of Solomon at the end of Ys II will know my pain.
There is a sense of challenge that comes with the frustration of simply not knowing where to go next. But that sense of challenge quickly turns to a sense of "I'd better check a walkthrough." When I couldn't beat one of the final bosses in Ys II, I found out that it was because even though I was many levels ahead of the recommended level to take the beast down, I didn't have the newest sword, the "Battle Sword." And even though the enemy could only be defeated with magic, the "Attack" stat applies to your magic as though the sword actually affected the magic power. Interesting... but not easily discerned.
Adol Is Popular With The Ladies
The red-haired hero is also quite the stud. Not only does he have a young lady named Lilia falling for him, but it seems that one of the two Goddesses of the land of Ys has lingering feelings for him. This would be fine if said ladies were actually given some character development, but it's safe to say that I know more about annoying kid NPC "Tarf" than I do about Lilia, Reah, and Feena combined. I'm baffled by which characters are given a significant spot in the script and which are ignored.
But Enough About Adol...
Let's talk about the world of Ys itself.
The "Ys" series should really be called "The Adventures of Adol," because from Ys III forward, you're not actually in Ys. The first Ys title takes place in the land of Esteria, where Ys once existed. The subtitle to Ys I & II is "Ancient Ys Vanished." The deep-for-its-time, mythological plot tells of a prosperous, magical land that disappeared all at once 700 years ago. That was the land of Ys, governed by two Goddesses and their six priests. The game does a great job hammering this stuff in. I can, without looking, easily spout off the names Hadal, Tovah, Dabbie, Mesa, Gemma, and Fact (the six priests). Where did Ys go? Hint: look up.
So Ys I takes place on the ground in Esteria. The final dungeon of Ys I is a 25-floor tower called "The Tower of Darm." Maybe you've heard of it. Assuming that you conquer the final boss (there's a trick to beating him, and it involves the equipment you, um, equip), you move on to Ys II, which actually takes place on the floating continent of Ys. It's still inhabited, but it's dealing with a flood of monsters who have rapidly increased in number and ferocity over the past six months.
Today's media consumers may consider the story cliché, but when it was originally released, this story was certainly fresh. And it still resonated with me, powerfully. The image presented post-end-credits, which involved some fancy "panning" and effect lighting before the word "Fin" appeared, actually moved me to tears. Granted, I'm a pretty emotional guy, but I didn't cry at any of the other Ys games I've played. That moment, and that powerful image with the memorable music, just brought something out of me. It's the heart and soul of this game that makes it so great.
Room For Fun
I respect a "faithful" translation as much as the next JRPG purist. But there is a time and a place for pop culture humor. And, in my opinion, localization specialists Tom and Jessica hit all nails on their respective heads. A tombstone referencing my favorite line from "The Room" took me over the edge laughing. XSEED followers on Facebook and Twitter may have enjoyed the many jokes XSEED posted there about a KFC-style "double down" sandwich made of Pikkards. Observant players should not miss that joke within the game's script. Some other well-placed jokes can be found throughout Chronicles, but those two stand out as exceptional to me.
Good writing is important, but what's more important is that these jokes show up at the right times. If you said something silly just before a character died, or in the middle of the villain's grand speech, you'd be missing the mark. Furthermore, if your script remained boring and generic except for those touches of humor, you wouldn't be doing your job correctly. But the writing here is excellent. I only wish the characters had more to say. Granted, there are many, many characters between the two games, some of whom reappear in later games. It is here that we first meet Adol's sidekick Dogi, for example.
You can play both Ys titles in one of two forms: the new "Chronicles" form, or the 2001 "Complete" form. The difference is mostly in the story-telling methods. The "Complete" version has more primitive hand-drawn art than the very smooth and beautiful semi-animated stills of Chronicles. Combine this with the triple sound option, and the combinations are endless! Okay, not really... there are six combinations per game among the audio and visual options.
Sadly, I didn't see any place for an image gallery or a place to re-watch FMV sequences (which are absolutely stunning). I really could've gone for that, and I seem to remember such a thing existing on the Felghana PSP release that XSEED gave us a few months ago. What happened? Where are my extras?
If you buy the limited edition, of course, you do get one very special extra: a bonus soundtrack CD. Obviously, that's something you'll want. If you're not into the music of Ys, I don't know what else would draw you in. Oh, right: the addictive gameplay and decent short-form story-telling. Just remember, those things are watered-down in Ys I&II, whereas the music is at its best in these early titles!
There's a lot more Adol to go around. We have yet to see Ys IV and V in any accessible releases, and then there's the prequel, "Ys Origin," which takes place 700 years before the events of Ys I&II, meaning Ys hasn't yet "vanished." If you followed along with XSEED on Felghana and SEVEN, there's no reason to stop now. Chronicles is an excellent gaming history lesson that will grow on you, should you allow it. However, be warned: this game simply isn't made of the same stuff that Felghana and SEVEN are. It feels antiquated, but give it a chance, and you're likely to enjoy it. Plus, more support for the series means more likelihood that the rest will somehow, someday reach our Falcom-starved fingers.