With Ancient Ys Vanished and its sequel, Nihon Falcom had a franchise that eclipsed Dragon Slayer in terms of popularity. Though Dragon Slayer helped codify the action RPG, the Ys duology was what helped it truly soar in popularity. Despite the second title being dubbed The Final Chapter, the team began work on a sequel in response to its immense popularity. This new installment, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, was released on the PC-8801 and MSX2 in 1989. Within the next few years, it would see additional ports on the prominent fourth generation consoles, including the TurboGrafx-CD, Super NES, and Sega Genesis. The TurboGrafx-CD port was particularly timely, being released in North America two years after the international debut of Ys Book I & II, a remake that combined the series’ first installments. Because of this, many versions of Ys III were translated into English despite the series’ obscurity abroad. Those who have played Ys III consider it an overlooked gem in the fourth-generation library. With a pair of impactful predecessors, how does Ys III hold up?
Analyzing the Experience
Three years have passed since the famed swordsman Adol Christin defeated Darm, thus reuniting the ancient land of Ys with the surface world. He is now on a journey with his friend, Dogi. Passing through a town, they happen upon a member of a nomadic caravan who offers to tell them their fortune. Adol passes, so Dogi steps up. With her crystal ball, the woman knows who her impromptu client is and where he is from. Upon declaring the name of his hometown, Redmont, the crystal ball explodes. She worriedly tells the two adventurers of a great disaster about to befall the land, speaking the name Galbalan.
Baffled and concerned about what the fortune teller could have possibly meant, Adol suggests departing for the province of Felghana. Though Dogi is nervous about revisiting his homeland, his friend talks him into it. Shortly upon arriving at the outskirts of Redmont, the two are accosted by a wildcat, which Adol effortlessly defeats. Realizing something is amiss, the duo head into town. Dogi is given a warm welcome from his childhood friend, Elena Stoddart, who proceeds to lead the two to the inn where they will stay. Wandering around town, Adol overhears a commotion. A villager working in Tigray Quarry bearing severe injuries informs them that, Edgar, the mayor of Redmont, has been trapped in the mines as a result of a cave-in. Eager to help, Adol springs into action, though he will quickly learn there is a powerful evil at work that threatens to envelop Felghana.
As soon as you’re shown the game’s interface for the first time, you know Ys III is going to offer an experience entirely different from that of its two predecessors. Gone is the familiar top-down perspective that lent the original two games their identities. In its stead is a side-scrolling perspective not unlike that of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. With a new perspective comes a different set of sensibilities to which one must grow accustomed. You are now expected to have Adol negotiate precariously placed platforms in addition to fighting monsters. Unlike Zelda II, there is no life system; if Adol is defeated, the game ends and automatically reloads the most recently made save file. However, being as heavily invested in the action-RPG genre as it is, Ys III provides a fairly basic platforming experience. You won’t find yourself having to make running jumps from one moving platform to another on a regular basis. Indeed, there aren’t even any bottomless pits to be found.
The changes extend beyond the presentation, however. In the original two Ys games, the player’s primary method of attacking involved having Adol walk into his enemies. As the positioning of Adol and the enemy determined which party took damage, it simply wouldn’t be possible to replicate the original combat engine in a two-dimensional plane. Indeed, throwing caution to the wind and attempting to run into the monsters will only result in Adol being damaged. Therefore, by necessity, Ys III sees fit to introduce the concept of an attack button to the series.
This single change has various ramifications on the series’ familiar gameplay. Whereas swords merely increased Adol’s attack power in older games, you cannot actually launch an attack without one equipped in Ys III. Nothing will happen if you try attacking without a sword equipped, so your first order of business is to purchase one. Once you have acquired one, you will learn there are quite a few different attacks Adol can execute. His standard sword slashes can be executed by him either moving, jumping, or standing still. By pressing up on the control pad and tapping the attack button, you can have him stab the sword upwards. In accordance with the side-scrolling presentation, holding down on the control pad causes Adol to duck. It’s important to know that he can both move and attack while ducking.
In addition to swords, Adol can have a shield, piece of armor, ring, and item equipped at a given time. Shields and armor pieces have the exact same function as they did in this game’s predecessor. Equipping them will reduce the damage Adol takes in battle. Shields still cannot be used to block attacks, making their purpose identical to that of the armor pieces. Though Adol’s spellcasting days are behind him, he can receive supernatural aid in the form of five magical rings similar to the ones that aided him in Ancient Ys Vanished. They serve various purposes from increasing Adol’s damage output to slowing down enemy projectiles. However, there is a catch this time around; wearing a ring consumes energy – ring power, to be precise. Adol can have up to 255 units of ring power at a given time. A shopkeeper in Redmont can replenish Adol’s ring power for him, though fighting monsters works as well, albeit at a slower rate. Every monster slain gives Adol a single unit of ring power back. Finally, items can be equipped and used on the field with the action button. This means, unlike in Ancient Ys Vanished or its sequel, you can use healing items in the middle of boss battles.
After two installments with identical gameplay, Ys III was quite a daring move on Nihon Falcom’s part. The team likely observed the propensity of other development studios to offer completely new experiences with their second installment and decided to follow suit after the story of Ys had concluded. From there, they could translate everything that made the original two games so memorable into a completely new idiom. As you’re exploring the first dungeon, it would appear the team was successful, for the gameplay remains fast-paced and simple while asking players to put a surprising amount of thought into strategizing. Unfortunately, I would argue that, in practice, they didn’t quite succeed. Zelda II was conceived by a team that knew how to make a good side-scrolling game, meaning all of the appropriate sensibilities were dutifully incorporated. Ys III, on the other hand, seems to have retained many design choices from the original two installments, which is now to its detriment.
When you fight monsters, you’ll realize that there is no concept of knockback. Whether Adol strikes a monster with his sword or takes damage himself, the combatant is locked in place. This means if an enemy is advancing toward Adol, you must alternate between attacking and walking back a few steps to avoid taking damage in retaliation. This is much harder than it sounds because the sword’s range is remarkably short. As such, Adol often has to be within the enemy’s own attack range in order to have a chance of landing a hit. This problem is exacerbated by the low number of invincibility frames Adol is granted when he is hit. Any reasonably powerful enemy can drain Adol’s health in a matter of seconds, and because you don’t receive a lot of feedback in combat, it can be surprisingly easy not notice it when it’s happening.
As you’re exploring Tigray Quarry, don’t be surprised if you find yourself constantly running into monsters by accident. It’s not necessarily because you’re performing poorly; one of the first things to which you must become accustomed when playing Ys III is the fact that Adol has to be a little more than halfway across the screen before it starts scrolling. Much like the lack of knockback and invincibly frames, this was an aspect that existed in the original two installments, but retaining them for a side-scrolling game turned them into legitimate issues. Because Adol can no longer damage enemies by running into them, you have to either know where they are in advance or scroll the screen in small increments to avoid crashing into them, which runs counter to the fast-paced gameplay the series had firmly established by this point.
If one were to speak retrospectively, it would be painfully obvious that Ys III was the first game in the series to feature an attack button. Though the hit detection is serviceable when fighting enemies, it’s much spottier during boss encounters. Given the lack of meaningful feedback when in combat, it can be difficult to gauge a boss’s weak point. Even when you do have it figured out, you will frequently miss attacks that should have registered or get hit despite being going through the correct motions.
Being an action RPG, there would appear to be a way to mitigate these problems right away. After all, the most common solution in Ancient Ys Vanished when confronted with a powerful enemy was to slaughter as many monsters as possible, thus accumulating experience points. Once you got enough, Adol would ascend a level, improving his overall combat performance. Ys III would appear to operate on similar notions. In fact, there’s a dungeon wherein Adol gets ambushed by owl-like creatures that constantly respawn. Though this sounds annoying, you can use them to your advantage. By having Adol stand in one place and equipping the Power Ring, you can have him repeatedly stab upwards, thus accumulating enough experience to reach the maximum level of sixteen before you’ve reached the halfway point. The downside is that this strategy doesn’t work in the long term. Even at the maximum level with the best equipment in the game on hand, third-act enemies inflict obscene amounts of damage.
The most egregious example is when Adol is storming Valestein Castle. Within the castle are suits of armor that periodically drop axes. That you’re supposed to time Adol’s movements carefully isn’t what makes these infuriating to circumvent. How you must time Adol’s movements is the tricky part. The axe only damages Adol when it’s down, but this is amazingly difficult to remember. I would often find myself attempting to jump over the blade of the axe while it was down because I felt that course of action to be more intuitive. The reason this matters is because the trap shaves off half of Adol’s maximum health per hit. Things get especially hectic when you’re attempting to fight enemies at the same time. Don’t be surprised if you see Adol’s health drop to zero in a matter of seconds simply going down these hallways.
These bad design choices are especially harmful to the experience when you consider there is no way to instantly exit a dungeon. If you feel Adol isn’t going to survive the trials ahead of him, you have no choice but to march him right out the way he came in. This usually involves saving every time you make a small amount of progress and trying not to take too much damage, which given the many aforementioned issues with the combat system, is easier said than done.
There is even one point in which the plot can potentially trap you in a nearly unwinnable state. Adol eventually learns that the statue he finds in Tigray Quarry is being sought after by Lord MacGuire, the King of Felghana. Questioning the king’s intentions, Adol sets out for the Illsburn Ruins where a similar statue is said to be.
He overhears a conversation between Chester, Elena’s brother, and Father Pierre, a resident of Redmont. Adol is captured shortly thereafter, and Chester kicks him down into a lava-filled cavern. If you are not properly equipped to face this dungeon, you have effectively dashed any chance you have of completing the game. Strictly speaking, the game isn’t impossible to win in this state, but if Adol isn’t at a high enough level, it may as well be. There is no way you would know the game does this to you ahead of time. Simply by going down an innocuous hallway, Adol unavoidably gets captured and cannot return to town until he has received the next statue.
It’s a shame that the gameplay Ys III is as flawed as it is because there are actually many fascinating story beats to be found. I do have to admit it lacks the epic quality the original two games possessed when combined, which isn’t helped by the lack of interesting lore surrounding Felghana. Instead, the plot of Ys III seems to be a bit more character driven. The change players are likely to notice first is Adol now has a definite voice. With that voice, he comes across as what Superman would be if he were a normal human – albeit one who is highly skilled in the art of swordplay. He’s always willing to selflessly risk his life for the sake of others, marching straight into situations with the odds massively stacked against him without any hesitance or fear.
He’s also surprisingly perceptive, which he would have to be considering the dangerous situations he often finds himself in. As his journey wears on, he tries to reach out to Chester despite the man’s antagonistic demeanor and blames himself when he fails to rescue Elena.
Speaking of which, Chester stands out quite a lot from any of the series’ preceding villains. Whether it was Dark Fact, Dalles, or Darm, the villains of the Ys series were one-dimensional megalomaniacs. They wanted to take over the world because they were evil; that’s all you really needed to know. Though Dark Fact received a fair bit of retroactive characterization at the end of Ys II, none of the new information reflected in the original game.
Chester, on the other hand, has a more complex motivation. The tyrannical Lord McGuire of Felghana had Chester’s family and friends murdered ten years ago one by one in front of his eyes. Only he and Elena were spared. Therefore, he is currently seeking revenge by joining McGuire. By gaining his trust and helping revive of Galbalan, he believes the demon will kill McGuire. A man so consumed by his desire for revenge wasn’t the kind of characterization you typically got from video game villains at the time.
In the end, Galbalan is revived and Adol, being in possession of the four statues that originally sealed the demon, is the only one who can vanquish him. The final dungeon, though not particularly long, manages to be quite irritating. Much like the silver mines in Ancient Ys Vanished, it involves Adol navigating a series of dark corridors. While having such limited visibility could get irritating in Ancient Ys Vanished, you didn’t have to worry about running into enemies given that was how you engaged them in the first place.
While the designers mercifully made enemies visible regardless of whether or not a light is shining on them, the goodwill is lost when you notice the source moving back and forth across the screen. While this is arguably the most realistic depiction of candle lighting the medium had seen by that point in history, that it’s actually a magical artifact providing visibility makes it far less defensible.
After vanquishing Garland, the man who manipulated McGuire into reviving Galbalan, Adol comes face-to-face with the demon king himself. Having captured Chester and Elena, Galbalan offers to trade their lives for the four statues Adol bears. Continuing to showcase his impressive characterization, Adol agrees, but threatens to destroy the statues if Galbalan harms either of them. With the element of surprise on his side, Adol ambushes Galbalan.
The final sequences provide a surprising amount of poignancy for such an old game. In defiance of one’s expectations, things are not all well and good just because Adol defeated Galbalan. Having been severely wounded by the demon king, Chester goes to the center of the island in order to sink it. In doing so, Galbalan will be unable to revive ever again. Despite Adol’s protests, he eventually agrees to escort Elena out of the island so the two of them may live. The next day, Adol leaves Redmont with Dogi. His friend protests that Adol is leaving without saying goodbye to Elena, but the hero believes it’s for the best she doesn’t know. Nonetheless, Elena catches up with them, tearfully waving them goodbye.
Drawing a Conclusion
By no stretch of the imagination do I consider Ys III a bad game. Indeed, given the immense popularity of the original two installments, it was quite a commendable effort on Nihon Falcom’s part. They sought to add variety to the series by offering a completely new experience. Given that the original two games didn’t even have an attack button, Ys III afforded the series a significant level of growth in the year between installments. Unfortunately, as ambitious as these ideas were, the execution left a bit to be desired. A majority of the biggest issues plaguing Ys III has could be traced back to its predecessors, but they didn’t become serious flaws until Nihon Falcom decided present their game from a side-scrolling perspective. It seemed to be the result of blindly placing the sensibilities they developed making Ancient Ys Vanished and its sequel without making sure they still worked under the new circumstances.
Despite this, I don’t believe Ys III to be a failed experiment. Nihon Falcom’s status as pioneers in video game music can be appreciated with their work’s memorable score. On top of that, the story, as simplistic as it is, manages to have a lot of interesting beats for those willing to appreciate them. I especially enjoyed the direction in which they took Adol’s character, firmly establishing him as a drifter willing to play the hero when the need arises. That drive to experiment was what allowed Nihon Falcom to stand on even ground with Enix and Square. Though I would have a difficult time recommending Ys III, I do admire it for having helped blaze a trial for the medium on all fronts.
Final Score: 4/10