After Nihon Falcom released the first three installments in their Ys series of action role-playing games, the installments proved popular enough to make appearances on nearly every active console from the Nintendo Famicom (NES) to the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis). Even if it was virtually unknown in the West, the series’ domestic success ensured the inevitability of a fourth installment. Unfortunately, the success this series enjoyed came at something of a cost. After the release of Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, a substantial chunk of Nihon Falcom’s staff members quit, thereby depriving the company of the resources needed to produce a sequel. They were in such dire straits that they couldn’t even provide a full script for the game. Their contributions were limited to providing a vague outline and composing the music. They handed off what they could get done to Hudson, the company that published the highly praised compilation Ys Book I & II.
As Hudson collaborated with Alfa Systems on a game entitled Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys, Nihon Falcom pitched the idea to other studios so they could create versions for other prominent consoles. One such developer was Tonkin House, the company behind the SNES port of Ys III. Another was Sega, with whom Nihon Falcom had entered a partnership to port their output to the Mega Drive (Genesis). They even allowed the Korea-based developer Mantra to develop their own version of Ys IV. Mantra had released a highly successful version of the series’ second installment named Ys II Special, which greatly expanded upon the source material and included more secrets than any other version of the game. However, Sega’s version was canceled before it could get off the ground and although Mantra considered the offer, they ultimately declined.
Other than The Dawn of Ys, only the version developed by Tonkin House was making significant headway. Their take on the series’ fourth installment was named Ys IV: Mask of the Sun. Though both developers pushed for a release in late 1993, Tonkin House cut Husdon and Alfa System at the pass by releasing Mask of the Sun one month ahead of The Dawn of Ys. It was released to a fairly lukewarm reception with Famitsu, the most widely read gaming publication in Japan, awarding it twenty-five points out of a possible forty. Was Tonkin House able to do Nihon Falcom’s increasingly venerable series justice?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain spoilers for the series thus far.
Mask of the Sun is an interquel, which is to say it takes place between the series’ second and third installments. Two years ago, Adol rid the world of Dark Fact and Darm, destroying the Black Pearl, the source of Ys’s magic, in the process. Following the Black Pearl’s destruction, Ys, a utopic land that had disappeared many centuries ago, was reunited with the surface world. Returning to the port town of Minea, the swordsman happens upon a message in a bottle. The message originated from the distant land of Celceta. As Adol is unfamiliar with the language, he takes the letter to Luta Gemma, a poet he met on his previous journey.
Sensing it was fate that brought the message to him, Adol quickly sets sail on a new adventure to Celceta. In doing so, he is destined to uncover a facet of Ys’s history lost to the sands of time.
Keeping in line with its predecessors, Mask of the Sun is an action role-playing game. Ys III had Nihon Falcom experiment with the distinctive gameplay they had developed in the Ancient Ys Vanished duology. It was presented from a side-scrolling perspective and notably featured an attack button, making it a series first. Mask of the Sun could be construed as a return to form of sorts, for Tonkin House decided to emulate the combat engine and top-down presentation of the first two games. As such, anyone who has been following the series up until this point will have few problems adjusting to the gameplay.
Once again, there is no attack button; combat is initiated by running headfirst into the enemies. A newcomer, being familiar with cotemporary 16-bit efforts such as A Link to the Past, would find this wildly counterintuitive. After all, attempting to running into the enemies in any other game would only result in the protagonist taking damage – unless they were granted temporary invincibly, that is. How could a game in which the protagonist runs into enemies be challenging in any way? They couldn’t possibly be hurt. The answer to this hypothetical question is that there is quite a bit of strategic maneuvering involved when it comes to fighting monsters. Attempting to run into them head-on will only result in Adol himself taking damage. Only by running into them off-center can he successfully land a strike. Enemies are programmed in a way so as to take advantage of this. By default, they will try to lock onto a tile that is dead-center relative to Adol’s position. As such, despite the lack of an attack button, having any kind of success combatting monsters in Mask of the Sun requires a very keen eye.
As has become tradition by this point in the series, Adol is allowed to don three pieces of equipment: a sword, a shield, and a set of armor. It should be noted that equipment merely enhances Adol’s offensive and defensive capabilities. You can’t exactly perform any sword slashes if there isn’t a button programmed to execute such an action. Similarly, shields merely reduce the damage Adol takes from enemy attacks. He cannot use it to block projectiles or otherwise parry enemy attacks. However, the bonuses these pieces offer compared to those of the previous tier typically make periodically updating them worth the investment.
Buying superior pieces of equipment isn’t the only way to enhance Adol’s combat performance, however. Very much keeping the role-playing aspect of the series alive, Adol is awarded a certain amount of experience and gold for every demon he vanquishes in combat. When he gains enough experience, he advances one level. Each level gives Adol a greater amount of health (HP) while also increasing his base attack and defense power, making him more survivable in combat. It’s important to know that fighting the same monsters will grant Adol diminishing returns on investment. When he becomes strong enough, weaker monsters only award him a single experience point apiece.
Generally speaking, upgrading equipment gives Adol a greater boost to his combat stats than ascending levels. That being said, ascending levels is the only means by which Adol can increase his maximum HP, and the bonuses he receives to his base stats does add up over time. If you’re having trouble with a boss, your only recourse is typically to walk away from the arena and grind a level or two. In the process, you might get enough money to afford the next tier of equipment.
When it comes to its gameplay, I definitely think Mask of the Sun is the result of Tonkin House meticulously studying the Ancient Ys Vanished duology. In some ways, this is a good thing. Though it was brave of Nihon Falcom to try their hand at reinventing the franchise with Ys III, the end result had more than a few execution issues. It was a product with the worst of both worlds, featuring a combat system that in no way complemented the new side-scrolling perspective by which the game operated. It was highly jarring how neither Adol nor his opponents were ever visibly knocked back in combat. This would have been forgivable had they been the first ones to attempt making such a game, but with several good melee combat-heavy platformers available at the time such as Castlevania and Wonder Boy, Ys III was clearly behind the times.
When they created Mask of the Sun, Tonkin House returned to a formula with a provable track record. As a result, the gameplay regains the sense of balance that it had in the original duology. No longer do you have to worry about enemies cutting a significant chunk of Adol’s health away due to a single mistake – provided he is at a high enough level, of course. If you hit an enemy dead-center by accident, you’re given enough time to pull Adol out before his health is depleted. In fact, if he is at a high enough level, he stops taking damage from enemies as long as he isn’t stationary. In these situations, the only difference between walking into an enemy off or dead-center is the amount of damage he inflicts with each attack.
This development is something of a double-edged sword, however. Because monsters are fought by walking into them once again, it makes the gameplay very repetitive. This was forgivable in the late eighties when the original two games were being made because they still collectively offered an epic experience few developers could. By 1993, the original combat engine was starting to show its age. Although some monsters later in the game are capable of shooting projectiles, the bestiary of Mask of the Sun only effectively extends to their physical appearances. It doesn’t matter what monster Adol is fighting; the only way he can take damage from them is by being hit dead-center or if he unwisely decides to stand still.
This isn’t to say that Tonkin House were entirely without innovation, though the ideas they introduce are a mixed bag. Despite the Black Pearl’s destruction, Adol can use magic in this game, though it’s not provided to him in the form of the priests’ staves.
Instead, Adol can use the magic provided to him by certain swords. While the Flame Sword was merely the strongest weapon in the series’ first and third installments, its counterpart in Mask of the Sun can actually shoot fireballs. Magic isn’t explicitly required to complete the game, as every boss can be damaged by walking into them and unlike in Ys II, there aren’t any enemies that are impervious to physical damage. Still, they can be useful in a pinch – particularly if Adol finds himself facing off against a horde of strong monsters. It’s important to remember that magic, unlike physical attacks, do not need to be off-center in order for Adol to inflict damage with it.
Though one could argue these projectile attacks are ultimately superfluous, I do admire the concept. Up until Mask of the Sun, the sole distinguishing characteristic between equipment tiers lied in the numbers. Simply put, the best pieces of equipment were the ones that increased the appropriate stat the most. While you could theoretically equip the weaker weapons, shields, or armor pieces, there was no practical reason for doing so. In Ancient Ys Vanished, there was a moment in which Adol is robbed of his fourth-tier silver equipment, which turned out to be the final boss’s weakness. However, the need to downgrade was mandated by the plot. Otherwise, a player wouldn’t equip the katana when they have a perfectly fine silver sword. Mask of the Sun dares to give players a reason to actually put thought into selecting equipment. Theoretically, ice-based monsters would have a weakness to fire attacks while water-dwelling ones don’t endure lightning damage well. Practicably, it doesn’t quite work because if you’re relying on these attacks to get you through the game, you’re not going to know what to do when you inevitably exhaust Adol’s magic power.
I also have to comment that when it comes to how Mask of the Sun handles the equipment selection, it’s a little too quick to render a tier obsolete. I remember reaching the game’s fourth town and deciding to purchase the third-tier equipment. I later learned I shouldn’t have bothered because the fourth-tier equipment can be found for free. There isn’t even a single boss fight between those two points in the game, which is not something that can be reasonably anticipated – even by the savviest of players. Granted, like in previous games in the series, you will reach a point where money completely loses any and all value, but wasting it on equipment instantly rendered worthless is still annoying.
Strangely enough, I can consider the unique equipment selection as much of a success as it was a failure. Although it’s still better in the long term to rely on basic sword strikes to get you through the game, one of the last weapons Adol gets is the Hero Sword. At the cost of fifty MP, this sword heals a significant chunk of Adol’s health with the press of a button. As if to enforce the sword’s wondrous utility, it’s the only weapon capable of damaging the final boss. Because said final boss deals obscene amounts of damage with his attacks, the Hero Sword is tremendously helpful. In short, the magic system is largely redundant for a majority of the experience until the endgame when it suddenly becomes invaluable.
Tonkin House also saw fit to introduce the concept of poisoning to the Ys series. Simply put, certain enemies will poison Adol if he makes contact with them. When poisoned, Adol takes damage as he walks. Annoyingly, Adol will be poisoned even if he strikes the monster in question off-center. The only way to counteract the poison is with an antidotal herb, which can be purchased at item shops. While this may sound like an insufferable mechanic, it’s more pointless than anything else. The only enemies capable of poisoning Adol are flashing slime creatures, which are found in one early area and nowhere else. While being poisoned had the potential to be a genuine threat, it is, at worst, a minor nuisance. Even if you don’t have an antidote, you can simply wait in an outdoor area for Adol to heal himself and walk around until the poison leaves his body naturally. Because these monsters are only ever encountered outdoors, curing it is a trivial matter.
Otherwise, I would say the biggest problem with Mask of the Sun lies in the dungeon design. An overwhelming majority of the dungeons are littered with dead-ends and empty rooms. Instinctually, I couldn’t help but explore every inch of a dungeon, hoping to find a helpful treasure when it proved to be a wasted effort more often than not. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected to find anything spectacular; other than the occasional equipment set or plot-relevant item, there aren’t any treasures worth going out of your way to obtain.
The worst part about the dungeon design is that it becomes increasingly convoluted the closer you near the endgame. The penultimate area is especially bad because half of the time, you won’t have any idea what to do or where to go. This is only exacerbated by the sheer amount of backtracking you must do. Eventually, Adol is forced to rescue Lilia, a woman he met on his previous adventure. When his attempt fails, he must carry Lilia to an altar and use a holy artifact to revive her from the brink of death. Though the player is shown the area to which he must take Lilia in an earlier cutscene, it doesn’t become relevant until much later – by which point they will likely have forgotten about it. As a result most, players are going to be wandering around the dungeon until they find the altar by accident. There is a saving grace in that unlike traditional escort missions, Adol is not hampered at all by carrying around Lilia, but it is of little solace.
The backtracking gets even more absurd when he accesses the final dungeon: Iris Tower. When he ascends a few floors, he reaches a dead end. A person holed up in the tower informs him that the mirrors on the walls are actually teleportation devices, and they can only be activated by using something called a “dark nexus”. It turns out to be a switch floating over what appears to be an organic growth situated underground. More importantly, it’s in the same room as the altar that allowed Adol to bring Lilia back to life. What makes this infuriating is that there was nothing stopping Adol from pressing the switch when escorting Lilia; only after being informed of its importance does the game allow you to do so. Granted, pushing a button when you have no idea what it does is usually inadvisable, but most adventure games made before Mask of the Sun would allow players to experiment with them – even if it resulted in your character’s untimely demise.
Just like with Ys III, it’s a shame the gameplay of Mask of the Sun is so hit-or-miss because it does have plenty of great story beats.
Traveling through the mountains, Adol happens upon a woman named Karna. She is accosted by a horde of monsters, but effortlessly dispatches them before he even has to lift a finger. Nonetheless, she thanks him for at least making the effort to rescue her – even if it was unnecessary. Upon arriving in her village, Adol is asked by the elder to travel to a nearby cavern and rescue a missing citizen named Remnos.
Naturally, no important dungeon would be complete without a boss fight at the end. In a greatly appreciated touch, boss lairs are marked with flashing ornaments resembling eyes on the doors leading to them, meaning you will not accidently wander into one unprepared – or at least not twice. The first boss serves as a rough guideline as to what you can expect in future encounters. It is vitally important to study the boss’s animations and run through them when they’re vulnerable. Though it can be a bit tricky to comprehend at first, you will be able to learn what to do with enough practice. What I particularly like about the first boss is that it’s a spike in difficulty from the monsters you had to fight to get to him. As such, a newcomer might die to this minotaur-like creature multiple times before emerging victorious. When they do, the next development will instantly make them regret their victory.
The monster whom Adol fought was actually a transformed Remnos. He was one of many humans transformed into demons fueled by pure rage and hatred. This is one of the earliest instances in the medium’s history where the creators brutally deconstructed basic RPG conventions. It really makes you look back on the countless monsters Adol had to slaughter on his way to Remnos and question how many of them were helpless victims like him.
Now, this revelation does come with a slight caveat. Worried players might go as far as restarting the game and deliberately avoiding fighting any monsters so as to not accidently slaughter any innocent former humans. This would be inadvisable, as Mask of the Sun is not a game conducive to low-level runs. Your attacks won’t inflict any damage if Adol’s strength is too low. There is a paradoxically grim silver lining in how the narrative implies that after a certain point, a transformed human is doomed to lose sentience, effectively killing them before their bodies physically die. From this, it could be extrapolated that Adol is merely putting them out of their misery. Either way, what I like about this plot point is that it truly signposts how ruthless the antagonists are – before you even meet them. Dark Fact, Dalles, and Darm were unapologetically evil, yet turning humans into mindless monsters to serve as cannon fodder is immensely disturbing.
Mask of the Sun also introduces the central antagonists early on. This is notable because every other major antagonist Adol faced was a nonentity until he reached the final dungeon. Until then, their villainy, though undeniably real, was relegated to the background. In Mask of the Sun, Adol ends up in the villains’ headquarters after being struck by a bolt of lightning. He regains consciousness inside a castle and takes the opportunity to eavesdrop on their conversation.
This antagonistic force consists of four members: Eldeel, Gruda, Bami, and Gadis. Bami is a classical temptress, and the one responsible for transforming humans into demons. As no evil group would be complete without an enforcer, the brutish Gadis is there to fill the role. While his comrades have strong magical prowess, his preferred solution is to hit the problem with his battle axe until it stops moving. Gruda is the smallest of the group, yet his sinister, potent powers makes him this trio’s ideal leader. Overseeing their actions is Eldeel, a humanoid with pitch-black wings.
The first hint you receive that these people are on a different level from the antagonists players were used to seeing at the time is when Eldeel destroys the wall separating his group from Adol. He knew the swordsman was listening in on them the whole time. Annoyed by Adol’s interference, Eldeel leaves his minions to deal with him. Weakened by the attack, Adol is completely defenseless.
Given the restrictive technical limitations Tonkin House had to work with, I have to give them credit because this sequence is amazingly brutal. Anyone versed in the medium had come across enemies that dealt obscene amounts of damage, but they only existed in terms of game mechanics. If you happened upon a strong enemy, it’s because the developers wanted to challenge you. This is not true for the following sequence; Gruda, Bami, and Gadis don’t settle for merely knocking Adol unconscious with a single tap on the head, they continue pummeling him into the dirt long after you see the meter measuring his health reach zero. Though it’s a given he will survive, it demonstrates that these antagonists play for keeps.
Just like Ys III, what I find particularly appealing about Mask of the Sun is that it defies expectations by giving Adol a voice. His characterization is similar to how it was in Ys III, exhibiting the typical comic-book superhero persona exemplified by Superman, though ironically being more like Batman when it comes to his skillset. He is a selfless hero who risks his life for the world’s future. Once again, the narrative makes the case that one doesn’t run into a horde of monsters and expect to live without having some idea of what they’re doing. As such, while contemporaries were often clueless for the sake of getting exposition across to the player, Adol subverts this trend by being clever, perceptive, and quick-witted.
I also enjoy how the major revelations play around with the series’ established facts. In Ancient Ys Vanished, you will doubtlessly have come across many statues of winged humans. These statues are thought to be tributes to the two Goddesses of Ys, Feena and Reah, yet neither of them possess wings. When Adol meets up with him, Luta Gemma proposes that the statues were intended to be of an ancient race of winged humans. As it turns out, Eldeel is the last living member of this race. Wishing to possess the power of his ancestors, he will stop at nothing to channel the power of the Black Pearl and eradicate humanity.
On top of this, it’s eventually revealed that Eldeel’s fall to evil was masterminded by Gruda. By corrupting Eldeel’s soul, he intends to rule from the shadows with his ostensible superior on the throne. Though the idea of a video game villain’s subordinate being the true antagonist isn’t completely unprecedented, I can imagine this plot point threw many players for a loop back in 1993. With the typical video game antagonist being one-dimensional, you would expect his minions to have similarly flat characterizations. It’s easy to get the impression that Gruda, despite being the de facto leader of his trio, is on the same level as his peers. That he is aiming much higher than either of them wouldn’t have crossed most players’ minds.
This twist makes Eldeel equal parts monstrous and tragic. Adol even begins feeling sympathy for him, and pleads with him to give up his plan after vanquishing Gruda. Alas, it is too late; he is too far gone. Borrowing the power of an ancient hero, Adol has no choice but to strike the angelic being down.
The ending of the game is highly bittersweet as a result. In his death throes, Eldeel regrets everything he has done, and decides to disappear as a forgotten relic. When the one woman who believed in him attempts to revive him, he rejects the offer, feeling it’s for the best that humankind continues on without being tethered to the past. Though a fairly standard death speech by today’s standards, it carried a degree of poignancy one didn’t expect from a contemporary video game antagonist. While Adol needed to slay him to save the world, it does enforce that, in many ways, Eldeel was as much of a victim of Gruda’s machinations as the humans they transformed into demons.
Drawing a Conclusion
Although I can appreciate Tonkin House deciding to stick to what had provably worked after the mixed results Nihon Falcom had with Ys III, Mask of the Sun is ultimately too safe for its own good. Rather than attempting to experiment and explore new ideas, they were intent on literalistically following Nihon Falcom’s example. This is evident in the numerous parallels Mask of the Sun has with the Ancient Ys Vanished duology – most notably the fact that the final boss can only be damaged using the second-strongest sword in the game. While these ideas were legitimately clever in the original game, in Mask of the Sun, they only seem to be implemented for their own sake.
Because of this, I’m in a similar position when it comes to the question of recommending Mask of the Sun as I was Ys III. Like its direct predecessor, there are a lot of great story beats to be found, yet you have to work through a lot of uninspired gameplay to reach them. Unlike Ys III, the game has an actual sense of balance to it; therefore, clearing it isn’t too much of a hassle. Instead, you’re essentially going through the motions until the game decides to end. Although old-school enthusiasts might get something out of it, someone unfamiliar with the series is better off looking elsewhere for a point of ingress.
Final Score: 4/10