It used to be traditional to kick off any review of an RPG title with a brief moan about how badly Europe is treated on this front, but of late we've had remarkably little to complain about. With a couple of glaring exceptions, Europe is generally seeing launches of just about every RPG that pops up in North America - even niche titles like Nippon Ichi's superb Disgaea and Phantom Brave, or the recent Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer's Call. Hell, there's even a whisper on the wind that we might see Xenosaga on shelves over here before long. All of which means one very important thing - lazy journalists are going to have to find a new introduction paragraph for their RPG reviews. [And yet you haven't, have you? - Ed]
In the case of Ys: The Ark of Napishtim though, we could probably still shape that introduction from our genuine surprise and significant degree of confusion at the appearance of this title on these shores. Ys is a game series we're surprised to see in North America, let alone in Europe - but sadly, there's a feeling that this is more of a videogaming history lesson than a truly good game in its own right.
We Never Liked Vowels Anyway
Getting the basics out of the way, Ys - pronounced "eece", in case you're wondering - is one of the most venerable RPG series in gaming, with roots that stretch right back as far as any Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest you might care to mention. Unlike those two turn-based wonders, however, Ys games are action RPGs - putting you in direct control of central protagonist Adol Christin and letting you hack and slash your way through dungeons full of enemies.
The combat in the series has generally been a strong point, in fact, and in this - the sixth game in the franchise - that's more true than ever. The move to 3D has been accomplished with minimal change to the underlying structure of the game, notable especially from the way that much of the world is presented from a three-quarters-perspective overhead view. The combat is very fast-paced and intense, far from what you probably expect from a game lumbered with the action-RPG moniker.
While we're on the subject of combat, in essence the whole thing is based around a rock- paper-scissors mechanism, which sees you swapping between three elemental swords (wind, fire and lightning) to defeat a range of enemies. You swap between the swords with the shoulder buttons, and each one is levelled up individually by blacksmiths using Emel Stones which are dropped by many monsters. All of them have a small set of basic attacks: a slash, a jumping spin move, a powerful downwards stab and a magic attack that can be unleashed once you've charged up an energy bar with enough standard attacks.
It's all quite easy to get the hang of, but thankfully the game regularly throws in little curveballs in the form of monsters that can only be damaged in certain ways, with attacks from certain directions and such. Battles are fairly fast affairs that involve a lot of moving about and require good reaction skills, and the bosses in particular are quite punishing; although, unlike most RPGs, Ys sports a difficulty setting so you can always switch to the (incredibly) easy setting if it's all getting a bit much for you, or rack up the toughness a bit to present more of a challenge.
It's a good thing that the combat is fun, really, because you'll be seeing a lot of it. Ys is an unapologetic grind of a game; it's about levelling up, levelling up and more levelling up. Often you'll find yourself running around areas which you've already finished with, killing more monsters in order to gain the XP you need to defeat a boss. If you're recoiling in horror at this point and thinking that this sounds suspiciously like the Bad Old Days, you're not wrong; Ys may have gone 3D, but it hasn't abandoned its roots by any means, and while that means a great combat system it also means a somewhat tedious structure for the game.
Actually, Ys' roots present another problem, too, starting with the story. The chances are that you've never played a Ys game before, you see, and unlike Final Fantasy this is a game series which follows the adventures of a single character - the aforementioned, typically-flame-haired swordsman Adol Christin - through the whole arc. That's a bit of a problem, because the game's plot is clearly designed to fit inside a much wider storyline and universe, of which the majority of players will simply have no knowledge.
l waking up on a beach on a set of mysterious islands after being caught up in a massive storm makes plenty of sense in the context of the entire Ys series, as does plenty of other stuff that happens in the game, but for someone coming to the game fresh it simply seems stilted and dull.
That's not assisted greatly by the voice acting, which is pretty astonishingly awful in places; do voice actors really have to adopt fake squeaky noise voices when playing game characters? Is this really called for? Did we do something wrong in a past life to deserve this? We may never know, but it is a real shame that the voices let down the characters, especially since the rest of the audio consists of some really rather excellent music (a hallmark of the Ys series) and the characters themselves are illustrated by really nice anime-style artwork.
Removing the Rose Tint
Or at least, they used to be illustrated by anime-style artwork. That art persists in much of the game, thankfully, but gone are the 2D cut-scenes that appeared in the original version of this game - replaced by 3D rendered versions which, sadly, aren't very good at all. It feels like Konami wanted to bring Ys into the Square-Enix league when it moved it onto PS2 (the series is actually at home on the PC), and one way of doing that was with rendered video. But while Square-Enix is among the most talented creators of 3D animation in the world right now, Konami clearly isn't. The characters look downright ugly and on occasion deformed in these videos, and they're seriously lacking in facial expression. It's not a showstopper for the game, but it's disappointing nonetheless.
So there you have it. The 'legendary' Ys series on European shores at last, but somehow it's an altogether more disappointing event than we'd imagined it being. Without the background of the previous games, The Ark of Napishtim seems to lack depth and comes across as clichéd and uninteresting. And even though the action combat is a welcome and refreshing change from the turn-based-style titles we're more used to at the moment, it's hard to escape just how old-fashioned some of the game mechanics seem to be.
It's not that The Ark of Napishtim lacks charm or quality; it's got really quite nice graphics, lovely artwork in parts and fantastic music. However, for those who aren't familiar with the series, it'll be tough to see how this game series could possibly have stood with Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy as the RPGs that defined what Japanese RPGs are today. Ys simply falters in the face of the better games now on the market, and in that context, it's hard to recommend it as much more than a curio for the hardcore RPG fan.