Here we go again, Adol. I’ve adventured with the red-haired swordsman time and again, but Ys: The Ark of Napishtim may actually be the title I’m most familiar with in this ongoing series. I wasn’t always such an Ys superfan — in fact, as a child, I found Ys III on the Sega Genesis to be an abhorrent experience, and it took several colorful magazine spreads in the likes of EGM to convince me that The Ark of Napishtim (Ys VI, its number conspicuously dropped in North America) wouldn’t be the same. Brevity and abrupt finale aside, I enjoyed it tremendously, leading me to replay the Japanese version on the PC years later. Now, at last, Ys VI returns to North America in peak condition: visually crisp, technically stable, and fully retranslated. This is the game as it was meant to be played, and while the entire package may not measure up to fan favorites The Oath in Felghana or Ys Origin, some welcome tweaks edge it closer to the level of greatness achieved by its successors.
Ys VI is a speedy action-RPG romp through the Canaan Islands, where wandering swordsman Adol Christin washes up after being caught in a raging storm at sea. While searching for a means of escape from his tropical prison, he catches wind of the invading Romun Empire’s plan to seize a weather-controlling artifact, which they intend to use in their bid for territorial conquest. Adol decides to stop them because he can’t keep his nose out of other people’s business. It’s a serviceable narrative, but it sort of fizzles out around the game’s final act, delivering an ultimately undeveloped villain and a woefully anticlimactic final boss who scarcely deserves its high-octane battle theme. The journey is far more enjoyable than the destination in this case; every character in the game has unique artwork, even minor NPCs, and the new translation is rife with charming details that make them feel alive. I continue to have a fondness for the balance of melodrama and lighthearted dialogue present in Falcom’s games, particularly when XSEED is in charge of localization.
I’ve noticed recently that I have an affinity for minimalist design sensibilities in my RPGs, and Ys VI caters to those preferences beautifully. It’s an action game at heart, meaning that player skill is always more important than equipment, but character progression is masterfully balanced. Every level, every piece of armor, and every accessory makes a crystal-clear difference in Adol’s performance. As a result, there are only a handful of items Adol can acquire, and yet the game never suffers for it. There’s no need for a hundred pieces of equipment with granular differences or randomized stats — instead, every upgrade is clear and measurable, but no less significant. One upgrade can make a seemingly impossible boss suddenly feel conquerable, and there’s a certain rush to be felt in making through that kind of barrier. There’s something almost poetic to me about the way Falcom handles character growth in their RPGs, and while such a degree of simplicity may not suit everyone’s tastes, it aligns perfectly with what I look for in my games.
Pacing is an area where Ys VI falters. The story takes quite a while to get going, and as I mentioned, it never really delivers a satisfying villain or climax. However, an addition to this new Steam release significantly mitigates the tedium found in the middle section of the game. The Wing of Alma, an item that previously only allowed Adol to instantly escape from dungeons, now facilitates teleportation to any save point he has discovered. It’s a small but crucial tweak that cuts away some of the game’s padding and makes it feel more streamlined. Also new to the Steam version is “Catastrophe Mode,” a setting that removes all consumable healing items from the game. Instead, herbs and the like are instantly used upon pickup, shifting the game’s balance and making it play more like its sequels. I actually think this option makes Ys VI even better — it’s a bit like playing Mega Man and refusing to rely on E-tanks. The stakes are higher, but so too is the sense of gratification upon artfully taking down of the game’s imposing bosses. Even on lower difficulties, it’s worth enabling Catastrophe mode just to appreciate how it changes the game’s dynamics. Finally, a few other under-the-hood alterations bring Ys VI into the modern era. It now supports widescreen resolutions up to 1920×1080, features Steam achievements, and comes with a collection of artworks as a free “DLC” package.
If you’re the kind of RPG fan who prefers compact gaming experiences, the straightforward design of Ys VI should be right up your alley. This 10-12 hour adventure moves at a fairly brisk pace and has a pleasantly retro flavor. While the end of the journey could stand to be more satisfying, there’s enough joy to be had in learning the patterns of Adol’s myriad foes as “Mighty Obstacle” wails in the background. See you in Ys 8, my red-haired friend.