Ys I & II Chronicles Review
There are two ways to react to Ys I & II Chronicles. Sentimental gamers may look at it with nostalgia, fondly remembering the earliest days of the action-RPG. More cynical gamers (or practical ones) might echo the words of a great sage: “This is from back when people were stupid.”
Explaining what the deal here is requires a history lesson. Ys and Ys II were developed for Japanese personal computers in 1987 or so, back before most anyone reading this was born. They were pretty big hits in Japan at the time and were ported all over the place, most famously to NEC's PC-Engine CD-ROM system. There, they got a deluxe compilation treatment with updated graphics and sound.
The same machine came to America (where it was known as the Turbografx-CD), and the Ys adventures came along with it. The games found themselves a cult following over here—not a big one because the Turbo CD hardware cost nearly $700 in 2011 money, but a rabid one because their animated cinemas and CD audio were way, way ahead of the technology curve. The original Ys I & II had production values that mainstream gamers wouldn’t enjoy until the dawn of the PlayStation generation.
Because parts of the Ys collection were beyond the bleeding edge, they helped hide the fact that some other parts were a bit behind. That’s where the trouble with this remake comes into focus. See, in some ways it’s very faithful to its original inspiration. The original version didn’t have an “attack” button, and neither does this one. Combat is a matter of aiming the little hero at the bad guys and barreling into them full speed—it’s not even on the level of the original Legend of Zelda. In theory, hitting a target from the right direction deals damage and keeps the charging hero from taking any damage himself, but in practice … Well, there’s a knack for it that develops after a while. Still, the hit detection can be painfully random.
Ys feels like nothing so much as Pac-Man without the maze, which is a strange thing to try and imagine, but bear with us. Even though there aren't as many walls to direct things most of the time, the challenge is the same: maneuver around to avoid the monsters and then run up to whack them from the side. Defense and offense are all part of one simple process. The tactics for killing almost every enemy are the same, repeated over and over. You may never have played Pac-Man without the maze before, but trust us when we say it gets old awfully fast.
Give Xseed Games credit for chutzpah. They turned all this into a bullet point on the back of the box: “Take on enemies with unique buttonless combat!” (It’s only “unique” if you never played Hydlide, of course. Or any roguelike dungeon hack ever.)
The first two Ys games show their age in some other unpleasant ways. The pace is very slow (these are ‘80s vintage RPGs, so expect to do a whole lot of grinding for experience), and figuring what else there is to do can lead straight to a thick brick wall. Even the game manual itself admits that the scenario design is prone to causing “brain-melting frustration.” Unlocking the next key plot trigger tends to be a matter of tedious nit-picking or totally random guesswork. Xseed went so far as to throw in a complete Ys I walkthrough, knowing that almost everyone playing would need to run for help at some point or another.
In all sincerity, Falcom deserves credit for at least making the new versions look and sound beautiful. The redrawn character artwork looks great on the PSP screen. New 3D effects jazz up the gameplay graphics a touch, and the soundtrack is justifiably famous, a kicking collection of upbeat heavy rock tunes. There are three different versions available to pick from: Two are re-arranged modern versions, one synthesized and one with live instruments, while the third is the chiptune classic from the Japanese PC-88 computer. Retro fiends are going to love that one.)
Ultimately, though, the pretty graphics and sound just make this collection a finer gallery piece. The refinement doesn't make these games any more fun to play. Ys I & II deserve their honored place in history, but from now on, they should probably stay there.