Ys 7 (イースVII) -- Thank You Falcom; Thank You Xseed

I cannot express too much my joy in publisher XSeed’s decision to license not one, but six Falcom games for the PSP. As mentioned in my review of Cladun: This is an RPG, the PSP is a challenging system due to both rampant piracy and consumer disinterest. I bought the special edition of Ys 7 in thanks, and listen to the bonus soundtrack CD at ear-damaging volume while on the road, with the windows rolled down for the benefit of my fellow drivers, who tend to look at the large, bearded man in a tiny Ford Focus head banging to Japanese synth-rock with looks of dismay and confusion.

I am also a fairly recent convert to the tiny cult of dedicated Falcom fans. The Ys series received only sporadic releases in the United States, the most impressive on relatively obscure consoles, with much fanfare regarding the incredible soundtracks. Not being one of the two people I have ever known who owned a Turbografx-16, nor having played Ys III (the other game in the series released in America, a much wider one at that), I remained generally ignorant about Falcom until a friend bought Ys: The Ark of Napishtim for the Playstation 2. Since then, I’ve played through the majority of the virtual console port of Ys 1&2 on RockManXZ24’s Wii, downloaded Vantage Master Online for free (legally), given up on Gurumin for the PSP, and toyed with Sierra’s port of Sorcerian utilizing DOSBox emulation. Ys 7 is sadly the first only Falcom game I own on physical media for its platform of origin. As such, it holds a special place in my collection of nerd-memorabilia. I stopped just short of actually putting the cloth map that came with the deluxe edition on my wall.
Geeking out over the game would be pointless, though, if it sucked. Ys 7 is a good game with some minor flaws, the growing pains of a very conservative series attempting new things. For the past decade, Falcom developed almost exclusively for Japanese PCs, where their original development started, not coincidentally, and for a relatively niche audience. For the first time since 1995’s Ys 5 for the Super Famicom, the developers at Falcom have designed a game specific to a console system, and a portable one at that (another first for the series). For the first time in the series, the player controls a party of characters rather than series protagonist Adol alone, and the game provides a considerably larger amount of traditionally Japanese RPG elements: weapons, equipment, party customization and dialogue sequences.

Typically, in an Ys game, the player controls series protagonist Adol through a tightly woven adventure. From a cursory view, the series seems similar to Nintendo’s earlier Zelda games, with minimal equipment and items, but Ys adds stat-levelling and adrenaline raising, arcade style boss fights that require analysis of attack patterns and weak points. The hybridization proved itself a strong point of the series, especially in the recent PC titles, for which Falcom designed a fast-paced, fluid combat system.
Ys 7, while still quite linear compared to, for instance, a Bethesda title, adopts a lot of looser mechanics. Aside from controlling three characters, the inventory has expanded due to a crafting system. The player can now make new weapons, armor, equipment and items from materials collected either from killing enemies or from drop points on the map. To make this worthwhile, there’s a large amount of equipment, much of it specific to one or two characters. The boss battles also lose some of their difficulty from the party mechanic, if one of the characters dies, healing items can revive them, and even without an item, two other characters remain to continue the fight.

The sheer amount of dialogue gets in the way too. Ys 7 does what makes a number of Tri-Ace games infuriating: it forces the player to explore a town environment and sit through an almost mind-numbing set-up before actually getting to the actual gameplay (before any Tri-Ace fans get upset, I happen to account at least two Tri-Ace games among my favorites). The last portion of the game even brings all the characters together for a tedious excursion in back-tracking.

If these complaints sound peculiar, it is because the Ys series (and Falcom as a developer) has peculiarly avoided them while many other Japanese developers wallow in such dated conventions. But for all that, Ys 7 is not only a good game; it’s one of the best in a genre now largely indistinct: the action RPG.

Ys 7 plays as though games like Magic of Scheherazade and Beyond Oasis continued on a steady course through the previous two console generations. The battle system is something of a marvel; the three party characters have speed, power and balance attacks, all of which move quite fast, and switching between characters at the press of a button makes the fighting both breezy and hectic. The addition of a “dash” button speeds up not only the combat, but exploration, and the party AI also works quite well, with the non-player characters behaving properly (i.e. actually attacking nearby enemies). The dungeons expand on themselves with simple “collect item/use item” puzzles that make the most of the environments spatial relations.

And the music is fucking great, a considerable boon to the player, given how often he or she will be hearing the tracks. Falcom made its name amongst a lot of players because of that specialty, rightfully so, though they also deserve credit for their actual art design. Other reviewers have noted that the developer has not pushed the PSP hardware graphically, which is true, but the actual art direction is peerless. Altago, the game's setting, is analogous to ancient Carthage in the Ys milieu, and the game's environments display an appropriately fantastic rendering of old Mediterranean architecture and scenery. Even with the general sloppiness of the pacing (and some of the writing), the story feels like it came right out of a mid-80’s OVA, hardly as overwrought as many of its peers, and a often a good deal more charming (the self-awareness in much of the dialogue does no hurt either).

And that’s Falcom’s gift. Ys 7 is one of their most recent titles, and it makes more concessions to contemporary design than most of their other games, but it still feels like a classic title made by people blissfully unaware of what people say about how games are supposed to be these days. And what a relief that is. Games that feel as though people made them rather than automated factories come by less and less often these days.

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