Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
After enduring the side-scrolling fiasco of Ys 3: Wanderers from Ys, fans of the series were overjoyed to hear that Ys 4: The Dawn of Ys would make a return to the overhead action RPG play mechanics of Ys 1 and 2. When Ys 4 arrived, it fully lived up to the expectations set for it. It easily surpassed the disappointing Ys 3 and even proved to be superior to the much-heralded Ys 1 and 2.
Ys 4 takes place about a year after the conclusion of Ys 1 and 2 (which means that it takes place before Ys 3). Adol and his pal Dogi have returned to Esteria after a year of wandering and adventure seeking, and a hero’s welcome awaits the duo upon their arrival. Adol makes the rounds in Minea, the town where the entire Ys series began, and learns from Sara the fortuneteller that trouble is brewing in the distant land of Serseta. That night, Adol secretly leaves town to travel to Serseta while Dogi and old pal Goban Toba are passed out from an evening of partying. The next day, Adol arrives in the Serseta port town of Puroma Rock, where his new adventure begins.
Ys veterans will immediately find Ys 4 to be familiar; all of the gameplay elements from Ys 1 and 2 make a grand return. The overhead 2D action RPG gameplay is back, and so is the unconventional battle system (you attack enemies by simply running into them). However, the gameplay, while not very different from that of Ys 1 and 2, is actually superior because the execution is smoother. In addition, Ys 4 puts a little more emphasis on strategy. In Ys 1 and 2, you could for the most part get away with running into your enemies head on. In Ys 4, that strategy doesn’t work nearly as well (unless you are much more powerful than the enemies you are fighting), so players are encouraged to think of different ways to approach enemies.
The great menus are back from Ys 1 and 2 as well. There is an item screen for, you guessed it, items, and the equipment and magic are stored on the equipment screen. Like Ys 1 and 2, graphical representations of the items, equipment, and magic are present, and the menus are very well organized. In addition, there is an unprecedented (relative to the Ys series) number of items for Adol to obtain and use throughout his quest in Ys 4.
The magic is better executed in Ys 4 than in Ys 1 and 2 as well. The attack spells travel faster, so they are more effective, and once again, all of the magic in the game is very useful. In addition, the attack spells can be charged up to give off a more powerful attack (at the cost of more MP). Some of the bosses can only be defeated using magic, and all of the bosses must be beaten with good strategy (unlike the hackfest boss battles in most of Ys 3). The boss battles are some of the most exhilarating and intense moments I’ve ever experienced in a video game.
The layout of the game also returns to that of Ys 1 and 2 (no more world map). In addition, there are more towns in Ys 4 than in all of the previous Ys games combined, so more social gamers will be pleased.
The only weakness in gameplay is that the difficulty in the game isn’t perfectly balanced. Because the bosses are tough and leave little room for error, you sometimes need to spend a little bit of time leveling up before you can defeat a boss. Fortunately, these moments are relatively few, and you generally don’t have to spend a lot of time leveling up when this happens.
Ys 4’s graphics are also noticeably improved over the previous games in the series. The characters and background objects are bigger onscreen than those of Ys 1 and 2, but the field of view isn’t reduced for the player because the gameplay screen is bigger as well. This increase in size and scale allows Falcom’s graphic designers to put more detail into the onscreen characters and backgrounds, and they take full advantage of it. Ys 4’s graphics move away from the drab palette of Ys 3 and back into the more colorful palette of Ys 1 and 2. In addition, more colors are used in Ys 4 than in the previous games in the series. The scrolling includes parallax where it’s needed, and is by far the smoothest that I’ve seen in the series.
Spell effects are also much improved graphically; they look good even though the PC-Engine doesn’t have the visual muscle of today’s systems. The character designs are comparable to the rest of the games (they’re excellent), and the artwork is my favorite in the entire series. The bosses are impressive as well. They look great and animate well.
Like the other games in the series, parts of the story are told in anime stills. The stills are more colorful and better drawn than in past Ys games, and show a little bit more animation as well. Although they are still not up to the standards of today’s anime stills, the disparity between them and today’s anime stills is much less than if you compare the past Ys games with today’s stills.
Ys 4 is also the best of its series in terms of control. Adol is very responsive to pad movements and doesn’t overreact when you try to make small movements. In addition, he can now move in 8 directions instead of 4, so it’s less of a chore to localize your hits on faster enemies. As mentioned before, attack magic fires off quickly, so it can be an excellent defense mechanism as well.
Control does have 2 minor weaknesses. Adol moves around at a good pace, but his acceleration from a standstill to cruising speed is a hair sluggish. I also found myself wishing that he could move just a hair faster when I fought some of the faster bosses.
The storyline in Ys 4 is better than that of its predecessors. The storyline takes several twists and turns, and it keeps you interested (though nobody is going to mistake it for a Lunar or Langrisser plot). Fans of the first two games of the series will also be overjoyed to see that most of the major supporting characters from Ys 1 and 2 make appearances as well (and look great drawn by the new artist). The cast size also returns from the miniscule size of Ys 3 to the grand proportions of Ys 1 and 2. Like the previous Ys games, the ending is very impressive, too.
However, the Ys 4 storyline also suffers from the same flaws as the previous Ys games. Character development is largely ignored, though this time around there are a few more competently developed supporting characters than in the past (Liza and Karna come to mind). Adol is still pretty mute, and actually has less lines in Ys 4 than in any of the previous games in the series.
In keeping with the tradition of its predecessors, the sound and music of Ys 4 is its most impressive singular aspect. The sound effects are tremendously improved over those of the previous Ys games. I could not believe that my Turbo Duo was capable of the quality of the explosions or some of the battle cries from bosses.
As improved as the sound effects are, the most impressive part of the Ys 4 audio is the soundtrack. Stylistically, it is very similar to the previous Ys soundtracks, though the arrangements are more full than those of Ys 1 and 2, and less heavy and intense than those of Ys 3. Compositionally, it surpasses the amazing Ys 1 and 2 soundtrack and is perhaps on a par with the incredible Ys 3 soundtrack (my favorite of all time). “Field” is an upbeat rock tune that has one of the catchiest and most memorable central melodies I have ever heard. “Burning Sword” is understated in its energy, but ingenious in its composition. And “The Dawn of Ys” provides the perfect poignant aural backdrop to view the anime stills of the intro to.
However, the soundtrack does have the same weaknesses as the other Ys games. The redbook tracks sound better than anything I’ve heard on any of today’s systems, but some of the songs are in PC-Engine PSG. Although the PSG in Ys 4 is noticeably improved over that of previous Ys games, I’m still bitter because “Karna,” one of my favorite songs ever, is in PSG.
Ys 4 also contains a plethora of impressive voice acting from several talented seiyuu. Hiromi Tsuru is one of my favorites, and she is excellent as Lilia. Some of the voices are in redbook, and most of it is streamed, but the streamed voices sound much better than in previous Ys games as well. The drop-off in sound quality from the redbook voices to the streamed voices is relatively unnoticeable.
Ys 4 outdoes its predecessors in almost every conceivable way, and, almost 5 full years after its release, it’s still without a doubt my favorite action RPG of all time. If you ever have an opportunity to get your hands on this one, don’t pass it up. Hey, even if you don’t like it, you could sell it to one of many rabid Ys fans for a truckload of money.