Saturday, 2 September 2017

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana

The Ys series of games is unlikely to be familiar to most gamers outside of Japan, but it's a series with a history as long as the likes of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. The very first game was released for the NEC PC-8801 system in 1987 and became best known for its music and combat that required players to simply run into enemies, in contrast to the turn-based role-playing-games of the time.

Over the years, the series has seen countless new releases, re-releases and remakes across a multitude of consoles but rarely in the West. Most recently it's become synonymous with Sony's portable handhelds - Lacrimosa of Dana, the eighth in the series and the first new game for eight years, was released last year in Japan for the PS Vita. But it was always planned to hit the PS4, which will finally happen in Europe and North America this September with exclusive extra content.

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana
For many then (myself included), this will be their first Ys experience. And while some references will undoubtedly be lost, it works perfectly fine as a standalone game to introduce the series (as with Final Fantasy, each game is separate with certain recurring features). Still, this is clearly a game that's living in the distant past.

That's firstly apparent with its graphics, admittedly upgraded from the originating handheld version. Low resolution textures and stiff animations are in abundance here, though it all runs perfectly smoothly. The anime art style also feels old fashioned - for some that may be a fun throwback, but the game lacks a distinctive style with characters, enemies and environments that all feel overly familiar.

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana
It's the game's treatment of its female characters that's most archaic, however. Scantily clad anime girls are a sadly recurring trend throughout, with the voyeuristic camera too often ignoring their faces completely. Your first female teammate is introduced while bathing in a river, another wears armour that barely covers her breasts, and there's even a sexy nun who whips off her habit and skirt in revealing fashion. This is worrying and cannot be simply disregarded as a quirk of Japanese culture.

Narratively, there are two strands to the game. The main plot revolves around a group of castaways who wind up on a remote dangerous island and strive to survive. As lead protagonist and red-headed hero Adol Christin (a common character in the series and, yes, just one letter away from Hitler's first name), it's your task to rescue survivors from the clutches of strange monsters and help to rebuild the Castaway Village.

This would be exciting if the rescued characters were interesting. Sadly, these are some of the most one-dimensional characters with laughably trite names who stick to stereotypical tropes. Speaking to them does reveal snatches of characterisation, but conversation is mostly optional, making them only useful as practical additions to the village: merchant, doctor, blacksmith etc. A core team of survivors join Adol as battlemates, but they too are hackneyed: the stuffy, stroppy female; the large, bumbling father figure; the brooding man of mystery; the eccentric young girl. Adol himself escapes stereotype by being mostly mute - the player is able to make choices in his dialogue (though they have little immediate effect), but the lines are rarely spoken. He is simply a silent, empty shell for the player, doing little to draw us into the plot.

The second strand to the narrative is another tired trope: the exotic maiden. Adol dreams of a mystical girl with blue hair (the titular Dana) and between chapters we witness her story, seemingly from another time. Soon their worlds collide and we're sucked into another story about ancient species, magical trees, long-demolished civilisations, and chosen ones, all told with stilted, laborious dialogue. Thankfully, the cut scenes are easily skippable.

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana
For the most part, the game consists of combat. And while there's more to it than running into enemies as in the past, it's not the most complex of systems. An action RPG, you control one character in a party of three who has a standard combo of attacks and a suite of special attacks that slowly upgrade with use. Dodge at the last second, Bayonetta-style, and you get a few moments of slow-motion to get in some extra hits, which gradually builds up the enemy's stun meter. There's also a rock-paper-scissors system between slash, strike and pierce to add a layer of depth - these attack types coincide with your party of fighters and their brilliantly oversized weapons.

As enemies are all vulnerable to a specific attack type, there is some strategy in switching between your three characters. But rarely does the game demand it, even with its bosses. Instead, it's far too easy to simply hammer away at the attack button, throwing in the occasional dodge or special attack, and watching a flurry of swipes and slashes on screen. And in a nod to the original game, you can regain health by simply standing still. While this doesn't occur in dungeons, it's all too easy to just heal between fights and never be close to death (on normal difficulty at least).

Character customisation is minimal, with only one type of weapon per fighter that is upgraded in one way once the requisite resources have been found (there are, however, plenty of accessories to equip with a variety of status effects). And the village too can be upgraded which serves as defence in the invasion missions - side quests where waves of monsters must be destroyed. The game does get plenty of mileage from its combat system, between the 30 hour main story, invasions, suppressions and other side quests. The remains of the game is little more than following a quest icon and hoping the next bit of story is told through one of a handful of colourful, wonderfully drawn anime scenes.

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana
Eventually, though, the game's flaws become its greatest strengths. Combat may be button mashing, but its mindlessness is strangely relaxing and its swift pace never allows boredom to set in. That pace extends to the short loading times and the ability to fast travel between locations, allowing you to dash easily between battles and story progression. It makes for a very addictive and compelling high-speed game.

And it's all accompanied by a raucous anime soundtrack of techno rhythms, blaring guitars and hammering synths. It doesn't quite fit the fantastical feel of the game, perhaps contrasting with the orchestral music we're used to in other RPGs, but its intense nature matches the dazzle of combat. It also makes up for some dire English voice acting.

Despite its shallowness, its familiarity, its sexism, and its weird story tangents, Lacrimosa of Dana remains an enjoyable game, predominantly for its satisfyingly mindless combat and Japanese charm. Yet it has a lack of individuality or depth compared to its contemporaries. And as a series that's relatively new to the West, it does little to stand out in a crowded market.

Play: Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is released on PS4 on 15th September in Europe.