2317: 25 Floors Up

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I’m on the 25th floor of the Tower of Bogomil, Dungeon Travelers 2’s very definitely, totally, positively final dungeon, honest. There are just five floors to go until I reach the top and the final final boss, though I suspect I will probably have to go and fight at least one of the “Gods” that lurk at the bottom of the other postgame dungeons before it will let me in to get my teeth kicked in by the boss. Oh, there’s also a five-floor annex to the tower, because of course there is. Each floor of this is pretty small, from what I understand, though; they’re mostly about additional boss fights.

I checked the clock when I made my last save tonight: 208 hours. This is officially the longest I’ve ever spent on a completely single-player game. Final Fantasy XIV has it beat in terms of total playtime, of course, but being an evolving MMO, that’s a somewhat different situation. Previous holders of the personal playtime records for me included Persona 3 (somewhere around 90 hours), Persona 4 (likewise), several of the Hyperdimension Neptunia games (100+ hours each, albeit split across several playthroughs) and Xenoblade Chronicles X (well over 100 hours and I hadn’t even finished half of it — must go back sometime).

What’s kind of impressive about that playtime for Dungeon Travelers 2 is that it’s a single playthrough. I haven’t started again, I haven’t done a New Game Plus — this is the same save file I started months ago. And only now, after 208 hours, am I even vaguely near finished.

What’s also impressive about the playtime for Dungeon Travelers 2 is that the vast majority of it occurred after the main ending to the story. The “Otherworld Chapter”, as the postgame is called, unfolds largely without an ongoing narrative — it simply unlocks a series of challenging dungeons in sequence and tasks you with navigating your way through some increasingly perilous and head-scratchingly confusing locales with a mind to eventually opening up the aforementioned Tower of Bogomil and making your way to the top. Why? Just because. (Well, technically you think the final boss of the story, who managed to escape after you defeated her, might be lurking up there.)

This motivation for dungeon-crawling is one of the purest there is: the simple joy of exploration and discovery. And this is one thing that Dungeon Travelers 2 is absolutely exceptional at that. It may obviously be working within some tight budget constraints — there are a lot of palette-swapped enemies throughout the game, and each dungeon is based on a single tileset, which in the case of the Tower of Bogomil you see a whole lot — but the absolutely exemplary level design makes up for these limitations and then some.

What I found interesting is that Dungeon Travelers 2 keeps a lot of its tricks up its sleeve until the postgame. One of the latter story dungeons features some switch puzzles that involve opening either red or blue gates at once, never both, but the postgame also adds floors with conveyor belts, floors that are interconnected by ladders and pitfalls, floors that are full of teleporters on every step, one-way walls, secret passages and doors that demand you have a specific party makeup or class present in order to proceed.

Essentially, the main story of the game is getting you prepared for this pure exploration, combat and character-building experience in the postgame. You get a taste of what to expect in the future in the story; you get thrown in at the deep end once you’re past the “final” boss. And it’s hugely enjoyable, as my playtime will attest.

Five floors to go, then. I’m hoping I get it finished by the beginning of next month, because there’s a ton I’d like to write about this game over on MoeGamer, so watch over there for some in-depth thoughts.

2316: Overwatch is Out, and It’s Awesome

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Well, it’s here: the only multiplayer-only first-person shooter I think I’ve ever actually been genuinely excited to play and be on board with from day one: Blizzard’s Overwatch.

The servers went live at a little after midnight my time, and aside from one incident where I lost connection from a game, everything seems to be running extremely smoothly. I am happy about this.

Here is a list of reasons why I like Overwatch when I typically haven’t got into other competitive first-person shooters:

  • It has characters. Call of Duty is boring to me because soldiers are boring. Overwatch has a wide variety of characters that includes cute girls. So that’s a win.
  • There’s no complicated metagame. No challenges to unlock weapons, no perks to worry about, no loadouts, no higher-level people dominating you through use of higher-level unlocks: everyone is on an equal playing field.
  • The “you must be this skillful to play” barrier is lower than a lot of other shooters. The thing that puts me off a lot of competitive shooters is the fact that it’s extremely difficult to learn how to play them effectively when some 10-year old can snipe you from halfway across the map before you’ve even got anywhere near the objective. Overwatch’s characters cater to a wide variety of skill and confidence levels, and most don’t require pinpoint accuracy to have a good time with.
  • The objectives are simple to understand but challenging to complete. The game modes may be straight out of Team Fortress, but they work. The Overtime mechanic makes for some genuinely exciting last-second turnarounds, too.
  • The weapons are satisfying. Each character only has one or two weapons at most, and they’re all great fun to use. They make good noises and feel powerful.
  • The game gives excellent feedback. Through the use of sound and HUD elements, Overwatch keeps you nicely informed on what’s going on. If you’re getting shot in the back, a nearby character will tell you. If you’re successfully hitting an enemy from a distance but can’t see it very well, a sound effect lets you know that your shots are on target. And most characters’ HUDs are designed so that you don’t have to take your eyes off the action to know important information.
  • The abilities give characters unique identities. Not only that, but you need to know the best ways to avoid and/or counter these abilities. That keeps things interesting.
  • The support characters are more than just healbots. Most of them are more than capable of putting out respectable damage, too, and some even have other interesting abilities to support the team.
  • D.Va. Say no more.

Now I’d better go to bed before I get tempted to stay up all night blasting fools… doubtless there will be a lot more of this over the next little while, though!

If you’re playing Overwatch on PC, feel free to add AngryJedi#2260 as a friend. If you do so, let me know if it’s on the North American or European servers, because Blizzard inexplicably region-locks its friends lists rather than having one global one.

2315: RPGs are Weird

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In case you hadn’t noticed, my favourite genre of game is the RPG or role-playing game. Which is kind of a weird type of game, when you think about it, particularly from a modern perspective.

Computer RPGs (hereafter “CRPGs”) have their roots in tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons and Dragons and its ilk — indeed, the Dungeons and Dragons inspiration is very obvious even in Japanese titles like the original Final Fantasy, and we’ve also had a swathe of outright Dungeons and Dragons titles for various platforms over the years. Where CRPGs and tabletop systems diverge, however, is in their main purpose.

Tabletop role-playing is about different things according to who you speak to, but there are two broad things it allows its participants to engage in: firstly, it allows them to play-act a fantasy of some description, be it ruling the night as a vampire in modern-day New York, exploring the Planes and fighting otherworldly horrors or battling the Empire alongside Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. This is, for many people, the biggest attraction of tabletop role-playing: the chance to be someone else for a little while, and enjoy the experience with other people. Tabletop role-playing rules tend to be deliberately a little fuzzy around the edges, allowing for some bending here and there in the name of making a more entertaining experience for the participants; indeed, some of the most successful, effective systems have some of the most straightforward rules.

When those rules come into play, though, that’s the other big strength of tabletop role-playing: they allow for all manner of things to happen. If you really want to boil it down, they’re a means of using mathematics to create an abstract depiction of some sort of action, whether it’s something that is possible to depict literally (attempting to use diplomacy to prevent a war) or something that is pure fantasy (infusing yourself with the power of the Gods to leap 50 feet into the air and stab a demon in the left nostril with your holy sword). But for most groups, these rules are in service to the main attraction: the roleplaying; the communal storytelling; the shared fantasies.

CRPGs, meanwhile, focus almost exclusively on this latter aspect: the use of mathematics to abstractly represent things happening. It’s pretty rare to find a CRPG that affords you complete freedom to do what you want, and where they do exist, these experiences often feel a bit “empty” thanks to the lack of true human interaction — plus perhaps the awareness that the “freedom” you’re enjoying is just an illusion: all it really is is the game designer having thought of more things that you might do than some other people would have.

Because truly freeform role-playing doesn’t really work when you don’t have other humans in the equation, we get a focus on mechanics and rules, with perhaps a story of some description overlaid on the top as justification for the rules and mechanics you’re following. But it’s still a little strange, as I say — particularly through modern eyes.

Why? Because we’re at a stage where we don’t need to abstractly represent things as much as we used to. In the early days of video games, the abstract, mathematical mechanics of CRPGs were in part a response to technological limitations: they allowed for the representation of things that it simply wasn’t possible to render believably on the screen. Now, though, graphics hardware has come along to such a degree that there’s not much we can’t depict completely visually, given a talented art and animation team to bring these things to life. Not only that, but with the advent of motion control and virtual reality, we can even put ourselves among these things: these strange and fantastical locales; these weird and wonderful creatures. And we can interact with them physically.

So why, then, do we still have turn-based role-playing games that are deliberately and heavily abstract and unrealistic in their depiction of anything from battle to relationships?

Well, for a number of reasons, the first being that not every development company has infinite resources to be able to produce a game that depicts your every action literally on the screen. But there’s also the matter that engaging in abstract mechanics and learning how a game’s systems work is part of the fun. You can learn how to take full advantage of a real-time system, sure, but that takes practice and, frankly, not everyone has the physical dexterity to be able to do that. A mathematical-based system like a CRPG, though; that’s accessible to pretty much anyone, though of course it does favour those with a bit more of a mind for numbers over those with twitch reflexes.

And then on top of all that, there’s the fact that even though it is possible to depict a lot of things visually in games nowadays, there are still certain things that it’s hard to represent in anything other than an abstract manner. Take the combat in something like Dungeon Travelers 2, for example: the concept of this game is that you’re playing the role of a non-participant in combat, issuing orders for what up to five people should be doing, the results of which then unfold in front of you through a combination of visual effects, numbers popping up and text messages. By keeping to a simple representation of what would be an altogether chaotic affair if depicted literally — five people attacking up to five monsters — Dungeon Travelers 2 and its ilk allow the player to engage in enjoyably tactical, strategic gameplay that would be highly impractical to show in real-time.

The other thing that appeals to me personally about games like this is that they stoke the fires of the imagination. I know that Dungeon Travelers 2 doesn’t depict things literally — there’s very little animation in the game, even outside of combat — but I also know that it is keeping visual representations to a relative minimum in order to let my mind do the work. It provides just enough — the overall theme of the dungeon I’m exploring; music to support that; the voices and visual appearances of the girls in my party; the appearances and behaviours of the monsters we fight — to get my imagination fired up and fill in the blanks for myself. When Monica fires a Spiral Arrow and hits for 3,000 damage, I don’t think “ooh, 3,000 damage!” — I think “Wow, that was an amazing shot.” And I like that.

The bigger-name, bigger-budget CRPGs are starting to move more and more away from this sort of abstract depiction of what is happening — look at BioWare’s games, for example, or Square Enix’s approach to Final Fantasy XV (although in that case, it’s a peculiar middle ground between a truly literal depiction and abstracted mechanics) — but I’m pretty sure there will always be a place for imagination-stoking, presentation-minimal CRPGs for people like me. At least I hope so!

2314: Games That Deserve the Ys-Style Remake Treatment

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Rather than pondering this as it occurred to me last night as I finished writing that day’s post, I thought I’d split this off into its own separate post, as it’s something that I think is worth thinking about in detail.

For the benefit of those who can’t be arsed to read yesterday’s post, my thinking is this: Ys I and II have had so many remakes over the years that their most recent incarnations are both recognisably “modern” and authentically “retro” at the same time. In other words, they maintain the feeling of the original games while incorporating modern aesthetic and mechanical standards to make them more palatable and enjoyable to a modern audience, as well as perhaps expanding on things like the overall script and story. This, to me, is a great way to bring a classic game up to date, so I started pondering what other old games might benefit from this treatment?

Here’s what I came up with. (Or rather, here’s what occurred to me as I wrote this post.)

Phantasy Star II

ss_1cdb8a0e82f85a826151ae5ce504f0ce0b572ca5I played Phantasy Star I all the way through in its Game Boy Advance incarnation — actually just a straight port of the Master System original. I enjoyed it a great deal, despite the necessity of actually getting the graph paper out and mapping the dungeons.

Phantasy Star II, meanwhile, despite being enthusiastically raved about by a Phantasy Star-loving friend as his favourite in the series, just didn’t quite “click” with me for some reason. I liked its aesthetic, I liked its battle system, I liked its concept — I just couldn’t quite get into it.

Part of the reason for this was its dungeon design. By presenting its dungeons from a three-quarter top-down perspective rather than its predecessor’s first-person perspective, they became significantly harder to map effectively — and boy, you still needed to map them. The first big dungeon was a mess of almost identical-looking floors with transitions between them that sent you to all manner of different places, and I found it absolutely impossible to navigate effectively, and moreover, impossible to figure out a sensible, effective means of mapping it.

It’s not necessarily the lack of a map facility that was the problem, as both Ys I and II featured some fairly complex labyrinths that I nonetheless managed to navigate without mapping, but there was something about Phantasy Star II that I found irreconcilably confusing. A modern remake would perhaps benefit from a map facility, or perhaps even a rethinking of the dungeon designs — taking the latter approach would have the added benefit of making the game feel like a “new” experience for veterans, though purists would likely thumb their noses at the possibility. Perhaps there could be an option to have “classic” or “contemporary” dungeons according to your preference.

Aside from that, simply an update of the art would be lovely — and take Ys’ approach of improving the fidelity of the art without necessarily compromising its style; Ys I and II feature gorgeous ’90s anime-style character designs, and they look both lovely and distinctive, so I feel Phantasy Star II could benefit from such a visual update, too.

The Mercenary series

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Mercenary and its two sequels Damocles and Mercenary III were defining games in my childhood. Some of the most technically impressive games of the 8- and 16-bit computer era, they were sprawling, open-world adventures that managed to tell an interesting story while giving the player an unprecedented degree of freedom to explore and just generally piss around in the world (and, later, solar system) that developer Paul Woakes had created.

They look very primitive today, though. Built on rigid grid systems with no more than one building per (pretty large) grid square, the environments were certainly large and sprawling, but rather empty-feeling at times. A modern remake could benefit from greater scenery density and perhaps an expansion of the dynamic scenery Mercenary III introduced in the form of its fully functional public transportation system.

There was actually going to be a Damocles remake at one point with full texture-mapped graphics and all manner of other goodies — this was a few years back, too, so I can only imagine what modern graphics hardware would make of this sort of game. Unfortunately, I feel that very few people have heard of this series these days, so I feel it’s destined to remain part of history rather than something that will ever get brought up to date and given to a brand new audience.

Shining Force

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Sega’s classic strategy RPG already had one lovely remake on the Game Boy Advance, but it’s since disappeared from relevance everywhere except for the Sega Mega Drive Classics pack available on Steam. And while the Mega Drive version still works just fine, it would be kind of lovely to see a fully up to date version of the original Shining Force, its sequel and even the Game Gear version Shining Force Gaiden (which, fun fact, was also released for Palm devices, of all things).

Shining Force’s gameplay remains solid today, and with the popularity of Fire Emblem it’s not too much of a stretch to say that all it needs is a fresh coat of paint and a remastered soundtrack to make it something people would more than likely happily pay £15 to have in their Steam library or PSN downloads. Hell, I’d happily pay £40 for a physical edition of a Shining Force compilation, including modernised updates of Shining Force, Shining Force II and Shining Force Gaiden, perhaps even with upscaled versions of the various Shining Force III releases for good measure.

And localise the other two Shining Force III games while you’re on, Sega, while I’m dreaming.

Alternate Reality

picture-13I mention this game quite a lot, because it’s fascinating to me. I found it fascinating when I first played it as a child, even if I didn’t understand how role-playing games worked at the time, and I still find its complexity and depth fascinating today.

For the uninitiated, Alternate Reality was a proposed series of games that began with The City and continued into The Dungeon, but was ultimately scrapped before its other episodes were completed. The story deals with the player character being abducted by aliens and taken to another world, seemingly medieval in nature but with occasional whiffs of peculiar technology starting to become apparent, particularly in The Dungeon. The ultimate intention was for the player to discover the aliens’ plan — a Matrix-style virtual world designed to make its participants believe that they were living a “real life” in this other world, when in fact they were just existing as part of a simulation — but unfortunately this ambitious concept was never brought to fruition.

We have the graphical technology and programming knowhow to bring the complete Alternate Reality concept to fruition today, in more impressive form than ever before. Bethesda RPGs show that there’s very much a market for sprawling, freeform, open-world games that the player can tackle as they see fit, and the complete scope of Alternate Reality wouldn’t be any more ambitious than your typical Elder Scrolls game.

I would even be happy if it maintained its old-school “gridder”-style dungeon crawling presentation rather than featuring a true, fully modelled 3D open world — I just dream of one day seeing creator Philip Price’s original vision brought to fruition, and kind of wish I was able to do something about it myself!

2313: Reimagining

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I’m going to resist ranting on about how good Ys II was, even though I finished it this evening, and instead talk a little more generally about something that divides opinions somewhat among gamers: the idea of remakes.

The reason I bring this up now is that the first two Ys games have the dubious honour of being some of the most frequently remade and rereleased games of all time. Beginning life on the PC-88, they subsequently found themselves ported, remade and rejigged on platforms ranging from the Sega Master System to modern Windows PCs. And, from what I know of these different versions, they provide markedly different experiences, at least in terms of their aesthetic, but also to a lesser extent in terms of gameplay and narrative content, too.

The situation with Ys reminds me somewhat of the ’80s and early ’90s in gaming, when multiplatform releases were noticeably different from one another due to the wildly different capabilities different hardware had. The ZX Spectrum version of a game, for example, tended to be the “worst” in most cases thanks to that system’s slow processor, lack of RAM and poor graphics and sound capabilities, while the Commodore Amiga version tended to be the most impressive version thanks to being a 16-bit rather than 8-bit computer, plus all the dedicated graphics and sound hardware in that system that made it one of the most impressive computers on the market during that period.

Ultimately, the Windows PC came along and made all this sort of thing mostly irrelevant, which was probably for the best — at least from a development perspective, as developers no longer had to create ten or more completely different versions of their game — but I sort of miss the differences between platforms, since there’s really very little to choose between Xbox One and PS4 versions of games these days, while the PC version is usually the “best” if your hardware is up to the job and the port has been handled with actual PC gamers in mind. The margin of “best” is much smaller than it was back in that period, though; in most cases, it’s only the very worst type of insufferable frame-rate buff that will be able to highlight (and probably talk about at great length) the differences between PC and console versions.

But back to Ys and the concept of remakes in general. The version of Ys and Ys II that I played was the Chronicles+ version, which is — for now, anyway — the absolute latest version. This features lovely PS1-style pixel art, a glorious live-recorded soundtrack (plus the option for two of the older incarnations of the music, too), some really rather fabulous 2D lighting effects and an excellent, excellent localisation by Xseed Games. In comparison to the earlier versions, the script also fleshes out some of the character and world backstory, too, making for a much more “complete”-feeling experience. It is, in short, probably closest to what the fine folks at Falcom wanted to create when Ys was first put together.

Ys is an example of a remake done extremely well. It’s true to the original game, but acknowledges modern tastes. For example, it incorporates analogue control, which simply didn’t exist in the console space when Ys first came out. It also features modern trappings like cloud saving and achievements — the latter aspect of which was added by Xseed and adds an enjoyable “metagame” to the experience, encouraging you to seek out some secrets you might not have found otherwise.

Other solid remakes I’ve come across include Atelier Rorona Plus on PS3. This was a curious situation in that the original Atelier Rorona was a PS3 title too, and only a couple of years earlier than its Plus incarnation. Plus turned out to be the definitive way to enjoy Rorona’s adventure, though, thanks to improved character models, a better interface and an overall better game experience all round. It was a less radical reinvention than the various Ys remakes, but it was still significant and ultimately to the game’s benefit.

Where I find myself raising my eyebrows a bit are when it comes to “remakes” that are little more than ports. Sure, it’s nice to be able to play, say, a PS2 classic in 1080p at 60 frames per second, but sometimes I wonder what a true remake of these older games might be like with modern technology. That’s a lot more work than a port, of course, but I can dream — and it is possible to do something along these lines. Ultimately this type of remake is mostly valuable for those who perhaps missed out on a game on its original platform, so might as well play a technically superior version for (theoretically) the “best” experience with it; contrast with, say, the Ys remakes, though, which provide value even for those who are already veterans of the source material.

Anyway. Remakes can be good; really good, in fact. And I’m more than happy to support them when they’re of as high a quality as the two Ys games I’ve just played through. It’s got me thinking about remakes I’d really like to see, too — though perhaps that’s a subject for a separate post on another day.

2312: After 1.5 Games, I Already Like Ys More Than Any Zelda I’ve Played

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A controversial statement, perhaps — and I make no apologies for a third post about Ys in a row — but one that I feel confident in making, even having only finished the first game and made it about halfway (I estimate?) through the second. (Aside: given how much I’ve enjoyed the first two games so far, you can count on a month of Ys over on MoeGamer at some point in the near future.)

Ys speaks to me in a way that Zelda never has. This isn’t to say that I don’t like Zelda, mind you — I count A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask among some of my favourite games of all time — but there’s something just… kind of magical about Ys that I’ve been delighted to discover over the past few days, and a little disappointed in myself that I never took the plunge and explored this series earlier.

Let me try to explain what I mean.

I think the thing that sticks out to me most of all is how Ys provides a much more coherent and continuous feeling in its narrative than Zelda does. The fact that Zelda games up until Link’s Awakening still referred to the various dungeons as “levels” made it pretty clear that despite the sprawling overworld in each instance, these were basically games designed on the same linear principles as more traditional action/arcade adventures. This very much gives Zelda games a feeling that persists today: a sharp demarcation between the overworld and the dungeons. This is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it particularly unusual; many RPGs make this distinction, and massively multiplayer games in particular have an even more stark divide between the two types of content, with dungeons tending to be cooperative multiplayer affairs, while overworld action tends to be (for the most part) solo or social in nature.

But with Ys, there’s no such demarcation. The world is continuous and coherent, and consequently far more believable. You’re not pausing your exploration to get through the mysteriously puzzle-filled castle that happens to stand between you and your objective; you’re continuing your journey, exploring the world, fulfilling the promises you made to the people who believe in you. It’s a continuous, flowing process and narrative, rather than one that is heavily punctuated. Exploration flows into conversation flows into combat flows into more exploration; the only real punctuation comes in the form of the boss fights, which don’t necessarily come at as predictable points as in Zelda games.

This coherent feeling is particularly apparent in Ys II, which expands on the excellent worldbuilding of its predecessor. Characters move around as the story progresses, and they make reference to the places you find yourself travelling to. Sometimes you run across them on your travels as they get up to things independently of you; sometimes you’ll return from an adventure to find them acknowledging your deeds when you speak to them. Contrast with Zelda’s worlds, which tend to be rather static in nature; populated with weird and quirky characters in many cases, sure, but there’s not a lot of feeling of things going on while you’re not there, with the exception of Majora’s Mask, of course, where this sort of thing was the whole game’s central design tenet.

My friend Chris also points out that Ys makes him feel powerful, and he’s absolutely right. This is a big contrast between Ys and Zelda, and it’s partly due to the nature of the protagonist character. While both games sport a visually distinctive but mute self-insert character for the player to inhabit and play as they see fit, Zelda’s hero is a child, while Ys’ hero is a young adult. There’s always been an element of childish clumsiness to Zelda’s combat; even once the series moved into 3D with Ocarina of Time and started having more complex combat mechanics than a single attack button that always did the same thing, Link always felt… not incapable or incompetent as such, but like he perhaps wasn’t quite as comfortable holding a sword and shield as he perhaps should be. Which is understandable in several of the games, where he has the whole “Hero” thing kind of thrust upon him suddenly.

In the case of Ys, meanwhile, there’s a strong feeling that, when played well, you are overwhelming your enemy with superior skill and power. This is depicted differently in both Ys I and Ys II, despite both being based on the same fundamental “bump” system, which allows for button-free attacking and a style of gameplay where you never really have to stop moving.

In Ys I, the feeling of overwhelming power is brought about by the rather brief levelling curve: with a level cap of just 10, each one of those 10 levels is a significant jump in power for protagonist Adol. If you keep pace with where you’re “supposed” to be as you proceed through the story, you’ll take down most enemies in a single hit. It’s not until the very latter stages of the game, when you’ve been level 10 for a while, that you’ll come across enemies that need multiple hits to fell, and even then, no more than one or two extra hits.

In Ys II, meanwhile, the combat is rejigged so that individual hits do less damage, but you can inflict them incredibly quickly, particularly while attacking diagonally. You also push enemies backwards while attacking them, giving the combat a feel somewhat akin to the sport of fencing, where dominating your opponent and forcing them to move how you want them to move is key. In Ys II, careful, tactical movement of enemies — not shoving them into a large group of their friends, for example, nor pushing them into a corner behind a rock that makes it difficult for you to keep up the assault — is absolutely key, and getting it right is an immensely satisfying feeling completely unlike any other action RPG I’ve played.

Then you have things like the items. In Zelda, the items you unlock as you proceed through the game are predictable and are used based on clear, recognisable visual cues that stay the same throughout the game. In Ys, meanwhile, you might use each item only once or twice throughout the game in circumstances where it makes narrative sense to do so, not because it would make a good puzzle or dexterity challenge. This gives the game much more of a traditional “adventure game” feel to it, and I like that very much about it. In Ys II, there are also a number of items you can use in unconventional ways, too, and the game rewards experimentation with, for example, giving healing items as gifts to NPCs, or using the “Alter” magic to turn yourself into a Roo and talk to monsters. While very few of these things are necessary to complete the game, they, like so much else in these games, provide a lovely sense of a world that has been well thought out and beautifully crafted, particularly in these revamped Chronicles+ versions that I’m playing on PC.

This is all my opinion, of course, and doubtless there are some die-hard Zelda fans out there who would feel the complete opposite to me — and doubtless some other people out there who would gleefully point out that Ys and Zelda aren’t really directly comparable at all — but so far, I don’t feel it’s premature to say that I’m already in love with this series, and intend to devour as much of it as I can in short order. Count on further enthusing as and when that happens.

2311: I Finished My First Ys

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It’s something of a novelty these games to start and beat a game over the course of a couple of days — particularly an RPG — but with Dungeon Travelers 2 being considerable in both length and difficulty, I felt that a palate cleanser of some sort was in order before I tackled the remaining 15+ floors of that game’s final dungeon. I considered picking up the new Doom, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to spend that much on it, so instead, as I noted yesterday, I turned to the Ys series.

This evening, I beat Ys I. Here are some things I thought about it.

Things I liked

  • That music! The PC version I was playing has three mixes of the soundtrack available: the original FM version, a remastered MIDI version from a later incarnation and a full-on rock the fuck out version from Falcom’s in-house band. I must confess I didn’t try the two earlier versions, as Falcom’s band is pretty damn amazing. Wailing guitars and pounding drumbeats complemented the action perfectly, and brought a pleasantly nostalgic feeling over me, making me think of both Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (which had plenty of widdly-diddly guitars) and my brother (who was always very good at widdly-diddly guitars when I was growing up).
  • Levelling up is meaningful. There are ten experience levels in Ys I. Each one is a significant jump in power. From level 1 to level 2 is the difference between taking 4 or 5 hits to kill an enemy and being able to splatter it in a single hit. Your power continues to increase hugely as the game progresses.
  • You have an HP bar that gets bigger. I don’t know why I like this, I just do. I liked it in Metal Gear Solid, I liked it in Kingdom Hearts and I like it here. It’s a satisfying visual representation of your growth in power.
  • Your HP bar shows how much damage the last hit you took chipped off. This is really nice. Similar to how fighting game health gauges work, your HP bar in Ys highlights the amount of damage the last hit gave you in a brighter shade of red so you can estimate roughly how many more individual hits you can take before needing to worry about healing.
  • Tactical health regeneration. Healing items are few and far between in Ys I, so it’s fortunate that you regenerate health by standing still… though only when you’re in a place where you can see the sky. Later in the game, you acquire a healing ring that allows you to regenerate in dungeons, too, but for the majority of the time, finding an open-air “clearing” in a dungeon makes a nice checkpoint.
  • Cute girls. My goodness. I want to cuddle Feena forever.
  • The sense of place and character. I mentioned this yesterday, but Ys I’s world feels remarkably coherent, even with its relatively tiny size compared to some other RPGs. By the end of the game, you recognise every character, and the character notebook feature in the game suggests that the writers thought long and hard about each and every NPC in the game, regardless of their importance (or lack thereof) to the plot.
  • The interesting structure. Ys I is broadly split into two parts: the first half sees you charging around the overworld completing various quests, and this will probably bring you up to the level cap of 10. Once you’ve done everything out in the world, you then enter the 25-floor final dungeon Darm Tower, where you’ll need to use everything you’ve learned (and a few other things besides) to make it to the top and kick the last boss’ face in.
  • The last boss is the hardest thing in the game. I’ve lost count of the number of RPGs I’ve played where the final boss is an underwhelming battle thanks to the ability to overlevel yourself for it by doing all manner of side activities beforehand. In narrative terms, the final boss should really be your most significant challenge, so it’s always a little disappointing when you can mash it in a couple of turns. Not so in Ys I; this asshole puts up a fight.

Things I liked a little less

  • The bosses are a bit primitive. This is perhaps understandable, given the game’s heritage — despite this being a modern remake, the original Ys I came out in 1987 and the bosses in particular make this abundantly clear, with very simple attack patterns that have no “intelligence” whatsoever — simply either randomised or predictable path-based movement.
  • The last boss is the hardest thing in the game… but for all the wrong reasons. The final boss is all kinds of bullshit. He bounces around the screen, frequently going out of reach. When you hit him, the floor falls away underneath where he was, and this can either kill you instantly or trap you in a corner if you’re not careful. He shoots fireballs that split into so many bullets it’s literally impossible to dodge them all. Fighting him is more a matter of being able to inflict enough damage on him before he kills you than any real skill at recognising and dealing with his patterns.
  • Inconsistent item behaviour is a little unfair. You can’t use items or change your equipment in boss battles. This means you can’t use that healing potion you’ve been saving, or the magic mirror to freeze your opponent in place. Worse, the various rings you acquire throughout the game — which vary in effect from doubling your damage dealt to halving your damage taken via allowing you to slowly regenerate when standing still — have no effect whatsoever in boss battles, either.
  • There are a number of instances where the game kind of forgets to tell you what to do next. This happens for the first time right at the very beginning of the game, where no-one tells you that in order to trigger an important event you first have to speak to each and every NPC in the starting town. There are a number of other such incidents later in the game, too, but again, this is perhaps a remnant of the game’s 1987 heritage, when games were a lot less hand-holdy.

Ultimately, none of the things I liked a bit less about Ys I distracted me from playing it through from start to finish and really enjoying the experience. I’m not sure whether I’ll go back and play it on the notorious Nightmare difficulty — I’m not sure I can face some of those bosses again! — but it’s a definite possibility. For the immediate “now”, though, I think I’m going to move straight on to Ys II to see how Adol’s adventure continues.

Yep. I’m 100% on board with this series, and I look forward to exploring the rest of it.