Reviewed: March 15, 2005
Released: February 1, 2005
Adol the Red, legendary European warrior and adventurer, has been traveling with his rock-jawed, block-headed buddy Dogi all over Europa for some time since the last Ys game, when pressing circumstances force both of them to board a pirate's ship and set out with the crew on a voyage of discovery. The target? The dreaded Vortex of Canaan, a permanent hurricane with... well, something... at it's protected center. Needless to say for fans of the series, Adol manages to get separated from everyone he knows and eventually washes up on the shore of a mysterious island - an island inside the Vortex. Welcome to the world of Ys: The Ark of Napishtim, a new action/RPG title from Falcom, published by Konami.
This latest installment in the long-running action/RPG series (the word "Ys" is pronounced like "yeast" without the T) presents quite a leap for most fans of the games, who remember the SNES title Ys III: Wanderers from Ys as the last widely available installment. The anime-style cutscenes have been replaced with CG, and for once we can actually see Adol's weapon - not only that, but a weapon combo system has been implemented. But, despite everything that's different, fans will find that these are the same characters, and this is the same series, that they know and love. Unfortunately, not all the connections to past Ys games are beneficial ones. But to find out more, you'll have to read on....
The first thing I noticed about the gameplay of Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is that it's very "old school". We're talking Secret of Mana old, A Link to the Past old. But don't let that be misleading: Ys is a very fun game to play, and brings enough refinements to the table to hold its own today as an action/RPG.
The game is basically viewed top-down, with a bit of an angle to remind us that yes, it is actually entirely 3-D. Adol, the silent protagonist of this and every Ys game, can run around and wave his sword pretty much anywhere, except in towns. He can also jump, as well as perform a small number of special moves acquired throughout the game. At first, it seems simple, and in truth, the game's simplicity is pervasive both in the gameplay and the story. However, playing Ys isn't as simple as run, attack, run away, repeat. I found that as the game gets tougher, it becomes a surprisingly engaging experience.
The game's developers obviously spent more time fine-tuning Adol's skill sets than is immediately apparent. After the first boss battle (a refreshingly strategic affair for an action/RPG, not too difficult or too easy), Adol receives Livart, a sword made of blue Emelas. Emelas is a magical material found only in the Canaan Islands. It's stronger and can be made sharper than steel, and the various colors of Emelas hold different magical qualities.
By dealing or receiving damage with Livart equipped, Adol can slowly build up a magic meter that, once full, can be activated to unleash a devastating wind spell that largely ignores enemy defense and can deal multiple hits. In the beginning of the game, this is obviously a last resort to be saved for boss battles.
Later, as Adol acquires more Emelas swords (fire and lightning blades, for a total of three) and upgrades them, it becomes more plausible to use the spells as a "panic button" to clear a room of pesky enemies quickly. Very late in the game, when a sword's level becomes maxed out, the magic gauge charges very quickly on its own, adding a powerful all-use move or three to Adol's arsenal.
Aside from the simple and well-done magic system, Adol can perform a special attack with each of his three swords by pressing the attack button in a certain way. The fire sword can be charged up to unleash a flame burst, while the lightning rapier lends Adol a shooting star-type move just by mashing attack as quickly as possible. The wind blade, Livart, has a stackable whirlwind strike move that can be activated up to five times in a row by pressing the attack button at just the right instant. The swords handle differently from each other as well as having slightly different attack power bonuses, so finding a set of moves that fits your playing style is as easy as switching between them.
Once the game gets going, it's apparent that the most important thing to do between dungeons is level up. A difference in attack power of even four or five points can make the difference between dealing zero and twenty damage per strike. The Emelas swords can also be leveled by collecting pieces of emel, usually dropped by enemies. The emel bits are used just like money: 200 emel might upgrade a sword to level four, while another 500 are needed for level five. Each sword has eleven levels. The last two are prohibitively expensive, but well worth the effort. Each level raises the sword's attack power by quite a bit - usually between 10 and 20 points. Considering that Adol gains two to four points of power for each level, the benefits of upgrading Adol's weaponry are immediately apparent.
The main problem with this game, though, is also the leveling. It's not a luxury - it's a necessity, several times throughout the game. It's not that combat isn't fun, but when a new dungeon calls out to me, I want to go through it right away, rather than spend half an hour outside its entrance fighting off psychotic weasels. This is a very artificial way to extend playing time, and though the game would be quite short without it, I can think of a dozen better ways to extend its life.
The story is another low point of Ys. It's silly and trite, and so predictable that even the most uninteresting plot twists seem thrilling by comparison to most of the story. There are a handful of interesting developments, but the basic plot can be summed up as follows: Adol saves everyone and his mother from all sorts of horrible fates over and over again, until the entire population of the game trusts him so much that they all help him with ancient secrets and skills so that he can, in turn, save the world from destruction. It's written smoothly, but it's hardly the most original premise for an RPG.
This is doubly disappointing because the setting of the game - a small group of islands surrounded by a permanent vortex that locks them off from the rest of the world - provides ample opportunity for complex and unique storytelling. The natives of the islands and the survivors of shipwrecks live on separate islands and generally mistrust each other, which could have been developed into all sorts of interesting, ambiguous dilemmas and made for a compelling fantasy drama. The fact that it ends up being such a cookie-cutter hero tale really detracts from the overall experience of Ys.
In the end, though, Ys is a fun game to play, and even with a tired story, it remained rewarding enough to hold my interest to the very end of the game. It's doubtful that many younger gamers will relish the long, often very difficult dungeon crawls and the pin-point timing needed to pull of some of the more difficult moves, but those of us who have fond memories of such classic action/RPGs as The Secret of Mana will find that Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is an enjoyable and quite possibly addictive romp through a type of game that will probably never be made again.
The opening of Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is a very nicely done piece of CG, on par with the likes of Final Fantasy X for graphical quality. For those of us who remember playing the old Ys games, especially Ys III, it's a kick to finally see Adol and Dogi rendered in hi-res 3D. They look great, too - more realistic than the old anime style, but still obviously the same characters. The movie sets up the basic plot by chronicling Adol and Dogi's escape from arrest onto a pirate ship headed for the mysterious Vortex of Canaan on a voyage of discovery, and the subsequent sea battle that drives the ship into the vortex and washes Adol overboard. It's smooth and natural looking, with plenty of fun action and some very pretty settings.
However, once the actual game gets going, the word to describe the graphics would have to be "meh". At first glance, Adol and the other denizens of the Canaan Islands look like detailed sprites, but the truth of it is they are rendered in 3D, just like everything else in the game except items, which remain sprites. It's not that the models aren't decently detailed, either - it's just that everything is ridiculously small. On a 32-inch TV screen, Adol barely stands more than an inch high. He's about the same size as Cloud from Final Fantasy VII, although rendered more convincingly (eight years of better graphics have to count for something, right?).
At this level of miniaturization, details just look like scribbles. The whole game, except for four or five cutscenes, is done in this fashion. I got used to it after a while, but I couldn't help wondering if it couldn't have been done better. Effects and backgrounds are last-gen as well. The only thing that sets it apart from years-older games is the high level of smoothing on everything. Visually, Ys belongs at the tail end of PS1 games, not the forefront of PS2 games.
The only reason Ys: The Ark of Napishtim got more than a 5 in this category is the fact that the voices of the characters can be turned off in the options menu. This game has some of the worst overall voice acting I've heard in years and years. There are a couple of okay voices, but most are just plain awful. The tribe of natives who live in the Canaan Islands are supposedly a close-knit group, but talking to the various villagers, I picked out American deep southern, central African, Irish and Mexican accents, all false. It is as though the actors and actresses were told to "sound ethnic," but the ethnicity in question was not provided. And some of the kids' voices are absolutely grating, continuity aside - though that's nothing unusual for video games.
Once the voice acting is off, Ys actually sounds quite nice. There are a lot of good fantasy-sounding songs. There are also a couple of songs that aren't so great, but they fit in, at least. I wouldn't mind owning this game's soundtrack, though I'd probably only listen to a third of it regularly. Sound effects are good, though I preferred to turn them down a little bit as well, just so that the music came through properly - some of the effects are very loud and drown everything else out.
First off, let me make a few things clear. There is some inherent value in this game simply because it is fun to play, once you've got the hang of things. And there are a handful of hidden or optional things to discover as well, including a series of five challenge dungeons and a large number of items and equipment. There's a lot of dialog for such a relatively small cast, which is always a plus. Ys: The Ark of Napishtim could be a very enjoyable experience, for the right type of gamer.
However, I have two main concerns about the game that prevent me from giving it any rating higher than what I've given it already. First off, the "right type of gamer" for this retro title is someone who fondly remembers playing old action/RPG’s on their SNES, or perhaps in the first few years of the PS1's release. It's that exact type of game, only better - it just can't hold up against today's refined and more innovative offerings.
Lastly, Ys is short. It doesn't keep track of exactly how long a game runs, but I'd guess it took me less than thirty hours to conquer it - possibly less than twenty. With such a large amount of repetitive leveling up passing for gameplay time, it's easy to lose perspective. At any rate, it'll be over before you want it to be, and there's just no real excuse for that.
As I wrote earlier, the opportunities for developing a compelling story were many. Falcom, the developers, simply passed most of them up. The result is a game that not only plays in a manner reminiscent of some SNES games - it's also about as long as most of them. Even if Ys: The Ark of Napishtim sounds like your cup of tea, my recommendation is to hold off and try to pick it up for cheap later. It just isn't worth 40 bucks.
Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is the sixth game in the venerable action/RPG series, and it's certainly a jump from the last installments. A tight, relatively deep gameplay system combines with classic styling and characters to create a time warp of a game that is still well worth a look for older gamers.
However, lackluster graphics, repetitive leveling, short play time and some of the most god awful voice acting in the history of voice acting combine to drag Ys down, from the game that could have carried the torch to yet another mediocre bargain-bin title. Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is a solid game, and it should make an awesome PSP title (it's expected to be released on Sony's upcoming handheld). It's just not yet worth the purchase price as a console title.