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Ys is the Spirit of Adventure

Ys is a love letter to the adventurer in all of us.

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Ys I Feature Image - image courtesy of Ys wiki
Classic Adol - image courtesy of Golden Age RPGs

Few video game franchises capture the spirit of adventure as earnestly as Falcom’s Ys. The very concept of the series centers around adventuring in its purest form: one person experiencing the full scope of the Age of Discovery over the course of their life. Each game is framed as an in-universe travelogue detailing protagonist Adol Christin’s adventures discovering a mostly uncharted world. The presence of two moons makes it clear that Ys is not meant to take place on Earth, but the world’s cultures and mythologies are modeled on our own. Adol has encounters with the “Romun” Empire, an interest in visiting “Afroca,” and eventually discovers the lost city of Ys–a land lifted straight out of real legend. Ys is a love letter to the adventurer in all of us, using Adol as a jumping-off point to explore one of the RPG genre’s richest worlds. 

Brave, intelligent, and true, Adol sets out on what will be the adventure of his lifetime. But it is you, great adventurer, that must guide him!” 
Ys Book I & II manual, TurboGrafx-16

The first Ys in particular has a unique charm, so much so that its many remakes (Eternal, Complete, Chronicles, Chronicles+ to name a few) strived to remain as faithful as possible. You shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken, and Falcom’s 1987 RPG is a masterclass in turning a simple premise and gameplay into an unforgettable experience. The only major change the remakes make is recontextualizing Adol’s journey by making it more epic in scope. Rather than arriving in Esteria on a commercial vessel, Adol shipwrecks himself on a solo voyage. Brave enough to sail into the Stormwall — a violent torrent of water surrounding the island–Adol begins his adventure in legendary fashion. More importantly, this immediately establishes Adol as a swashbuckling adventurer who will take any challenge head-on. 

Ys I intro - screenshot by Renan Fontes

Adding to Ys’ charm is the series’ unique style of narration. As each game is canonically one of Adol’s journals, the story will occasionally break the fourth wall to explain what he’s doing or how he’s responding to the people around him. This does mean Adol is a firmly silent protagonist, but it makes sense once you put the framing into perspective. Of course Adol wouldn’t be logging what he said during his own adventures, only what he was told by others. It’s precisely why NPCs have a voice and he doesn’t. Ys itself is Adol’s voice. 

In spite of Adol’s silence, Ys’ gameplay loop places a heavy emphasis on speaking with NPCs. You are an adventurer in a foreign land with no context for what’s happening. It’s on you to track down information and actually remember what people have told you. There are no waypoints to direct you or quest logs. You will not know what to do without interacting with the game world. This can be a bit jarring coming from modern RPGs which generally don’t require NPC engagement (or outright tell you which ones are “important”), but it’s exactly this style of gameplay that makes Ys a genuine adventure. 

Progression is a puzzle more often than not, solved by piecing together and paying attention to dialogue. You’re rewarded with a sword in the very first town just for talking to everyone, saving you from a potentially brutal early-game and teaching you the value of NPCs immediately. You can’t defeat the boss in the Abandoned Mines until you give Reah her lost Harmonica and eat a Roda Seed so you can find the Silver Sword under one of the Roda Trees — things you’d only know to do by interacting with NPCs. The game’s final boss is locked behind a literal need for context. You can make it to his door, but you’ll need to turn back if you haven’t completed each NPC’s chain of events inside the final dungeon. 

Ys Bump Combat - image courtesy of Reddit

Speaking with NPCs is certainly important, but this shouldn’t undercut that the meat of Ys’ loop revolves around exploration and combat. Specifically, Ys I uses a mostly buttonless style of gameplay called Bump Combat. While it takes some getting used to, Bump Combat is one of the best gameplay systems to come out of the 80s. You simply need to bump into an enemy to deal damage. Battles are purely reflex-based and tying attacking into movement keeps the action virtually non-stop. The fact you need to talk to NPCs might make it seem like Ys is a slow-paced experience, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Bump Combat is the kind of gameplay style that rewards players who take the time to master the base mechanics. In the same way you deal damage by bumping into enemies, enemies deal damage by bumping into you. Combat is a dance where you need to respond to your partner accordingly. Attacking head-on will usually result in Adol and the enemy hurting each other in tandem. Attacking off-center, however, deals damage to enemies without hurting Adol. You want to exploit vulnerabilities in the enemy design to kill them safely. Tight positioning can essentially lock enemies into place, allowing you to slaughter them in seconds without retaliation. 

Adol Christin Art - image courtesy of Ys Wiki

Unlike most RPGs, Ys I’s leveling system maxes out early at just Lv 10. The fact Adol’s level caps so quickly keeps the difficulty curve scaled and grinding minimal (but not necessarily non-existent). Most players will reach max level before they ever hit the halfway point, which allows them to focus on refining their skills when stuck instead of racking up levels. Your equipment is more important than your level. Having the strongest gear available is often the difference between life and death against most bosses. While Swords, Shields, and Armor generally just offer stat bonuses, Rings come with unique attributes to suit different gameplay needs. 

The Power Ring doubles all damage dealt. The Defense Ring halves any damage received. The Timer Ring slows down enemy movement, making them easier to fight. And the Heal Ring allows you to heal inside of dungeons by standing still. Otherwise, the heal mechanic only works in the overworld and towns. Certain items can also be equipped for their practical or puzzle-solving purposes. The Heal Potion restores health, but you can only carry one at a time. The Wing teleports you back to Minea and the Mirror freezes every enemy on the screen at the risk of shattering. The Mask of Eyes reveals any hidden doors in the scenery while hiding enemies and the Blue Necklace blesses Adol so he doesn’t succumb to any curses. While on the simple side, Ys I’s toolkit is well-rounded for its gameplay challenge. 

Make a map of the complex areas (such as the caves). Otherwise, you might get lost!” 
Ys Book I & II manual, TurboGrafx-16

Ys I Bagyu Badead - image courtesy of RPGFan

Esteria is broken down into three towns and three dungeons, with the larger overworld serving as a hub that connects all six major areas. It’s easy to get lost at first, but navigation isn’t too bad once you register where everything is in relation to each other. The overworld’s open fields keep you moving and naturally play into Bump Combat’s fluidity. A few loose treasure chests incentivize you to explore off the beaten path and not just beeline to your next destination. This is a design philosophy that Ys’ overworld shares with its dungeons, pushing you to explore each area thoroughly. 

Ys’ dungeons are exploration-heavy, to say the least. There are no maps to show you where to go or where treasure is. Every dungeon is a multi-floor structure hiding story-sensitive items you need to progress the game. It can be frustrating to backtrack if you miss a chest, but that’s why you need to be an observant adventurer who checks every nook & cranny before moving on to the next screen. While the dungeons are few, each one is a memorable set piece in their own right–both in terms of presentation and gameplay. 

Feena Art - image courtesy of Ys Wiki

The Shrine rests deep in the mountains, a once holy place now overrun with demons. Your first trip involves breaking an imprisoned maiden out of the upper levels and escorting her back into town. Enemies will rush her if left unattended, so you need to clear the path and actually slow down so Feena can keep pace with Adol. The dungeon’s layout gets more complex the deeper in you go. The Mask of Eyes is needed to get past seemingly dead ends. Golden statues teleport you around the map, introducing warp puzzles that’ll only get more complex as the game goes on. You can’t actually rescue Feena until you find the Prison Key in the floors below, but going too deep too soon can result in a quick death. The Shrine teaches you to explore everywhere and prepare for anything. 

The Abandoned Mine is the one reminder that Rastin ever existed, the first village to be overrun with demons. Nothing stands on the outside but rubble, The mine has gone dark with unsue, your only light the soft glow from Adol’s person. Not knowing what could be lurking in the shadows lends the dungeon an ominous atmosphere. Dead ends force you to turn around if your focus breaks, but you can’t afford to leave anywhere unexamined. The mine is full of valuable treasures–the Silver Armor, Silver Harmonica, Roda Seed, and Darm Key. Missing just one of these chests means needing to return to progress the story. It’s a harsh penalty, but it’s a lesson that needs to be learned before the final dungeon.

Darm Tower is a 25-floor gauntlet that puts your observational and navigational skills to the test. This is Ys I’s point of no return. Once inside, there is no turning back to play around in the overworld or explore past dungeons. Which is not too unfortunate since Darm Tower is far and away the best-designed section of the game–a labyrinthine dungeon full of secrets you need to uncover with your own wit. You have to be on the lookout for hidden walls, attentive enough not to lose your place during the tower’s teleporter puzzles, and equipped with the right gear to overcome any traps. 

Ys Darm Tower PC Engine - image courtesy of Lets Play Archive

The tower has its own set of NPCs to keep track of. You need to remember key details NPCs mention and how to get from floor to floor. Simply running to each staircase with no consideration for where you’ve come from, where you’re going, or where you can go will result in you getting lost the instant you need to actually explore the tower. And you will need to. The Rado’s Annex puzzle requires a Ring from the second floor, something you will easily miss by rushing into Darm Tower bumps blazing. NPCs move floors and offer new information/items as they ascend alongside you. Adol’s silver gear gets stolen before the final battle and you need to reclaim each piece individually. 

While the tower’s balconies mainly serve as opportunities to heal up between each floor, they do a lot of legwork in building up to the final battle. Time is actually passing inside of the dungeon, and you’ll gradually see the sunset the higher you go. Knowing that Adol is fighting into the night makes the final set-piece all the more epic. The passage of time also helps in lending some narrative urgency, since Adol only has until morning to make it back to the tower entrance. Nightfall is more than an aesthetic detail, it’s the clock ticking. 

Bosses tend to be the best parts of each dungeon and arguably the highlight of Ys on a whole. Battles are fast-paced, hectic challenges of pure skill where no items are allowed. The general boss design also does a good job at emphasizing Bump Combat’s strengths while instinctively teaching you how to play. Jenocres warps across a small arena with rhythmic flames blowing from both sides, teaching you when to dodge and attack. Nygtilger’s wide hitbox teaches you to stay on the offensive and seize every opening possible. Vagullion splits its body into several bats that deal contact damage, reforming for a brief window of time where you can actually hurt it. Brute force does not work. You need to manage your space carefully and be ready to rush when the bats come together. 

Vagullion Ys 1 - image courtesy of Steam

Such a difficulty spike can be overwhelming for the third boss, but this is how the game gate checks your skill level before Darm Tower. If you can beat Vagullion, you can beat Ys I. Darm Tower is actually home to most of Ys’ bosses. Pictimos’ saw tosses double down on the importance of rhythmic combat. Khonsclard is a full-blown war of attrition where you need to out-damage the boss while dodging what attacks you can. Yogleks & Omulgun demand precision and keeping a rhythm going as the two bosses swap places every time you land a hit. Every boss prepares you for the final battle against Dark Fact, a tried and true endurance match that tests all your abilities.

Dark Fact is relentless on a mechanical level. Fireballs randomly fall from the skies, keeping you on the move while he glides around the arena. Dealing any damage on the boss causes the area you’re standing on to break away, narrowing the arena as the fight drags on. If you run around recklessly, you risk falling through a bottomless pit or trapping yourself defenseless in a small corner of the room. You need to be strategic about when you hit Dark Fact and where. You also need to remember to equip silver gear. One of the best tricks Ys plays on observant players is introducing the Flame & Battle set of equipment in the final dungeon. 

Dark Fact Concept art - image courtesy of jrpg moe

Stats-wise, it makes sense to equip the strongest gear available at all times, but it’s all worthless during the final battle. If you’re the kind of gamer who instinctively equips the “best” equipment no matter what, you will be unable to inflict any damage on Dark Fact — punished for not paying attention. But players who actually took the time to speak with NPCs will remember that silver has gone missing all over Esteria.  It only stands to reason Dark Fact was stealing the silver, which means there must be some benefit to equipping it against him. Those with a keen eye will have caught the story’s emphasis on lost silver, from Reah’s harmonica to Adol’s equipment.

The silver light beckons both hope and destruction.
– The Roda Tree, Ys Book I

Ys’ story is elegantly simple, like a fairy tale in motion. The Stormwall is framed like a biblical act of nature. A silver sword can be found resting at the foot of a world tree, its stories history now lost to time. Demons walk the land, terrorizing a once peaceful people. The in-game Books of Ys inform readers on the creation of Cleria (silver), twin goddesses who gave the world order & freedom, and how ancient Ys vanished–the not-so-mythical land Adol is welcomed to at the end of his journey. 

There’s more focus on world building and lore than traditional plot, which keeps the narrative feeling refreshingly quaint. Esteria is a small setting, but serves its purpose well. Barbado is a peaceful port town full of friendly faces, making it the perfect jumping off point. Minea is a fortified city in danger of falling to the demons now that Rastin Village has been reduced to ruins. Darm Tower can be seen standing in the distance beside Bagyu Ba’dead, a gaping crater that serves as the only proof Ys was once part of Esteria. Zepik Village sits at the tower’s outskirts, protected by silver bells that ward off evil. You get a sense that you’ve gotten to know an intimate community before confining yourself to Darm Tower — which has its own sense of community in a way. 

Esteria Ys - image courtesy of Twitter (Digital Emelas)

Every NPC has a name and distinct voice, helping Esteria feel truly lived in. Adol’s in-game Notebook logs everyone you interact with, offering extra insight into each characters’ personality or backstory. This also speaks to the level of care Adol puts into his adventures. He gets to know everyone. Certain NPCs also get new dialogue as the story progresses, lending the impression that time isn’t just standing still. Life happens even when Adol’s off-screen. This, in turn, encourages you to keep up to date with NPC happenings. Feena in particular offers a few conversations at different points in the story if you visit Zepik, building a small bond between her and Adol. 

Presentation goes a long way in Ys, adding a lot of charm to an already charismatic world. Important NPCs get their own cutaway screens with drawn portraits for dialogue. Bright, colorful sprites pair well with just enough detail to give every screen life. Houses actually have enough beds for everyone who lives there, along with an assortment of accessories that speak to villagers’ daily needs. Clouds cast shadows on the ground as they move above. Water ripples while the wind blows any laundry still on the line. Playing around with lighting goes a long way in creating ambiance inside each dungeon, utilizing darkness as a design tool. The soundtrack is nothing short of incredible, juggling soft town medleys with energetic dungeon tunes and downright bombastic boss music. Ys‘ score is the bow that wraps the whole package together. 

Feena and Reah - image courtesy of JRPG Moe

A dazzling light, seemingly from all sides at once, bathed Adol in radiance. He felt certain that it must be wishing him peace and good fortune. And so, Adol began a new journey…
– Ending, Ys Book I

It’s worth mentioning that Ys I is only the first half of a grander narrative. This is all set-up for a much larger adventure that’ll take Adol beyond Esteria and stepping foot onto Ys itself. Yet the first game does a remarkable job at standing alone and offering a fully satisfying adventure as it is. The story is small in scope, but delightfully so. The people of Esteria just want their quiet lives to go back to the way they once were. Adol is not some prophesied hero, just a young man hungry to see the world for himself. Even at its most fantastical, Ys carries a grounded quality that makes its storytelling easy to admire. 

Adol Christin with Feena and Reah - image courtesy of Wiki

Later Ys games do an outstanding job at building off the foundation the first game laid, but Ys I is still one of the series’ finest outings. It’s one of the best RPGs of its era and an adventure every fan of the genre owes it to themselves to experience at least once. Excellent pacing, an amazing combat system, and a wonderfully put-together story elevate your standard hero’s journey into the building blocks of a genuine epic. Ys is an ode to the Adol Christin in all of us, the adventurer’s spirit that draws people to new experiences. 

Adol’s first adventure ending with the start of his second is a poetic note to close Ys I on — a promise of so much more to come, for both him and the player. As brilliant as the first game is, Ys I is only the tip of the iceberg after all.

To be continued in Ys II: A Legendary End for a Legendary RPG… 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.

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