The Japanese Console RPG is an irregular visitor to PC shores, but XSEED Games have decided to localise a number of recent remakes in Falcom's often overlooked Ys series and set them loose on Steam. Here, Steph Woor takes a look at the first: "The Oath in Felghana", a re-imagining of the 23-year-old Ys III.
Frenetic Action RPG problem #1: Taking a screenshot that actually does justice to the battle system is nigh on impossible.
The alleged decline of Japanese 'triple-A' game development is a favourite topic throughout every level of game discussion, with pessimism from even Japanese developers themselves occasionally making headlines. Ten years ago, Japan owned the console RPG. Nowadays, most new Japanese franchises seem to be apologetically pushed out on handhelds, and sometimes they even have to be targeted by persistent petitioners if they're ever to be considered for release on a home console.
And whilst a certain amount of domestic complacency is surely to blame, the international market played a particularly villainous part. We're the real reason that Square Enix took to slapping Final Fantasy on five different products every year to 'internationalise' their projects. Case in point: It's kind of incredible that a game series can make it to seven numbered instalments and still be considered obscure. But here we are anyway, taking a look at Falcom's Action RPG Ys: The Oath in Felghana.
With official localisation efforts for the series rather patchy up to now, XSEED Games (appropriately enough, formed by ex Square-Enix USA staff) are responsible for the latest attempts to get Ys to take off outside of Japan. Having already released a slew of modern remakes and PSP based titles they've (perhaps rather bravely) started to release titles on the PC via Steam.
Characters and most normal enemies are 2D Sprites on a 3D world, and they generally appear very pixelated. I find them somewhat charming, though they can hamper depth perception in some fights.
Ys: The Oath in Felghana is specifically a reimagining of Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, a game that was a departure in a couple of crucial ways. Firstly, there's the plot, which sees series protagonist Adol Christin taking a trip to his travelling companion's hometown (that companion being Dogi, who characteristically turns up to break walls throughout the series). If you haven't a clue what the 'Ys' of the title is (or how to say it, which seems to be a common complaint) this game isn't going to tell you, and thankfully, it doesn't need to: it's enjoyable without knowing the backstory.
Secondly, between the original Ys III and its preceding games, the series had that bizarre Zelda style detour from top-down action to side-scrolling platform action (though the RPG elements make titles likeWonder Boy in Monster Land a more accurate comparison). This remake settles on a kind of doll-house style 2.5D in its attempts to address decades old dissatisfaction with that sudden change of design: visually, you're sort of 'peering into' a three-dimensional set that takes occasional influences from the original 2D world, and has a largely linear, mostly left to right path.
The playing space can be inventive, and there are plenty of sidestepping opportunities and more open, full-3D sections, but the weakest part of the game is undeniably its graphical side. For a game destined for Sony's portable, the lack of fancy effects and high-resolution textures is only to be expected and I have no qualms about glossing over the 'issue'. That said, the legacy of the 23 year old original's design is that the environments are fairly generic: mines, ruins, a lava cave, an ice cave and so on... you know the drill. It's all pulled off nicely enough, but there are no moments of definite flair.
The game's script occasionally pokes fun at infamous RPG logic. Here, the town's blacksmith explains why monsters are such a good source of smithing materials.
Similar criticism can be levelled at the game's story, which is essentially a quest through each of these environment clichés to gather certain MacGuffins before the main villain swipes them anyway and summons an ancient evil. If you've played more than one, possibly two RPGs you will know what the main twists are in this tale. However, I'm again inclined to excuse the game on the basis that it was doing this stuff when I was chewing crayons and watching Rosie and Jim, and it's in no way offensively bad... just familiar. Comfortable even.
The important thing is that this is an action-RPG with a very strong combat system. Ok, so I just stepped back from calling it 'extremely strong', and you'll find out why in a paragraph or two. But for now, know The Oath in Felghana as a game with solid dungeon crawling (and a disarmingly good soundtrack), where the emphasis is on whacking large groups of enemies quickly for the largest damage multipliers and experience point boosts.
In addition to your sword, you have a recharging 'boost' gauge for more frenzied slashing, and three chargeable magic attacks to cycle through. Fire, wind and earth provide you with a ranged attack, area attack and shield respectively. Additionally, they can be used to find secret routes and rooms for more gold and equipment. Both the platforming and the combat controls are quick and precise and the game is in no way monotonous despite being essentially rather repetitive.
This was definitely one of the bosses that caused me the least trouble, hence the fact that I managed to get a screenshot of it. I still died enough though.
And then the boss battles happen. Personally, I'm of the opinion that they're kind of superb, but I'm pretty sure my housemates won't have this impression. There isn't a boss in this game that didn't take at least five attempts, and most took twenty (and the rest). And given that there are no potions to neck in this game, that you go into a boss battle with just your sword, your magic and your skills, I compensated for the lack of statistical boosts by daisy chaining expletives until those dastardly bastards finally croaked.
Each one has several moves and often a number of phases in the battle, and in most cases I'd wade in, die repeatedly without making a dent on their HP bar and curse what seemed to be an incomprehensible bullet-hell of an encounter. And then you find that rhythm, notice how each one telegraphs their moves and learn how the patterns change as you wear them down. So when those bosses die, the pay-off is all the greater. And you know, when it has taken you half an hour to put an end to the harbinger of the end times, you kind of stop viewing it as the lame cliché it really is.
XSEED are specifically targeting the difficulty loving crowd with this title, but anyone who enjoys a good old-fashioned action-RPG will appreciate this modern take on a needlessly lesser-known franchise. And whilst I can't say I'm going to lose any sleep over finding out what happens next in the adventures of Adol Christin, the fact that more games in this series to follow this great example to the west, (hoping to find an audience on the PC of all places) is something I'm unequivocally in love with.