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I've been seeing a lot of people ask "what the heck is Ys" recently. As an avid fan who can hopefully take a step back and look at these games from a newcomer's perspective, I hope to answer the most common questions while offering my insight into what these games are like and whether they'll be a good match for you. I've also included Metacritic links so you can check out what other critics are saying about these games, but as usual with Metacritic, I'd recommend taking the scores with a grain of salt and looking at the actual words in the reviews.
Having said that, if you're lazy and/or don't feel like reading my in depth analysis, then here's my TL;DR:
Buy them all! Except maybe Chronicles.
So what the heck is Ys?
Ys (pronounced like "ease") is a constantly evolving series of action RPGs starring a red haired warrior named Adol Christin (this only varies in Origin). Although there can be drastic differences between titles, common elements of each game in the series includes the following:
And did I mention the music? Seriously, a lot of people legitimately get into Ys because of the music. It's a huge part of Ys' appeal.
Some people call Ys "The Legend of Zelda on crack," but that's not quite a fair comparison. Add in leveling up, stick in finding new and stronger equipment, and replace the puzzles with hordes of monsters and kick the tempo up 100%, then that comparison starts to be more accurate. What's more, I'd call Ys Seven and Memories of Celceta "Kingdom Hearts on crack." I can't stress enough that each game is such a different experience, but these simple fundamentals are what keep us Ys fans coming back for more.
I've listed the following games in my recommended playing order, but really, all the following games except Chronicles are good starting points.
Ys: Oath In Felghana
Platforms: PSP and PC
Summary: Oath In Felghana is a remake of Ys III: Wanderers from Ys in the same way that Mad World by Gary Jules is a remake of a 1980s pop song. With a playtime that clocks under 10 hours for a first playthrough, you get a thoroughly polished adventure that's extremely light on filler. Oath's brevity and polish is why I believe it to be the best starting point for the series.
What it's like: Action-RPG with a lot of platforming elements. Adol Christin is a one man army against hordes of enemies, and the game rewards slashing through them quickly. For example, each time you attack an enemy, you start to accrue a combo, and a higher combo multiplier means more bonus EXP. Therefore, you'll want to keep dashing to each enemy to keep that combo alive, and enemies will drop stat buffs and HP recovery pick-ups to keep you going. This creates a tricky risk/reward system that prevents the combat from being a mindless hack-and-slash, as getting too careless will definitely get you killed.
While there is a central town where you'll get to know a friendly cast of characters, you'll be spending most of your time in the game's dungeons. To break it up, there are occasional sidequests you can take from the commoners in the town, and you can upgrade your weapons and armor to help get by areas that are giving you trouble. What's more, there are occasional secret scenes and items you can find by exploring the world between dungeons, so there's decent variety throughout the journey too.
Metroidvania fans will enjoy the progression of obtaining new powers: you'll want to revisit a fair amount of old areas with new items and abilities to unlock additional areas and secrets. Also, this game is tough, even on Normal mode. While I wouldn't say seasoned gamers will rage quit on Normal, you might be surprised how difficult certain sections are during your first run through. Of course, you could level grind to solve all your issues, but mastering your moveset is key to victory.
PC or PSP?: Oath in Felghana is currently available for the same price on both platforms, and each is very good in its own right. It's just a matter of choosing which one is right for you.
The PC version of Oath in Felghana is the original. For its release on Steam, Xseed added achievements, leaderboards, and a 1920x1080 resolution. Needless to say, at a steady 60 FPS on even a midrange computer, this is definitely the prettier version of the game. It still looks great despite originally being released in 2005. Be warned that, at the highest resolution, you will see some funky looking graphics around the edges of the maps, since the game wasn't originally designed for that resolution. But, for the most part, the resolution improvement works like a charm.
The PSP version still looks and plays great despite being on a handheld. This game also adds full voice acting, a New Game Plus system, and a few other aesthetic differences. The PSP version is also a fair bit easier due to an extension of the game's boost system, which gives Adol a way to regenerate HP on a cooldown. This is a massive boon due to a lack of healing items during boss battles, so it's possible to make up for mistakes during especially tough encounters. Also, if you lose to a boss enough times, the game will provide the option of attempting the boss at a lower difficulty level, which is then reset upon victory. Add this to many bosses now announcing their attacks with audio cues, and the PSP version definitely becomes more accessible.
Keep in mind, however, that Oath in Felghana has six difficulty levels, and the New Game + system is flexible with what exactly is carried over to a new playthrough. So, really, it's easy to make the game as difficult as you want it. That said, if you want the ultimate challenge and/or you like achievements, stick with the PC version.
Summary: As I've alluded to before, take Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, and add some crack cocaine and Ys fundamentals, then throw it all in a blender. That's what Ys Seven is like. This game modernized the Ys formula, so fans of other contemporary hack-and-slash style RPGs should be pleased with this ~30 hour long quest. If you're determined to only get one Ys game and never try the other ones, I'd recommend this one.
What it's like: This game follows your standard RPG progression. You go on a quest, meet locals and new party members, explore dungeons, fight big boss battles, upgrade your weapons and armor, etc. There's also a very simple crafting system that lets you make new weapons and armor out of items that are dropped by enemies or mined from various stockpiles you'll find as you travel from place to place. Oh, and there are sidequests galore.
While Oath in Felghana had platforming elements, Ys Seven replaces the jump button with a dodge roll. In other words, while you'll no longer deal with jumping to take down airborne foes, you will spend quite a bit of time rushing in to slash at enemies before you quickly dash away to avoid their retaliations. Also, Ys Seven is the first Ys game to feature multiple playable heroes at once, which heavily influences in how you'll play the game. Not only does each character perform best at different ranges and different speeds, certain weapons fare better against different types of creatures; fleshy enemies are weak to swords, rock-looking enemies are weak to blunt damage, etc. Characters are switched on the fly in combat, with the AI controlling the other characters in the process (which, by the way, the AI does a remarkably good job at, surprisingly enough).
Not only did Ys Seven have the most robust assortment of weapons and armor in the series when it came out, but it also introduced an addictive skill system that constantly changes up the combat. Party members are able to learn new skills off of pieces of equipment that they can proceed to level up and evolve by repeatedly using the skill in combat. Because the "magic" meter in the game refills by using normal attacks on monsters, leveling skills comes natural with regular play and provides incentive to run around and beat up bad guys just for fun. In other words, if you're the type of person who enjoys compulsively leveling things up, Ys Seven has got you covered hardcore. Fortunately, I never found it particularly necessary to level up specific skills to beat bosses, so you won't get stuck by a grind wall.
Speaking of grind, while Ys Seven isn't exactly an easy game, it's definitely the easiest entry in the series yet. The Normal mode for this game is much more casual, so for anyone who is coming into Ys Seven off of, say, Oath in Felghana, I'd recommend starting on Hard mode, or perhaps even Nightmare mode if you either compulsively grind or have enjoyed the other games on higher difficulties.
Likelihood of a PC port: 2%. Seriously, this question comes up a lot due to the recent Steam releases of past Ys games, but keep in mind that those games are actually years old titles that are just now hitting our shores. Falcom hasn't released a game on PC since 2009, so it looks like they're shifting their attention to consoles these days. While it may be possible that Falcom might go back to PC given the success of the Ys titles on Steam, I strongly suggest not holding your breath for it.
There is a Chinese PC port of Ys Seven, but its stability appears to be in question and the odds of that being localized are pretty small. So yes, if you want this game, get it on your PSP or Vita.
Summary: Ys Origin is a prequel to the series that uses the combat system of Oath in Felghana and puts it in a dungeon-hack style game. Although it's a couple hours shorter than the already short Oath, Origin lets you play through the game with three different characters, each with their own playstyles and storylines. In other words, if finishing Oath left you wanting more, then Origin will definitely provide.
What it's like: As a prequel to the series, the plot has quite a few allusions to the events of Ys I and Ys II. However, you don't need to play either of those games to enjoy the plot of Origin, and it might actually benefit to be unfamiliar for some of the more dramatic moments in the story. This is good, because I'd argue that Origin has the strongest story of any Ys game released yet. While the plot itself is nothing fabulous, the characters and their struggles definitely grow on you.
Structurally, Origin is much more straightforward than other Ys games. The entire game takes place inside Darm Tower (a notable location in the series), so there's no towns or open fields to speak of. Instead or purchasing weapons and items from shops, you spend your currency at save points to buy "blessings" that can strengthen your characters in a variety of ways. There are a couple hidden chests as you climb, but for the most part, there's no reason to revisit an area once you complete it. This gives the game an almost arcadey feel with all the trademark RPG elements intact.
Origin is designed to be replayed again and again, presumably to have kept people busy while Falcom worked on Ys Seven. That said, you'll still get quite a bit of fun out of the game even if you just finish the main story with each character once. It's worth noting that, when comparing their respective Normal modes, Origin seems to be a little easier than Felghana. However - and I can't stress this enough - Origin's Nightmare mode is in the running for the most brutal challenge in the series due to some serious crippling of your character and insane buffs to the bosses. It's definitely beatable, but be warned. And keep in mind, this is coming from a guy who finished the NES Ninja Gaiden without using continues.
As a bonus, Origin features an Arena mode that pits the player against a number of different boards that are littered with enemies from the various areas in the game. While it's nothing too special at first glance, it features its own set of unlockables and is great for pick-up-and-play action. In other words, think the Mercenaries mode in Resident Evil and you'll have a good idea of what the Arena is like. Origin is a game that'll definitely keep you busy if you're in for some good old Ys hack and slash action.
Ys I & II Chronicles
Platforms: PSP and PC
Summary: Chronicles is a remake package of the first two Ys games. Although these games have pleasant 2D sprite graphics and some fantastic updated music, Ys I and Ys II are undeniably old school action RPGs. The "bump" combat system could be playable with an Atari joystick, and the progression of the game remains mostly unchanged from their original releases back in the 1980s. If you're down for some fast paced retro action, then Ys Chronicles has charm to spare. If retro gameplay turns you off, or you're otherwise looking for even a vaguely complex battle system, it might be worth passing on this one.
What it's like: First of all, while this technically is a two-games-in-one package, there's a reason why these games are usually sold together. Ys II is a direct continuation to Ys I, or actually, it might be more appropriate to say that Ys I is an elaborate intro for Ys II. Although Ys II is far and away the superior of the two games, you'll want to play Ys I first.
As mentioned above, the bump combat will entirely decide whether you enjoy these games or not. For those who don't know what "bump combat" is, basically you fight enemies by running into them. That's it. The main strategy is that Adol will take damage if he attacks enemies directly, but if he strikes them from the side or off center then he won't take damage. On one hand, this barely even qualifies the game as being an "action" RPG, but on the otherhand, this makes combat lightning fast. Enemies will go down in mere seconds, keeping the game moving at a steady clip. Falcom designers have equated the combat to popping bubble wrap, and I really can't think of a more appropriate analogy.
That said, Ys Chronicles throws quite a few curveballs into the mix. Boss battles usually mix up the formula and can be genuinely intense experiences. Furthermore, Ys II gives Adol access to spells, including a fireball spell that allows Adol to strike enemies from a distance. In addition to magic, Ys II adds a bit of sidequesting by allowing Adol to give gifts to common townsfolk for either helpful information or sometimes handy items. Conversely, Adol can set townsfolk on fire just to see what funny things they might say. I'm not sure if that's exactly a selling point, but you have no idea how many hours I've spent on this game just to see all the crazy lines of dialogue that are hidden.
Pictured: PC (at max resolution)
PC or PSP?: Honestly, both versions are remarkably similar, despite the Steam version having a "+" in its name. The Steam version runs a bit smoother, has achievements, and gives the option to play the game in a classic windowed mode. The PSP version has some unlockable aesthetic keychain decoration things that you can hang on the screen if you so please, but otherwise its main advantage is being portable. Basically, decide whether you like achievements or portability. If neither is an issue, flip a coin.
Ys: Memories of Celceta
Summary: A refinement of Ys Seven's combat system; while this game retains the fast pace of Ys Seven, there are enough tweaks to the combat that makes skirmishes feel more technical and nuanced in a brand new way. I haven't completed the game yet, but this is without a doubt a fantastic Ys game, and the Vita has been in dire need of a quality exclusive such as this.
Is this a good game to start with?: Because I've yet to finish the game and reviews are flooding in, I won't do a "what it's like" just yet. Instead, I'll just offer my personal opinion for people who are considering this to be their first Ys game.
In short, yes, this is a great Ys game to start with. But as you may have noticed on this list, most recent Ys games happen to be good to start with. The plot of Memories of Celceta centers around Adol losing his memory, and the cast of supporting characters are all new for anyone who has only played the official localizations of past Ys games. In other words, a new player will be on mostly the same page as a series vet. There are a few references to other locations and events that Ys fans will get, although they're definitely not integral to understanding the plot.
If we were to take issues of price out of the equation, I'd place Memories of Celceta between Ys Seven and Ys Origin in terms of ordering which games are best to start with. At the very least, I'd recommend playing Ys Seven before Memories of Celceta for a few reasons. First of all, because Memories of Celceta's combat is a bit more technical than Ys Seven's, some skills learned in Memories of Celceta may not necessarily transition to Ys Seven. Not to mention that Memories of Celceta is noticeably more difficult, so warming up with Ys Seven would make for a natural progression. Second, Ys Seven gives a much better first impression of the series' characteristically amazing music. To be blunt, Memories of Celceta won't be hitting you with truly stellar tracks until you're a couple hours in. Trust me, that's not saying the soundtrack is bad, but Ys Seven conversely has some of the best music in the series. Seriously, compare the majesty of the first boss theme you hear in Ys Seven and compare it to its respective theme in Memories of Celceta.
If we do put price into the equation, you can pick up every other Ys game at their sale prices for less than the amount that Memories of Celceta costs right now. And even without a sale, Ys Seven is less than half the price that Memories of Celceta is going for (which is to be expected). So unless you specifically want a game for the Vita (despite the other PSP Ys games being playable on the Vita), I'd recommend at least Oath in Felghana and/or Ys Seven to try out the series. Memories of Celceta is a must play for fans of Ys or action RPGs in general, but you just can't beat the value being offered for the previous entries.
However, I definitely would recommend picking up Memories of Celceta right away if you are interested in the limited edition. No, seriously, I can't stress how freaking beautiful this thing is. Rarely do I ever get games new, let alone limited editions, but this is on par with how Working Designs used to package their games. The 100+ page artbook manages to also be an instruction manual, strategy guide, and short story at the same time. It's like how you used to remember instruction books being, except even more majestic than you remember. And that's to say nothing of the CD set! I know I'm a huge Ys fan, but I was geeking the hell out when I opened the box. I mean, seriously, the box is nearly as big as the box my Vita came in!
Chances are, the limited edition appeals most to Ys fans who probably don't need this guide to begin with, but if you're curious about this beast and fancy yourself a collector, it's worth the $59.99.
And that concludes the Ys buyers guide. I hope this giant essay will prove helpful to anyone interested in this series, and if there manages to be a demand for it, I'd be happy to cover some of the other games in the series that are either more obscure and/or require fan translations to play. Do note, however, that all the games described above are definitely the most accessible, so with any other Ys game you're stepping into fan territory.
Which is what I have sought to make you do all this time. Which will mean my work is complete. Bwhahaha!
Have any other questions about the series? Leave a comment below!