By the time Nihon Falcom was slated to make a fourth installment in their highly popular Ys series of action RPGs, a significant number of their staff members had quit. Though the team drafted a rough outline for Ys IV, they had no resources with which to develop it. They were then left with no choice but to outsource the project to other companies. Of the developers they approached, only Tonkin House and Alfa Systems saw their interpretations of Ys IV to completion. Both versions, Mask of the Sun and The Dawn of Ys, debuted in late 1993 for the Super Famicom and PC Engine respectively. They received fairly positive reviews, though The Dawn of Ys ended up being the more acclaimed game despite Mask of the Sun eventually being declared the canonical Ys IV.
Shortly after both games were released, Nihon Falcom, having hired new talent, now had the resources with which to continue the series on their own. In December of 1995, they released Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand for the Super Famicom. Although fans were initially ecstatic that the series’ original developers regained creative control, the game was ultimately met with a cold response. Was Ys V worthy of such a backlash or is it a game misunderstood due to differing opinions of what the series should entail?
Analyzing the Experience
In the continent of Afroca, a legend has been passed down for many generations. It is said that a city once existed in the sprawling Kefin Desert and a phantom still haunts the area to this day. The city’s residents are said to have been practitioners of an ancient art known as alchemy. Despite having studied the Kefin Desert for hundreds of years, the people of Afroca are no closer to uncovering its secrets as their ancestors. One day, an archeologist hoping to solve the mysteries of the Kefin Desert named Stein happened upon a young girl named Niena. She had not a single memory to her name, and nobody from any of the nearby villages recognized her. Stein decided to bring her back to his hometown of Xandria where he raised her as his own daughter. Two years have passed since that day, and after leaving on a journey, Stein disappeared without a trace.
Meanwhile, a young adventurer named Adol Christin has just arrived in Xandria’s harbor. Though the local guards are initially suspicious of him, he eventually wins the favor of Dorman, the richest man in Xandria. As it turns out, the locals are determined to uncover the mysteries of the Kefin Desert because it is spreading by the day. Realizing how capable Adol is, Dorman hires him to investigate the circumstances behind Kefin, the city that got swallowed up by the desert and prevent the rest of Afroca from meeting the same fate.
Both interpretations of Ys IV marked a return to form for the series. After the side-scrolling hack-and-slash gameplay of Ys III proved divisive both domestically and abroad, Tonkin House and Alfa Systems decided to reintroduce the combat system made famous in the original Ancient Ys Vanished duology by forgoing the attack button entirely and presenting the game from a top-down perspective. Though the system had begun to show its age by 1993, it was arguably the developers’ best course of action, as they fell back upon what they knew worked for the series and implemented the idea fairly well.
When the player is given control of Adol for the first time in Ys V, it becomes apparent that what they may have experienced previously in the series no longer applies. The only true commonality between Ys V and the Ancient Ys Vanished duology is that all three games are presented from a top-down perspective. Other than that, everything from the interface to the combat system has been completely redesigned. The difference most immediately obvious is that the familiar picture-frame interface is gone; the playing field now encompasses the entire screen. The new features only add up from there. As you guide Adol to Dorman’s abode, you may notice as your thumb slides across the control pad that he is now capable of moving diagonally. Furthermore, despite its top-down presentation, Adol retains his ability to jump from Ys III, which can normally be performed with a press of the “B” button. You can take advantage of his jump to reach a higher ledge. It’s not as though the ledges have to be marked; as long as they’re not too high up, he can make it.
The menu is accessed by pressing the “X” button. The menu takes the form of a cross somewhat reminiscent of the interface featured in Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, and there are five different options; Equipment, Quick Save, Customize, Item, and Fluxstone. Though the actual menus look nothing like what the series had featured up until this point, they function similarly. “Customize” allows you to adjust the game’s settings while the purpose of “Quick Save” is obvious. In the event that you lose, the game reloads itself where you selected the option. This is important because unlike in previous games, you cannot save anywhere you wish. In order to formally save the game, you must visit an inn and speak with the proprietor. The temporary save persists until you turn the console off. The “Item” option brings up your inventory screen.
For the first time in the series’ history, you’re allowed to carry more than one potion. Though somewhat expensive at first, it often pays to stock up on them. Key items are displayed on the left side of the inventory screen. Most of them are used automatically, but some need to be equipped first. Adol will equip the item highlighted by the cursor.
Though the interface doesn’t resemble its familiar, tiered predecessor, equipping weapons and armor is straightforward enough. Adol can have equipped at a given time a sword, shield, set of armor, and a ring. There are a greater number of stats to consider when choosing your loadout this time. While strength and constitution roughly correspond to the attack and defense stats from the original four games, equipment also has an effect on Adol’s dexterity, intelligence, vitality, and will. Taking cues from many contemporary JRPGs, heavier weapons decrease Adol’s dexterity, and thus his maneuverability in battle. While weapons and armor typically varied only in quality in the games leading up to this installment, Ys V actually gives players an incentive to decide between different sets.
It is after Adol has accepted Dorman’s proposition that you are thrust into the gameplay proper. Dorman gives Adol 1,000 gold pieces with which to begin his journey. If you believe you can get away with not spending said money on a weapon and simply have Adol engage monsters unarmed until you can afford a better one, think again. Here, Adol can’t even launch an attack without a sword equipped. Unlike in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which reinvented swordplay in action-adventure titles, Adol doesn’t always swing the sword parallel to the ground. Indeed, if you opt to buy the strongest sword available in Xandria, the talwar, Adol can only stab forward with it. Later swords can be swung in a fashion similar to that of Link’s in A Link to the Past, but the manner in which Adol attacks with them is different for each one.
There are three numbers and a meter present onscreen when Adol is in a hostile area. The leftmost number and the meter measures Adol’s health. As is series tradition, Adol can recover his health automatically by standing still in an outdoor area for a long enough time. Just like in Mask of the Sun, certain enemies can poison Adol, though this time, the affliction will prevent him from recovering his health automatically. Despite this, it’s a little easier to deal with than it was in Mask of the Sun. Not only did the team make the affliction more visually obvious by having Adol’s face turn purple, he is allowed to carry more than one antidote. The other two numbers do not serve much of a purpose at first, though both have to do with the menu’s fifth option.
A player could easily determine what each option in the menu does through experimentation, but the purpose of the “Fluxstone” screen isn’t immediately obvious. Though the art of alchemy disappeared along with the ancient city of Kefin, many contemporary people of Afroca have become practitioners. Shortly after defeating the game’s first boss, Adol is given the ability to use it himself. Alchemy is a power that can be infused in what is called a fluxstone. Scattered throughout the game are six different varieties of elements, which correspond to the powers of fire, water, wind, earth, light, and darkness. Alchemists have the ability of fuse three elements into a fluxstone. There are a total of eighteen different spells that can be derived using this process. The “Fluxstone” screen then allows you to infuse your currently equipped weapon with any spell you’ve created. A weapon can be infused with as many as three different spells, though only one can be used at a time. By default, the topmost spell is cast first.
Alchemy makes use of the two remaining numbers on the field interface. The center number indicates Adol’s mana level. Each spell costs different amounts of mana to cast. Generally speaking, flashier spells capable of hitting multiple enemies at once are costlier than the ones that shoot standard projectiles. However, you cannot simply cast a spell whenever you wish. To prepare a spell, you must hold down the “R” button until the rightmost number, which represents Adol’s focus, reaches 100. Alchemic attacks are used automatically whenever Adol has enough focus. Intelligence dictates the potency of these spells whereas the will stat determines the rate at which Adol generates focus.
When going into Ys V, I immediately found myself praising Nihon Falcom for completely reinventing their venerable action RPG series. The idea of attacking by running into enemies was largely outdated even when the series began in 1987. Though the team tried something new with Ys III, much of what had driven the series until up then could be seen in that installment as well. Mask of the Sun opting to return to the outdated system with no significant improvements to the gameplay was a mixed blessing. It was nice that the series returned to a provably workable formula, yet Tonkin House’s effort came across as an outline of what Nihon Falcom would have done had they themselves been able to create it. Alfa Systems managed to get one last quality experience out of the dated system with The Dawn of Ys by tactfully emphasizing its adventure game elements and putting what they learned when creating the complied port of the Ancient Ys Vanished duology to excellent use. However, even if Alfa Systems provided players with a solid effort, it was time for the old combat system to be retired.
With Ys V, it’s clear Nihon Falcom put a bit of thought into how the series should evolve. The most obvious improvement is the attack button. With Nintendo setting the standard for how combat in a top-down action game should work, Nihon Falcom needed to adapt to have any chance of staying relevant. What I feel to be a particularly interesting idea lies in how Adol can gain levels. While he can gain experience points and level up the traditional way by slicing through as many monsters as possible, it is also possible to do so using alchemy. In fact, he has two different experience levels: physical and magical. Physical levels will increase Adol’s HP, strength, and constitution whereas magical levels increase his intelligence and resistance.
One touch I thought was brilliant is that enemies drop not gold, but gems. You can then sell these gems to merchants for gold that you can use to buy items. The amount of gold you’re offered by each merchant varies. Therefore, much like in real life, you have to weigh your options when you’re attempting to sell your goods. On one hand, money is far more immediately useful than the gems, so if you really need to buy something, you may have to take what you can get. On the other hand, it could be worth waiting for another merchant who is willing to pay more for the gems you carry, thereby getting more mileage out of them in the long term.
I also found myself enjoying the setting once again. It was by this point in the series that Nihon Falcom demonstrated how particularly adept they were at building a world. Each region Adol had visited up until now was a stand-in for a real-life civilization. Ys is the name given to a civilization said to have built on the coast of Brittany, France before being swallowed up by the ocean. Fittingly, Esteria is an island that is situated off the western coast of the Ys universe’s French analogue. Felghana’s inspiration was a little more difficult to determine. Players inferred the Elderm Mountains were intended to be the Ys equivalent of the Alps, and it was eventually placed in northern Germany. Finally, Celceta, the setting of Ys IV, is a fictional counterpart to the historic Celtiberi region in Spain.
The inspiration for Ys V thus allows the series to leave its Europe analogue to the continent of Afroca. Xandria in particular is a clear reference to Alexandria, Egypt – the country’s premier harbor city. Despite this, Nihon Falcom refrained from the stereotypical depiction of Egypt. This is not a land that is all desert and dotted with pyramids. In fact, the object of the game is to prevent the desert from expanding. Indeed, the area around Xandria is a surprisingly diverse biome, featuring large fields of grass, lush jungles, and swamps frequently besieged by heavy rainfall. In doing so, the series continues to play to its key strengths. By not using the obvious tropes associated with each cultural parallel, Nihon Falcom breathes a lot of life into the worlds they create.
Nihon Falcom clearly wanted to try something new with Ys V, and when solely observing its surface elements they were successful. It’s a shame, then, that when you actually begin looking over the experience with a fine-toothed comb, it completely falls apart. Many subpar efforts are ultimately brought down by their controls, and Ys V is no exception. To be completely fair, the controls aren’t terrible, but they do have a distinct lack of polish to them. Anyone used to A Link to the Past and any similar game is going to have to adjust to the fact that Adol can only stab with certain swords. It is through using them that you learn the hit detection is a little suspect. You have to be fairly close to the monster you’re attempting to hit in order to damage them. It may seem painstakingly obvious given that the weapon in question is intended to be used in close quarters, but this doesn’t always work out. Part of this issue can be explained in that Adol stabs the sword slightly off-center to his right. Once you obtain a sword that he can slash with, this problem is greatly alleviated, but it only raises the question as to why he can’t simply switch between attack patterns.
The problematic controls also manifest whenever you’re made to jump. I’ll admit that I like the idea; when you consider how many games presented from a top-down perspective exist in which the protagonist can’t get past a fence or rock in the road because their feet are permanently affixed to the ground, it is very gratifying being able to simply jump up cliffs. That being said, the implementation is less-than-satisfactory. The main problem is that Adol can’t jump diagonally. Adol can move diagonally, but when jumping, he is locked to the four cardinal directions. You also can’t adjust Adol’s jump while he is in the air. If he jumps straight up, you have to wait until he lands before you can try again. Admittedly, jumping isn’t too much of an issue for a majority of the experience, but there are two instances in which its lack of polish is on full display.
One portion of the game requires you to follow a river upstream. In order to reach his destination, Adol must jump between rocks jutting up from the river. If he lands in the water, he is swept downstream, forcing you to try again. Because each directional jump lands Adol a set distance away from his starting point, it is very easy to overshoot his target. It especially doesn’t help because you’re often made to dodge enemy attacks while doing this. Even with liberal application of Adol’s alchemy skills, you will find yourself having to repeat this portion several times until you eventually memorize exactly where each enemy is located. Though navigating the river is a hassle, it is, in fairness, also a problem limited to one portion of the game.
The same can’t be said of the various boss fights that feature in this game. Many of them require Adol to jump to reach their weak point. Because he is committed to a single direction when jumping, it is difficult – and in some cases, impossible – to reliably dodge enemy attacks while airborne. This frequently turns these encounters into a boring battle of attrition wherein you walk up to a boss, and rapidly alternate between the attack and jump buttons until it disintegrates, periodically healing if necessary. If you tried to use these kinds of tactics in any of the previous games, you would get to see the boss in question slaughter Adol in a matter of seconds.
One of the most frustrating facets of Ys V is that many of its shortcomings are the result of the developers having made problems out of otherwise excellent ideas. One of the greatest ideas Ys V brings to the table is that shields can now be used to parry enemy attacks. Previously, shields only increased Adol’s defense power, meaning they effectively served the exact same purpose as armor sets. This isn’t so in Ys V. Pressing the “Y” button allows Adol to actually use his shield to defend himself. Moreover, certain enemies can defend themselves as well, necessitating Adol to attack them from the side. Although this is a great idea on paper, it doesn’t quite work in practice. This is primarily because Adol cannot move while parrying. Two years prior to the release of Ys V, Link’s Awakening debuted on the Game Boy. It was the first game in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda franchise that made players hold down a button in order to use the shield. Notably, players could still move Link while he used the shield. I can appreciate what Nihon Falcom was going for, as they likely wanted to prevent players from simply holding down the “R” button for the entire experience, but it doesn’t work. Half of the time, I forgot using the shield was even an option because I focused more on dodging enemy attacks outright than attempting to block them.
On a similar note, I find I cannot praise the alchemy system. Ys II gave Adol the ability to use magic, though it was eventually revealed the power spawned from the Black Pearl – the artifact that spawned the demons plaguing Esteria and Ys. Therefore, when Adol destroyed the Black Pearl at the end of the game, magic ceased to exist. However, with the series having continued beyond its original duology, magic was too good of a mechanic to simply let fall by the wayside. Ys III allowed magic to return in a sense by making the rings Adol could equip run on a finite power before both versions of Ys IV allowed it to make a full comeback. Mask of the Sun merely brought it back without an explanation whereas The Dawn of Ys had a new set of ancient guardians native to Celceta grant Adol their power. With Ys V having introduced alchemy, it demonstrates that magic comes in many different forms in this universe. In a majority of fictional works, magic is typically implied to stem from the same source. Each region having its own distinct brand of magic adds to its identity, thereby emphasizing just how large and disparate the world is.
Unfortunately, as great as the idea behind alchemy is, I found almost no reason to ever use it. In theory, certain enemies are intended to have weaknesses to these spells. While I like this idea, the problem is that you only ever get a sense of how these spells work after creating the fluxstones. Once made, they cannot be separated back into their original elements. Knowing what each spell does will then require a lot of experimentation and, consequently, resetting the game multiple times. More pressingly, as inventive as the idea of exploiting enemy weaknesses is for this franchise, there isn’t a single enemy in the game that is capable of standing up to basic sword attacks as long as Adol is sufficiently leveled. The only real benefit to leveling up Adol’s magical ability is to increase his resistance, but it is of a minimal value considering most enemies inflict physical damage. Even if you neglect to improve his magical level, you’ll find enemies in this game can’t launch alchemic attacks powerful enough to fell Adol in a single strike.
Having described this game’s myriad problems, it’s easy to get the impression that Ys V is a source of immense frustration as you wrestle with the awkward controls and misbegotten mechanics just to have a chance of winning. Though such an assertion would be understandable, it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, if it wasn’t for these horribly implemented aspects, the game would have practically no challenge at all. I never felt as though I was in any real danger of losing, and I managed to defeat most of the bosses on my first try. Even including an endgame boss rush did nothing to hamper my progress, for they were all susceptible to the strategy-free tactics I had employed up until then. In a standard Ys title, I would often lose to bosses repeatedly until I had their patterns down. If that didn’t work, I would have Adol ascend a few levels before trying again. If I ever lost to a boss in Ys V, it’s because I was so bored with the game that I stopped paying attention to Adol’s health meter.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed the game’s lack of challenge. Upon its original 1995 release, fans protested, claiming Ys V was indeed too easy. These complaints were so widespread that Nihon Falcom released an updated version a few months later entitled Ys V Expert. To be fair, Nihon Falcom didn’t merely increase the damage enemies inflict and call it a day. They also introduced a Time Attack mode, programmed an extra dungeon, fixed multiple bugs, and redesigned certain areas. Then again, given that they had to issue an updated version of Ys V such a short time after its original release, I question whether or not the game was thoroughly playtested.
In short, Ys V provides a deeply flawed experience from beginning to end. Its only salvageable aspect is the story. Kefin didn’t disappear as much as its citizens found themselves frozen in time. Adol eventually learns that Dorman’s intentions are hardly altruistic, as he wants to harness the power of alchemy for himself. To this end, he has teamed up with Rizze, the captain of the guards in Xandria. However, Dorman turns out to be a pawn in Rizze’s scheme. She actually hails from the ancient city of Kefin, and she wants to use the power of alchemy to turn her homeland into a utopia. Kefin never really disappeared, and instead exists in a limbo-like state frozen in time. Niena also hails from this land. She was an alchemist from Kefin sent to prevent Rizze from breaking the seal on the city. The impact upon arriving on the outside world rendered her an amnesiac.
Every so often, random citizens of Kefin are made to go to the city’s judgement hall. Nobody who takes part in this ritual has ever returned. As it turns out, the people judged worthy in this ritual are sacrificed in order to sustain the power of alchemy and, by extension, the city’s existence. For want of that power, time will catch up with Kefin, and both it and its citizens will disappear into dust. In light of these revelations, Kefin could be seen as a dark parallel to Ys. The eponymous land of Ys was considered an ideal utopia, and vanished from the world in order to protect itself from evil forces. It too was sustained by what turned out to be evil magic, but no internal conspiracy to sustain it existed. In fact, once Adol set out to destroy the Black Pearl, the citizens he met along the way actively helped him. Meanwhile, the alchemy sustaining Kefin places its citizens in a hopeless situation. Either they continue unknowingly sacrificing each other to ensure their existence or they will disappear forever.
Naturally, Adol and newfound allies find a way to save the people of Kefin, though not without having the city crumble into dust. All in all, it was bittersweet watching these revelations come to light. A lot of thought went into them, yet the game’s lack of challenge failed to make them worthwhile.
Drawing a Conclusion
In hindsight, how Nihon Falcom handled Ys V was so astonishingly poor, it’s unsurprising that longtime fans hated it. The Ys series originated on the PC-8801 line of home computers. It proceeded to gain a small, yet dedicated following among PC Engine fans as a result of the well-received ports of the first three installments. Despite this, Nihon Falcom decided to release Ys V exclusively for the Super Famicom where the series’ fans had little presence. They previously attempted to use Ys III to headline the series’ Western push as evidenced by it having been ported to a majority of the popular consoles at the time. This didn’t quite work out when Ys III proved just as divisive in the West as it was in Japan. With few of their existing fans having easy access to Ys V and the series being practically unknown in the West, Nihon Falcom didn’t have an audience for this game. Consequently, Ys V was responsible for causing fans to revolt and declare the series dead once and for all. I myself completely understand those fans’ antipathy for Ys V, for it was easily the worst installment the series had known by this point in history. Its complete lack of challenge, unpolished gameplay, and dull presentation betrayed a ruinous lack of effort on Nihon Falcom’s part.
More than anything, what I dislike about Ys V is that it isn’t true to itself. From the very beginning, the series had an identity distinct from its contemporaries with its unique art style and rock-inspired soundtrack. In Ys V, Adol looks as though he has wandered into a generic, fourth-generation JRPG. Gone are the blood-pumping guitar riffs and in their stead is a mellow symphonic score. It’s to the point where even the series’ iconic item acquisition jingle doesn’t sound right in this game. Admittedly, none of these aspects are bad in of themselves – the music in particular still manages to be great despite being wildly unfitting for an Ys game. The problem is that the series was at its best when it marched to the beat of its own drum, not dancing to another’s tune. As it stands, Ys V evokes the feel of a 16-bit Square title without comprehending what made their output so memorable.
With many strikes against it, there is no practical reason to play Ys V. It would take a truly dedicated fan to overlook everything this game does wrong, and even such a level of devotion might not be enough. Nearly every single new gameplay mechanic Ys V proposes has a litany of execution issues associated with them. Only in its narrative does Ys V shine, yet if a hypothetical gamer was interested in watching the story unfold, I would sooner recommend that person watch someone else’s playthrough online instead. On some level, Nihon Falcom deserves credit for attempting to evolve the series and remain relevant in a rapidly evolving medium, but this was clearly a failed experiment that nearly put a permanent end to a memorable series.
Final Score: 3/10