Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Impressions: Ys V Expert (SFC)

Received: December 25th, 2013 / Written: February 19th-26th, 2014
Year: 1995, 1996 | Developed by: Nihon Falcom | Published by: Koei | [|O|]
 
Adol's back with more power than before!
Here's a game that I've been curious about and have been wanting to play for a while (long before I had access to a Retro Duo).  But first a little bit of background in the series.  In the wake of the adventure genre that was revitalized in the mid-80's came the Ys adventure games from a little company by the name of Nihon Falcom, starting with Ys I: Anicent Ys Vanished for the NEC PC-8801 in 1987, followed the next year with Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished - The Final Chapter also for the same system.  These two games were at one point meant to be combined into one big adventure, until it was decided by some people involved to split the two entries; which wouldn't be the case for very long as they got combined into the ultimate version Ys (Book) I & II for the PC-Engine in 1989/1990 with a little help by Hudson Soft.  Many concur that this was for the best, considering that the first game ended on a sheer cliffhanger, with the second game immediately taking place after the fact (sort of like the way Insidious: Chapter 2 followed shortly after the end of the first movie, except once you see it you'll wish they just stuck with the original; but that's irrelevant).
 
Jump your way through
The first two games were a massive hit with critics and gamers, being praised for the great storyline, good-looking anime cutscenes, astounding rock soundtrack, and the funny yet simplistic method of attacking enemies by shoving them.  One of the reasons the Ys series is lauded so is because of the storyline, and Adol Christin is such an ambitious and fun to control character.  It was clear that united these two games stood strong (and got many rereleases and ports as a result), and what was also clear was that a franchise had been born.  So Nihon Falcom decided to create a third entry in the series for the NEC PC-8801 in 1989; enter Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, which took the series in a very different direction and has since left many that played it divided.  It shifted from a top-down perspective to a sidescrolling RPG in the vein of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.  Some didn't mind and found it refreshing while others were turned off by this big shift in theme and the fact that it was linear and short.  It got a few ports (SNES, MegaDrive/Genesis, PC-Engine) and eventually got remade as an in-depth and challenging top-down adventure Ys: The Oath in Felghana on the PC and later for the PlayStation Portable, which was more favorably received.  Sensing the disappointment fans of the previous two titles expressed, Falcom figured it was time to bounce back.
 
Well, if it ain't another fiery salamander
In late 1993, a fourth Ys was being worked on and got released, but since Nihon Falcom was busy making Brandish 2: The Planet Buster at the time, they had to appoint different companies to make different variations of their game.  Tonkin House, responsible for the Nintendo 16-bit adaptation of the third game, crafted Ys IV: Mask of the Sun for the Super Famicom, while Hudson Soft handled their PC-Engine variant Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys a month later; Sega was slated to make their own take for the MegaDrive/Genesis, but it ultimately was canned halfway in development.  The fourth game went back to its roots by bringing back the top-down viewpoint, complex dungeon designs, and the attack-shove that was sorely missed in game three.  Naturally, because of this, it did exceptionally well, and has garnered quite a following.  While the former was the canon entry in the series (until late 2012), surprisingly it was the non-canon latter version that got more recognition and fame.  Unfortunately, Ys IV remained a Japan-exclusive entry for roughly two decades, up until Nihon Falcom made their own adaptation of the game, Memories of Celceta, for the PlayStation Vita which actually got a release in the West and replaced Mask of the Sun as the official Ys IV of the series canon; which I'm still bummed out about since the Super Famicom entry is fantastic and now I have to buy a Vita, but I don't wish to do it for just that game alone.  >=(

Now at this point it was clear that the series had reached its peak and that the title that would follow it would be nowhere near as good as Ys IV.  Feeling that the Super Famicom could handle just one more Ys game, work on the fifth iteration was being done.  Unlike the Nintendo 16-bit adaptations of the third and fourth games which were done by Tonkin House, the fifth installment was made by Nihon Falcom themselves, which was quite a shock to many as they never developed a Nintendo 16-bit (let alone a TV console, unless you count their 16-bit port of Popful Mail) game before as much of their library before and after consisted of titles made for home computers (with a few exceptions in recent years with select titles for the PSP and the PS Vita).  So this was quite a risk that they were making, and for their most highly celebrated series as well no less.  But, they pulled it off somehow.  So in December of 1995, gamers were given Ys V: Ushinawareta Suna no Miyako Kefin, an SFC exclusive in the series.
Both images from MobyGames
But if you've read my thoughts on Ys IV: Mask of the Sun, then you would know that it wasn't the only version of the game that was made.  Since it was criticized for its low difficulty, Nihon Falcom decided to make a slightly more challenging version in Ys V Expert, which was released less than three months later for the same console, but this time by Koei of all companies, in March of 1996.  Aside from the change in difficulty I'm not certain what else was altered if anything.  Being conflicted by this, since I knew that I only had a chance with one of these two versions and not both, I had to make a choice.  I did eventually, but I literally flipped a coin just in case, and it landed on the side that I wanted (tails), which meant that I chose the Expert version (which I got this Christmas in '13).  Alas, Ys V never received a Western release, like the fourth game before it, and since the latter got a localized release on the Vita, that makes this fifth volume the only game in the series that's stayed exclusively in Japan, and until 2003 it seemed like it would be the last installation for Ys=(  But why was that?  What was it about Adol's fifth adventure that has caused such a long hiatus?

Legends tell that in the continent of Afroka there was a big desert city by the name of Kefin.  It's been said that there is a great treasure in that place, but there are some that don't believe that is the case.  The thing about Kefin?  It's floating up in the sky, just like the land of Ys did in Ys II, however the outcome will be much different by the end.  So reaching the desert city will require certain assistance, items, and magic.  To travel there and discover its secrets will require that the traveler have courage, great strength, and a strong will.
As this is going on, a man on a mission/expedition discovers a small unconscious girl on the ground of a big desert with an ocarina clutched in her hand.  Not knowing where she came from, he decides to raise her as his own child and take her to his homeland.  Several years have passed for the girl, named Nina, is all grown up as her father takes off for another trip, not to return,  Things have started to happen along the way, and that's when Adol Christin shows up.
The neat thing about the first part of the intro is how the words scroll in English as there is Japanese subtitles at the bottom.  It's cool, though it almost makes me wish that the whole game did that.  Every other dialogue is in Japanese kanji; still, it's nice to have that one event.  =)

Battling in the dry lands
If you thought that Ys III: Wanderers from Ys strayed far from the series' formula (as far as the pre-2000 Ys titles are concerned), then you haven't played this game.  Like the first, second, and fourth installments, Ys V is viewed from a bird's eye perspective, but that's where the similarities end.  Adol no longer shoves enemies and bosses to kill them; rather, he attacks them with his sword this time.  Also, he can walk around in eight directions as opposed to the square-pattern of four like the old adventures, and he can jump too.  Adol even positions his shield ahead of him by holding the Y button, and later on once you collect enough elemental stones and convert them to magic, you charge up the magic with the R shoulder button (or tap it if you want to go faster until it reaches 100; the third set of numbers in your HUD), plus you can shift up to three of your selection with the L shoulder button.

"Uh, wrong way, Bub, you're supposed to
attack me head on!"
And all the while I'm playing this, I couldn't help but be reminded of Brain Lord with this control scheme.  Brain Lord of all games!  Yeah, I know, it's too obscure a comparison to make, but a part of me thinks this just cannot be coincidence.  The jumping and attacking controls have been switched of course (in that game, it's A to jump and B to attack; vice versa for Ys V), in both games you can place your shield ahead of you with the Y button (only your shield is more sturdier here than it is there), you can charge your magic (albeit with different buttons), and you can cycle through your magic spells in both games.  The things that make Ys V different than Brain Lord is that in here you cannot jump diagonally (only straight up or ahead of you), the menu interface is diverse, the distinct lack of puzzle plaques, and the fact that there are more towns and pathways to explore and traverse.  The controls are slightly polished (though Adol still has that trait of walking fast), and if you've been used to the attack methods in the past games (in particular Ys IV) then it may take some time for you to adjust to the controls; but once you do you'll have no problem with it.  =)

Oh, bull!
If you have a map on you, you can have a look at which portion of Afroka you're in via the Select button, and the menu interface is rather intriguing.  To access the menu you press the X button, and what makes it cool are how five small icons appear around Adol which you can cycle through (sometimes in a cross-pattern and other times in a linear pattern depending on which side of the screen you're at).  The five icons consist of equipment (stickman with sword and shield), inventory (brush-like icon), game settings (Super Famicom controller), magic settings (gemstone with starburst), and finally the save icon (small rectangular shape with shades inbetween).  It's intuitive in its own right, and for the first time in the series you do not collect your armor and weaponry as you did in the last games, for this time you actually not only buy (or find) them but you sell them to vendors too!  That's quite a drastic departure in the series.  You will also find specific elemental stones throughout the course of the game, and once you've got enough then you hand them to the necromancer to hand the magic technique over to you (how it works depends on which combination you chose, since there are several to pick).
 
Battling a sea demon in blue
But the gameplay is far from the only aspect that's changed for this entry, as lots of elements have changed too: like the soundtrack.  In the previous four Ys games there was a rock-style soundtrack which helped differentiate itself from other adventure series and made it unique.  For Ys V Nihon Falcom opted for a more symphonic style.  Uh, what?  I know Ys IV: Mask of the Sun had some symphonic melodies (and that a couple merged with the rock genre) but for the most part it stayed true to series' formula of music.  To listen to an Ys soundtrack that is exclusively symphonic and lacking any rock tunes at all feels very weird.  {=|  Anyway, how is the soundtrack?  Well, it's good.  The choice of instrumentation I feel was solid and a lot of them blend in so well with their respective environments.  The intro theme sounds slow and brooding, the theme for when you see the demo showcasing Adol's abilities sounds triumphant, and some of the town themes sound pleasant for the ears.  =)  Several other songs are good too, like the mysterious cave theme, a few of the triumphant overworld themes, an epic track taking place near the canyons, a slow and foreboding desert theme, and variously great-sounding dungeon themes.  The boss themes sound dark and ominous with the unsettling compositions.  The sound effects are decent, with different sounds for each magic conjured up and the sound each enemies and bosses make; though it might just be me but I could swear that a few of them sounded like they were lifted from some 16-bit SquareSoft games.  =|
 
Another departure for the Ys games for this installment were the visuals.  The past games were more about story than they were the visuals, with the standout pieces being the anime cutscenes and more detail focused on the areas, backgrounds, and bosses as opposed to the characters and enemies themselves, which were tiny by comparison; also, what made these A-RPGs unique were the fact that all the action was being surveyed inside a pretty-looking frame with the HUD below it.  Nihon Falcom decided to give Ys V more breathing room by excising the frame and filling up the whole screen, with a different-looking HUD as a whole.  And because there was more breathing room, the character and enemy sprites got bigger and a little more detailed in the process.  I'm sorry, I don't mean for this to be a comparison review, but it's hard not to notice (particularly for the time it came out), but the visuals are good to say the least.  Each area is designed with a slightly different design that for the most part they stand out; and they were done in such detail that wasn't seen in previous Ys outings before.  A few areas incorporate a style that involves grain and some indoor areas have a distinct look where details are so similar that navigation requires being careful.  The villages, forests, battlefields, deserts, falls, caves, bridges, ports, and dungeons all look good; and some have a nifty effect going for them from time to time (such as shading effects during the forests for a clever shadow effect, dark rain in this port-ridden area, and a wavy effect in the desert portion where sand is also flowing in the air).  Some of the more powerful magic elements look wonderful when seen in motion; like the heavy boulder or the fire burning around.
 
Lunge
The character designs are decent, as are the animations; even though I admit that some of them look rather cookie-cutter.  Adol's walking and fighting animations are smooth (though I'm still baffled that his posture and various animations are eerily similar to those of Remeer's from Brain Lord; man, I need to review that one day), as are the NPCs' design and animations as a whole (some even have personality, and the good news is: the left and right sprites are different instead of copy-paste).    =)  The myriad of enemies you face have good designs and animation, such as a wasp that disguises itself as a flower until you approach it, flaming heads, evil gnomes, headless warriors, skeletal warriors, Treebeard's spawn, and more.  The boss designs are big and towering, for they're very menacing in look and style.  Now if there's one downside to the visuals it's this: the clipping is atrocious.  It makes me wonder if it was looked at before release; there are moments when if you're near (or rather, in front of) a pillar or a set of stairs and use your sword near there, the front fourth or third of it pops up when it should be obscured.  The water effects are nice, but they don't really look all that polished (in fact, it appears a bit choppy).  A few areas look surprisingly rigid, and sometimes the rigidness tends to make things look equal so you have to pay attention in order to locate stairs or doors.  But aside from these blemishes, there's nothing all that wrong with the visuals.

Such a deadly adversary
I've only experienced Ys V Expert (so I can't make a comparison) of the two, but the main thing I looked up about it was that the original pre-Expert version did not supply enough challenge to satisfy gamers (almost makes me wonder how easy it was exactly).  Ys V Expert has got a decent amount of challenge, but it's not a hard game per se.  It does start out hard, but it gets easier as you find better equipment and level up.  Aside from adjusting to the sword-attack techniques early on, there are elements that will keep you on your toes.  You'll notice that whenever you kill a certain enemy they'll leave behind special gems and jewels which you can trade to merchants for money.  Yes, you do not earn money by killing monsters (but you do still get experience points)!  Man, this fifth Ys venture sure likes to be different from the rest.  It took me awhile to realize that, but once I did I became accustomed to it just fine; trading's especially useful as they go for quite a bargain and there will be equipment that is costly near the end.  What I find neat is how you can level up not just your sword but your magic as well (if you do the latter, your health will be completely refilled, and if you do the latter your magic will completely refill itself; a little similar to how it occurred in Secret of Mana).  In the inventory you can store up to ten of each helpful item, whether it be herbs, remedies, and magic restorations, so it's a little helpful and convenient that way.

Even though it's not a sidescroller like the third Ys, Ys V is surprisingly linear for the most part (though up until you go to Kefin, you can backtrack to your heart's content).  Of course, there are forking paths in certain dungeons, but a lot of the time it's apparent where you have to go next.  A lot of the safe areas are easy to explore, and there are some dungeons where navigation is a requirement.  There is this underground dungeon later on which is designed like a maze so different stairs will lead you to different parts of the area, and while it's not necessarily unnavigable, it is a bit frustrating in terms of design and size (or at least, until you have the paths memorized).  The bosses cannot be fought with offensive magic, so you'll have to dish out the physical attacks yourself (a la Equinox).  The bosses offer a decent challenge (some are easier than others), and many require a good strategy to take them down (even though the core spot is the same).  But with all these changes that were made, can you still save in any part of the game (save for boss battles)?  Yes,... and no.  You do restart at the last portion you saved in if you lost a life, however if you wanted to continue your progress after a prolonged wait you'll have to save your game at an inn.  That is just something that keeps you on your toes.  This isn't anything major, but there are a couple moments with slowdown.

I liked the first four Ys games a lot (even the third, despite some of its issues; the fourth game I believe is the pinnacle of the series) and consider them to be fun adventure games.  So what does that make Ys V?  Well, that really depends on your perspective on this game.  For me personally, I view it in two categories: as an A-RPG, it's good; as an Ys title, it's a mixed bag.  While it's nice for the series to go in a different direction straying far from the predecessors' formula trying something new, it ultimately becomes its own undoing as it ends up feeling just like any A-RPG in the genre (I know that it's a bad thing to say, but that's just my observation for today's game), which may probably have turned off loyalists of the previous four Ys outings at the time.  I haven't seen many reviews of this game beforehand (which gives me the impression that this fifth iteration wasn't that well received), which made me feel a little apprehensive of it even though I really wanted to play it (ever since I saw a YouTube video of it back in '08 or '09 I think showcasing the intro and its demo sequence with Adol).  Despite the plethora of changes however, there are elements from past titles which were retained: Adol still walks fast and has his health fully refilled as soon as he defeats a boss, the boss disintegrates in a rainbow-like fashion, chests have to be opened while you're in front of them, the Metroid-like "found item" tune plays when you open a chest with a vital item, some items can be found by walking in certain gaps, Adol's health gradually fills up as he holds still in specific areas, a few sounds sound fairly Ys-like, there are still some anime cutscenes, and one of the ending songs is a remix from a previous installment; so really, it's not entirely devoid of these elements.

"Hey, you look like that guy from those Xak
games, do you know that?"
The dialogue box is different but it's not too bad a thing really (even though I miss the dialogue boxes overlapping each other like in the last games), for you have a choice of up to four different skintones to apply to it.  =)  The visuals are good (even though some models are cookie-cutter and the clipping issues are bothersome), the music is good (even if there's no rock present in it), the gameplay is good (even though it's a bit reminiscent of Brain Lord but with more polish to me), and the boss fights are good (even though they have the same weak spot despite differing strategies).  I finished Ys V Expert in about ten non-consecutive hours in roughly under two months' time (with some breaks here and there; I did look up a guide just a few times) at (sword) Level 19 and (magic) Level 15.  I liked this installment enough, and thinking about it now it was significantly better than I expected to be beforehand... buuuuuut out of the five Ys games that I played, this one was the weakest entry for me (not because it's bad, but because it tried to be different from the series' formula even if it meant that it played like any other A-RPG, and that's a shame because there's so much good going for it).  Still, for what it is, it's a fun solid adventure game; I thought it was interesting that depending on the sword you used Adol could either lunge at, swing at, or swipe at enemies (that I find a bit clever).  There's a fun Time Attack mode if you beat the game the first time where you must battle a series of bosses back to back, each with a predetermined level (and equipment); and it makes for a good replay value.  Another element I thought was nice was the fact that during any time of the game you could change the color of Adol's shirt, armor, and later on his hair; it adds some fun to the package, though that's not to say that there weren't any fun moments during the story, there were.
 
So, who would like this game?  That's a tough call to make.  If you want to play an adventure game that offers a lot of entertainment even if it has some issues, it's not bad.  If you're attached to the structure that was set from the last four games but expect it to be here, you may not like this game so much.  If you liked any of Adol's adventures but could care less if it was set up differently or not, then this adventure will be right up your alley.  It may have some issues, but the good outweighs the bad as far as I'm concerned (at least give the developers some credit for trying).  If you can, import it; you may find Ys' Super Famicom swansong to be an interesting experience regardless of whether you end up liking it or not.  After it came out it was the last game in the series until 2003 when Nihon Falcom surprised everyone by making Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim (too bad I don't have a backwards compatible PC; good thing I own a PSP, so I can't wait to try that one some day).  If it took the fourth Ys (of any kind) two decades to be officially released in the West, chances are the same may apply for Ys V=(
 
 
My Impressions: 8.0/10
( >'.')>TO EACH THEIR OWN<('.'< )
P.S.: Adol sure has got a nice, long green cape on him that you only see in the cover and the cutscenes.
 
P.S. 2: The reason I don't feel so highly about Insidious: Chapter 2 is because of many reasons.  I didn't mind the first half of it, but once it got to the second half the movie started to lose its effect on me (not to mention there are moments that completely ruin the first movie for me) so it was no longer frightening at that point (a couple moments made it enter self-parody).  I think it was a mistake for James Wan to direct this after having done the superb The Conjuring months prior, and the fact that this is the last horror endeavor he'll ever be involved in makes me feel a bit sad because he's obviously a talented director but this movie was just mediocre and disappointing to me.  =(
 
P.S. 3: Speaking of Xak, I heard it's a cross between Zelda and Ys so I'm very curious about playing Xak: The Art of Visual Stage for the Super Famicom some time this year (plus, I saw a gameplay video which immediately had me sold).  =)  I also wouldn't mind giving the Ys clone Lagoon for the SNES a go one of these days, despite its less than rave reputation among gamers.
 
P.S. 4: I've always loved the "fin" message at the end of most games.  =)
 
P.S. 5: Because of how this game was structured, I'm more than inclined to christen it Brain Lord 2.0=}
 
P.S. 6: I found out about Popful Mail by accident (as I was trying to remember what the ending song sounded like through YouTube while making my review), and I'd like to play it one day.  I liked Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, so I can't imagine myself not liking that one (as it turns out that it's a sidescroller).
 
P.S. 7: Years ago when I heard that Adol wasn't going to shove enemies in the DS remake of Ys I & II, I wasn't certain how it was going to work.  Having played Ys V, my doubts have been put to rest.  =)
 
P.S. 8: Go see The Lego Movie!  'cause "everything was awesome!!!"  =D
 
Thank you for reading, please leave a comment and let me know what you think.  Take care!  =)


2 comments:

  1. Ah your blog is insightful and fun honestly. I stumbled upon it while looking for impressions or a review of some sufami games. :'D I would actually like to talk to you sometime but alas I have no idea how to use this site or get in touch. It seems like you have a lot of fun and a passion for this though!

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  2. December 29th, 1995 - December 29th, 2015

    Happy 20th birthday, Ys V: Ushinawareta Suna no Miyako Kefin (even though I only played the SFC Expert update)! =)

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