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PSP Review: Ys I and II Chronicles

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On the heels of a well-received Ys VII, Falcom has decided to repackage and update a previous re-release of the original two games in the Ys series, based loosely on Breton myth. Since Ys II is a direct sequel to the original game, literally picking up after the final boss fight, it makes sense to package them together. The short length (it’s very possible to beat Ys in five hours) also argues for a package deal. The first print run of this game comes with a nice soundtrack CD (the premium aspect), so collectors will want to buy this game early — that is, if they intend on buying it at all.

There’s a bit of a challenge in evaluating this game, because I see two potential audiences, likely with two very divergent perspectives on the release. On the one hand, this series, though much bigger in Japan, has no doubt gained a following on this side of the Pacific as well, as evidenced by all the more recent titles earning North American releases. For these long-time Ys fans, the only question is, does this particular retro repackage do the job, or am I better off with a different one?

Then there’s the other audience, those like myself, who are aware of the Ys series without having much played it. In the absence of any particular nostalgia, we want to know if a 1987 game (and its 1988 sequel) are still fun to play in 2011.

The single PSP game disc includes both of these 8-bit era titles, but will let you save each game to a separate file. Upon selecting either game, you will then be given a further choice between two versions of the games, conveniently including the year. Complete (2001) refers to the Japan re-release of the Ys I and II titles, for PC. Chronicles (2009), boasts a new soundtrack, character portraits, and cut scenes (the 2009 refers to the Japanese release of this game). Both include updated graphics from the original games. You will also be given a choice between easy (default), normal, hard, and nightmare difficulty modes.

Ys I begins with your character, Adol Christin, waking up in a bed in a small village’s medical clinic. Your character is a teenaged swordsman, and it’s a little odd that he’s recognized as such, as you begin the game with no sword or other gear. As a stand in for the player, Adol has no personality of his own. He’s the classic silent protagonist, his only dialogue coming in the form of the player selecting from possible answers, or in descriptive narrative, “Adol explained to her what had happened.” Within a short time we find out that he barely survived crossing an ocean “Stormwall,” presumably to investigate this now isolated island, and the rumours about monsters and curses.

At this very early stage of the game, I quickly discovered its very old school nature. The graphics have been updated brilliantly, with the cute sprite-based characters rounded out with beautiful still portraits. In combat, boss deaths are overlaid with explosive and pretty 3D effects, but the core of the game is unchanged. Most of the (fairly small) world is open and explorable from the very beginning, yet advancing the story means performing the right action in the right order. Until you’ve spoken to the correct person, killed the right boss, found the correct item, you cannot advance.

What is completely lacking in Ys is any logic to the sequence of events. Your character has no idea of his goal much of the time. What motivates him? The answer is, of course, the arrow buttons on your controller. That’s what motivates him. This isn’t just a problem from a narrative standpoint, but from a gameplay one. I spent the first half hour with this game running around the initial town, talking and re-talking to each character, sure that I’d missed someone, since no one had given any indication of what in the world I should be doing.

Not that long ago, I sat in on a computer hardware class, and observed students working on some old computers. They were dinosaurs, totally obsolete, prone to error. Students struggled to make them run. When a computer wouldn’t boot up, they would swap out parts, trying to determine if the motherboard was burned out, or just the video card, or maybe a cable was frayed. The only way to do this is to check each component, one by one, by swapping it into a working system. When the system suddenly stops working, you know you’ve discovered a faulty component. It’s tedious, but that’s how you troubleshoot hardware.

This game is like that. I’ll quote from the step-by-step walkthrough the publishers saw fit to include in the instruction manual: “[Like many] RPGs of the era, [Ys I and II] can be wonderfully obtuse…For many, this will be a welcome change…but for others, it may cause brain-melting frustration.” In one case, you actually need to travel 75% of the way through a dungeon, collecting a rather innocuous item, then backtrack all the way out to trade it for a better sword without which the boss is practically indestructible. Nowhere in the game are you given this information. If you haven’t checked the guide, you’ll be wondering why this boss is so much harder than the others, and probably putting the game down unfinished.

The combat style is similar to other 2D action RPGs, like Zelda or Illusion of Gaia. But Ys I and II boast “buttonless combat.”  Essentially, there is no attack button, rather, you run into enemies to damage them. Of course, enemies can also damage you if you run into them head-on. The speed of both your character and the enemies is far too fast to allow you to target your enemies from the back or side with any precision. There’s only one tactic that works consistently — running into your enemies slightly off-centre.

Once you know what you’re actually doing, the game is quite short, and by the time I started using the step-by-step guide in the instruction manual, it was only a few hours before I made it to the final boss battle, which was itself a frustrating slog. I asked myself why I was playing this game — the combat is unrewarding, the story is minimal, and gameplay consists of following the guide verbatim. Only the briefness of the game made me willing to push through and finish it.

On the other hand, Ys II fixes many of the original game’s problems. It can still be obtuse, and my patience was so exhausted from the first game I didn’t trust the game to be reasonably solvable without using an online guide (the manual only includes a walkthrough for the first, more confusing game). But there’s more of a narrative thread, and more of an explanation as to what tasks will advance the story. The combat is also slightly better. Now instead of running into enemies off-centre, you have the ability to run at enemies diagonally. But more importantly, you gain some magic abilities, allowing long-range (button-using!) attacks.

I guess the question is whether you can get through Ys I with enough of your patience intact to even want to bother with the much improved Ys II. Since the two games are really part of a single story (though Ys II is more fleshed out), it’s hard to skip one for the other. But it’s a hard sell to go through one frustrating, pointless game in order to play a sequel that is just okay.

On the other hand, I can appreciate that these games are a product of their time. It’s a good example of why I didn’t play RPGs in those days, but there are those who did, and still enjoy an old school experience. The individuals who have been demanding this release will probably enjoy it. The graphical updates are great, the “special features,” multiple versions of the game with different soundtracks and artwork, and the included soundtrack CD is very nice. This is a polished re-release, it’s simply a question of whether you’re interested in what they’re re-releasing.

If I’m evaluating the re-release without touching the game itself, I can hardly find fault. If this were a brand new game, released this year, I would rate it poorly. It all depends on your perspective. Combining both views, I give it three stars, but if you’re simply going by the game as it is, it would probably be one out of five.

Ys I and II Chronicles is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Alcohol Reference, Blood, Mild Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Partial Nudity.

Three stars

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About J.J.S. Boyce