Adol Christin, the long-running amnesiac protagonist of the Ys series, is back for another adventure. In Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, you quickly find yourself stranded on the mysterious, uncharted ‘Isle of Seiren’. As none have ever landed on the Isle and escaped, and ships that come too close have a tendency to disappear, never to be seen again, the Isle is surrounded in little more than legends and warnings.
Unlike previous Ys games, in Lacrimosa of Dana your exploration is fueled primarily by the desire to survive, and the survivors of the ill-fated Lombardia – the ship Adol’s journey begins on – must band together in order to not perish at the hands of this strange island full of creatures thought extinct millennia ago. And, if that wasn’t enough, one night, Adol begins having strange dreams of an advanced, majestic civilization and a lovely young lady he’s never met named Dana.
Wander as you Wonder
Ys games have typically not been notorious for their stories, although the writing has never been bad. Ys VIII seeks to remedy that through a focus on smaller, more relatable stories. Each of the 20 or so castaways from the Lombardia have their own set of quests and dialogue, each related to their own individual struggles in this strange environment. Whether we’re referring to the nun questioning her faith, the woman desperate to be helpful while also worried about her missing husband, the officer hunting down a serial killer he believes was on the Lombardia, or the medical student questioning whether medicine is right for him… each of these little stories plays out on this island, and they all help to further the overall attachment you have to the events.
These little stories draw focus to one of the game’s other strong points. They did a surprisingly good job of making events relevant to the situation. After all, we’re stranded on a deserted island, with very little realistic hope of ever escaping. Most of the quests derive out of that. One of the first quests you get is to gather the materials to make beds, for example. It is great to see the game remain grounded. For example, the game has no currency… you barter the goods you bring back with another villager (who was a merchant before being stranded) in Castaway Village who is responsible for the supplies everyone harvests. They may be willing to give you 4 branches in exchange for a log you found, or you might be able to trade in 10 pieces of ore to get a rarer metal. It’s a small detail, but sometimes it’s the little things that matter most of all. And Ys VIII goes to great lengths to make sure that things fit as best as they can.
Aside from the small character driven quests, there are two major stories unfolding in parallel. The first is the mystery of what sunk the Lombardia and how you are going to escape… the second: who is Dana? Unfortunately, discussing too much about this will venture into heavy spoiler territory, so I’ll simply say that I really enjoyed the way these stories gradually became intertwined. The one other thing I want to comment on may spoil certain events, but it is such a large part of the game that it’s not avoidable. Certain segments of the game take place in the past… and I found it really unique and fascinating the way the game made these segments have relevance, both from a story and a mechanical standpoint. While not quite as blatant, I was very much reminded of Chrono Trigger in very positive ways during some of these sections.
I do want to call attention to the localization which was so poorly handled that the developer acknowledged it and has promised to release a patch, updating and correcting the localization. While I am thoroughly pleased they’ve acknowledged it, it doesn’t change the fact that the game released with the major flaws it has. While the writing is still good enough that it rarely bothered me, there were certain key issues. The first of which is that certain words are overused to a degree that it becomes painful – most notably ‘notions’. The other key issue is that certain items are improperly translated, including – frustratingly – the crafted food items: literally half of the food has the wrong translations and provides a different effect from its stated one. These issues will likely be corrected soon, so I won’t count this too much against them… but it’s 2017 and this type of laziness shouldn’t still happen, and wouldn’t have happened if Gust hadn’t made the awful decision to change who they had localizing their titles.
Making a Map, and Checking it Twice
Ys is a series founded on exploration. In Ys VIII, Adol’s reason for exploration is not just for the sake of adventure or curiosity, but also out of a need to survive and a desperate desire to rescue the other passengers of the Lombardia from the harsh wilderness. And make no mistake, while Seiren is a lush, beautiful place… it is not a safe place to travel. There are countless types of dangerous animals waiting for you, and even the flora is not entirely benign.
Despite all that, there are plenty of reasons to venture out. Of course, the story tells you to go… and you’ll want to be a decent human being and save as many people as you can, won’t you? Aside from that, the game’s lush beauty will certainly drive some to explore. Others – like me – may be driven by the calls of loot. Treasure chests, harvest points, and monsters await around every corner… Still others may just want to relish in the responsive gameplay. But no matter what your reason, the game offers plenty of reasons to explore.
The game draws inspiration from the Metroidvanias that I love so much, utilizing a set of ‘Adventure Equipment’ to grant you different special abilities. Some of these are mere convenience – like the ability to run faster or gather loot from a wide area – but many of them offer you unique abilities that let you reach new areas. My favourite of these, of course, is the ever-popular double jump. Much like Metroidvanias of the past, as you explore Seiren, you’ll see things – platforms, walls, treasure chests – that you can’t quite cross. Places where you can see the goal, but just aren’t quite sure how you’ll reach it. And when, hours later, you get an item that lets you do something new, you’ll suddenly remember all of those areas that stopped you before… and have to revisit them all to find out what they were hiding from you.
Additionally, as another way to encourage re-exploration, there are certain parts of the game where you have to call for help upon the residents of Castaway Village to clear debris from the path, and each place requires a certain minimum number of Castaways to clear. This mechanic helps to ensure that even if you get a character you’re not particularly fond of, you’re usually happy to find another person. And the final scene when you’ve found all the castaways and remove the last obstacle is a great reward for tracking down every last individual and helping them.
With An Anchor Strike and Some Curvy Swords and Two Maces Made of Burrs
Combat in Ys VIII is built off of a high-action rock-paper-scissors style combat system. Each character has a type, defined by their weapon: Slash, Pierce, or Strike. Each type of attack is good against one type of enemy, mediocre against another, and poor against the final type. For example, Adol’s slash attacks deal great damage against a lot of the game’s plant-based enemies, but are awful against some of the flying enemies that Laxia’s rapier excels at.
A lot of action RPGs utilizing this style fall into the trap of making characters with the same attack type have the same style. Have you ever played a game where every blunt attacker was a sluggish brute, or every piercing weapon was a mid-range duelist using either a spear or a rapier? Ys VIII breaks that, for the most part, by offering drastically distinct playstyles based off of which characters you choose to use.
When I first met Ricotta, one of the game’s ‘Strike’ style attackers, I was immediately enthralled by the agile, temperamental attacks she used. Her combat fit her character so perfectly – a girl raised in the wilds using a pair of large, heavy plants on vines to pummel enemies in a frantic flurry reminiscent of nothing quite as much as a small child throwing a violent temper tantrum. It was a stark, yet very welcome, contrast to Sahad using his giant anchor to methodically wreak havoc through his foes. A similar contrast can be found between Laxia’s rapier and Hummel’s rifle. The two most similar are Adol and Dana, but even their styles are distinct enough that there’s a learning curve when switching. These distinct styles made picking your ideal party a real decision, and it made swapping party members an easy way to freshen things up for yourself.
Aside from party choice, the biggest features of the game’s battle system are the dodges and blocks. Sure, as long as you’re not in the direct line of fire, you usually won’t take damage… but if you perfectly time a dodge, you get a moment where everything slows down and you can reposition or attack without interference. Additionally, timing a block just right awards a brief period of invulnerability, during which every attack you do deals critical damage. These elements took a combat system that otherwise might have been little more than button-mashing and added a welcome layer of consideration to it… especially on hard difficulty where many attacks dealt a significant portion of your health and healing items were not always easy to acquire. The dodge and block system meant that, with sufficient patience and skill, it was possible to take down foes far stronger than you, which is always a great feeling.
Obviously, Ys VIII is not a graphical powerhouse in the vein of Horizon… but it doesn’t have to be. A charming art style, brilliant colour palette, and rich environments more than make up for any age that might show in the graphics… and vibrant characters and monsters help make this island feel alive. Alongside this we have a soundtrack that, while it doesn’t elevate the game, does do a good job of fitting in with the environments and events. Despite the somewhat awkward localization, I do feel as though the voice actors did the best you could expect given the circumstances, and helped to create a number of truly memorable scenes.
Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is one of the best action RPGs I’ve ever played, The way it mixes metroidvania elements into the classic ARPG format is something I hope others take heed of and try to emulate, because it is a rare mix that just seemed to work perfectly. Really the only problems I can find with this game are all related to the localization. It really is that fun.