Every long-running franchise has their black sheep, unorthodox entries that diverge from their respective series traditions and tropes. They usually appear early on in the series, when said traditions and tropes haven’t yet been clearly defined and solidified. You couldn’t stomp enemies in Super Mario Bros 2. Most of Zelda II: the Adventure Of Link was played in a sidescrolling perspective. Final Fantasy II (NES) had that weird exploitable leveling system based on character actions instead of experience points. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest was, well, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Even in movies, Halloween III, for example, did not feature Michael Myers. Most of these were either immediately shunned at release or just ended up being decently received but not a favorite for most fans, aside from a small-pocket who either have genuine appreciation for these entries’ inventiveness, or just want to take the contrarian opinion in order to look cool (which I’m sometimes guilty of).Ys V is NOT the blackest of sheep, or the oddest of ducks, within the Ys series. That honor belongs to Ys III: Wanderers From Ys. Just like Zelda II, Ys III changed the perspective from a top-down view into a sidescrolling platformer style. But Falcom soon went back by commissioning Hudson & Tonkin House to do a more traditional top-down Ys IV for PC-Engine & Super Famicom respectively. After Ys IV, Falcom announced that they were making Ys V exclusively for Super Famicom, to everyone’s surprise. And that it will be the final Ys game. Suffice to say, fans did not like this change at all. Kidfenris did a great blog about the fan reaction to Ys V at the time, encapsulated with scans of the Ys V review in GameFAN Magazine written mainly by Casey Loe (Nick name “Takuhi”), with added blurbs by Nick Des Barres (Nick Rox) and Dave Halverson (E. Storm).
Here’s the thing. Ys V is not the first SNES Ys. The SNES had Ys III & Ys IV: Mask Of The Sun (which in a way can be considered the first SNES-exclusive Ys game since it’s quite different than the PC-Engine Ys IV: Dawn Of Ys). Heck, even Ys I and Ys II were on NES and other 8-bit consoles and microcomputers (remember when microcomputer was a term?). It’s just that fans didn’t care as long as they had a superior PC-Engine Super CD-ROM² version, with beautifully animated (and so incredibly ’90s anime) cutscenes, voice-acting, detailed character portraits, and of course that amazing CD-quality Falcom soundtrack, all only possible thanks to the power of Compact Discs. There were always a PC-Engine version of every Ys. It was always the best version. And that was always the case until Ys V’s sacrilege devolution to the scum that is 24-meg cartridges.
Note: Obviously exaggerating here, but I’m just trying to evoke the heated atmosphere of ’90s console war bickering.
Falcom released Ys V on Super Famicom in December of 1995. And for a long while it seemed like it was the last Ys until Ys VI on Windows in 2003, which was then ported to PS2 in 2005. So not only did it hurt fans, it was also a wound that lasted around a decade before a new game tried to mend it. But did Ys V really deserve all this drama that I may have slightly exaggerated a bit? Is Ys V such a travesty? Let’s see then.
Ys V centers around the desert kingdom city of Kefin in the region of Xandria within the Afrocan continent (basically the Africa of the Ys universe). Kefin mysteriously disappeared 500 years ago, leaving space for others to settle in and create new towns whence Kefin used to reside. But what actually happened to Kefin is that the city was dislodged from our plane, existing in a separate universe, its land and its people shielded from the eroding effects of the sands of time. This strange phenomena, however, created mass desertification that’s slowly engulfing towns in Xandria.
The mystery of this kingdom lured explorers from around the continent to search for clues of rumored gold and treasure left behind. One such explorer and central character to Ys V’s story is Stein, a renowned explorer who one day finds a lost girl in the middle of the desert. The girl seemed to have come out of nowhere, and has no recollection of who she is, what’s her name, or where she’s from. Since Stein couldn’t find the girl’s family, he ends up adopting her, and naming her Niena. 3 years after, Stein himself goes missing in one of his expeditions. That’s when around Adol comes into the scene (arriving by boat, as always) and starts his new quest.
And Adol is quite more capable in Ys V, all thanks to the SNES’s 6 buttons as opposed to the 2 on PC-Engine. As Adol, you can swing your sword with an attack button instead of running and bumping into enemies as in previous Ys games. This is arguably a more intuitive method. But the hitbox is slightly wonky, certainly not as precise as something like Zelda: A Link To The Past. Add the fact that you can now jump in Ys V and are expected to fight enemies on different elevations, and things get messed up even more. But at least you can guard yourself from harm with the shield button. And you can cast magic spells obtained by finding different elemental stones hidden in fields or dungeons. Find an Alchemist and they’ll combine the stones and infuse the spells onto your equipped sword. Casting the magic spell, however, is done in a rather odd way by basically revving up a meter from 0 to 100 by holding R (or mashing R for a quicker method) then simply pressing attack to cast the spell. It seems like an unnecessary complication when just making the R button cast magic directly would probably be an easier and better method. And that’s not the only problem. Magic attacks take a long while to animate and they don’t freeze enemies on the screen during the process, making it easy to miss AND making Adol open for attacks, like a sitting duck. Also, it doesn’t do that much damage anyway AND you can’t seem to use magic on bosses. It’s almost impossible to make magic attacks anymore useless, even intentionally.
But even so, even with the missing CD-features, the broken magic system, and the slightly flimsy sword swing. I still enjoyed Ys V quite a lot. For one, Falcom smartly had the SNES console in conscious when designing Ys V. This sets a new precedent considering that Ys V is the first Ys to be made completely from the ground up by Falcom for consoles, instead of initially for Japanese computers than ported to consoles a few years later. And that’s visible in the way Falcom utilized the SNES controller fully, in the more detailed sprites & backgrounds, and in how the soundtrack takes advantage of the SNES soundchip’s strength in orchestral style compositions as opposed to the more rocking affair of Ys I-IV (with great results as in here, here, here, and here). For better or worse, Ys V is a SNES Action RPG through and through. And it never compromises by trying to adapt a more authentic Ys game unto the SNES console’s limitation. This is analogous to how some developers try to create complex console-style games on touch-based mobile devices, rather than having the unique features of mobile devices in mind when designing the games in the first place. Ys V is a good SNES game with some Ys trappings rather than an inferior SNES port of a non-existent Ys on PC-Engine.
Maybe this resulted in a generic SNES RPG. And I do have to confess that I have very little experience with SNES RPGs, so maybe the staleness of Ys V isn’t apparent to me. But I still think Ys V has plenty of merits. For one, I enjoyed the father-daughter dynamic between Stein and Niena, which is greatly encapsulated during the intro cutscene. I always loved that parent/child type of story whether it’s in games like NieR (or in a metaphorical sense like in The Last Of Us or Metal Gear Solid 3), or in animation like Neon Genesis Evangelion or even A Goofy Movie. Though I would have loved a bit more interaction between Stein and Niena. For most of the game, Stein never appears and is only mentioned in third person. But I liked how throughout that part you’re tracing Stein’s footsteps, exploring parts Stein has already been in. Then meeting people who met Stein, constantly speaking highly of him. It all helps build a great impression of Stein throughout the game. And when he appears in the last third of the game, it’s becomes very apparent why he’s such an important and just plain badass character. On the other hand, Niena gets kidnapped quite a few times and does nothing. And she plays an Ocarina. So that part of the story could have been better.
But the most poignant part, the most emotional scene, came in the middle of the game. One of the last few town is situated in the middle of the desert, right where Kefin was. Adol actually arrives to this town by drifting ashore the river nearby after a storm has blown him off his raft, wherein a young girl notices his unconscious body, takes him to her home to heal him and save his life (a classic Ys trope). Soon after getting better, Adol is asked by the girl to save her father who is lost in the desert. And Adol does and ends up befriending them both. I found it interesting how these 2 characters are analogous to the main father-daughter characters, Stein and Niena. But anyway, the town becomes a hub for a couple of quests that you need to do, going in and out of it several times, buying from its shops, going to its pub, saving at its inn, becoming ever more familiar with its people and its layout. And it’s a very nice looking town.
Note: I consider the next paragraph to be huge spoilers, more so than the rest of this blogpost. Please scroll till you’re under END OF SPOILERS if you don’t want to be spoiled.
However, one time after finishing up a quest and are on your way back to the town, you run right until the last screen of the field and enter the town area. You notice that the music cuts off, and that the screen is taking much longer to fade out, all while a sandstorm brews bigger and bigger, getting noisier and nosier. Then the town screen fades in very slowly through all this dust, slowly revealing that the town has been engulfed in sand. All the houses sunken, and many of its people missing, possibly dead, including the girl and her father. It was a very powerful scene that almost drove me to tears. You can watch it here if you want (skip to 3:40).
END OF SPOILERS. Continue reading here below.
Sure, the rest of the story follows your bog-standard RPG plot, with a “surprise” 2nd-in-command villain succeeding the main villain and becoming the ultimate evil (the Kefka effect, or more appropriately the Wild Dog effect). There’s a minor B-plot regarding an immortal alchemist named Stoker that at first seems like it’ll play a big role but ends up not adding to a whole lot the main plot. There’s a family of thieves who start out as your rival but end up joining forces with Adol. There’s a rebellious militia trying to overthrow the ruling royalty class. None of these story aspects are done exceptionally well or with a fresh new twist. But considering that the whole game is just around 9 hours long, it makes for quite an eventful game. So a short-game filled with your expected JRPG tropes is par for the course for an Ys title I’d say.
I do wish the dungeons were longer. Though they do take advantage of Adol’s new jumping ability to add a little complexity and mulit-layering to the layouts. And I wish the bosses (and the whole game) were harder. In fact, Ys V was so easy that Falcom had to release Ys V Expert only 3 months later. Maybe that version resolves some of my issues. But Aeon Genesis chose to translate the regular Ys V so my hands are tied.
But even with all these issues, I had a great time playing Ys V. It may not be the most definitive Ys game, but I think I’d rather have Ys V be different as it is than be another game that follows what was already done well in Ys I, Ys II, and Ys IV. And in some way, it’s design did plant the seed for future Ys games, specially Oath In Felghana, the game agreed upon by fans as the best Ys. If you’re one of these fans, don’t skip on checking Ys V out with the excellent translation by Aeon Genesis, who with this translation have managed to close the Ys book (heh) on making every Ys game available in English. And if you’re new to Ys, Ys V is a good introduction as it is one of the more accessible games in the series, even if it doesn’t resemble the older Ys games too much. In the context of 1995, I understand how Ys V could be such a disappointment. But now in 2014, Ys V manages to carve out its own unique place within the Ys lineage. I guess unlike the kingdom of Kefin, the passage of time has only done good to Ys V.