Seven lands saved from dark powers beyond mankind, and Adol still gets no respect.
Ys Seven Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed) and PSP
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: XSEED Games/Marvelous USA
Continuing the well-trodden tradition of its series, Ys Seven follows the demon-slaying country-saving perpetually chosen-one Adol “the Red” Christin as he arrives in a new place, learns that everything is amiss due to some miscellaneous magical brouhaha, and sets off to save the world because that’s what an adventurer does. Except this time Adol is not alone, as he is joined by both his reliable wall crushing companion, Dogi, and a jaunty troupe of tropey teenyboppers and twenty-somethings who join together to… hold on, let me make sure I get this right. …To awaken the five elemental dragons in order to bring peace to this land, prevent the spreading calamity of aggressive monsters, and save the world from its predetermined destruction by defying destiny and defeating dastardly deities.
Now, the simplistic narrative is nothing too out of the ordinary for the Ys series, which has never boasted the most nuanced or interesting narratives, despite featuring the same level of depth and flavor text that developer Nihon Falcom is renowned for. However, there is something especially… dull about the story and all associated elements seen in Ys Seven. It is executed with an earnestness and sincerity that feels unprecedented and misguided considering how familiar the story is even by the standards seen a decade before its initial 2009 release.
Aside from the occasional funny line or a plot point that could have veered the plot into a direction I found more interesting and… didn’t, I cannot think of anything I actually liked about the story, the cast, or even the world of Ys Seven. The plot synopsis reads like something from a parody of JRPGs. The cast rarely gets the chance to expand their personalities due to the imposed urgency of the story, and what’s there makes it all too easy to dismiss them as archetypes. And the country of Altago consists of plains, forests, deserts, mountains, and watery ruins. A list of conceptually blasé locales that are only given a hint of uniqueness in the form of the more worldly outfit designs of certain characters and NPCs. It is a narrative that I routinely felt the need to force myself through for the sake of completion, rolling my eyes as I saw it conform with my expectations all the way to its ultimate conclusion.
However, for as much as I love and value the story seen in games, I can very easily discard and dismiss a lacking plot if the gameplay is sufficiently enjoyable, and from what I played between Ys Chronicles I & II, Ark of Napishtim, Oath in Felghana, and Origin, what always drove the series is the action. The bombastic boss battles, the frantic Zelda-adjacent dungeon crawling, and the well-aged environments that mingle with flashy effects and a jamming soundtrack to create a series of titles that I greatly enjoyed (except for I & II, which are quite archaic) when I played them 5 to 7 years ago. This really wasn’t carried over to Ys Seven, or, at the very least, the spirit and fine details weren’t.
Both are action RPGs that task the player to explore a series of expansive fields and winding dungeons while dispatching small pockets of enemies with a mix of regular and special attacks, while gathering gold and other monetary equivalent materials, with each major section being punctuated by an imposing boss battle that represents a considerably difficult spike, and may necessitate grinding an extra level or two. However, the ebb and flow of the core game loop was changed into something that in general, and especially when compared to its predecessors, comes across as needlessly padded.
Traversal feels slower, as the game’s scale and world were made to accommodate Adol’s faster walking, or rather rolling, speed, and what were once minor obstacles in one’s journey are notably girthier, making the average encounter take longer than before. The combat has been given more depth than the frantic button bashing and skill spamming of its predecessors by switching out the jump for a roll and introducing multiple playable characters, a skill system, and charge moves to create something that, in theory, is more deliberate. In execution, it simply replaces one combat loop for another. One where the player-controlled character must be switched between regularly to take advantage of enemy weaknesses, charge strikes need to be used on a constant basis to gain SP for skills, and skills lack the same clarity and simplicity as before, as what were 3 contextually clear abilities were expanded into roughly 70 different methods of dealing damage more efficiently.
None of this necessarily ruins the game or makes it bad, but the design here, and the dodge button tapping and attack button holding gameplay loop combined with needing to constantly jump from character to character, simply comes across as middling to me. There is some good audiovisual feedback to the player’s actions and enemies are considerably varied for a game like this, rarely ever recycling them, but at the same time, there is also little in the gameplay that kept me wanting to actively engage in combat and battle enemies. The core formula is obvious, basic, and by being such a combat-heavy game, there really is nothing to spice up the gradually developing doldrums of fighting enemies other than bosses.
Conceptually, their bosses are meant to be the real showcase examples for this combat system and force players to toil and try their darndest to overcome these massive enemies. They have diverse attack patterns, brutally shift from one attack to the next, are dramatically harder than anything else seen in the game by a dramatic margin, and… I don’t like them. Their challenge comes from their hearty health reserves, a habit of unleashing frantically distributed pieces of low-poly damage-dealing gobbledygook, and occasional issues with the camera, which struggles to keep the entire battlefield in view, and make it all too easy to ram into something unintentionally.
They do reprise the spirit and idea of the bosses seen in prior titles, but whereas they were designed around being defeated through clear patterns and determination, these are a lot harder to grasp. It feels like they were designed around the fact that the player can now craft, buy, and use healing items to cheese their way through bosses by relying on a steady IV drip of HP to get them through the thick of it. It makes for a less enjoyable, strategic, and ultimately rewarding encounter, and as somebody who hates using healing items, this did a lot to try my patience with the game. Once I reached the boss for the third dungeon, I realized that I simply was not having fun, and would not have fun if I continued down this trek.
The disinteresting story combined with a gameplay loop that even then, around hour 12 of 25, was getting on my nerves left me contemplating whether or not I should save myself the trouble and just call it here, put out a partial review, and just never beat this game. But I decided against that, loaded up cheat engine, and raised my characters’ levels by 20, thus turning the game into a breezy and less involved affair where combat went by far faster, bosses were pushovers, and healing was rendered a complete non-issue.
Though that was not the only… deficiency I sought to improve through the magic of memory editing. I used it to have money and materials dropped by enemies automatically gravitate towards the player character, a feature otherwise locked behind an item that I missed and could not get during the middle 40% of the game. I used it to get the super weapons and best armor for each character, as otherwise you need to grind for one of the dozens of different enemy drop materials seen throughout this game, as I didn’t want to tac an extra 2-3 hours to my playthrough. And I used the EXP boost again prior to the final boss, a three-phase behemoth that requires the player to use every playable character and serves as an unwanted and unwarranted difficulty spike.
Even after these attempted improvements to my enjoyment, I still found the preceding dungeons and all related encounters to lack variety and impact. There is little in the way of puzzles platforming, or mechanical upgrades that exist beyond number boosts and passive contextual problem solvers, leaving the game to support itself almost entirely on the merits of its unremarkable story, procedural combat, overbearing boss battles, and its presentation.
The land of Altago is not especially compelling conceptually with most locales embodying familiar elemental themes and fantasy world designs. Yet the vibrant colors, diverse enemy designs, flashy hit sparks, and smooth animations all mingle together to create something that is visually attractive in and of itself. However, the game is also given a distinctive style due to the limitations the game was developed under. It all looks quite nice considering this game was originally a late PSP title, but it is given another layer of visual flair through the power of higher resolutions, unfiltered textures, and several layers of anti-aliasing.
The chunky character models lack modern luxuries like expressions and fingers, but they clean up surprisingly nicely, breaching the threshold between early 3D jankiness and fully defined representations of their respective character designs. The environments shine vividly when the game sweeps back and adopts a wider forward-facing camera angle, and even when it does hunker down and adopt a downward angle, as it does for the bulk of the game, the environments do resonate with a personality that is made all the more clear as they are cleanly presented as they were designed, without any technical limitations or ugly texture filtering, which is enabled by default for some daft reason. This lack of limitations does expose certain shortcuts used by the original development team, such as how certain textures were stretched, or chunky and low-res certain UI elements are, though that in and of itself can be considered an acquired taste and one I can quite fond of.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack features the same pomp and vibrancy the series is known for, with the second rendition of the overworld theme, the boss theme, and Crossing Rage all being personal highlights for me. However, much like in their attempt to improve and reinvent the gameplay system, a certain something was lost in the creation of this new score. It lacks a certain punchiness, a rock-infused edge to cause these tracks to burst with energy and drive the player to venture straight onwards towards whatever fiend or threat lay before them. It’s the nebulous details, the mixing and instrumentation, that causes the tracks of Seven to resonate more softly than, say, Scarlet Tempest, Illburns Ruins, or A Searing Struggle, just to name a few. Partially because of this, the soundtrack can often be overshadowed through the deluge of sound effects that come with the general flow of the game, and overall doesn’t mesh into something as energetic and addictive as the soundscape seen in prior titles.
“It’s not bad, I just don’t like it and think it’s worse,” is a pretty apropos way to surmise my thoughts on Ys Seven. The earnest yet creatively dry story, the procedural doldrums of the gameplay, and irksome boss battles all conjoin, commingle, and culminate into a game that I found to be frustrating at points, yet largely inoffensive, never doing anything egregious, while also doing precious little to make me care all too much about what I was playing. All of this is greatly upsetting, as I do try to approach every game I cover with open arms and an open heart, especially if it comes from a series that I enjoy.
Throughout its earlier iterations, the Ys series represented something special to me. A high octane action RPG platformer that mingled a pumping score with a flashy presentation, fast kinetic combat, with light exploration, routine upgrades, and an assortment of imposing boss battles. None of the games were perfect, but they had a distinct flavor and while none of the games were even close to perfect, I still loved them and wanted to see where the series could evolve from the heights as the developers continued to refine and develop its riveting core gameplay.
However, that did not happen with Ys Seven. A title that marked a paradigm shift in how these games were designed and set a new standard that the series has been building on top of for the past decade, and been met with greater success by doing so. It is an unfortunate situation by my measurement, yet few people seem to agree with me on this front, and attest that the series has only gotten better with its most recent entries, particularly Ys VIII. Maybe I will give that a go later on, but for now… I think I’m just going to play the older titles again.