Monday, January 20, 2014

GOT 'IM - Ys Seven

It's my first GOT 'IM of the new year!  And it's a target game!  Which means I'm ahead of schedule!  For now!  Review of Ys Seven up ahead. 

My Ys obsession of the latter months of 2013 is well-documented, with five reviews with Ys right in the title on this very blog from within the past 90 days.  Ugh.  Prepositions.  So I have quite a bit of Ys enthusiasm flowing in me at present, but I think it's about satisfied for now.  Ys Seven is a very involved, action-packed, satisfying RPG.  Hipster Zelda, meet Hipster Secret of Mana.

Ys Seven is markedly different from the Ys games I played, and I think it heralds the third "phase" of Ys titles (I'm not an Ys expert, so this is only a half-brained theory).  The first phase consists of the Ys games made up to and including Ys Chronicles (plus the later remakes of Ys I+II, natch) - almost all of them use the "bump combat" from the first two Ys games.  The second phase is three games: Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim, Ys: The Oath in Felghana, and Ys Origin.  Those three games feature a similar engines that have Adol frantically hacking and slashing to accomplish his goals instead of relying on nudging enemies with his shoulders.  Playing those three in succession shows a clear progression of design and tech.

In 2009, Ys entered its third gameplay phase: a party system. Ys Seven is the first Ys game to feature more than one playable character at once, opening with Adol and his pal Dogi (YES!) traveling together on a new adventure, with both of them playable right off the bat.  So far, Ys Seven and the recent Ys: Memories of Celceta (an Ys IV re-imagining that's been very well-received) are the only two Ys games using this party system, but it's so much fun in Ys Seven that I can't wait to play more games like it.  Also: it's kinda weird that Ys Seven writes out the numeral "seven" like that.  It bothered me at first, but whatever.

So enough categorization bullshit.  Ys Seven has you controlling a party of three characters for most of the game (it takes a short while to meet a semi-permanent third), and it's delightful.  You switch controllable characters with a tap of the circle button, and your supporting cast will attack and use skills somewhat sparingly, but won't take damage and won't draw from your SP or EX meters, which are communal.  They do have individual HP bars, though, so it's advisable to cycle through characters so as not to leave your favorite exposed to, um, death.

The six-button PSP interface works pretty smoothly in Ys Seven, corresponding to attack, switch, dash, item, and skill.  Just like in Ys vs. Sora, skills are mapped to the four face buttons and used by pressing one of those face buttons while holding R.  Combat is a flurry of combos, skills, and charge attacks (just like Ys vs Sora) and each character learns twelve or thirteen skills plus an EX attack (basically a supermove) over the course of the game. 

Combat consists of dashing around to avoid enemy attacks, landing a charge hit to increase your SP (essentially MP, which starts out at zero and increases with successful strikes), and then deciding what level of skill to use with your saved SP.  Do you want to spam a bunch of 10-SP attacks or save up for a 50-SP whammy?  I go for the big hits... pretty much always.  My preferred strategy was to use Adol (who can't leave your party) or a light character to build up my SP meter and then switch to a heavy character (like Dogi) and use the most powerful SP skill available, or at least a strong one appropriate for the situation.  The EX meter works similarly, except every character's EX move uses the whole meter with varying properties and results.  Even the weaker-offense characters have powerful EX moves.  So yeah, combat is fast and fun. 

Since you learn your skills from weapons (equip a weapon to learn a new skill, and then learn that skill permanently once you've used it 7 or 8 times), obtaining new weapons to fill out your party's skill lists is a major priority.  Most of the better weapons can be crafted using gold (which you earn from enemies) and crafting materials (which are dropped by some enemies and also harvested from gathering points on the maps); I got a little out of hand with crafting weapons and armor.  At the end of the game I grinded another 2 hours or so just to obtain the best weapons and armor for each character.  I was so overleveled that the final boss was probably a little too easy.  Or definitely easier than the designers intended it to be.

The last bit about combat worth mentioning is damage types.  Now, just about every RPG has weapon types or magic elements and things of that nature.  Ys Seven has three special damage types: slash, impact, and pierce (same as in Persona 3, coincidentally).  Most enemies are neutral to all three types of damage, but if an enemy has a weakness, it will almost always strongly resist the other two types.  But most importantly - all attacks are of a particular type.  For example, ALL of Dogi's attacks and skills will ALWAYS deal impact damage.  Each damage type has two characters that will ONLY deal that type of damage at all times.  Adol is the exception - Adol's swords can be any of the three types, so players can choose slash, impact, or pierce based on personal preference.  But in general, by the endgame you want all three types represented on your team.

OK, I guess I'm still not finished talking about combat.  Balancing damage types is a pretty neat mechanic, but there is also character balance involved.  The seven characters in Ys Seven play uniquely (which is good), but you can get the gist of their playstyle by looking at their SP costs.  In general, characters with high SP costs will be slower, heavier-hitting characters (Dogi, Mustafa, and Mishera), while characters with low SP costs will be faster, multi-hitting, lower-damage characters (Aisha and Elk).  Dogi and Geis are middle of the road in this regard.  I overwhelmingly preferred the higher-damage characters; my favorite party was Adol, Dogi, and Mishera, but I would occasionally switch Mishera out for Aisha since Aisha is so good at building SP and EX meter quickly for Adol and Dogi.  Mustafa's attacks were too slow for my liking, Geis's core skills were lacking compared to Adol's, and Elk has awkward skills, weak attacks, and low damage.  Too bad. 

So fast combat system, fairly deep crafting system, and seven playable characters.  Before I get into the characters, let me tell you about these maps.  The maps of Ys Seven are somewhere in between the isometric maps and dungeons of Ys: The Oath in Felghana or Ys Origin and the open fields and narrow dungeons of a loot RPG like Diablo or Torchlight.  Since you can't jump in Ys Seven, there is nothing in the way of platforming but several Zelda-esque puzzles that make use of classic Ys event mapping, but with some additional traditional RPG puzzles (adjusting beams of light, walking over lava with an ice artifact, etc.).  The open maps are nice, the dungeons are nicer, and the puzzles are a little generic but still fun.

The biggest complaint I have about Ys Seven has to do with those maps and dungeons - backtracking.  There are three or four major zones connecting the four major cities in Ys Seven (plus a fifth that you can eventually teleport to), and the five major dungeon areas in the game are located immediately next to each of those cities.  You have to make long walks between those cities plenty of times, at least until you unlock the teleporting-between-monuments power.  But worse - you LOSE that power temporarily near the game's midpoint!  They make you re-backtrack and take new routes to avoid blockades!  That sucks!  Biggest minus in an otherwise excellent game. 

So let's talk story now.  Adol and Dogi arrive in the nation of Altago (the Ys world's version of Carthage), which is engaged in a cease-fire with the powerful nation of Romn (of course).  The two heroes are excited, because Altago is not typically very welcome to foreigners who aren't there to engage in trade.  The duo are arrested by an upstart official minutes after arriving in Altago City, but are almost immediately pardoned by the king, who takes an immediate liking to them.  The king tasks Adol and Dogi with investigating a few strange phenomena, which eventually results in Adol, Dogi, and some new allies (plus one old adversary) traveling all over the land, trying to set things straight before Altago is destroyed by its own folklore.

Accompanying Adol and Dogi are five others, four of whom represent Altago's four major tribes.  The last playable ally you meet is Geis, a dark-haired, halberd-wielding wanderer who fought against Adol in Ys VI.  Geis knows much more about Altago than Adol does, and is somewhat resentful that Adol became the hero of prophecy instead of him.  But come on; Geis ought to know better.  Adol's ALWAYS the hero of prophecy.

So right, the four new characters. Elk: small child with green hair, wields an unusual bladed weapon, grandson of the elder of a forest village that worships the Earth Dragon.  Mustafa: large man with brown hair that uses a huge hammer in battle, elder of a desert village that worships the Fire Dragon.  Mishera: a blind woman with blue hair that can use wind magic both in battle and to perceive the world around her, elder of a mountain village that worships the Wind Dragon.  And lastly, Aisha: a blonde girl who is VERY obviously the princess of Altago City in disguise, wields a bow and arrows in battle.  MINOR SPOILER: Eventually, it's revealed that the royal line of Altago City is the former elder bloodline of a different city that worshiped the Sea Dragon. 

Quick aside: I kind of love it when a Japanese RPG has a different hair color for each character.  Makes it slightly easier to keep track of them in combat and it's a helpful little memory cue.  So thanks, Ys Seven, for being a rainbow coalition of character hair. 

So yeah.  Those four characters each represent a part of Altago that worships a particular dragon.  Well, long story short, Altago is a dragon-obsessed nation that worships five divine dragons (fifth one is the Moon Dragon), and the decline of the dragons' influence is part of why Altago is falling into ruin.  Adol needs to meet representatives of the villages (he does, and they're detailed above), gather the five dragons' powers, and prevent a story calamity from occurring.  Along the way, our intrepid heroes encounter a few additional important NPCs, mostly residents of Altago City and members of the Altaginian military (the "Dragon Knights" because everything in Altago is named after fucking dragons).  Notable among them are Tia, an herbalist that befriends Adol, Tia's adopted sister Maya, who's a deaf-mute, Mustafa's sister Cruxie, who has a debilitating disease, and Sigrun, a Dragon Knight who serves as Aisha's bodyguard.  There are others, but neither I nor you have all day to read about them. 

So look, these characters don't have stunning arcs or *extremely* memorable roles, but they're consistent and fun.  The only major twist comes at the reveal of the major antagonists, which was a genuine surprise.  And I'm someone that gets off on predicting videogame twists. Metaphorically.  So yeah, this is a very good cast, without the depth of a Persona or Lunar team but right up there with the better Tales Of casts.  I can't help but lump these anime RPG character designs together.  Oh, and eventually two of your main characters are replaced by two former NPCs, but it doesn't really change how Ys Seven is played.  It's a Final Fantasy V Galuf situation. 

Visually, Ys Seven has great environment variety and looks better than adequate for the PSP screen. The character models aren't the best you'll ever see, looking like early-2000s polygons, but it looks fine on the small screen and I didn't notice any awful tears or visual glitches.  Visuals aren't stunning but they don't detract either.  The massive, huge bosses (boss battles are a major highlight in Ys Seven) are well-designed and give a good feeling of David vs. Goliath, especially when you're fighting the bosses of the four Shrines and Altars (plot-related stuff).

Musically Ys Seven is pretty strong.  Good balance of J-rock guitars, catchy orchestra tunes, and pleasant town themes.  The game's opening video theme, Innocent Primeval Breaker, is a triumph of rocking RPG music.  Overall, there is a lot to love in this soundtrack and you bet your ass I downloaded it before I had reached the game's halfway point.

Look, I really fucking enjoyed Ys Seven.  I think it's my favorite Ys game and it's immediately one of my favorite PSP games, right up there with Disgaea, Dissidia, and Persona.  If you like action RPGs and own a PSP or Vita, you really ought to give this a download.   

Games Beaten: 2014 Edition
1. Ys Seven

Targets: 1/14


So, my 2011 gaming quest was a resounding success with 50 out of 50; the 2012 edition was quite close to complete at 11 out of 12 (92% = an A- or a B+, which I'll happily accept); and the 2013 version was an abject failure.  I'm going to try and mitigate that failure a bit by finishing Metroid Prime in the next week or two.  I'm at 45% on MP, using a guide for some help finding missile expansions and energy tanks.  I'm also near the end of Rayman Origins, which is a hella fun, hella tough platformer.  Those two should both be finished in the next two weeks. 

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