I wish that I had played more games in the venerable Ys action-RPG game series. I’ve played one or two, and completed Ys III: Wanderers From Ys on the SNES back in the early ’90s, but I’ve never really played the series enough to be considered a fan. That will change after playing the newest chapter in Nihon Falcom’s storied franchise, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana. The ever continuing adventures of the red headed Adol Christin and his blue-haired companion, Dogi, is not only one of the best action RPGs I’ve played this year, but it will rank as one of the best I’ve played ever.
Ys VIII continues to set the bar for tight, well-conceived combat and glorious music, two key components for any JRPG. Another major element of a solid JRPG is the story, and Ys VIII has that covered too. This time around, Adol and Dogi are working small jobs on a passenger ship, the Lombardia, as they sail to their next great adventure. The ship’s captain, Barbaros, knows that Adol and Dogi are renowned adventurers, and he tells Adol of a mysterious island that the ship will soon be passing. He warns Adol that if he ever wanted a true adventure, he should try seeking out Seiren Island.
As luck would have it, one night a Kraken attacks the ship and sinks it. Adol wakes up on the shores of the aforementioned Seiren Island, the cursed place that legend says no sailor has ever returned from. Adol begins to reconnect with other survivors, including old pal Dogi, the fiery Laxia, the burly fisherman Sahad, and Captain Barbaros, and together, they begin to build a new life on the island until they can be rescued or build a boat to escape.
This involves Adol and his team of adventurers seeking out supplies to build up the Castaway Village, with each new survivor that they come across bringing something new and needed to the burgeoning community. They find a medical student, who becomes the village doctor, mixing potions for Adol and team; a young blacksmith, who makes better weapons and armor, and enhances them periodically; a tailor, who creates accessories and outfits, and so much more. Seeking out additional survivors helps the village grow, but also helps Adol and his team advance deeper into the island, as the villagers will band together to clear paths, leaving the adventuring to the adventurers.
As Adol and his companions set out, they kill beasts for loot and gather needed supplies from rocks, trees, and plants around the island. Barbaros charges the team with completing a map, so as Adol explores, the map fills in, giving a better sense of the scope of the land. There’s even a fun fishing element, where the player can cast lines for fish, treasure, and more. Sometimes, the beasts strike back, and Adol must defend the village in action modes called Interceptions. Wave after wave of beasts attack the village defenses, and the player must kill them all before they break through. As you might imagine, these assaults get tougher and tougher as the game goes on.
In addition to the tale of survival on a cursed deserted isle, Ys VIII also has a side story, told in the beginning through Adol’s dreams. It centers on a maiden named Dana, and her own trials at a temple where she served long ago. Admittedly, the additional narrative doesn’t do much but serve as a respite from the action of the day-to-day life on Seiren. The mystery of Dana and her connection to Adol is murky at best, and the pay off isn’t worth the distraction.
Adol Christin’s story here is survival-based, which gives Ys VIII a much-needed sense of urgency and of accomplishment. Seeking out and finding new survivors helps the village grow, and collecting new and rare components gives the adventure team stronger weapons and armor — and they are needed. The island is home to some seriously tough beasts, including a T-Rex-like dinosaur that lives in the mist on the south part of the island, which will attack any who wander into the dense fog. The player feels the weight of their adventures each time the village gets upgraded, or a new survivor opens up a much-needed shop or provides an invaluable service. The story has sucked me in and drives me to keep playing, session after session, and I usually have to pull myself out of the game. That’s always a good sign.
Combat is handled in real time, as Adol and his team, which consists of two other active adventurers, hacking and slashing their way all over Seiren Island. Adol is a swordsman, and his attacks are rather basic. Laxia and Hummel are both “marksmen” (with Laxia using a classy fencer’s sword and Hummel using a rifle), while Sahad is a tank, who uses half of a ship’s anchor to crush enemies. The beauty here is that certain fighters are better against certain enemies, and switching out the lead (player controlled) fighter in the middle of combat is the key to success.
Pressing the square button switches the characters, so Adol could attack a wolf, and then the player can turn their attention to a swarm of wasps by switching to Laxia, who is strong against flying types. In the same beat, a shelled crab could attack, which could be easily defeated by Sahad and his weighty anchor. These on-the-fly character swaps make combat fun and exciting, without making it too complicated. After about 10 hours into the game, I was battling and switching, pulling off breaks and combos like it was second nature. Each character also has a mapped set of combat skills that can be devastating when used correctly.
The soundtrack in Ys VIII is once again some of the best in any game. The Ys series has won award after award for its music, and players who’ve played any game in the 30-year-old franchise understand why. This is a soundtrack that I could very easily listen to outside of the game setting, as the soft arias and faster-paced rock songs paint a wonderful picture of high adventure and sweeping, epic tales. The voice work is solid, with certain characters standing above the rest, and as the cast gets bigger and bigger with each new survivor, variation in voices becomes important.
If there is one down side to Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, it is in the graphics. The series has made a home for itself on the PS Vita, and ports to the PS4 are still relatively new. This game looks like a ported Vita game, with splotchy shadows and lighting effects on the surrounding environments, and undefined character shadows pulling the player out of the game experience. The character models and the use of color in their art design are executed well, but the background elements and weird, PS2-gen flora are a distraction. It doesn’t ruin the gaming experience by any stretch, but just know that the game is not the prettiest in the series, and the strong story and gameplay easily make up for the graphical shortcomings.
Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is a wonderful, epic journey of survival on a cursed island. The further adventures of Adol Christin and his pal Dogi push the storytelling element to the forefront, and then back it up with some of the best combat and music of any RPG out there, Japanese or otherwise. The 40 to 50-hour adventure is packed with action, and the village building element gives the game a fun new dimension. The dream/vision side story of the titular Dana doesn’t do much for the game as a whole, but when everything else is working, this and the shoddy, sometimes ugly graphics can easily be forgiven.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Despite the rough visuals and occasional storytelling misstep, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana delivers some of the best music and combat of any RPG out there.