It can be hard to know where to begin with a franchise as storied as Ys, but the PS4 release of Ys Origin makes a great starting point.
There have been plenty of Ys games released in the series’ 30-year history, but you could be forgiven for having never played any of them. It’s a rather niche franchise outside Japan, thanks in part to a lot of games simply not seeing a global release, though that’s gotten better in recent years. Further complicating matters is the fact that almost all the games are directly linked plotwise, making it hard for newcomers to just dive in with the latest release.
It’s for both of these reasons that I’d never played an Ys until very recently, despite the series having been on my radar for many years. My introduction came courtesy of the PlayStation 4 release of Ys Origin, and it’s a great place to climb onboard.
If the title didn’t give it away, Ys Origin is a prequel to the rest of the Ys series. It’s set some 600 years before the other games, where the once prosperous land of Ys is under assault by demonic forces. The people live in hiding in the floating Solomon Shrine, under the protection of the twin goddesses Reah and Feena. At least, they did until one night when the goddesses disappeared, taken away to the demons’ Darm Tower, prompting a search and rescue mission.
This is where you come in, playing as either Yunica Tovah or Hugo Fact. Yunica is the granddaughter of one of the Six Priests who rule over Ys, and is a knight in training – in part due to her lack of any magical ability. Hugo, conversely, is a magical prodigy, and the son of the strongest of the Six Priests. Though Ys Origin broadly follows the same structure for each character, they’re quite distinct and each tell a unique story, and the only way to get the full picture is to play the game with each of them (as well as a hidden third character, the mysterious Claw).
The overall plot is rather forgettable, but where Ys Origin’s narrative shines is in its characters, particularly Yunica. Hers is a coming of age story about a girl who’s constantly doubting her own abilities – failing to live up to the magical prowess of your lineage will do that. But she’s also determined to prove her worth, to herself as much as to those around her, so what transpires is a simple but moving story of her journey to find her place in the world.
Hugo is less interesting, as far as I’m concerned. He’s something of a lone wolf, cold and analytical, and confident in his ability with the skill to back it up. He has his own troubles that he faces, mainly to do with a brother he doesn’t get along with and the pressure of being heir to his family name. Hugo’s not a bad character per se, but in contrast to the relatable, endearing Yunica, it’s hard to care for him.
Each character also has a unique fighting style and special abilities. Armed with a battle axe, Yunica is your typical action RPG hero, able to effortlessly string together simple attacks and unleash powerful weapon skills. She can’t use magic, but she gets a few special abilities thanks to ancient weapons she finds on her adventures.
Hugo, on the other hand, turns the game into something akin to a shooter. His basic attack is a magical projectile that he can spam, aided by the “Eyes of Fact” that float alongside him like R-Type bit devices. He also discovers a few special abilities over the course of the adventure, though they’re quite different to Yunica’s despite being tied to the same artifacts. For instance, the first item you find gives Yunica a spinning attack that’s great for crowd control, but that same item gives Hugo a shield – both are useful, but they’re used in quite different ways.
Regardless of who you’re playing, Ys Origin plays out a lot like your standard action-adventure RPG. Combat is fast and frantic, and making quick work of foes nets you more experience for levelling up. Environmental puzzles break up the violence a bit, as you search for keys and navigate hazards in order to get where you need to go. There’s nothing too taxing here – combat is definitely Ys Origin’s main focus – but there’s enough of an exploration element to keep things from growing too stale.
A definite highlight of the game is its boss fights. As a general rule, I hate boss fights;I find them to be tedious roadblocks that interfere with narrative pacing and generally serve little purpose. In Ys Origin, I looked forward to these encounters. They’re standard action game bosses, really, with a focus on pattern recognition and reading the boss’s cues to dodge attacks and lay down some hurt of your own. The difference is in the fluid battle system, responsive controls, creative visual design, and attacks and patterns that always keep you on your toes – this all makes for thoroughly enjoyable encounters.
In a lot of ways, that sums up Ys Origin as a whole. It’s not a game that pushes a lot of boundaries, choosing instead to focus on taking the familiar and doing it well, and it’s generally quite successful with that. Some of the narrative elements felt a bit undercooked, but the exciting combat and clever exploration elements make that easy to forgive.
I don’t know how it stacks up to other Ys games (because I haven’t played them), but I do know that Ys Origin makes me want to check out the rest of what this series has to offer.
Ys Origin is developed by Falcom and published by DotEmu. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 and Steam.
A PS4 press copy was supplied by DotEmu for this review.