If you haven’t already, I highly implore you to listen to the interview I had with the game’s director Toshihiro Kondo-san (Link), as that will help aid you in the feelings I had for the game prior to reviewing it and what my original impressions were. As a quick summary of what happens in Ys VIII, you play as Adol Christian, stranded on the Isle of Seiren, which is a previously unexplored territory due to ships mysteriously sinking around it. Adol is stranded there after the ship (Lombardia) sinks, thanks to a tentacle beast. Exploring the island, you search for fellow survivors as you uncover the island’s secrets and you find a way to get back to civilization.
Having seen gameplay of it first hand, prior to review, I was worried that the combat would feel super light. However actually physically playing it proved me wrong, as the game demonstrated a great display of different weights behind each move (though maybe not as meaty as say Monster Hunter). Although the level of animation isn’t going to be winning any awards with its PS2 reminiscent style, it still looks and feels like a game for the PS4 if not late PS3.
Those are really small facets though, in this incredibly well made JRPG, as the main component comes from the exploring and fighting. It hits that old niche so well that it becomes an easy recommendation for even JRPG avoiders thanks to its streamlined approach of action-adventure - that and the lack of overly complicated overarching narratives. Rather, it builds up slowly, before hitting the third act hard for a closing fanfare that's good but not as grand as it would lead you to believe.
Personally, the combat is hard to truly criticise thanks to the insane level of polish, albeit, a slight issue with some "damage-sponge" enemies and bosses. They are rarely a problem in the main campaign, and are more there for players who want a “challenge” along with the standard “optional boss” - who definitely gave me a run for my money. The inclusion of precise timing windows during the combat with the Flash Guards and Flash Moves is great for those wanting to truly minmax, and can lead to some great moment-to-moment gameplay - much like popping bubble wrap. The game doesn’t go out of its way to make things very obscure which makes it feel moreish and trying to 100% things on the first try isn't a difficult task thanks to villager requests.
The game rewards attention to detail with additional story elements as opposed to accessories that are overpowered beyond belief. The leveling up of skills is a bit of a mixed bag, with the need for experience-boosting items to make skills more useful/powerful taking a bit too long. Potentially halving the time and removing those items would be a more positive experience and at the very least the more powerful moves should require less experience to level up.
Controls wise it isn’t obtuse, however I did have lots of accidental uses of my special attack whenever it was ready - thanks to default button mapping of R1 and L1 for dash and accessing your skill. The game does feature a rest system to refill everything, regardless if an ally fainted or not although I've only experienced normal mode so I can’t comment if that changes at higher difficulties.
Backtracking is kept to a minimum and isn't inherently necessary as previously inaccessible chests are often filled with nice items to have. The main story locations contain the more important equipment, vital for traversing the environment to access new areas, and unless you’re a fishing nut wanting all of the items/materials, you shouldn’t have to worry about your flow of bait so keep hold of the items needed for trading for them. Also, hoarding is treated as a net positive thanks to lack of inventory restrictions and the need to trade items in for higher rarity ones. So don’t get stingy with picking up items, they practically fly into your inventory.
This is probably my biggest complaint of the game mechanically though. Fishing is probably the most painful method of minmaxing and side-questing possible, the need to button spam X (on the PS4) and the occasional left analogue stick direction, turned from nice gimmick to excruciatingly painful in my personal quest for trophies. Whoever thought that spamming X to reel a fish in was a fun mechanic must be on Metal Gear levels of sadism. Okay. Rant over.
Just as the level pacing is well crafted and consistent with very little need to grind on normal difficulty, so is the story in that regard, in terms of natural progression and not needing grind for those extra few levels. If you want to fully unlock everything within the village, it’s not very difficult to do that, requests being primarily fetch/gathering quests which borders on mundane. Savvy JRPG players can complete these very quickly since they are often inventory checks for fetch quests. Also, if it wasn’t for that fact the game doesn’t overload your face with “x person needs help”, it would face more scrutiny. Both a blessing and a curse for me with my JRPG addictions, as I missed out on maxing out two characters' approval rating as I continued through the main campaign. The story isn’t the forefront in terms of what Falcom wanted to achieve, as I was told during the interview, with the Ys franchise being very mechanically driven, and I can see why.
The dialogue is somewhat ropey at times with character interactions, with the English VA bordering serviceable to good. That isn’t to say the writing doesn’t achieve what it needs to, for a community of survivors. Saying it’s a mixed bag wouldn’t be an understatement though, with Adol and Dana bordering good with what little they have to work with. Although Dana probably has the most amount of spoken dialogue, it just isn’t entirely huge or lengthy compared to other JRPGs. The entirety of it borders on better than the JRPG average from personal experience. However, I did notice a slight issue with her pronunciation that drove me nuts during the later half of her presence within the game. It’s a “once you notice it it’s hard to not notice it” scenario, but overall, I was happy with it. Plus saying who had the worst VA would be too rude for me to post. The English VA is recommended as they do callouts to things if you’re prone to missing stuff.
Now to talk about the main campaign, as much as I enjoyed it, the ending left me very lukewarm and the format of the game’s narrative didn’t denote a concise ending. The game’s premise is that the whole adventure is from a snippet of Adol’s journal. The lack of a clear resolution per se, is to be expected by default in that regard. Having achieved the true end, I expected character resolutions to be more “complete”. However that isn’t what I got, with the epilogue in the credits leaving me with more questions. The closing being what could’ve been a neatly wrapped up story was actually a present whose neatly wrapped bunny ear ribbons had slightly frayed ends. Not a story-breaking end, but it ruined what could’ve been a neat and tidy close after the incredible journey, that you as Adol, experienced. Delving into Dana as a character is spoiler territory, so I’ll be writing a “spoiler review” of Dana in that. But needless to say she’s a really interesting character, just that, as much as I hoped for more. Kondo-san telling me that each game is a neatly packed story during the interview, made me realise my fanboyism tendencies to ship characters together would be my greatest undoing. So the ending was a slight downer thanks to my over enthusiasm and machinations.
So is there something for everyone? Yes there is, would be my answer. What makes this game so great and refreshing is that it combines old JRPG fashions and tendencies into something more modern, making it more accessible. Trimming away anything unnecessary, to convert a raw plate of fish into beautifully delectable sashimi. Saying it’s JRPG the game, whilst reductive, wouldn’t be a far shout from what this achieves.
Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of DANA (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
If you’ve never played a previous Ys game, like me, this is a great game to experience despite the long history and number in its title. Lasting just over 40 hours for me, this is a relatively easy recommendation for even none JRPG fans who prefer more mechanically driven games.