[Disclosure: A review code was provided for the contents of this article]
Despite just under thirty years of playing video games and a career in writing about them that spans eighteen of those years, I’ve never played an Ys game, would you believe, although I have heard of them. I’m not really sure why, to be honest, as I was a prolific importer of Japanese RPG’s during the 16 and 32-bit eras, and since the Playstation 2, there have been a few European releases that I could have nabbed from a bargain bin in any old GAME store. This trend looked set to be broken earlier this year when I was offered a review code for Ys Origin on the PS4 and PS Vita, but for reasons that will remain unknown, I couldn’t redeem the code and ended up handing it to another reviewer.
With Ys VIII however, I have not only received a working copy of the game, but I’ve also gained access to a world I wish I had discovered years ago. Ys VIII is a game about Adol Christin, a fairly archetypal JRPG youth with red hair and an easy smile. Adol and his long suffering friend Dogi are travelling aboard a ship called The Lombardia when suddenly, a huge sea monster sinks the ship. Stranded on the shores of a cursed island named Seiren, Adol sets about the – fairly unusual for a JRPG – task of building a functional outpost and bringing together any and all survivors that he can find.
From armourers to healers, the people that come together to form Castaway Village are some of the standout reasons to play. There are only six playable characters in the game, so the feeling of excitement you get when encountering someone new isn’t one of “what can this person do for me” but more one of “what can this person do for the community?” Of course, there are perks to expanding the village that directly affect Adol and his mates, so if that’s more your bag then you won’t find yourself wanting. Better outfits, weapons and items are all things you can expect, but more important for me were the extra subplots and missions.
Castaway Village is demanding as well, with more and more residents requiring more upkeep in food, ore and other resources. Ys VIII has a fabulous gameplay loop that feels almost akin to a much broader Zelda game, as players gain access to new “Adventure Gear” which in turn opens new areas of the island and allows access to more and more resources. As Adol explores, the village comes under attack from the local fauna and forces him to return, which adds a strategic element and is nowhere near as frustrating as it sounds. Even better, it’s possible to lead a team to suppress aggressors before they attack, giving players the option to deal with threats however they wish.
On the subject of threats, Ys VIII really surprised me. Seiren Island is populated by a huge variety of dinosaur-like creatures known as Ancient Species, some of which are literally massive. I immediately thought of fighting enemies in games like Monster Hunter and Xenoblade Chronicles, except in Ys, the combat felt so much more immersive to me. I’ve read via countless forum posts and articles that this is where the series has won most of its fans and there is certainly a natural flow to battles that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. All six playable characters feel unique, with a superb balance, sense of control and fluidity in combat.
This leads to some of the most exciting battles you’ll come across in any game (not just a JRPG) on your PlayStation 4 this year and I can only imagine that the PS Vita version will be just as good. That is, of course, assuming that the camera controls are handled properly, which was always my biggest problem with the 3DS interpretation of Monster Hunter, especially when facing enemies that are two or three times the height of the screen. Whilst I’m talking platform crossover, the PS4 version of the game looks like it might have suffered slightly due to the existence of a Vita version, but it is by no means a bad looking game.
In fact, it’s an excellent looking one. There are occasionally some features that look a little last-generation, but there are a few reasons why that might be the case. Firstly, the locations in Ys VIII often feature fairly grand scale, with some very large buildings to explore and external locations that have even more incredible reach. Within these environments, it’s possible to face off against a couple of huge enemies at once (as well as a range of smaller ones) and whilst all that happens, the frame rate remains consistent enough to enable the kind of fluid combat that I’ve just described – it’s wonderful really.
As for story, Ys VIII delivers the goods. It’s a slow burn, but what begins as a fairly self-explanatory tale of unity and survival later develops into a much broader story about the titular Dana, who is introduced early via cut scenes in Adol’s dreams. Dana is linked to Adol via means that I shan’t reveal and there is more at stake on Seiren Island than there immediately appears. You’ll have to play for some forty or so hours before the story really begins to take shape though, and perhaps another forty beyond that before you conclude Ys VIII‘s story.
The best kind of surprises, as I’m sure you’re all aware, are pleasant ones. Ys VIII is just that, for me. One of the most pleasant surprised of 2017 in fact. I wasn’t expecting it and I never saw it coming and when you look at my (inevitable) high rating below and the ratings Ys VIII has received elsewhere, I bet you’ll be surprised at how universally it is loved. The reality (and the sad truth) is that Ys VIII might be the highest rated game this year that no one has heard of (possibly because it has a ridiculous name that brings the promise of impenetrable lore.) In any case, I wish I had bought in to this series earlier, so you should certainly: