Nihon Falcom’s Ancient Ys Vanished was a resounding success in Japan when it launched in 1987. Much like their earlier effort Dragon Slayer, Ancient Ys Vanished was an instrumental step in introducing action elements to the role-playing game genre. However, this game differed from Dragon Slayer in one instrumental factor: it ended on a cliffhanger. As such, to an even greater degree than usual, fans clamored for a sequel. Fortunately, they were in luck. Believing the story of Ancient Ys Vanished could not be contained in a single game, Nihon Falcom were in the process of developing a resolution. It was released one year after its predecessor for the NEC PC-8801 and PC-9801 under the name Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter. Even for those who enjoyed the original Ancient Ys Vanished, Ys II was considered a vast improvement in every significant way. What did this highly anticipated sequel bring to the table?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers for the series thus far.
Upon arriving in the land of Esteria, adventurer Adol Christin was approached by a fortune teller named Sara. She told him of a vision she had of a red-haired swordsman who would determine the fate of the land. Giving him a crystal, she implored Adol to scour the land in search of the six Books of Ys. These tomes originated in an ancient kingdom that suddenly disappeared seven-hundred years ago – the ideal utopia Ys. These books were written by the priests of Ys, and it was said that a curious power shall be bestowed upon whoever gathers them all and reaches the top of Darm Tower.
As he searched for the books, it was clear sinister forces were at work. Sara disappeared shortly after giving Adol his quest, and a rash of silver thefts had been occurring all throughout the land. The man responsible for all of these transgressions was one Dark Fact, a descendant of one the six priests who penned the Books of Ys. He came face-to-face with Adol on the summit of Darm Tower; the winner would receive the power said to be contained within the books. With the power of a silver sword, Adol emerged victorious. Upon collecting the final Book of Ys, a white light enveloped Adol.
The next thing he knows, the swordsman is spirited into the sky, eventually arriving on a floating continent. His sudden appearance is noticed by a young woman. Drained from the inadvertent and impromptu journey, he weakly asks the woman where he is.
She tells him her name is Lilia and he is in the land of Ys. Realizing his journey has brought him to a world lost to the sands of time, Adol accompanies Lilia to Lance Village so he may recuperate.
After a well-deserved rest, Lilia’s mother tells him about the land. She also informs Adol that Lilia is suffering from a severe illness and asks Adol to deliver a letter to the town apothecary, Dr. Flair. When Adol arrives at the clinic, the doctor is nowhere to be found. A carrier pigeon arrives bearing a message from the doctor. He had been picking herbs in the Rasteenie mines only to be trapped by a cave-in. As Demons had appeared on the continent six months prior, the villagers are powerless to attempt a rescue operation. Realizing Lilia’s life is on the line, Adol heads for the mines in search of Dr. Flair.
The core gameplay of Ys II is identical to that of its direct predecessor. Ancient Ys Vanished proved to be a mold-breaking experience in a number of ways. It was something of a paradox, offering fast-paced, arcade-like action in a role-playing game (RPG). Before it and Dragon Slayer, the RPG was a genre known for its slower pace and calculative gameplay. Ys II goes a bit further than a standard action RPG in that there is no attack button. To fight monsters, all you need to do have Adol walk into them. Though such a system sounds counterintuitive, there is more strategy involved than one would think. Running into an enemy dead center will only result in Adol himself taking damage. To have any chance of vanquishing monsters, you must have him approach them from an angle. He also takes damage from the enemies’ physical attacks if he’s standing still, so it pays to never let go of the directional pad.
Every time Adol defeats a monster, he is awarded with a set amount of experience points and gold pieces. Both can be used to enhance Adol’s survivability in combat. Adol can have a sword, shield, and armor piece equipped at a given time. Because there is no attack button, Adol does not actually need a sword to launch attacks. Instead, swords merely increase the amount of damage he inflicts. Similarly, shields cannot block projectiles; they, along with armor, merely reduce the damage Adol takes from the monsters’ attacks. There is usually more of a tangible difference in Adol’s combat performance whenever he upgrades his weapons and armor than from gaining levels. Even so, you would do well not to treat gaining levels as unimportant, for the small bonuses do add up over time.
Though you won’t exactly wander around aimlessly in the dark when exploring the Rasteenie mines, it is no less of a confusing maze than the dark caverns underneath Esteria. When you find your way around, you may be shocked to encounter the game’s first boss seemingly out of the blue. In Ancient Ys Vanished, bosses were typically vulnerable from all angles. Defeating them was usually a matter of tactfully walking in and out of their attack patterns so you could reach their hitboxes. What you will soon learn attempting to fight the first boss of Ys II is that the skills you learned in the original no longer apply. Attempting to bump into the monster will only result in Adol taking damage.
This is where you realize just how different Adol was from a typical RPG protagonist. In a fantasy game, it was highly unusual that Adol only ever had his sword to call upon for defense. This could be read as Adol essentially being the fantasy equivalent of Batman – a highly skilled, if perfectly normal hero who is regularly thrust into battle against enemies far more powerful than he is only to emerge the victor. In practice, this analogy doesn’t quite work out. The reason he managed to be successful as he was can be attributed to the curious artifacts he found on his journey from the magic rings to the mask capable of seeing through illusions. Indeed, the sole reason he was able to stand a chance against Dark Fact is because he donned the silver equipment when facing him. Even then, the victory wasn’t simply handed to him; he had to fight an arduous battle to win. These subtle touches had an interesting effect on the overall narrative, establishing Adol as highly skilled without making him unrealistically strong. What the first boss of Ys II does is cause reality to rear its ugly head. In the face of this powerful demon, Adol, being a normal human, finds he can’t even scratch it.
Fortunately for him, where there’s a will, there’s a way. If this monster cannot be felled by normal means, Adol must go beyond the scope of his expertise and try something new. After exploring the ruins outside of the mines, you will find a magical staff. By returning this staff to a statue of the Goddesses, he gains an entirely new power commonly referred to as magic. These secret arts are the powers wielded by the six ancient priests of Ys. The magic powers serve many purposes from allowing Adol to shapeshift into a monster to causing enemy attacks to damage his magic power (MP) instead of his health. Conveniently, the first magic he obtains allows him to shoot fireballs. It is with this power that he can finally defeat the demon residing in the Rasteenie mines.
The boss fights of Ancient Ys Vanished were, in many ways, a triumph in minimalism. Through them, director Masaya Hashimoto and his were able to apply their simplistic, intuitive gameplay in increasingly complex permutations. In effect, the first boss of Ys II signposts to the player that the level of challenge did not reset between installments. Because the monster in question is only vulnerable to fireballs, Ys II becomes an unorthodox shoot ‘em up for the duration of the encounter. While blending genres would soon become commonplace, it was a highly unusual practice in 1988. It is therefore remarkable how seamlessly Ys II manages to shift gears.
In his search for Dr. Flair, Adol discovers by returning the Books of Ys to the statues of the six priests that demons appeared on Ys around the same time they appeared in Esteria. The source of the demons was brought with them as they created the floating continent seven-hundred years ago. The demons’ master resides in the Shrine of Solomon. Because demons had been kidnapping villagers to use as human sacrifices, only by defeating the master can Adol restore peace to both the surface world and Ys. After finding all of ingredients for the medicine required to cure Lilia’s illness, Adol leaves Lance Village and heads for the Shine of Solomon, which is situated at the center of the island.
Ys II boasts a decidedly anomalous design, which becomes especially apparent as you compare it to its direct predecessor. Ancient Ys Vanished, though minimalistic in its presentation, had all of the basic ingredients of a role-playing game. It featured an overworld consisting of two separate screens and two settlements to act as places in which Adol could recover his health. The land of Ys, on the other hand, features a much more diverse landscape – to the point where no one area could really be considered the overworld. Emerging from the other side of the ruins, Adol finds himself in the Glacier of Noltia. From there, he passes through the lava-filled Moat of Burnedbless before arriving at the Shrine of Solomon. As a final dungeon, the Shrine of Solomon proves to be quite a bit more interesting than Darm Tower, consisting of the standard above-ground areas, a subterranean canal, and an ominous bell tower.
Although Ys II is a material improvement over the original, it too has a fair share of problems. The dungeons of Ancient Ys Vanished had a labyrinthine quality to them – particularly Darm Tower. However, you could generally find your way around with enough practice. At the very least, they weren’t as convoluted as the average dungeon in Ys II. Exploring the mines of Rasteenie is markedly more difficult than navigating the silver mines of Esteria, which is impressive given that the former actually has proper lighting. This is because navigation is a matter of choosing between two or more often-identical doorways and hoping you guessed right. If you choose incorrectly, you waste time attempting to get your bearings. It’s to the point where you can know what your goal is, yet take an inordinate amount of time attempting to reach it.
The following areas are a bit more straightforward, but the problem rears its ugly head once again when Adol reaches the Shrine of Solomon. Though Darm Tower frequently required players to backtrack to unreasonable degrees, it did have a semblance of order to it. Being a tower, the floors were organized well enough that you could eventually learn their layout through sheer repetition. Having much more of a freeform design, the Shrine of Solomon involves weaving between indoor and outdoor areas with little in the way of recognizable landmarks. Depending on how good your navigational skills are, you could spend anywhere from thirty minutes to several hours attempting to reach the next objective. It’s both a blessing and a detriment that the Shrine of Solomon is not a point of no return. While you can easily use magic to escape whenever Adol’s health is running low, you also have find your way back to where you were.
In fact, regardless of how skilled you are, you will have to retreat from the shrine at least once. Adol manages to slip by the forces of evil by using magic to transform himself into a demon. Unfortunately, he is eventually caught by Dalles, the primary antagonist’s second-in-command. The wizard clad in a dark cloak then curses Adol, locking him in a demonic form. What is particularly insidious about the wizard’s curse is that while Adol could get by unscathed disguised as one of the demons, his cursed form doesn’t fool any of them. Nevertheless, other characters will refuse to speak with him – as though he were disguised normally. In effect, this gives Adol the worst of both worlds. The curse proves surprisingly difficult to lift, as Adol must use holy water to do so. Holy water is obtained by placing water in a Sacred Cup that once belonged to Priest Hadal.
Much like a similar scenario in Darm Tower, the amount of time it takes you to accomplish this task depends on whether or not you’re taking the most efficient route. On your first playthrough, you’re not likely to receive the cup beforehand, as the hints for locating it aren’t handed out until after Adol is cursed. On the other hand, there’s nothing stopping you from obtaining the cup before meeting Dalles if you know where it is and how to get it. While not a dire consequence, it does come across as the game punishing players for following the plot as intended. Fortunately, there is a degree of mercy in that one room in the shrine’s subterranean canal is effectively a checkpoint. You still have to find your way around from that specific spot, but I do appreciate how the developers were considering their design choices from the perspective of their audience.
Despite these setbacks, I do think Ys II sticks the landing well. Though it didn’t exactly have an advanced plot, Ancient Ys Vanished did stand out from its competition in how Adol and Dark Fact were competing for the same goal as opposed to being completely at odds with each other. It wasn’t common for you to see a video game plot wherein the items the protagonist searched for could either save or condemn the world depending on who got them.
In a lot of ways, Ys II continues this trend with a simple plot featuring surprisingly interesting story beats. I especially enjoy how the final sequences manage to retroactively add a lot of context to Dark Fact’s actions in Ancient Ys Vanished. The parents of Dark Fact protested against the silver mines when they realized any further work would unseal the demons. This is because what the people of Esteria called silver was actually Cleria, which played a part in sealing the ancient evil that once threatened Ys. When the parents of Dark Fact were killed for their protests, he swore revenge on humanity and decided to unseal the demons himself. In a clever piece of environmental storytelling, in Ancient Ys Vanished, going through the second door in the boss’s chamber leads to what appears to be a pointless dead-end. This is where the demons came from; their manifestation caused the nearby village to be destroyed and the people to abandon the mines.
I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I do find it fascinating how, despite being a constant annoyance as you’re making your way through the Shrine of Solomon, Dalles is a surprisingly easy boss, being one of the few vulnerable to Adol’s sword strikes. It seems to enforce that he’s a skilled manipulator with powerful magic, yet doesn’t fare as well in a straight fight.
Meanwhile, though the primary villain, Darm, reveals himself to be markedly more antagonistic than Dark Fact, I do like how he is a manifestation of the Black Pearl, the orb used as the source of magic. The very power that led to Darm’s creation allowed Adol to make it as far as he does.
In a clever touch, as soon as the Black Pearl is shattered, you can see Adol’s magic power dropping to zero in the interface. Though not portrayed as bittersweet in any fashion, watching his magic stat eliminate itself adds a real sense of finality to the proceedings. This is further punctuated when Adol speaks with the six descendants of the priests of Ys. These characters had short, yet intriguing arcs that were conveyed with only the smallest glimmers of context. Perhaps the greatest disruption of the status quo is when the Black Pearl’s erasure results in the floating continent of Ys to descend from the heavens, sinking into the crater it left in Esteria several generations ago. Thanks to Adol’s bravery, it is the dawn of a new age for both worlds.
Drawing a Conclusion
Ys II is in most significant ways, an improvement over its predecessor. The magic system alone adds a new layer of strategy the original lacked, leading to the creation of many intriguing boss encounters not possible before. More than anything, it is an overall more polished experience, and though the level design is occasionally too complex for its own good, there is a fair amount of ambition to be found – particularly in how the developers occasionally threw adventure game elements into the mix. Best of all, this was accomplished without abandoning what made the original such a strong effort in 1987, for the game is every bit as fast-paced and the music every bit as memorable.
Although I have little doubt that Ys II was a significant step forward for both the series and the action RPG genre in general, I do feel, coming directly off of Ancient Ys Vanished, it feels like an incomplete experience when played alone. Luckily, the developers seemed to realize this themselves. In 1989, these games were remade and subsequently combined into a single adventure dubbed Ys I & II. Released on the TurboGrafx-CD, Kumamoto City-based developer Alfa System made extensive use of the machine’s capabilities, significantly enhancing the already superb music and even adding voice acting. This made the English version, which was released a year later, one of the earliest games to utilize extensive voice dubbing. For its time, the voice acting was surprisingly good, lending the game a kind of presentation the medium had seldom seen by that point in its short history. If you’re going to experience these games in any way, I recommend the TurboGrafx-CD version if you can find it, though trying out any of the later remakes wouldn’t be a bad idea either. Though Ys II would be far from the final chapter, it did allow Adol to end his first adventure on a high note, taking players on a journey that, while cliché by today’s standards, had successfully enraptured all who played it back in 1988.
Final Score: 6/10