Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim Review

A truce with the furries!


…I feel like the history, impact, and innovations of Nihon Falcom are enough to warrant a documentary of sorts or at least an expansive 5,000-word article.  Between the number of titles they made in the early 80s, the fact that they managed to bring the RPG genre over to Japan before Dragon Quest was more than a twinkle in Yuji Horii’s eyes, and their persistence in the Japanese PC market before finding a niche with the Trails and Ys series, there is a lot to cover when reciting the history of the company.  However, so much of that information is scattered across history, a language barrier, and is not of pertinent interest to more than a dedicated English speaking fanbase, who absorbed the history and achievements of this developer in a less concise or formal manner.  

Anyways, the relevant history here is that, after establishing the Ys series as a staple throughout the 80s and 90s, Falcom let the series sit for a while following the release of Ys V as they transitioned away from making games for Japanese computer to making games for Windows for about 7 years, before finally deciding to take a chance with a brand new entry in this series, Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim.  A title that would reinvent the mold and set a standard that the series refined and iterated upon with Oath in Felghana and Origin, culminating in this narratively disconnected yet mechanically related trilogy.  One that should have an informal name used by fans, but it doesn’t, so I just abbreviate the subtitles and call it the ANOFO trilogy for short.

Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PSP, PS2
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: XSEED Games/Marvelous USA

Following series tradition, Ark of Napishtim begins with nation saving, evil thwarting, hero guy Adol Christin being translocated into a new foreign land across fantasy Europe/Africa and unknowingly becoming tangled in the weeds of something destructive or otherwise evil.  This time the setting is that of the Canaan Islands, a landmass protected by a raging vortex that ravages all ships that dare pass, including Adol’s, sending him ashore where he is cared for and mingles with the local inhabitants, the Rheda.  A race of humans with exaggerated elf ears and tails, making them kinda-sorta-furries, presumably because somebody at Falcom wanted to go after that audience, but was only allowed to go halfway there out of fear of alienating others.  

Here, Adol discovers other individuals who have washed ashore and sought to establish a settlement of their own, often drawing the ire of the indigenous peoples, and establishing a dose of racial tension that Adol attempts to ease and mend by serving as an intermediary.  It’s a compelling concept in and of itself, bolstered through flavor text and contrast in both the design of the towns and the way the citizens discuss one another.  All of which billows and grows until the progress made by these groups is disrupted through the introduction of a roguish rival character, nasty elemental faeries, and a black ship of people who ransack the town of the indigenous people and kidnap them as slaves.  

When writing it out so matter of factly, it makes the story sound like some sort of grander racial allegory.  However, this entire angle is mostly forgotten during the final stretch of the game, which is about preventing an edgy bishonen boy from using his tool of dark and black from making a great big kaboom.  All of which is a perfectly functional and engaging enough plot, but it does strike me as the development team simply not being able to think of a compelling way to craft an appropriately bombastic conclusion, and scurrying away into the comfort and predictability of genre staples.  

Speaking of genre staples, or rather Falcom staples, the story is also expanded through heavy amounts of flavor text as the dozens of NPC villagers throughout both towns do change their dialogue after most story events.  It is a genuinely impressive detail for those who love this game and its world, but in order to grasp the true crux of each character’s background and how their stories relate to the greater narrative, it requires a lot of dedication from the player.  A dedication that I always lacked, given how reserved the personalities of most characters are, and how the act of talking to roughly 30 characters in a row, after every plot point, becomes repetitive for me sooner than it becomes even remotely fulfilling.  

Still, the story and narrative, however good or bad, is not something I would consider to be one of the main draws of the Ys series, despite having originally been one of its selling points.  Up until now, the series was well known for its auto-attack diagonal-ramming bump system as seen in Ys I, II, and IV (III was a sidescroller and V was a Zelda-like) but just about all of that was reinvented here.  Attacking is manual once again, a jump is added for light bits of platforming, more attack options, and regenerating super moves are thrown in for good measure, though their gradual introduction and long recovery times don’t help establish them as part of the player’s repertoire.  

It is all relatively simple, but it’s an easy to grasp system punctuated both with a visual flair in the form of flashy hit sparks, resources dropped by enemies, and bursts of both color and blood that accompany every enemy’s defeat.  The act of dispatching enemies is often very expedient, with the bulk of them going down in a few hits, and the pace of the game, despite not featuring a run button or the like, is kept fairly fast.  Adol has a good determined stride and the environments are well balanced in terms of not only their scale but variety.  Small enemy gauntlets are peppered with incidental platforming, rewards are discoverable at a steady rate when exploring dungeons, and with enemies dropping meaningful increments of gold, sword upgrade rocks, experience, and healing items, exterminating them does always feel like it contributes to something greater.  

The pace, rewards, and flair are also heightened by the slight pushback the game presented the player with, never being overbearing or too difficult (at least on normal difficulty), but demanding the player be active and attentive to their surroundings.  Damage comes quick and continuous due to a lack of iframes or blink time, enemies can both hit hard and frequently, and being on one’s toes is a necessity given how the difficulty ebbs and flows through the introduction of new enemies in every new environment.

This challenge is enhanced by the Catastrophe mode added into the official international release of the PC version.  When playing in Catastrophe mode, Adol automatically uses whatever healing items he found, they cannot be purchased, and all instances of healing items found in treasure chests are replaced.  This might sound like it makes the game far more challenging, but it really doesn’t.  Health drops, while larger and more infrequent than those seen in later games, still come with enough regularity to get through the harsher sections and bosses merely require a bit of perseverance or strategy to defeat, rather than spamming healing items.  If anything, I actually really appreciated getting to know the patterns of these large imposing enemies, as their moves are well-telegraphed for the most part, the battles themselves do not go on for especially long, and they are these moments of sheer spectacle where you see these large, unique, 3D creatures that frequently dwarf Adol.

As a whole, I would consider the game to be a very approachable action RPG, where player inputs are simple, there is not much to manage or balance in one’s playstyle, but through this slight tension and speed, it manages to remain a rewarding and compelling experience that I gleefully blazed through… for the most part.  

There are certain… aged attributes to The Ark of Napishtim.  The lack of any quest signifiers or reminders makes it easy to get lost or lose track of what the player is supposed to do without the aid of a guide.  The mechanics, while simple for the most part, boast a level of hidden depth that is not used for combat as much as navigation.  Such as how the yellow sword can propel Adol over large gaps with repeated thrusts, or… the dash jump.  An ability to long jump that I could never fully get my head around or perform regularly due to the finicky nature of the inputs, which almost locked me away from certain optional items and environments.  

However, the PC is a very versatile platform, and through the use of a program like AutoHotKey, and code provided by Steam user Slaynie, it is possible to map the dash jump to a key and perform it with ease.  This does not excuse this bafflingly convoluted input from being in a game originally released for PC, a platform where inputs should never need to be more complex than pressing two keys at once.  But at least it’s better than bashing one’s head against an immovable object for 30+ minutes… which I still did before I gave up and took the easy way out.

Before getting into the presentation, I feel that another history lesson is in order.  While most developers grit their teeth and learned how to make 3D games the hard way in the late 90s, Falcom was far more apprehensive of the third dimension and did not ship a game that used polygonal graphics until Dinosaur Resurrection in 2002.  Partially because they did know how to make really good sprite art and had no reason to stop, and partially because of the limited power of their audience’s home computers, their sole development platform from 1996 to 2002.  When it came time to revitalize the Ys series in 2003, they opted to go for something of a half-step, using pre-rendered sprites for all characters and regular enemies while implementing 3D environments and bosses.

Personally, I have never been fond of pre-rendered sprites.  They are the compressed version of something far more detailed and visually compelling, and there really is no good way to smooth them out or enhance their detail without smudging the sprites into a blurry mess.  With sprite assets, they look wonderful when nearest neighbor sampling of an equivalent.  With illustrated art, there are plenty of great ways to upscale it to higher resolutions.  With polygonal assets, anti-aliasing can do so much to enhance things.  But with pre-rendered sprites?  At the very least I do not know a way to make them look as good as they ought to, and Ys VI is no exception.

Using the default and advertised settings of filtered textures, characters and enemies alike look ill-defined and weirdly cheap in their appearance, and when unfiltered, they look considerably better, but there’s something about the way the characters are modeled that bugs me.  The large emotionless heads, lack of mouths, weird stubby hands and large hands, and sizable feet all make them look like porcelain dolls.  This should have really bothered me throughout the game, but due to how distant everything is, how fast the gameplay can be, and the fact that story sequences are driven more by dialogue, this, fortunately, did not bother me too much.

It also helps that these not-so-great character sprites are overlaid on some utterly gorgeous 3D backgrounds.  Falcom’s approach of detailed sprite-based textures overlaid on geometrically simple 3D environments, peppered with minor details such as water ripples and leaves fluttering in the wind is an approach to environmental design that I really wish was more common across the industry.  It manages to capture a retro-flavored look while never compromising on polish or detail, and never being very demanding from a technical perspective.  That being said, Ys VI does have a few instances where I had to question the artistic sensibilities of its developers.

While the towns are lush with detail in the design of each dwelling, and the greenery of the rolling fields and deep forests are sights to behold, the dungeons occupy a more curious aesthetic.  They still reprise all the splendor and detail of other environments, but often relying on more mundane themes and dull color schemes.  Between brown mountains, ruins in a black void, and the dark dank cavern of navigational nightmares, a lot of the game does not push its artistic merits as hard as it could.  I can appreciate, at least to an extent, making these environments more muted and natural, and there are a number of diverse locales that pop up periodically, but it makes me pine for the variety of later games.

Meanwhile, the soundtrack is a fantastic effort with basically no shortcomings or downsides.  Falcom’s music team is well renowned for their compositions and innovations towards computer music, and when it came to creating the score for Ys VI, they took full advantage of the technological innovations of the preceding years.  What became of this is an eclectic, experimental, yet consistently energetic score that really does not sound like a fantasy adventure when divorced from the game itself, yet does a monumental amount to enhance the mood and character of both events and environments with memorable and catchy compositions.  None of which is marred by the other aspects of the soundscape, as the sound effects that come natural with gameplay, from the pitter-patter of Adol as he walks on different surfaces and the death cries of enemies all blend into something that manages to work, and keeps the game auditorily stimulating through and through.

Overall, Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim is a great little action RPG, barring a spotty series of shortcomings.  It does not take its story as far as I would like it too, the sprite work is a bizarre half step that does not age exceptionally well, and the game has a fair share of archaicness that makes the use of supplemental materials, such as a guide, recommended.  However, it is propelled through dazzlingly crafted environments, a slapping soundtrack, and a combat system that, while unrefined compared to its successors, is still a thoroughly fun time.

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