Let's face it; role-playing games tend to sacrifice speed and simplicity for things like convoluted story arcs, overwrought cut-scenes, and hours upon hours of stat-building and ho-hum, turn-based battle systems. These features obviously appeal to some, but what happened to the old action-RPG's of the 16-bit era? The ones that focused on timing and hand-eye coordination rather than menu-based combat and boring love triangles?
Thankfully, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim has come along just in time to save that dying genre from the clutches of obscurity. If I remember correctly, it was a review in EGM that prompted me to buy this game, which read something like, "The Ark of Napishtim provides classic, hack-n-slash gameplay and a formidable challenge; buy it if you're into that sort of thing." Sign me up, bro. If you, too, have been searching for these things, read on, because I'm about to explain to you why Ark could be the best game you've never played on the PS2.
If there's one thing classic games excelled at, it was telling the same rehashed stories time and time again. In this respect, The Ark of Napishtim stays true to its roots. Three keys to find, broken seals, crazed henchmen and a nemesis who's blinded by his own power; it‘s all here. The characters themselves are no better. Let's see, you've got a wise old man, a mysterious mercenary, a feisty red-head, a princess, a foreign trader; the list goes on and on. But as textbook as these characters are, there's truly nothing to dislike about them (barring their hideous voices). I never once thought, “Oh here we go, saving the world again…” Everything has a quick enough pace to keep you entertained, and the story rarely stalls.
Graphically, The Ark of Napishtim shines. The game looks as good, or better, than any fan of the series could hope. Everything you encounter is not only bright and colorful, but clean looking and jaggie-free as well. The environments are varied, the villages are lively, and the bosses are appropriately intimidating. Unlike many RPG's, the armor and shield that Adol equips affects the way he looks in-game, which is a nice feature. Cut-scenes employ static 2D sprites rather than truly animating the characters, which can prove unexciting, but they still convey enough emotion to keep the dialogue interesting.
Unfortunately, Ark stumbles heavily in the sound department. The static cut-scenes equate to no lip-syncing, but the voice acting is still painfully annoying. Every piece of dialogue is over-acted and over-anxious sounding. Thankfully, Adol never speaks during the game, sparing our hero from the same fate as his co-stars. The music is decent but unmemorable. You'll be doing yourself and those around you a great service if you just turn it all off beforehand.
Any gamer worth his weight in 1-Ups will tell you that the controls make or break any action game, and The Ark of Napishtim delivers in spades. Every technique and maneuver is dead-on, which means that any missed jump or failed attack is no fault of the game's. The control layout is perfectly suited for the Dual Shock controller, utilizing every button in a way that never proves tedious. And, of course, there are multiple configurations for those who aren't satisfied with the default setting. Different enemies require different swords and moves to defeat, and there are certainly enough moves to choose from.
The Ark of Napishtim uses a basic action-RPG formula. Battles are fought in real-time from an almost top-down perspective, as opposed to the traditional turn-based style. Adol's health is represented by hit points (HP), he levels up by gaining experience points (EXP), and he collects gold to buy new items, armor, and shields. Adol's only stats are his strength and defense, which can be modified by equipping accessories as well as armor and shields.
The core of Ark's gameplay revolves around three swords that Adol acquires, referred to as the Emelas Swords. Each sword is associated with a different element (wind, fire, and thunder) and has its own unique skills and a special attack that requires MP. The balance comes in the way one sword may be more powerful strength-wise, but have a less accurate or less powerful special attack. For example, the Flame Sword has the highest strength modifier, but its special attack is harder to connect with and is less powerful than both the Wind Swords' and the Thunder Swords‘ special attacks.
By today's standards, The Ark of Napishtim is relentlessly difficult for the short time that it lasts (~15 hours). The non-linear format is arguably the most challenging aspect; very rarely is the game clear with what it needs you to do and where it wants you to go next. You'll inevitably find yourself wandering into areas that are way out of Adol's league without even knowing it. As if that weren't enough, essentially every boss in the game is guaranteed to kill you at least once before you figure out its pattern, and even then, it takes quick reflexes and an unwavering level of determination to succeed.
If you're looking for a game that will keep you enthralled without taking over your life, look no further. I can't recommend this game enough for fans of old-school action-RPG's, but at the same time, I encourage anyone looking for a good old-fashioned slashfest to take a look as well. The Ark of Napishtim doesn't break any new ground or reinvent the genre, but it just about damn near perfects it, which is how it earned a solid B+ from yours truly. Do yourself a favor. Make a trip to your local video game store and buy this game while you still can. You'll thank me later.