It’s a pretty tough ask for a game released way back in 2006 to relaunch on modern consoles without losing a little bit of its luster. Case in point: Nihon Falcom’s critically venerated action-RPG Ys Origin. Though times have indeed changed, this prequel to the Ys series is a great example of how well crafted and timeless game design can often age graciously and gracefully; it may not be the most well known action-RPG around, but I’m hard-pressed to think of many that are as fastidiously constructed, particularly from the mid-noughties.
The once prosperous and titular land of Ys has been plunged into chaos; mighty demons have overrun the kingdom, leaving only death and bedlam in their wake. Amidst all the turmoil, the people of Ys retreat into the protection of the holiest of temples atop the highest of mountains. However, this just wasn’t enough. The demonic invasion continued their assault and it was only when the Twin Goddesses Reah and Feena uprooted the entire temple and lifted it into the safety of the heavens above, did things finally start looking up for the survivors of Ys.
Somewhat amusingly, this still was not enough. Instead of throwing in the towel and calling it a day, the demonic invasion got to work hastily constructing a huge, foreboding tower into the heavens on high to quash the remaining survivors of the land of Ys — those pesky demons are bloody dedicated, I’ll give them that. When the demons finally arrived, all-out war ensued.
In the violence and the confusion, both of the Twin Goddesses went missing, leaving behind a bewildered assemblage of priests, knights and sorcerers. With the intent of locating the Twin Goddesses, a search party was formed, with the sole purpose of tracking down Reah and Feena and securing their safety. Your job is to ascend the demonic tower, discover the whereabouts of the deities and bring them back home safely.
As you can see, the game leans quite heavily into its narrative, which is actually rather refreshing. The story is by no means revelatory, but it is handled well, with good quality localization, sound dialogue and thoughtful writing to keep you invested in the adventure. Narratively, the game throws in enough twists, turns and intriguing plot threads to keep you guessing, and the hammy villains are both fun and silly, which also adds a little levity into the mix.
It’s important to note that Ys Origin can be played using one of two very different characters from the off (with a third hidden character that unlocks on completion of the game). These contrasting characters affect the story distinctively in various, subtle ways. The overarching plot remains the same, but the play styles of the differing characters are distinctive and unique enough to warrant a second play through.
The humble and insecure holy knight Yunica Tovah specializes in melee attacks, is armed with a battle axe and also procures a really cool fire sword, while the calm and collected Hugo Fact is a powerful mage that specializes in ranged attacks and magic missiles, though lacks speed. Each playable character changes up the pace and momentum of the moment-to-moment gameplay significantly, with Hugo morphing the game into more of an arcade-esque twin-stick shooter, in stark contrast to Yunica’s emphasis on measured, close quarter combat.
The gameplay of Ys Origin is where the title truly shines brightest. The arcade real-time combat is reminiscent of Supergiant Games’ first-class action-RPG Bastion (I know, Ys came first!) and it only takes a few minutes to realize that its snappy and satisfying combat hasn’t aged one iota since its 2006 release. For the most part, the standard grunt-like enemies that stand in your way pose little discernible threat, but instead dole out the XP for you to level up your character, and SP to purchase special blessings that will aid you in your quest. These blessings are essential for your journey and include strengthening your armor, increasing your stationary heal rate, reducing damage from dangerous terrain and much, much more. Their impact is considerable and often make a meaningful influence on the way combat unfolds.
Essentially, there’s a wealth of welcome depth on the RPG side of things which really helps to add a little more meat to the gameplay’s bones. It’s super fun dashing around the maps taking down monsters and soaking up their spoils of war, slowly growing more powerful with every victory. Furthermore, there are even some neat Metroidvania elements mixed in that open up secret areas and gives you access to valuable treasures that’ll help upgrade your character. And by gosh, you’re going to need it. For the bosses. Oh Lord, the bosses.
The bosses are indeed another indisputable highlight and a good chunk of them are as hard as a packet of diamond gobstoppers. The majority are ruthlessly designed and will test your mettle and muscle memory in the very same ways a Souls game can. The large, screen-filling bosses are not only some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the game, but they also look the part, too. Nygtilger the Pestilent Arthropod, for instance, is a giant centipede that creeps and crawls around a central spire spewing forth poison bombs and bolts of lightning with fervent glee. It often takes a while to learn the various patterns of the creepy looking behemoths, but it’s all the more satisfying when you finally bring them down.
Interspersed between the boss battles and the exploration are some well-placed environmental and exploratory puzzles. They won’t exactly hurt your brain though, as most boil down to using a particular item, lighting certain torches with your fire magic, using a specialized ability or eliminating a specific group of powerful glowing monsters. The game often communicates what it wants from you in a passive but effective way that’ll help minimize any head scratching that may occur.
What’s also worthy of note is the terrific J-pop soundtrack. Each zone has its own theme music and its confluence of fast-paced over-the-top guitar and gentle sweeping ’80s-inspired synths is heady stuff. It also stands up surprisingly well in the visual department, too. There’s a lot of environmental variety to delve into, from submerged caverns to lava-filled dungeons to hefty dusty chambers brimming with sinking sand, to name but a few. Some of the environmental textures look a little flat by today’s standards, but its overall art-style, particularly in the static painterly cut-scenes, are admiringly realized. Further still, it runs very smoothly without any noticeable framerate drops, even when the going gets tough.
When all is said and done, Ys Origin is indeed a bit of a blast from the past and because of this some may well be perturbed by its old-school sensibilities and noughties style, but honestly, more fool them. Ys Origin is a wonderful action-RPG that is a handy reminder to us all that timeless, scrupulous game design often ages graciously, gracefully and beautifully.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.