I've played a few of the previous Ys games, but this is the first one I've played that I really liked. Despite having a Vita for like 2 years, I still don't know how to take a screenshot with it...
The game follows Adol, who is an Adventurer that is on a boat called The Lombardia. On the trip, the boat is attacked by tentacles and ends up sinking. Adol wakes up on the nearby Seiren Island, a place from which no one has ever returned. Here, he meets up with a few others and form a settlement in order to survive. Through the course of the game, Adol has visions of a distant past through the eyes of a girl named Dana, who is from the Eternian city that used to be on the island before it was destroyed. Through these visions, Adol and his friends discover that Dana is able to affect the future with her actions, helping them on their journey across Seiren Island.
Eventually, Adol learns that Dana is the one who sealed herself after she was branded with a mark that made her one of the Protectors of Evolution, someone who is tasked with ensuring that the next Lacrimosa, an event in which basically the Great Tree on Seiren Island goes on an extinction campaign whenever it feels a race has become stagnant. Dana sealed herself to prevent herself from carrying out the Lacrimosa and instead, ends up awakening during Adol's time, bringing the two together and allowing them to come together to try to stop it. However, the Lacrimosa is not something that can be stopped. It is a natural part of the world and any attempt to stop it puts the entire world in danger. When Dana awoke, she had unwillingly chosen Adol as the next Protector of Evolution, continuing the cycle.
In order to stop this from happening, the group attacks and destroys the Great Tree. Unfortunately, things do not work out as planned and the world is slowly being eroded. Dana sacrifices herself to take the place of the Great Tree and unwillingly awakens the Earth Goddess Maia. In doing so, the Lacrimosa is stopped, but Dana disappears. After one more fight, Dana reappears transformed into the new Goddess of Evolution. Along with the other Protectors of Evolution, they will work to manage the future Lacrimosas in order to prevent extinction scale events from occurring again.
The graphics for this game looks great. The Vita of course is inferior, but the graphics are some of the best on the portable. Backgrounds are simplistic, but it is exchanged for detailed character and enemy models. The boss monsters look better than monsters in any other handheld game that I have played. The characters' weapons also change with each major upgrade. The only downside is that the alternate costumes are pallette swaps and the number of fully animated cutscenes are low. But, the in game engine gets a lot done and the varied facial expressions of the characters do help to contribute to its graphics. Overall, it feels like a massively improved version of whatever was used to make Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization.
The game is divided into two major segments, Adol's story and Dana's story. You switch between them automatically during the story though you can visit Dana's part whenever you want later on in the game. The two eventually converge, but a lot of Dana's optional content is only available on the PS4 version of the game (the Vita version is still worth it at $40). The parts required for the story and 100% completion are luckily available on the Vita and not required.
The gameplay is very simple. You have an attack button, a switch character button, and a special attack button. You can lock on and use items fairly easily. The only real problem is sometimes the lock on can get weird when enemies start moving around too fast. Each character also has a weapon type with a total of 3 weapon types and 2 characters available for each weapon type. Basically, one type is slashing (good against beasts), one type is piercing (good against flying), and one type is smashing (good against armored enemies). Triggering timed dodges and blocks also give you bonus damage and makes it easier to stun enemies, removing their type advantages for as long as they are stunned.
The core of the game comes from exploring Seiren Island. Even though it looks open, you are restricted from most areas until you find enough survivors over the course of the game to unlock the corresponding area. A The result is that even though the game looks open ended, it is not. However, it does such a good job of hiding this that it never feels very restrictive. There are enough varities in the environment and split paths to allow for a good amount of exploration to be done in every chapter of the game. The overall map feels very large. The game's map helps you track the exploration, treasure chests, and item harvesting points in every section, so you can know whether you missed something in an area or not.
The only problem is that until you encounter the right Adventuring Gear, you won't be able to access most areas. The double jump ultimately becomes the most important item and you do not acquire it until you are about 80% through the game. The last few areas are not available until you acquire the breathe underwater item, which is like in the last 10% of the game. Had these items become available earlier, it would do a lot more in helping the game feel more open ended. Luckily though, once you reach chapter 5 or so, you can not only teleport to any of the healing crystals you encountered, but also all of the special sight seeing locations that you have found, making it easier to access those areas. You can also browse an area's maps by height too and it makes it easier to find paths and get around some of the dungeons too.
At certain points of the game, your village will also be attacked by waves of enemies, allowing you to defend it and encountering otherwise rare enemies to make it easier to hunt for items. You can even upgrade base defenses to make the defense easier. There are also mini-bosses present in this mode.
After a lot of the village attacks, people will put up requests. They are also available between chapters. These requests allow you to become better friends with the other survivors and improve your relationship, sometimes giving you stats or special items. These are mostly optional, but in order to acquire the "best" ending, you have to do most of them so that you end up with a high enough Reputation (150 on Vita, 200 on PS4) to trigger it. They are worth it and many are pretty short. At the same time, they help to provide some characterization on what would otherwise be just a name and a face.
Boss encounters are by far the most enjoyable aspect of the game. They come in enough of a variety that does not get stale. My favorite was the lizard boss early on in the game who fights attached to a log. The first half of the battle, it is on top where you have to approach it from a narrow path and have to avoid its tongue. The second half of the battle, it knocks you off of the log and hangs upside down like a chameleon. This is not the only creative boss fight. There are others, like one that hides in a swamp and you have to pop its air bubbles to force it to surface and attack its main body. There are armored metal knights that spin like a top. The only downside is the amount of health that some of them have. It feels like their battles drag out on the higher difficulties.
The biggest downside is that normal enemies do not have as much variety. The flying enemies mostly behave the same as one another and there are quite a lot of enemies that just randomly spin towards you. All of the spirit and undead enemies act the same way as well. Had they gradually incorporated former bosses as normal enemies that are weaker or divided up the boss's attacks into subsequent enemies, it would have created a lot more variety and made the other aspects of the game a lot more interesting.
Final Score: 8/10
Ys 8 is a great action RPG, one of the best on the Vita. The story's turn comes a bit out of nowhere and the Dana segments are greatly underplayed. The combat system is simple, but it works and feels rewarding. There are enough unique boss encounters that make the game feel epic. Backtracking makes a little more sense in this game as survivors you encounter help to unlock new areas and it rarely feels intrusive or tricky. The frame rate issues that normally plague other ported games is not very noticeable in this version. It is handled well and does not feel like it has any of the disadvantages of a port.