The acclaimed Ys series is twenty years old this year and, as if to coincide with this anniversary, Ys Origin has finally made its way onto PS4 and PS Vita. And the fact that Ys Origin was originally released in 2006 is no detriment to it at all.
Ys Origin tells, somewhat obviously, the story that sets up the events in all of the subsequent Ys games. Being set some 700 years before the original, Ys Origin follows three playable characters, Yunica, Hugo and the enigmatic ‘Claw’ (available when you’ve beaten the game once with either of the other two), as they attempt to rescue Ys’ goddesses who have, for reasons known only to themselves, fled their floating stronghold to come down to the barren world below and are currently missing somewhere in the vicinity of the Devil’s Tower. It’s your job to guide your chosen champion up through the demon-infested Tower, battling fierce monsters, cunning traps and some of the toughest bosses since Dark Souls (though Ys Origin beat From Software to it by about three years) – all while drinking in the cutesy chibi art-style, the well-designed levels and the slightly over-the-top flashy weapon effects.
On the whole, the story is pretty solid. Told through standard JRPG-style exposition scenes with much scrolling text and often humorously emoting character models, it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill, dungeon-crawling, princess-saving type of plot (though there is plenty of both). Instead, it proffers a little bit of mystery and mysticism with your might and magic. Sure, there are a couple of characters that it’s hard to like but it gives you compelling enough reason to fight your way to the summit of the Devil’s Tower and, when you do, you won’t be disappointed.
That being said, with the possible exception of the ‘Claw’s arc, the story does act as a sort of framing device, interspersed throughout the actual gameplay to break up each section and give you a little respite from that last boss battle, as opposed to in any way informing or being a part of the gameplay. It’s something that a lot of games struggle with and, in fact, Ys Origin has engaging enough gameplay as it is, so it’s only going to be a problem if what you’re actually after is a walking simulator (and, if you are, what the heck are you doing here? Go and check out my review of The Town of Light, instead!).
Speaking of the gameplay, Ys Origin is one of the old breed (probably because it’s… well… old) where two attack buttons and one for jumping was enough for anyone. And while that might make it sound simple, Ys Origin can be anything but. With three difficulties to choose from, you can opt to breeze your way through the challenges on each floor or you can go all-out hard mode from the get-go with much tougher enemies and far less beneficial loot drops. If you’re more like me, though, you’ll go normal and, let me tell you, that’s challenge enough to be getting on with.
Though I’ve only died a few times to Ys Origin’s more standard mobs, plentiful variety in both enemy type and tactics means that you’re always going to be kept on your toes in a fight. It’s all pretty standard stuff at first but, eventually, you’ll come across melee enemies backed up by ranged attackers or enemies with shields, enemies impervious to certain types of attack and enemies whose offensive weapons mean you’ll only ever want to attack from behind. The distribution of enemies, too, can be slightly daunting at times and outright devilish at others, with clusters of tough mobs blocking your route backed up by a couple of hulking brutes for good measure.
These enemies pale in comparison to Ys Origin’s bosses, though. Every few floors you’ll come across a boss door and, provided you’ve picked up the necessary key to open it, you’ll have to defeat whatever’s on the other side before you can proceed on your ascent up the Tower. In true, classic boss style, each of these bosses will present a unique challenge and will often contain an element of puzzle solving as well as inevitably exchanging blows. Some bosses have specific weak spots that you’ll have to open up and attack, others have multiple areas about their person that you’ll need to destroy before you can take out the rest. Still more seem straight-up fights, but you’ll need to carefully examine their attacks and look for openings through which you’ll have a second or two to land hits of your own. Throw in multi-phase bosses, transforming bosses and bosses that can multiply themselves and you’ve got a whole host of nasty that’s a challenge fit for the most die-hard of hard-mode loving gamers.
The challenge is intensified by the positioning of save points in the guise of ‘Goddess statues’ throughout each level. These are unlockable points at which you can save the game and buy divine blessings; basically a sort of character levelling system without all of those tricksy numbers. However, the statues are far enough apart that finding one and being able to save your progress is incredibly rewarding and provide an area in which you can safely calm down for a second before plunging back into the action.
When you unlock a statue you are also able to fast-travel there, or to any previously unlocked statues, at any time by using a magic crystal given to you at the start of the game. It’s an important tool as each of the well-designed levels have at least one or two secrets to find – meaning that you’ll want to go back there when you’ve acquired a means of finding or unlocking it – and, as you progress through the game, you’ll come across a certain item which can be traded in at the base of the tower to increase your weapon’s effectiveness.
If the base game isn’t challenge enough for you, though, there’s still Time Attack and Arena Mode – available once you’ve beaten the game with all three characters. It’s advisable to play through at least three times, too; once with each character, as each provides a difference in gameplay due to their varied weapons and skills (with Hugo and the ‘Claw’ being more and more difficult again than Yunica) and the ‘Claw’s storyline and other gameplay elements are markedly different from those of the other two.
All in all, despite its age, Ys Origin is a solid dungeon-crawling RPG adventure to rival the best of current gen games. A compelling storyline and engaging and challenging gameplay combined with cute graphics that have transitioned remarkably well (apart from the pre-rendered 3D cutscenes… eurgh!) and a catchy, if slightly repetitive, soundtrack, make this a cracking time for newcomers and veterans of the Ys series alike. Well, them and anyone else who just wants to have fun playing a good game.