OK, it's time to talk about Ys, people. I hope you're ready. There's going to be a lot of that in the rest of December. Here's a review of my first major Ys foray, Ys: The Oath in Felghana.
Ys is a series of action RPGs made by Nihon Falcom, who also make the Legend of Heroes series. I went into Falcom a little in my Ys vs Sora review a few weeks ago. Ys has been around for over 25 years, but prior to this year you could have made up a number above, say, 15 and I would have believed you. I've known of Ys since the late 90s, but the games I tried (Wanderers from Ys for the SNES and one other) were not impressive. Really, they felt like worse versions of Zelda games or better versions of Lagoon (which, in retrospect, was probably an Ys clone of sorts). Fast forward to college, and I hear Ys brought up multiple times during Gamers meetings, but usually regarding their excellent soundtracks. Still not interested enough to give them a shot.
Fast forward again, this time to early 2013. I've played a few of Falcom's other games (...pretty much only Legend of Heroes stuff) and I'm intrigued by some Ys tidbits I catch. I read some Ys banter on RPG-dedicated forums, I do a little research, and (most importantly) I notice that several Ys games have made it to Steam. Now, normally I'd play a series like Ys on my PSP, but the Steam summer sale was irresistible. In May of 2013 I own zero Ys games. By the end of July I own four: Oath in Felghana, I+II Chronicles+, and Origin. I decide to begin with Felghana, since it seems more modern and acclaimed than I or II and isn't heavily informed by other games in the series like Origin. Good decision.
The Ys games toe the line between character action (like a Zelda or a Castlevania) and action RPG (like... a Zelda or a Castlevania. OK, it's hard to categorize these sometimes.). Most Ys games (including Felghana) star the young swordsman Adol, who travels the world in search of adventure, and in every new locale he visits Adol becomes embroiled in some kind of foretold struggle with world-affecting consequences. Felghana is no different, as Adol ends up rescuing multiple townsfolk, battling the oppression of the local tyrant, and preventing the re-awakening of an ancient evil. All in a day's work for the red-haired silent hero. Ys: The Oath in Felghana is a modern (2005) remake of the third Ys title, but you can easily play it without any prior series knowledge. Adol is a hero and Dogi is his friend. Boom. There you go.
Now, Adol might be a silent protagonist in the vein of a Link or a Dragon Quest hero, but the world and characters around him are always interesting. In this story Adol is accompanied by his pal Dogi (who teams up with Adol for four or five different Ys games) during a visit to Dogi's birthplace in the region of Felghana, a mountainous zone of the continent of Eresia. The world of the Ys games resembles medieval Europe (aka Eresia), and Felghana is probably Switzerland or Austria. The name Ys actually is borrowed from a "lost city" of legend in northern France. Ys Seven (the one I'm looking at next) takes place in "Altago" which is very obviously Carthage. So, right. Back to the characters.
Dogi and Adol visit Dogi's hometown of Redmont and are soon reconnecting with Dogi's old friends, rescuing miners from the nearby quarry, and finding ancient artifacts of interest to MacGuire, the local doge. Dogi's former best friends Elena and Chester are also central to the plot of Oath in Felghana. Since just about every resident of Redmont has a quest or story dialog,
most of them are a little more memorable than your usual JRPG townsfolk;
there are a few story and character turns at the last two dungeons,
but ultimately Felghana is mostly a throwaway RPG story with a few good
characters. My favorite character by far was Dogi - he comes across as a 100% great dude that always has Adol's back. What a bro.
Within that story framework, Adol ends up following clues leading to more dungeons and artifacts in a masterpiece of hack-and-slash action. Adol is a fun character to control, with a few series of sword combos, three special magic spells, and a few tricks like dashes and double-jumps. Adol doesn't have as many items or abilities as Link does in any Zelda game made after 1990 (and the dungeons don't have nearly as many puzzles), but the action in Oath in Felghana is fast and furious like no Zelda game. What it lacks in large weapon selection it makes up for in speed, challenge, and enemy variety. By the endgame you're switching between different magics for maximum effectiveness while dodging and hacking willy-nilly. It feels more actiony than a Zelda game, but less cluttered with RPG mechanics or loot than a Diablo game. If anything it's like a Diablo for arcades, as most enemies drop down things like attack and defense boosts more often than items.
One thing that Oath in Felghana doesn't skimp on is challenge. New dungeons were usually struggles until I gained a level or two or learned a new technique suited to a few of its enemies, and more prominently the boss battles are rough. I think there were only two boss fights in the entire game that I beat on the first try (playing on Normal). It's these dungeon runs leading to intense boss fights that are core to Oath in Felghana's appeal.
The town and dungeons in Oath in Felghana are strong indeed. Their puzzles rarely go beyond "hit this switch using one of your skills and then revisit a different room"and the platforming is decent at best, but oh man these are fun to explore. The zones are huge, distinct, and full of enemies to slay and treasure to collect. There is a small amount of optional backtracking to do in order to pick up additional hidden treasures, but there are convenient fast-travel points for teleportation and re-exploring certain areas. The speed of combat, Adol's versatile skillset, and the impressiveness of each dungeon make Oath in Felghana's 6 or 7 dungeons a blast.
Adol has some other RPG tricks up his sleeve, getting stronger by leveling up his stats, equipping new weapons and armor, and learning new skills. Just about everything from skills to equipment to HP is upgradeable with Raval ore given to the town smithy or magic gems found in chests. These are all rewards from thoroughly searching dungeons and completing sidequests, and are totally worth it. It's satisfying to find all the hidden shit, and they're usually hidden in sensible if not obvious locations to be expected of in an RPG. And I don't know if I could have beaten the final boss without all the equipment and spell upgrades, honestly.
Musically, Oath in Felghana is very strong. The town music is serene, the dungeon music is lively, and the boss music is intense. Everything has an 80s rock and roll flavor (not metal, but definitely fast and guitar-heavy) that is sort of Nihon Falcom's signature sound. I quite enjoyed the soundtrack. Visually, Oath in Felghana mixes strong sprite work with some hand-drawn character art for a nice look indeed. It looks great on my 23" computer monitor.
So yeah. I don't want to keep you here too long, so I'll end it with this paragraph. Ys: The Oath in Felghana is a single-player action RPG with fast combat, great dungeons, and stellar music. The RPG hooks are a little annoying (backtracking, weird and specific event flagging), but far from deal-breakers. The challenge level was above average, but never so much that I wanted to give up. It's also perhaps 8 to 10 hours long, and doesn't outstay its welcome. And hey, I liked it so much that I bought the other three Ys games that are on Steam.
Games Beaten: 2013 Edition
1. Persona 4
2. Pokemon White Version 2
4. Persona 4 Arena
5. Persona 3 FES: The Journey (NG+)
6. Hexyz Force
7. Persona 4 (NG+)
9. Tales of Vesperia
11. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
12. Final Fantasy VI Advance
13. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4
14. inFamous 2 Evil Finish
15. Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis
16. Torchlight II (Classist)
17. Donkey Kong Country Returns
18. DuckTales Remastered
19. Ys vs. Sora no Kiseki: Alternative Saga
20. Diablo III
21. Ys: The Oath in Felghana
22. Ancient Ys Vanished: Omen
23. Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness
24. Ancient Ys Vanished: The Final Chapter
Next is a review of the first Ys, then a review of the fifth (!) console Disgaea, then a review of the second Ys, and then FINALLY a review of Metroid Prime. Probably. I have a lot of writing to do in the next two weeks.