Straight outta Hyrule.
For this week's installment of Welcome to My World, I have chosen to interview my 12-year-old self concerning the game Ys: The Ark of Napishtim. The reason? The game is a deliberate throwback to the classic action-rpg games that first hit the consoles back in 1988. I am hoping that I, aged 12 years, might be able to give a better opinion of how this game compares with those older games which it obviously takes as its models.
Me, age 28: Hello little me, have you had a chance to play Ys (pronounced: "ees") yet?
Me, age 12: Yes I have.
Me, age 28: And what did you think?
Me, age 12: (clearing throat and acting self-important) Ys is a lot like Zelda in that you get to kill things like monsters. But the graphics are better and the characters all have real voices. Overall, Ys. is the coolest game I have ever played. It's almost as cool as Jimmy's speech about ninjas in Mrs. Eagle's class. He brought in throwing stars.
Me, age 28: That's all you have to say? You are a terrible reviewer. This was a horrible idea.
Me, age 12: Yeah, because it was your idea! Dorkus!
Me, age 28: I'm not a dork, a lot of college graduates play video games these days. And you should be one to talk'you're in band.
Me, age 12: Maybe I'm in band for the girls, ever think of that?
Me, age 28: Trust me, kiddo, it ain't gonna work out. But now its time for you to get out of here'I've got a game to review, and you've got a saxophone to practice. If I had to get through adolescence without the benefit of my own advice, you will too.
What I meant to say, before getting in an argument with myself, was that Ys would have been a fine game for 1988, and even a pretty decent one for 2005. But instead of breathing life into an ancient genre, Ys is just an expensive trip down memory lane.
We've seen the game, the story, and the characters before. The protagonist, Adol, is a powerful, yet scrawny-looking warrior who has been chosen to save the people of the Canaan islands. It seems that a kind of ongoing tribal war'a fairyland version of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys'has been plaguing these islands when Adol washes onto the beach. Solving this quibble is Adol's first task, but he manages to save the day a couple more times before all is said and done. On his way, he meets many demure elf-like maidens and well-meaning genial old folk, all of whom are about as morally ambiguous as Mother Theresa. There are very few bad guys in this story, and your final victory comes against an ill-programmed weather machine hellbent on ethnic cleansing. It's a little like battling an evil robotic Willard Scott'without the pleasure of it being Willard Scott.
The gameplay is reminiscent of Zelda and more recently, the satisfying Alundra. Adol wanders through area after beast-filled area, each roughly the size of a television screen. Adol is very small and squat, as are most of the monsters. One button attacks, another one jumps. You will push the first button an awful lot, and you will push the other one during platform puzzles and boss fights. Puzzles involve making difficult jumps, and bosses involve learning set patterns. You won't have to be very imaginative to get through the game, but you will have to brush up on the hit and run tactics your 12-year-old self perfected.
To aid in the carnage, Adol has three different elemental swords'each having a rechargeable special attack and a unique combo. The combos are not deep'two of them require that you "hit square button three times in a row," and the other requires you to "hold down the square button for a second". A good deal of your time in Canaan will be spent collecting shards of a material called Emel to upgrade your swords. But don't expect much strategy behind either the leveling up or the using of the swords; with the exception of a few deliberately designed challenges, you can go through most of the game without changing your sword once.
That's because the game is a pretty easy ride all the way to the finish. The rank-and-file monsters never put up much of a fight, and their attacks are usually limited to charging mindlessly or shooting things mindlessly while remaining stationary. The keyword here is "mindlessly""and playing a lot of this game will make you remember the finer points of the "video games make you stupid" vs. the "video games improve hand-eye coordination" argument. The bosses can be difficult when Adol hasn't leveled up or at higher difficulty settings, but mostly this difficulty comes down to executing a given pattern flawlessly.
Graphically, the game is a huge step up from the classic rpg's, and a small step behind modern standards. The backgrounds are lush and animated, shadows of clouds pass over the ground, and Adol is rendered in three dimensions. However, large expanses of terrain, such as cliff faces or ocean surfaces, are composed of uniform patterns, and many of the areas are nearly identical'making navigation difficult. The map is of no use either, because it was, according to the game, made by some old man with lousy tools. If by "old man" they mean "lazy programmer," and if by "lousy tools" they mean "visual basic," then we agree.
To make matters worse, areas and platforms all look roughly angular, corresponding, I think, with the rigid angles of movement delimited by the two-dimensional camera. Although this is obviously helpful when proceeding through jumping puzzles, it gives a kind of boxy look to the otherwise lush environments.
The puzzles are not very long, nor are they very deep. Really the only thing that substantially impedes the slashing and the quick ride to the finish are the dialogues, which are either cute or mind-numbingly dull, depending on which age version of yourself happens to be playing.
But while the story-telling, involving an ancient tribe and an invading imperial army, is moderately acceptable in the "here-we-go-again" role-playing vein, the voicing of it will make you cringe. Some of the voice "acting is passable, if trenchant. But there are a few voices that are absolutely putrid. The "fairy" voices in particular sound like fifty-year old women trying to fake the pubescent cracking voice of a twelve-year-old Drew Carey.
One nice feature is the ability to depart from the usual linearity of action-rpg's. By making most of the areas, including the difficult ones, available to Adol from the start, intrepid gamers can accomplish their goals and tasks out of order. Although few will do this, since broaching a difficult arena with an underleveled Adol is difficult, and although it is not at all as sprawling as something like the GTA series, the move away from strait-jacket linearity is appreciable.
Ys VI, which Konami replicates in The Ark of Napishtim, was one of the best-selling PC rpg's in Japan a few years ago, and its release on the PS2 has been anticipated by an almost cultish following. Some even convinced Konami to replace the new soundtrack that had been composed for it with the old soundtrack'a big success for the letter-writers out there. After playing it, I'm not sure why such a fuss was made over the soundtrack, as the music is decent, but not very memorable.
Maybe that's because you won't have to hear much of it. The game is easy, small, and short. Clocking in at around 12 hours, you'll easily blow through this game like a tornado through a trailer park. But the brevity isn't a huge turn-off, since a throwback game such as this one is only good for about twelve hours'and when the ending credits roll you feel satisfied. While certainly not a revolutionary game or even a difficult one, it does hit the nostalgia chord perfectly and then, with perfect timing, quits.