Ys: Evolution of an Action RPG

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Alongside Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series, Falcom’s Ys was instrumental in helping to establish and refine the Japanese take on the action RPG genre.

Both were designed with accessibility and ease of understanding in mind — Zelda through stripping out complicated RPG mechanics like statistics, experience levels and dice-based mechanics, and Ys through simple, straightforward implementation of these mechanics — but both very quickly diverged in their own distinctive directions.

Let’s take a closer look at how the mechanics of the Ys series have evolved and changed over the years.

Bump and grind

Ys I combat
Ys I’s combat is simple but satisfying.

The early Ys games relied on an extremely simple method of combat affectionately referred to as the “bump” system. This eschewed the dedicated attack button of Zelda in favour of simply colliding with enemies, and the relative positions of protagonist Adol and his opponent determined who took damage and how much.

Adol would always come off worst if he made a head-on attack on an opponent, and would take damage. If he attacked from the front and slightly off-centre, however, he would take less damage and inflict some of his own pain on the enemy. If he attacked from the side or back, meanwhile, he would escape without any damage at all.

This basic system was used in both Ys I and II, skipped for Ys III, which we’ll talk more about in a moment, and returned to for both incarnations of Ys IV before it was finally abandoned for good.

That’s not to say that the system hasn’t undergone some refinements over time, however. Perhaps the most notable difference between the original Ys games and the most recent ones that have been released with the bump system intact is the addition of analog control, which makes combat much easier. The original games only allowed movement in the four orthogonal directions, you see, which made the whole “attacking slightly off-centre” thing rather more challenging to achieve; adding 360-degree analog movement made it much easier to attack foes at an angle, and the games felt much more fluid as a result.

Ys II boss
Ys II features a fun blend of the bump system and almost shmup-esque action during bosses.

This isn’t to say that the analog-equipped variant of the bump system found in Ys I & II Chronicles, the most recent incarnations of the first two games in the series, is inauthentic to the original intentions, however. Quite the contrary, in fact; the idea behind the bump system was to give combat an arcadey feel that was accessible and easy to understand for anyone. It was designed to make the process of level grinding feel pleasurable, like an integral part of the game’s overall feel. Removing all trace of clunkiness from this process was an important part of giving the game a pleasurable sense of “flowing” movement, and few can deny that the early Ys games were clunky in the extreme, particularly to those of us who are used to eight-directional movement at the very least.

The system even evolved between the Chronicles versions of Ys I and Ys II, however. In this version of Ys I, there was a slight “bounciness” to the bump system, whereas this was replaced by a stronger sense of repeatedly hacking and slashing away at enemies in Ys II. This was partly accomplished by giving the enemies in Ys II noticeably more HP, which meant they needed more than one hit to kill, but also increased the overall tempo of combat. Ys combat was already pretty frenetic, but the Chronicles version of Ys II is arguably the pinnacle of what Falcom wanted to achieve with the bump system.

Level matters… a lot

Ys I established a series tradition that is maintained to this day: the fact that a single level of experience can make a massive amount of difference. In fact, in Ys I, you could only level up to 10, and you’d reach this cap well before the end of the game. After that, it was up to a combination of your skill and your equipment to get you through the rest of the game; there were no other ways to power up, no necessity to grind — just the very pure feeling of you against the game.

That said, prior to reaching level 10, you could very much play Ys I at its own game by taking the time to grind up to just one level ahead of where the game clearly expected you to be at that point in the story. Doing so would enable you to take down several of the bosses in just two or three hits instead of considerably more, and this was of particular benefit when fighting the extremely annoying very first boss Jenocres and his seemingly unavoidable plumes of fire spurting out of the sides of the room while he teleported randomly around. While you have to fight him “properly” if you indulge in the game’s Time Attack mode which unlocks after you beat the story, taking him down in a couple of hits certainly felt good after a few deaths at his fiery hands.

Ys Origin boss
Big beastie giving you grief? Remember the Ys mantra: one level makes all the difference.

Ys II shook things up a bit, but the feeling that just one level made all the difference was maintained. In Ys II, the 10-level cap was abolished in favour of a much higher cap of 55 that you wouldn’t reach before the end of the game without a bit of grinding. There were, however, considerably more areas that seemed eminently suited to the act of grinding, particularly towards the latter part of the game, where you’d find high-level but relatively easy to defeat enemies that could be used as experience point pinatas over and over again just by leaving the room they were in and coming back in again, respawning them every time you did so.

Most of the Ys games are paced such that you shouldn’t really need to grind in order to get through them so long as you’re fighting most of the enemies you come across rather than trying to avoid them. But even to this day, the feeling remains that if you can get just one or two levels ahead of where the game expects you to be, you’ll have a much easier ride.

Platform of choice

Ys III took the series in a different direction to its first two installments, much like Nintendo tried with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Instead of using a top-down perspective and the bump system for combat, Ys III adopted a side-on perspective more like a platform game. It also added a dedicated attack button, since simply colliding with enemies to attack them from a side-on perspective wasn’t a particularly practical mechanic.

The change to a side-on perspective allowed Ys to experiment with platforming mechanics for the first time, which mixed up exploring a bit, since it now required a certain degree of dexterity alongside the sense of direction needed to navigate the (mapless) originals. Much like Zelda II’s shift to using platform game mechanics divided opinion a bit, so too did Ys III, though this was at least partly due to some unimaginative encounters with bosses and an overall lack in fluidity — including an absolutely horrid attempt at parallax scrolling on the PC Engine version — rather than an inherent problem with it being a platform game RPG in itself.

Ys III jump
That’s not how you use a Jump button.

After returning to a top-down perspective for both versions of Ys IV and Ys V, the platforming elements returned in the three games based on Ys VI’s engine. Only this time, the game wasn’t presented from a side-on perspective — it was instead presented in three dimensions, which allowed the games to make use of the best features of both the top-down and the side-on perspectives. In other words, the use of 3D level design allowed for both interesting maps to explore and plenty of dexterity challenges to provide some variety from hacking and slashing through all those enemies.

Thankfully, Falcom learned from its previous experiences, and the platforming in Ys VI, The Oath in Felghana and Ys Origin was much better than that found in the original Ys III. The fluidity and design of this side of the game even improved between the three games built on the same engine; while Ys VI included a somewhat awkward to perform “dash-jump” manoeuvre to clear wide gaps, for example, The Oath in Felghana and Ys Origin replaced this with a skill that could be used both for attacking and getting across large pits. By making this skill something you had to locate and unlock through gameplay, too, Oath and Origin both took on something more of a “Metroidvania” feel to them, necessitating backtracking to certain areas with new abilities you didn’t have on your initial visit in order to uncover hidden treasures or progress sidequests.

This style of gameplay was abandoned after Ys Origin, but these three games remain among the strongest in the series, striking a good balance between RPG stat-grinding, platforming dexterity and the simple joy of hacking and slashing through large groups of enemies that explode into satisfying chunks when you defeat them.

Ain’t no party like a Christin party

Ys Seven represented probably the biggest change the series had ever seen: a change from being a single-character action RPG to one with a party of three characters at a time. This wasn’t done just for the sake of it, either; Ys Seven also introduced the concept of damage types, with certain enemies being weak or strong against slashing, striking or piercing attacks, and your party members conveniently being able to cover all three of these between them.

It wasn’t a case of enemies being “weak” against something simply taking increased damage from that type of attack, either; if you used a weapon type that an enemy was strong against, you’d do single-figure damage or, in some cases, even no damage at all. Thus, taking a balanced party with you to cover all eventualities was an essential part of Ys Seven’s gameplay, though there were two characters for each damage type, so you could still travel with a preferred group of people if you so desired.

Falcom wisely decided that Ys Seven’s bosses would be exempt from the whole damage type issue, however, which was a sensible choice; since you can’t change party members while in a boss battle, wandering into a boss room with the “wrong” party to damage a boss would have simply been suicide. Thankfully, the whole issue was sidestepped, and damage types are only an issue for trash enemies in the field and in dungeons.

Ys Seven did, however, ensure that the fact your entire squad was larger than your maximum party size of three was relevant. Inactive members continued to gain experience in the background so they weren’t underleveled by the end of the game, and a good thing, too, since the final boss of the game requires you to use all of your characters, perhaps jumbled up from your “preferred” party makeup. Naturally Adol gets to finish the job all by himself, but prior to that there are two separate fights each involving a party of three.

Ys Seven combat
Success in Ys Seven relies on an understanding of damage types and effective use of skills.

Memories of Celceta, meanwhile, despite being based on the principles of Ys Seven’s mechanics, didn’t do anything of the sort with its final confrontation; you could indeed play through the whole game with a preferred party — although damage types were still an issue for regular enemies, so in most circumstances you’d probably want a balanced lineup — but the game instead took a different approach to making everyone in your squad relevant at one point or another. In this case, it was due to their unique field abilities, which could be used — and indeed in many cases needed to be used — to open up new areas, reveal shortcuts or activate various items in order to progress.

The changing face of skills

Ys II Roos
Ys II gave players the ability to turn into a Roo, which not only made you invincible to monsters, it also enabled you to talk to them. They have plenty to say.

Abilities outside of Adol’s basic attacks were introduced in Ys II, where Adol temporarily gained the ability to use magic spells. Each of the spells acquired through the game were useful at one point or another, but by far the most widely used one was the Fireball spell, which was pretty much essential for most of the boss fights, many of which resembled shoot ’em up boss fights more than RPG battles thanks to their swarms of bullets and emphasis on dodging while attacking during openings in the onslaught.

Ys II’s implementation of magic was actually somewhat interesting. Casting a spell such as Fireball would immediately take off a large chunk of your MP meter, but this would quickly regenerate, allowing for repeated casting during lengthier encounters such as boss fights. The twist was that each time you cast something — or constantly during sustained spells such as the one which transforms Adol into a Roo, enabling him to talk to monsters — you chipped away at your maximum MP, meaning that eventually you’d reach a point where you wouldn’t be able to cast any more. Your maximum MP could be replenished to its full value by taking a rest, but opportunities to do so were relatively few and far between, particularly when in the depths of a dungeon, so conservation of this precious resource was very important.

Ys III featured a simplified system whereby you equipped magic rings for various passive effects, and this drained “Ring Points” from your stock. These could be replenished by defeating enemies, or completely refilled to their maximum of 255 by paying a fee to certain NPCs. The effects varied from simple boosts to Adol’s attack and defense power to a healing ability and even complete (albeit temporary) invincibility, but weren’t anywhere near as interesting as Ys II’s spells or the skills found in later games.

Ys VI boss
While Adol starts with a basic sword in Ys VI, he gains control of three powerful magical weapons over the course of his adventure.

Things got interesting in Ys VI. Here, Adol found three different swords over the course of his adventure, which could be switched between at will and independently upgraded to boost their attack power. Upgrading them also unlocked skills that charged up over time and corresponded to one of three elements — wind, lightning or fire — and could be unleashed for more powerful attacks.

Oath in Felghana took a different approach, keeping Adol to just one sword at a time but allowing him to unlock three separate elemental skills over the course of his adventure. These were dual-purpose: they could be used in combat to inflict damage in various ways, but could also be used in the field to assist with traversal. The Wind skill, for example, could be used to float across large pits, while other skills can be used to punch through weakened walls or light torches.

Origin built on this with its three playable characters. Yunica’s skills functioned much like Adol’s in Oath. Hugo, meanwhile, was able to project a temporary shield around himself which also allowed him to fall at a slower speed, while Claw could “dash” across gaps without falling, though you’d need to be careful to aim this properly!

In line with Seven’s complete revamp of the overall mechanics, skills were handled differently, too. Now they were more akin to traditional RPG skills, providing various means of attacking and able to be levelled up independently to make them more effective. They didn’t have a use for traversing the world, however; this function was instead taken over by the new “party items” system (redubbed “artifacts” in Memories of Celceta) which could be equipped to provide the whole party with an ongoing passive bonus of some description. This ranged from the ability to walk on lava to floating on wind currents, and Celceta took this further with the ability to shrink down to fit into small passageways, breathe indefinitely underwater and smash through solid rocks.

What next, Mr. Christin?

Ys VIII is on the way for PS4 and Vita, and looks to build on Celceta’s mechanics.

Despite the many changes the series has undergone over the years, Ys manages to feel remarkably consistent. The mechanics feel like natural evolutions of the series over time rather than radical, unnecessary reinventions — with the arguable exception of Ys III, which just feels a little underbaked — but little constants like the presence of Adol, the return of various pieces of equipment and skills and the fact that one level still makes all the difference help make the series feel like a coherent whole.

This sense of consistency is also helped by the overall narrative and the sense of setting that Falcom has expertly crafted across the entire series. But that’s a tale for another day.

More about Ys

In the next article, we’ll look in depth at how the entire Ys series has let Falcom build up a convincing fantasy world a little piece at a time.

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