The Ys series is one well-beloved by its fans, although, until recently, us North American folk haven’t had many chances to play it. Thanks to XSEED Games, yet another Ys game is now available on Steam for the very reasonable price of twenty clams – and if the price isn’t enough to get you on board, the solid gameplay and great music should be.
The game opens with a choice of heroes: either the axe-wielding Yunica or the magic eyeball-wielding Hugo. A third character slot remains portentously empty on the select screen, and this is where a lot of the value of the game comes from. While all three characters play through the same location, they each have their own cutscenes, dialogue, and fighting styles. Additionally, each has some character-specific boss battles, as well as their own versions of the ending. With each playthrough lasting approximately eight hours, and a healthy number of difficulty options, you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck here, and that’s tough to argue with.
Each character’s storyline concerns the same sequence of events, but it’s quite enjoyable to tear your way through the game as different characters to see what they and their pals were up to at certain points in time. The plot itself isn’t particularly memorable, but it’s translated very well and contains some enjoyable, if archetypical, characters.
The flow of gameplay is streamlined to an almost arcade-like pace. You read some dialogue, charge at top speed through a floor of the tower, smash enemies, grab goodies, and solve the occasional button-pushing/platform jumping puzzle. The pace is breakneck, and the constant forward motion ensures that there’s never a dull moment. Occasionally, this actually works against the game, since a lack of towns, side quests, and basically anything that isn’t the next floor of the dungeon means you’ll be slicing, dicing, and blasting from the first to last moments of the game without a single break.
Combat itself varies a bit character-by-character due to differing weapons, but each character shares a set of three magical abilities, a burst gauge that enables a super-mode (and some special attacks), and incredibly responsive handling. Rapidly killing monsters causes them to explode and drop time-sensitive stat boosting items and SP (which can be used to upgrade various aspects of each character), and since the stat boosts are constantly depleting when you’re not in combat, you’re constantly driven to seek out the next fight. This creates a natural and enjoyable way to encourage you to move fast and quickly dispatch as many foes as possible.
Boss battles in particular are fantastic. You’ll face a number of imposing foes both large and small, and there’s quite a bit of variety to be found. Each one is well-balanced and tuned to reward careful observation, quick reflexes, and pattern memorization; rarely do the boss battles turn into trial-and-error wars of attrition.
While player skill definitely wins you the day in most cases, there are a few occasions in which you’re forced to grind, unless you want to run around doing almost no damage to enemies with hundreds of hit points. By that same token, the game’s seemingly optional weapon upgrades are, for all intents and purposes, not optional at all. Without them you’re essentially hamstrung into doing one damage to all enemies on higher floors of the tower, so unless you’re a glutton for punishment (and have a huge amount of time on your hands), you must seek them out.
When using a controller, Ys Origin controls easily even at its frenetic pace, and you’ll find yourself handily dodging attacks, making careful jumps from platform to platform, and curb-stomping evil in general. When using a keyboard, you’ll be smashing your face into the monitor in frustration as you try to manage jumping, activating powers, attacking, and dodging all at the same time. On lower difficulties, the game is certainly playable with a keyboard, but those looking for a serious challenge at the higher levels will definitely want to invest in a gamepad.
Visually, the game is a bit dated (which makes sense, since its original release was in 2006). Character sprites are animated simply, but they’re generally charming, and there’s variety to the legions of evil you spend the game hammering into oblivion. The most underwhelming part of the graphics are the levels themselves. The vast majority of the areas are distinguishable only by their color and a few specific gimmicks, and nothing in particular, save a few of the final sections, really sticks in your memory. The CG cutscenes that bookend the story (and accompany a couple of key scenes) are also pretty dated, but again, that’s because the game IS dated, so it’s hardly the fault of the game itself.
However, any complaints about the graphics are a moot point next to the fantastic soundtrack. As part of a series frequently lauded for its stellar tunes, Ys Origin does not disappoint. As befits the fast pace of the gameplay, the music is shred-happy, melody-driven rock, and it works exceptionally well. While each new area doesn’t bring with it much to look at, you’ll frequently find yourself excited to enter a new tier of the tower in order to hear the new track, and they rarely disappoint. In addition to the rockin’ area themes, there are a number of awesome boss tracks that do an exceptional job of getting your blood pumping as you hop around dodging fireballs and other implements of heroic demise. Rounding it all out is a small, but poignant, collection of themes to accompany character-specific scenes and more contemplative moments. I could go on, but for a more in-depth breakdown of the soundtrack, check out our review. Just remember to play this one with headphones.
It’s not terribly pretty and the plot isn’t going to stick with you for long, but these are minor quibbles. The combination of lightning-fast gameplay, constant forward momentum, and totally jamming music come together quite nicely for Ys Origin. It’s not perfect and certainly has its share of hiccups, but if you go in expecting to tear up some mean guys and rock out to some great music, you’ll definitely be happy. And with a $20 price tag, you really can’t go wrong.