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Karifean's Blog of Visual Novels

A Modern Guide to Ys - Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of DANA

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If it's not clear by now, I adore the Ys series. I love how purely fun these games are, I love the simple sense of adventure, and the sense of genuine mystique from uncovering the lore of ancient places of legend. I love the way Falcom humanizes their characters and really makes them feel 'real' in a way other studios' JRPGs struggle to match. And whatever I may have said about Celceta it still is a game that has a lot of that. It has its place among this series of great games. But now what happens if you take that and just take it all to the next level? Simply put, you get a modern masterpiece.

Ys VIII starts you off with Adol and Dogi hitching a ride on the Lombardia, a cruise ship, as hired sailors. Since the ship's passengers include a lot of different kinds of people, from noble to commoner, undercover investigator to secret gladiator, the captain hires you to do patrols. But just as the ship sails somewhat in the vicinity of the feared island of Seiren, of which no one has ever returned alive, it's attacked by giant tentacles, and while Adol quickly moves to fight it off, the ship ends up capsizing, all the passengers falling into the sea. You find yourself stranded on the coast of that cursed island, with all your gear from the chronologically previous Ys games at the bottom of the ocean, leaving you to use only a rusted sword you find nearby and neither Dogi nor anyone else from the sea anywhere in sight. Well damn.

And then right away this track starts playing.

Holy smurf. Yes. This game knows exactly what you're here for, and this track perfectly sets the mood. This isn't a tragic tale of horrified ship passengers being wrecked by dangers on a cursed island, you're playing an adventurer who just got shipwrecked on a legendary island full of mysteries and wonders, how smurfing exciting is that!?

Soon after you start meeting up with some other castaways from the Lombardia, including Laxia, your second party member, as well as the ship's captain and Dogi who quickly begin work on setting up a base of operations in a suitable area. Adol's main task ends up being exploring the island, both in order to find and bring back stray castaways as well as to get to know the area to find out more about the island as well as how to potentially deal with that mysterious giant squid monster that sunk the ship in the first place.

The setup of gathering up the castaways in the base ends up wonderfully marrying gameplay/exploration with narrative. Each castaway you find adds to your base a bit more, in a setup not unlike Suikoden. The fisherman teaches you how to do fishing and make a meal out of it, the tailor makes you accessories, the doctor brews medicine and special stat-raising elixirs. You start growing vegetables in your base which are tended to by a rather bratty spoiled kid trying to make himself useful. A stay at home mom can then make vegetable juice out of them that give you extra refreshment after meals. In addition, occasionally while exploring the island you'll come across natural roadblocks such as a badly placed giant boulder, or huge logs, or a broken bridge that needs to be repaired; at these points once you've gathered a certain number of castaways you'll be able to call on them all at once to make a path. And on other occasions the settlement itself is attacked, prompting a defense minigame where each castaway also contributes in their own unique ways.

In doing all of this, Castaway Village becomes one of the best examples of story and gameplay synergy I've ever seen in a game. Because the cast all contribute meaningfully to the narrative as well as being useful and meaningful directly to you, the player of the game, it creates a sense of attachment to this group that just wouldn't be possible in a comparable way outside of a video game. This also translates to the game's sidequests, which come in the form of tasks the castaways post on a bulletin board, and there's an incredible charm in how simple and practical these are. Early on for instance a task involves finding the necessary materials to make some curtains for the sleeping area to allow the girls to get a more peaceful sleep. There's no pointless token quests in this game; they are ways you, the adventurer, can make yourself practically useful to the castaways around you. And of course oftentimes the result of them comes with direct gameplay benefits for you in return, which is always wonderful.

Of course the meat of the whole experience is the gameplay loop, which feels better than ever. The skill and slash/strike/pierce system from the previous games returns once again but now the game is in third person view and you actually have a jump button again. Defensive options are streamlined as if you press either of the shoulder buttons just as an enemy attack is about to land you'll do either a Flash Move or Flash Guard, granting temporary invincibility as well as either superspeed or critical hits for a short period of time; while Flash Move and Guard were already in Celceta it's in this game where they really feel like a fundamental part of advanced combat as chaining them and figuring out the right timing to dodge boss moves is key both to avoid taking damage and deal huge counter damage in return. On the actual exploring itself, the different areas and sceneries of Seiren Island are striking and memorable and the OSTs accompanying all the different places is godlike. Seriously, I can't take an easy list of samples here, just put on the OST for a while in the background, it's magical. Like in earlier Ys games you find all sorts of adventuring gear that expands your options on how to interact with the world, and in a nice quality of life addition you can actually equip multiple at a time.

The game throws in a number of spins on the usual formula as well to keep things from going stale. As previously mentioned, you occasionally have to defend Castaway Village from monster raids, having you defend base in a quick gauntlet battle. There's also the total opposite, expeditions, where it's on you to take down enemy bases when monster activity spikes in areas you've already been to. Some sidequests have you explore an area at night which completely flips its atmosphere on its head. And of course there's fishing and material gathering and gear crafting like before. I will admit that I don't think the crafting is quite as good as in Ys Seven, nor are the bosses quite as genuinely challenging and memorable, but the game more than makes up for it by making the actual combat and exploration more fun than ever and also having by far the best roster of normal enemies in the series.

Now if this all sounds great already, this is only the beginning. The story of the castaways and pursuing the eventual goal of escaping the island by building a boat is one side, but as you explore Seiren Island, Adol also begins periodically having dreams of a girl named Dana. At first these dreams are vague and show you early excerpts from Dana's life. How she's an Eternian capable of using a power called Essence, and from a young age began making predictions that helped avert disasters. How she ends up being made the Maiden of the Great Tree. Over the course of the game these dreams start taking shape more and more and turn from slideshows into full playable segments where Adol and co. are left aside and you can play as Dana herself for a time. It starts to become apparent that it's not only Adol who dreams of Dana, but Dana also dreams of Adol in return, learning about the things he's experiencing and facing on the island himself. Over time the pair become aware of ways they can help each other out, and hopefully, at some point, cross paths.

I won't spoil what happens, but safe to say Dana is the real star and well deserves her name being in the title of the game. As she comes more and more to the forefront Adol ends up being more of an observer of her story. That's not to say Adol or the castaway side becomes irrelevant either though, not at all. Dana's story has very real and direct consequences on the main cast as well and the two halves of the story continue to work together very well. In a way it's once more capitalizing on what Ys already did best previously; if the castaway side captures the magic of exploring a strange and wonderous unknown island, the Dana side captures the magic of learning about a mystical tribe that revere ancient tree gods and make use of powers long lost in modern times. And I have to say, I just love how the Gendarme, the giant mountain in the center of the island, acts as the perfect midgame literal tipping point where you scale the highest point of the island and get a taste of a view of what awaits you on the other half, and is ultimately where the game becomes more about finding out and understanding what took place on this island so long ago and less just about finding a way to get off it. All the while, the game remains an absolute joy to play both as Adol & co, and as Dana.

I do have to touch on this game's availability a bit. You'll find this game on the PS4, the Switch, the Vita and the PC. Notably however, the Vita version was the first release of the game and is lacking a number of features and content that the console/PC releases later got, including this game's very own "Labyrinth of Amala" during the Dana segments and even a true ending with an additional final boss battle. As for the PC port, unfortunately it's been plagued by performance and crash issues since its first launch and while things seem to have gotten much better since, there remain some reports of crash problems to this day. So I must recommend, if you can get this game on the PS4 or Switch, get it there.

Ys VIII is a culmination of everything great about Ys - and in a way JRPGs in general - and is a wonderful reminder that new games do not have to stand in the shadow of old classics, that they can take everything that was and still is great about classic games and take it to the next level to make a modern masterpiece. Playing this game not only got me into Ys, it also got me interested in finding out how Suikoden does the whole "gathering a large number of people that all contribute to your base" thing that so obviously inspired that part of this game, and when I eventually played Chrono Trigger later on I felt a large reminiscence of the same kind of progression in how at first the wonder of time travel and exploring a new era drives you before it turns more and more into figuring out the nature of an existential threat to the world itself. In a nutshell, the game borrows from the rich history of JRPGs as a whole and I love it to bits. If you can get your hands on it, I wholeheartedly recommend it regardless if you're a veteran or new to the series. The game's story is entirely standalone and requires no prior knowledge of the series whatsoever, not even making any reference to the Eldeen or Darklings that were a commonality of some of the earlier game's stories. So no need to hesitate. Get it and have a great time!

This concludes our modern run through the Ys series of games. Ys IX has been released in Japan not too long ago so hopefully that will come to the west soon enough. You'll have probably noticed a lack of Ys V on this list, well, it hasn't gotten a remake and none of its old versions ever made it overseas, but given Celceta wasn't too long ago itself chances are looking good that Ys V will be Falcom's next Ys remake. For the time being, I hope this rundown has been helpful in some way, and I hope you enjoyed these writeups.