Written by: Stoo

Date posted: January 8, 2014

Hello and welcome to our latest discussion piece. Today’s item is Ys: The Oath in Felghana, a Japanese action RPG from 2005. The star of the game is Adol Christin, wandering hero and skilled warrior. He comes to the aid of the hometown of his friend Dogi, when they find it threatened by monsters and an evil Lord.

Rik: So, any reasons behind the choice of game? I know you played it first for a while before it became a possible discussion piece.

Stoo: Well we’ve not covered a lot of Japanese RPGs, since they don’t have a particularly big presence on PC and are generally seen as much more a console thing. So I don’t have much experience with that subgenre in general, except for a few very big names like Final Fantasy 7 and Chrono Trigger.

Rik: I have virtually zero. I did own FFVII on the PSX, back when I first got it and just bought all the games everyone always raved on about. I didn’t play it much though.

Stoo: Also, this one is rather different even to the JRPGs I did play, as the combat is much more action-oriented. Fast paced hack-and-slash as opposed to turn-based.

Rik really hated these harpies.

Rik really hated these harpies.

Rik: It’s part of a series, isn’t it? This one was on PSP but there were some others I think.

Stoo: Yes, there have been quite a number of them. This is actually a (fairly substantial) remake of Ys 3 which was originally released in 1989 for…  (googles)… PC-8801. Okay I’ve never heard of that one.

Rik: PC Engine? (I’m just guessing).

Stoo: That’s actually a different device (fun fact I remembered later: also known as Turbografx 16)… but it did come out for that too, alongside other 16 bit consoles.

Rik: Have you played any of the other Ys games?

Stoo: Nope, I had never even heard of the series. I noticed it on Steam and thought aha, anime artwork, this is something different.

Rik: I did virtually no research at all and just dived straight in – but the opening bits indicated that this was probably part of a series of games when Adol and Dogi (have I even got their names right?) talk about their adventures.  I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on much though.

Stoo: Correctly remembered the names there! I think the core premise is just Adol wandering the world going on adventures and helping people. I don’t know if much else links one specific story plot to another.

Rik: Do you know where Dogi fits in?

Stoo: He’s Adol’s loyal chum, pretty much. I think also he’s needed just to do some talking with the other NPCs, since Adol’s the Silent Protagonist type.

Rik: Oh yeah, it’s all “Adol listens and agrees” – or similar.

Intro

Stoo: So as a newcomer to this sort of thing, what were your first impressions of the game?

Rik: The first thing I wrote was: “Intro/Credits=baffling”.  It all seemed rather strange to me.

Stoo: As in, Adol’s first arrival on the island?

Rik: I think I was referring to the cinematic, whatever that was…let me just remind myself [Rik heads for YouTube]. “In my time, I’ve wandered everywhere” *horses and carts etc*

Stoo: Oh, the animated sequence [full disclosure, I was also frantically searching YouTube to remind myself]

Rik: *girl stands on windy hill* *clock ticks around* *sinister king* – it was a bit like watching Pokémon with the sound off [NB: anime lynch mobs can contact me at the usual address].

Stoo:  Ah yes, fortune teller lady etc. I suppose it’s just glimpses of what’s to come. I was sort of impressed just to have an anime-esque intro. Not something you usually see in PC gaming,

Rik: Although I wasn’t familiar with the genre I thought I would be culturally prepared by some of my DS gaming experiences.  Things like Phoenix Wright, Hotel Dusk etc. But I remember thinking ‘hmmm…I don’t know if I know what to expect here’. As for the game proper, I quite liked it visually. And once it became clear that it was mainly going to be about smashing enemies into tiny pieces, initial impressions were favourable. I can’t say I followed much of the story setup though.

Visuals

Stoo: Well regarding the graphics, I think it’s quite charming. Colourful and the different regions are visually distinctive.  I don’t know if using sprites was a bit retro already in 2005 but they’re quite characterful.

Rik: I think they probably were retro, but I think aesthetically they’re going to age a bit better than a more polygon based approach.  Although the bosses are polygons aren’t they?

Stoo: Yep, and quite visually impressive, they feel quite large and threatening.

Rik: And durable…well, we’ll get onto that I guess!

Stoo: One other aesthetic point I liked was the character portraits that pop up…

Rik: You mean when you first meet a character and there’s a huge portrait that fills the screen?

Stoo: Yes, that and just the smaller portrait you get from then on. I think it compensates quite nicely for the in-game graphics being a little sprite that you can’t really zoom in on.

Rik: I knew it had been on PSP before, so I was expecting some potentially ropey visuals. But it looks good, and everything’s been filtered and smoothed.

Hack and Slash

In which I just stand around aimlessly and watch the dragon.

Standing around a bit aimlessly there. No wonder I died a lot.

Stoo:  Okay onto gameplay and monster-killing. You found that side engaging?

Rik: Yes, initially. Hacking a plant or a small dog to death was quite good fun.

Stoo:  It seems very straightforward at first, hammer a couple buttons and kill monsters.

Rik: Absolutely, but I think within the first hour it becomes obvious that it’s not all going to be like that.

Stoo: You hit a major speed bump with the first boss.

Rik: Oh God yes. The guy in the storage cupboard? Storage…dungeon? Storage…something? [I think you mean ‘the mine’ – a reader]. Yes, I was immediately quite disheartened.

Stoo: I got totally thrashed on my first try. I suppose I should point out we are both clumsy oaf 30-somethings and people who played as teens might be laughing at us now, but the bosses are pretty challenging

Rik: I have no doubt they will. I happened across some review or other where this guy said he finished it in 10 hours. I was slightly torn about the difficulty setting too. I always go for Normal…

Stoo: I played on Normal and got quite far but definitely had some rage moments.

Rik: Once you’ve started you can’t go back! I think it’s fair to say that there’s a certain level of mental and physical dexterity required that you might not expect.

Stoo: You have to learn the bosses’ various attack patterns and be ready to dodge around, then jump in and attack when you get an opening. So there’s some initial trial and error followed by, yes, quick responses.

Rik: I can only speak for myself, but with some of the bosses I doubt I’d ever have worked out how to defeat them on my own. Even with some ideas plundered from the internet my skills were lacking.

Stoo:  There was one… it’s like a big worm followed up by what I can only describe as a floating gasbag with crystal armour and lasers. Which is a fantastically imaginative concept, and it looked impressive. But for some reason I had a lot of stress on that fight.

Rik: Is that the one that sends out crystals towards you and if you don’t get rid of them all the crystals start deflecting stuff at you?

Stoo: Yes!

Rik: You hack the worm to death and then the real boss comes out? For some reason that wasn’t the hardest one for me I don’t think.

Stoo: Then there’s some red dragon thing zipping back and forth, took several tries. Also, did you fight the dragon where you have to kick his legs out from under him?

Rik: I don’t think so, doesn’t ring a bell. (Here’s where I admit I didn’t get to the end).

Stoo: Me neither, I must confess. I recall you mentioned the three bird-things (harpies) caused you grief?

Rik: That was the point at which I said, I can’t do this anymore! I didn’t find any of the bosses particularly easy, and I knew the strategy for killing the three harpies. But I just couldn’t do it.

Stoo: What I found myself frequently doing was re-running the level just before the boss, for money and experience points. That only works for a while, eventually you only get like 1 point per monster. But with those harpies I definitely died a couple times, then went level grinding, and found them more forgiving.

Rik: I think that’s one of the things I just can’t get my head around, and my genre ignorance comes through.

Stoo: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’ve played enough RPGs that I’m mentally prepared to have to level grind sometimes.

Rik: I like to feel that once I’ve gotten through a load of stuff, I don’t have to do it all again. I hate the fact that you leave a screen and then realise you’ve forgotten to do something or need to go back and then all the enemies that you’ve killed have respawned. I suppose I should think of it as bonus XP or whatever. But I just think – I KILLED ALL OF YOU JUST NOW! WHY ARE YOU BACK?

Another boss, this one isn't too bad,

Another boss, this one isn’t too bad,

Stoo: Well I’d have to admit, killing the hell out of everything in a dungeon 3 times just to get another level might not be the most fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Rik: I guess I never thought of it as a strategy. And when it was pointed out to me, it didn’t seem worth it.

Stoo: Question is, should gamers be prepared to consider it, or is that basically a bullshit mechanic?

Rik: I guess it depends on how necessary it is.

Stoo: Right. We’d have to admit more skilled players might not need it so much.

Rik: To take an example from a game I actually understand, on Test Drive Unlimited you can do the same race over and over again, and you could win a lot of cash that way. You could then use that  to buy a lot of cars and houses and stuff to help you progress in the game overall. But, on the other hand, it means you’re spending your spare time racing the same race over and over again when you’ve already beaten it. I guess I could never see myself making that choice, but if it became something that was necessary (ie the game sort of expects you to do it to progress), then I think yes, it’s bullshit.

Stoo: I wonder if playing old RPGs has conditioned me to be more accepting of that, you sort of expected unfair mechanics back then, or just to have to put some work in doing repetitive stuff to progress?

Rik: I sort of wrote it off as my ignorance of the genre, but I think I prefer the sort of Mass Effect type approach where you earn XP for doing tasks and side missions, but you wouldn’t have to do the same one over and over again. (Even though many of them may as well be the same one!) [note: we did think the side-quests in ME could have done with a bit more variety – Stoo]

Stoo: Ys doesn’t really have much in the way of side-quests. There’s a couple but nothing extensive.

Rik: Yes, I don’t think I ever saw it as a ‘travel around and do quests’ type deal. I just assumed whatever was happening was the next thing I should be doing. Which for me, in this world, was a bonus. Because otherwise I’m not sure I would have had a clue.

Stoo: I do like being able to roam, explore and do side-quests so was a little disappointed. There seems to be an “overworld” linking dungeons but there’s really hardly anything to do there, except walk straight from A to B. That’s just a difference between us, again though, me being more a fan of the likes of open-world RPGs like Morrowind.

The Tales of Adol

Stoo: Okay, next on the list. You didn’t follow the story much?

Rik: I don’t think so, no. There’s a girl (from the intro) and she’s sad. Chester is evil. The town is in economic strife. I think that’s all I can remember. Dogi buggers off for a bit to do some adventuring of his own.

Stoo: I thought the story was reasonably engaging with some memorable characters. Although I do think western RPGs have set a rather low bar. I mean I’m mentally comparing to action-RPGs and struggle to remember ever caring about the story in Diablo.

Rik: There’s a *story* in Diablo?

Stoo: There’s a great setting, but no plot or characters worth mentioning.

Rik: So are we talking things like Diablo and Dungeon Siege, rather than the modern action-game movie RPG like Mass Effect?

Stoo: Well… yes, I think Bioware have taken the genre forward in that regard, so my blanket statement up above is unfair. But JRPGs have historically made a better effort overall.

Rik: I was expecting good things. As I mentioned I really enjoyed the likes of Phoenix Wright and Hotel Dusk, even though they’re a  bit ‘off’ in places and something has been seemingly lost in translation. There’s a lot of effort put into the story which really keeps you playing. But I’m afraid I didn’t feel the same here. Maybe you could give me a clue about what was going on!

What are you up to, Chester?

Stoo: Well there is an awful lot of hacking and slashing between bits of story, but I found the characters appealing, even if they fit into fairly straightforward templates. Dogi is the reliable chum, Elena is sweet, Chester is dashing and also a jerk.  Also while at first that evil Count guy seems to be the main villain, I just knew some greater threat would emerge later.

Rik: Hmmm… And I guess you can’t say more than that! I don’t think I got that far anyway. I assumed the evil Count was the bad guy, or maybe Chester.

Stoo: There is ultimately a load of mystical stuff about Terrible Evil unleashed but Chester also has a personal story with some pathos to it. He definitely has his own plans!

Rik: Hmm, that rings a bell actually. In Phoenix Wright there are some nemesis type characters that ultimately end up being ok. I suppose I have to own up to the fact that I find the anime style confusing. They all have a cuddly childish appearance. Are they children or adults or what? But then Dogi makes some pervy comments.

Stoo: Yeah, for those of us that aren’t into anime it can make the tone harder to read, especially the cutesy in-game sprites. I think our heroes are meant to be like 22. Young men but old enough for Adol to have been roaming having adventures for a while.

Rik:  I could never work out what age Ash was meant to be in Pokémon. There was a character called Brock who was always quite interested in the ladies. And you didn’t know whether he was a pervy child or what…I found it very weird. Anyway – so, you liked the story, but it wasn’t enough to drive you to the very end?

Stoo: I want to play to the end, I’ve just gotten seriously sidetracked lately. Okay, and I am slightly daunted because I assume the end bosses will be super-hard.

Rik: It seems like a safe assumption to me!

Stoo: The plot isn’t as expansive and detailed as say a modern Bioware game, but it was enough to make me want to keep playing.

Rik: I think if I’d got into it I could have stuck it out a bit longer. But I didn’t unfortunately.

Other Stuff

Rik: Before we sum this up…we still haven’t mentioned the music!

Stoo: It’s pretty great!

Rik: It’s kind of like techno, but with strings. And twiddly guitar solos

Stoo: It’s a bit old fashioned but very upbeat with a “yeah! let’s go!” sort of vibe. It suits the action very well.

Rik: It could almost be from a top-down SNES shooter.

Stoo: Yes, definitely. I mean it is a remake (albeit a very substantial one) of a 16-bit game. So a 90s-ish soundtrack is appropriate.

Rik: I guess the only downside is when you’ve tried and failed for the 1000th time and your hands are bloodied and raw, the drum beats tends to pound into your head. And you feel a bit old, like you can’t keep up with it. And then having another go is like being in a nightclub that you want to leave but can’t.

Stoo: The other thing I wanted to mention was the RPG side to all this. After all, it’s categorised as such on Steam and Wikipedia. We already mentioned the level grinding but otherwise it didn’t feel very, well, RPG-ish to me.

Rik: It seemed more like an extremely long game of Golden Axe to me.

Stoo: I mean, I’m used to allocating points into skills, or choosing attributes etc. Here there’s no real decision making, except for having one of three magic powers enabled.

Rik: Yes, there’s none of that really, is there? I have to admit I largely ignored all the numbers and bars in the bottom left corner.

Stoo: Yep, there’s no need to pay attention to them, they just go up when you level up, or get better gear and there’s no reason to equip any gear other than the most recent you picked up. It’s not like some other RPG where you might think “do I want a poleaxe for greater reach or a dagger for faster attacks”

Rik: Which was a relief. That shadowy text appearing and disappearing all the time in the corner, though – I felt like I should have been paying attention to it.

Stoo: Well, we probably should mention you get bonuses for killing stuff that apply temporarily.

Rik: You mean, killing a lot of stuff in succession?

Stoo: Yep, you kill some monsters, become more powerful to kill the next bunch of monsters, but it runs out if you don’t kill anything for 30 seconds.

Rik: Like combos.

Stoo: But I don’t recall how much of that applies in boss fights, where you’re just hitting one thing.

Rik: I don’t think it does, although I could be wrong.

Stoo: Okay, that’s most of the items on my list covered. My overall impression was of something quite different to what I’m familiar with in action-RPGs for PC. Something like Titan Quest has masses of character-building options, and that’s really where the interest lies, trying to make the most killer frost mage or whatever. This game is much more about progressing a story, and pattern recognition\reflex-based boss fights.

Rik: I definitely had some fun with it, but for whatever reason I just didn’t ‘get’ the story. Also the boss fights left me feeling old and stupid.

Stoo: I had ragequit moments but I was happy to be playing something outside of the Diablo template.

Rik: While playing this game I had a period where I had difficulty sleeping (unrelated to the game) so I spent nights awake trying to pass the time, watching stuff on YouTube on my phone. For some reason I was watching a documentary [called An Impossible Job] about Graham Taylor, the ex-England football manager. Where he famously cocks up a World Cup qualifying campaign and generally comes across as a bit of a wally. He just seems a bit baffled when things go wrong, and one of his famous outbursts is, “What sort of thing is happening here?” And he has a voice that just makes him sound like a bewildered old man. Well that line kept playing through my head, as I failed to avoid the deadly feathers and musical notes shot at me by three evil birds. I felt like Graham Taylor not understanding why Holland are so much better at football than England.

Stoo: I might have had a similar experience trying to play Super Smash Brothers, once… I felt like a 60 year old playing their first ever videogame.

Rik: Oh god, I’m glad someone else feels that way about Super Smash Brothers.  I had one of those ‘you’re not even looking at your own character, are you?’ moments when I tried to play it. I didn’t quite feel the same about this. But I think, when you’re tired and defeated, the fact that your little man is unable to kill some large, extremely powerful birds with a sword, and he keeps dying because he’s been hit with musical notes and feathers, and you’re not doing very well…

Stoo: Was it the surreal nature of enemies that was off-putting a little?

Rik: No, not really. If I’d have beaten them, it would have been fine. I was definitely going with it for the most part; it’s only at the most pathetic moments of defeat, when you have one of those ‘take a step back’ moments and you think, maybe this is for kids with lightning-fast fingers who understand anime. Not you, you slow-witted, arthritic bozo.

Stoo: If it had been a bit more forgiving, it sounds like you’d have made it further and found it reasonably enjoyable, even if the anime side is still a bit unfamiliar.

Rik: Perhaps I should have put it on easy, but that’s something I’m always reluctant to do

Stoo: Yeah I always try not to, just because I’ll get even more ragey with myself if I still fail on easy.

Rik: Anyway, forgive the nonsensical rambling. How would you rate it overall?

Stoo: Barely what I’d call an RPG, but a refreshing change and one I wish I’d pushed myself harder to finish.

Rik: Are we giving it a score?

Stoo: I’d rate my experience a 7/10.

Rik: I guess I’d be somewhere between a 6 and 7.

Stoo: If you’re a PC gamer who wants a glimpse of what goes on in the world of jRPG, it’s not a bad purchase.