In the thick of all this modern Ys news, the fan translation of Ys V: Kefin, the Lost City of Sand finally came to fruition. Ys V is a strange study. Though it’s not the most wayward entry in the series (that’d be the original Ys III: Wanderers from Ys), Ys V was controversial when it hit Japan late in 1995. The Ys series touched just about every major platform by the early 1990s, but it loomed largest on the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16. That was where Ys games used new-fangled CD technology for impressively animated cutscenes and some downright gorgeous music. The first four Ys games received this treatment, and PC Engine/Turbo fans lauded them for it. Then Falcom, possibly wooed by the profusion of RPGs on the Super Famicom, decided to make the fifth Ys game a cartridge-based deal on Nintendo’s console.
This did not sit well with the Ys faithful. In North America, much of the outrage was confined to pockets of fans, as Ys V was never localized and few magazines reviewed it. The exception was GameFan. Nick “Rox” Des Barres, Casey “Takuhi” Loe, and Dave “E. Storm” Halverson were ardent Ys followers, and they had much to say about Ys V’s direction.
GameFan’s review wasn’t my introduction to Ys, but it was my introduction to just what the series meant to people. Before this I’d known it only through the Super NES version of Ys III, and I had only a vague sense of how groundbreaking the early Ys games were in the way they looked and sounded. Nick's confession that Ys had changed his life and Takuhi's exclamations of “It’s EVIL! How could you sell out Ys?!” made more of an impact than pages of praise for classic Ys games.
Then again, Ys V isn’t so awful. As the three GameFan editors grudgingly admit, it’s a decent action/RPG once divorced from its heritage. The game puts redheaded protagonist Adol through the usual round of ancient secrets and mystic legacies, with yet another troubled young woman to kinda-sorta fall for him. His quest goes to mostly drab places, yet some scenes show the detailed atmosphere akin to late-stage Super NES RPGs like Final Fantasy VI. Most importantly, Ys V lets Adol go around like a typical action-RPG hero. No longer running into enemies to simulate battles, Adol swings his sword, blocks with his shield, jumps around, and generally feels a like an adept warrior instead of a brainless battering ram.
GameFan was right to upbraid Ys V for its inferior sound quality, short playtime, and simple approach, but I think I would’ve enjoyed it in some passive way had the game actually come to North America. That’s because I was never much of an Ys fan.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to like Ys just as much as I wanted to like every RPG series I glimpsed in game magazines when I was a kid. Two things stood in my way. I can forgive the games for gorging on fantasy clichés; after all, the first three Ys odysseys practically introduced RPGs to those clichés. Yet I’ve never cared for Adol himself. While the games pitch him as some romantic wanderer and inspiring travelogue author, he’s bland even by the standards of silent, player-identification RPG avatars, a tabula rasa among tabulae rasae. Nor do I care for the way each game tells a routine, compartmentalized story, usually focusing on doe-eyed girls who get mixed up in arcane conspiracies and then stare wistfully into the distance as Adol sets off for another trite adventure. Adol is a boring jerk.
Then there’s the battle system shared by Ys I, II, and IV. Attempting a rapid-paced distillation of the typical RPG encounter, the games give Adol no direct means of attack. He just walks into foes, preferably off-center, and hopes for the best. Fighting in Ys V may be a touch generic, like the rest of the game is, but it’s a good deal more satisfying than the awkward combat dances of older Ys games.
And that’s one thing Ys V got right: the old system had to change. Contrary to initial reports, this was not the last of the series, and subsequent Ys games adopted the same sort of conventional controls. The modern Ys entries, including Origin and The Oath in Felghana, grant their heroes the traditional arts of slashing, defending, and sometimes jumping. The pace of combat is almost as quick as it was in the oldest Ys games, but it's now varied and enjoyable.
This seems a good time to give Ys another chance, with Memories of Celceta out and the PSP’s lineup half-off (at this writing, anyway). So I’m plunging into it all. Will I emerge a devoted fan driven furious over past and present wrongs visited upon the artistry of Ys? Probably not, but I hope I’ll have fun.