Prologue: Personal History
(as opposed to “Endless History”)
As Falcom first announced details on Ys SEVEN, their first game in the series to be developed intentionally for a handheld, I kept my distance. I didn’t want to know too much. On the one hand, I was worried that I’d like what I heard too much and then be let down because no one would bring it to North America. On the other hand, I had heard a bit about the ways it would be different from previous Ys games, including the fact that Adol would no longer be flying solo, and I don’t think my heart was ready for all the change.
I’ll tell you up front, as a fan of the series, that all of the changes presented in Ys SEVEN really are daunting. Daunting, but not insurmountable. I would’ve been just as happy with another game using the tried-and-true formula, on par with the graphics and gameplay found in Ys VI and Oath in Felghana. At least, that’s what I thought going into it.
Then XSEED Games announced they’d made a pretty sweet deal with Falcom. Ys SEVEN, Ys: The Oath in Felghana, and Ys I&II Chronicles would all come to the PSP, followed (potentially) by the Legend of Heroes: Sora no Kiseki trilogy. I got my hopes up, but not too much.
The early promotional material they released wasn’t too thrilling: the character art was fugly and the music wasn’t really catching my attention. Then my wonderful RPGFan colleague, Dennis, imported the game and told me that his experience was enough to assuage the fears of all mankind. I bought into this hope, and on August 17th, I got my copy of the game in the mail. It was time to really take in the Ys SEVEN experience.
Change Is Necessary, Maybe
In case you remained as ignorant about this game as I did up to this point, allow me to fill you in. Ys SEVEN is a game that, while holding on to many traditions of the series, tosses aside others to create a whole new experience. For starters, looking at the screenshots should show you that this game is fully 3D. For the past decade, Ys titles had been using sprite-based models for characters and enemies, with full 3D only coming in to play for the environments. Now, Adol himself is a fully 3D creation. This takes some getting used to, but isn’t as unpalatable as I had worried.
Next, as mentioned earlier, Adol doesn’t play alone anymore. Adol’s party travels as a trio, with reserve members (as you gain them) available to switch out on-the-fly, unless you’re in a boss battle. A total of seven playable characters make up the party (coincidence? I think not!). To avoid needless complexity, the weaponry is somewhat common. Though each character wields their own weapon, these weapons are one of three classic combat types: bash/slash/stab. Bash, or “blunt” damage, is done with fists, hammers, and larger swords. Slash damage is done with pretty much any bladed weapon. And stab, or “pierce” damage, is performed with bows and other ranged attacks, as well as a special class of rapier-like swords. In the end, Adol himself is able to do all three types of damage with different swords; those who have played Ys VI may want to think of fire sword as blunt, water sword as slash, and lightning sword as pierce. They play exactly like that. Each of the other six characters does only one type of damage. This is extremely important, as nearly half of the enemies in the game have a weakness to one weapon type, which means they’re nearly immune to the others.
Finally, the scope of Ys SEVEN is ridiculously large compared to previous titles. Ys VI is something like a 5 to 8 hour affair, and Oath in Felghana can be handily completed in about 10 hours. Rushing through the “Normal” difficulty level and skipping about half of the game’s 20 quests, the game sucked away 26 hours of my life. Most people are quoting about 30 hours to finish; I’d imagine even more time is required for harder difficulties.
Of course, when I’m talking about the size and scope, I don’t just mean “more enemies and more dungeons.” This also means a whole new inventory (and synthesis) system, special abilities that you assign to button combinations (R + any face button), and about ten times the amount of accessories as in previous Ys titles.
With these changes well-documented in the review, let’s take a quick look at the basic plot for Ys SEVEN before we move into judgment territory.
No Man Is An Island…
…But each Ys game is! Well, usually. A secluded region of a continent, or an island, is the appropriate setting for an Ys game. It allows you to compartmentalize sections of the world, conveniently adding or subtracting various deities or political powers as needed to create a new tale.
In Ys SEVEN, which takes place about a year after the events of Ys VI, Adol (the red-haired guy) and Dogi (the blue-haired guy) decide to travel to the island of Altago. In past adventures, they’d met merchants from this trade-heavy island nation, and they decide to learn more about the place. And learn they shall!
Upon arrival, Adol and Dogi make quick friends, and enemies, in the capitol city. All it takes is one argument with a commanding officer, and Adol is thrown in jail. Thankfully, the reigning king sees the folly of this decision and releases Adol and Dogi. But before they’re able to travel freely, the king makes one small request of the adventurers. It seems that there have been some strange occurrences on the island of Altago in recent years, and they are getting worse. Creatures showing atypical aggression, people getting sick for inexplicable reasons, etc. Some people are saying that Altago is losing its sense of “balance,” the order put in place by the five dragons (four elements plus a fifth, but it’s “The Moon” instead of the expected Captain Planet-esque “Heart”). So Adol and Dogi, for better or worse, get themselves thoroughly wrapped up in the affairs of this nation. Just like they have for the previous six games.
It’s this pattern that, if nothing else, you can always come to expect in an Ys title. Adol is the wanderer, the adventurer, the foreigner, the outsider. He butts his nose in others’ business, usually at the request of some needy person or group of people, and ends up saving the day. Here’s a formula that not only has no need to change, but would truly be difficult to change for a character like Adol.
During the adventure, Adol and Dogi team up with a blind sage, a spunky young lad, a princess, the stout son of a commander, and a character from a past game (Geis from Ys VI, as pictured on the box art), and these are all the playable characters. In two cases, different characters are traded with “surrogate” characters who retain the same stats and equipment, but for the sake of story fill the gaps when the actual character in the story is out. Those who have played Final Fantasy V will be reminded of Galuf and Krile. It’s that kind of thing.
Outside of the seven playable characters, there are also plenty of story-centric NPCs. Early on, you meet Tia (two parts Aeris, two parts Luna) and her adopted sister Maya. You also meet a white-haired dragon knight named Scias. You and I already know what to make of white-haired pretty boys in JRPGs. And then there are political figures, namely the elders and eldresses that lead the five tribes scattered throughout Altago. Considering that most Ys games have one or two towns, and Ys SEVEN has five, well… you can see why the game takes so long to beat. It’s just a lot more to take in.
But does Ys SEVEN overstay its welcome? I intend to answer that question, and more, in what remains of this review.
Adol Gave a Nod of Approval.
Though this game takes about 30 hours to complete, I have to say that the pacing is perfect. Whether you choose to play this in one hour increments over a month or plow through it in a long weekend, you’ll find that the game reaches “unputdownable” status. The only exception, sadly, is the opening 30 minutes. Ys SEVEN is very slow to start, if only because there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid to enjoy the game. It’s not a huge learning curve, but it’s just… different, different from anything you’ve played.
When you think of a three-character Action RPG, what do you imagine? The first thing I imagine is Secret of Mana, which, while being a great game for its time, was very clunky in terms of speed and skill. One might also think of the .hack// series, which has strong combat for an Action RPG, but a limited battlefield range, relatively simple boss fights, and painful amounts of repetition are things one would want to avoid. So no, Ys SEVEN isn’t anything like Secret of Mana, and it’s not quite like .hack// either. What it’s like is, well, the Ys series, with augmentation.
My experience in combat was basically that switching characters was like switching swords in Ys VI (or the bracelets in Felghana). This allows you to switch up damage type on the fly. The added bonus with having a party are obvious: one character’s death doesn’t mean game over, and if you are controlling a character hit with a crippling status effect, you can switch to a healthy character. Very rarely are the AI-controlled characters hit with any damage whatsoever, including status-changing attacks. This was a smart way to build the game. To balance all the advantages, of course, the health bars and general challenge of all enemies, especially bosses, is greatly increased compared to past games. Boss fights in Ys SEVEN redefine epic, though they are often “endurance rounds” compared to the fast and furious fights of older Ys titles.
The action and control is just so tight. It’s really perfect. I’ve never played an Action RPG with such satisfying combat as the Ys series, and Ys SEVEN makes it even better with the weapon types and additional characters. If you want to have fun in your fantasy RPGs, this is where you go. Trust me.
Does the game have any weaknesses? Definitely. The combat is amazing, and I honestly have no complaints in that department. But the graphics? Well, they leave a bit to be desired. The full 3D takes some getting used to, whether you’re a series veteran or a total Falcom noob. Dogi looks particularly blocky (though that is in his nature). Some characters have better animation than others (the young boy, Elk, as well as Geis, move very fluidly with their slash attacks). The environments are beautiful, and most of the enemies are visually intriguing. But man, hanging out in towns just isn’t my thing. Tl;dr on the graphics: the character models could use some improvement.
I was also slightly disappointed with the audio. First up, anyone expecting voice acting can throw that out the window. Call me crazy, but I kind of liked the full audio dialogue in Ys VI. The only voice acting you get here is battle cries for your playable characters (including Adol… blasphemy!). Yeah, I know, Adol isn’t supposed to talk. In fact, in Ys SEVEN, the game uses narration all the time to inform you that Adol did some talking. What a strange work-around. At this point, they may as well voice Adol with everyone else; not just in text, but with a real voice actor. That may ruin his “everyman” adventurer status, but it seems the series is heading in that direction.
Outside of voice acting, there’s the music. And let me say up front that the soundtrack to Ys SEVEN isn’t bad. It’s quite good. About 10 tracks across the full two-disc OST are really really good. This may come as a surprise to veteran fans who lament the lack of Yuzo Koshiro or other Sound Team JDK veterans. For those folks, all I can say is that arranger Yukihiro Jindo and lead composer Hayato Sonoda have proven themselves worthy of the Falcom name in the last half-decade with Ys VI and the Sora no Kiseki trilogy. But Ys SEVEN does have its share of filler, and that did disappoint me a bit. I think 80% is a fair grade for the soundtrack (compare that to Felghana, which I will happily put in the A+ range).
The plot: as I said, the Ys plot framework fits nicely in Ys SEVEN. But I must also point out that there really isn’t a single original plot point in this RPG. Not just among all stories ever told, but even among all popular JRPGs of the last decade or two. Almost every concept, every plot construct, every important character point, I’ve seen in one of the last 50 JRPGs I’ve beaten. So, zero points for originality, but beaucoup points for execution! The game weaves the plot(s) together extremely well; you’ll be sure to enjoy it, even if you’re like me, noting the times you’ve seen this or that plot twist before.
See You Again!
A lot of what makes this game great, I simply cannot describe. You will experience it for yourself if you give this game a try. Get through the boring intro, and then enjoy 30 solid hours of what is easily Falcom’s most ambitious title to date. Cheers to XSEED for the solid localization and for taking a chance on the series.
Is this game reason enough to buy a PSP? Probably not. But combine this with The Oath in Felghana and I&II Chronicles, coming later this year and early next year, and that’s probably reason to get a PSP. If you already own a PSP and you like JRPGs at all, whatsoever, this is a must-have. Get it, and get it now.