It wasn't until I played "Ys Seven" on the Sony PSP that I realized I had had a mistaken impression about the "Ys" series.
I'd never played any of the previous games, you see, but I'd seen some of them on store shelves and had assumed — based on box art, screenshots and the like — that these games were standard Japanese role-playing fare.
Thus, I was quite surprised when, a few minutes into "Ys Seven," I discovered that it was really a button-mashing brawler at heart, even though it's been tarted up with some of the trappings of JRPGs.
Like all the games in the series, this one stars young Adol "the Red" Christin and his pal Dogi. We catch up with them as they arrive in Altago, a city-state plagued by mysterious earthquakes, monster attacks and a deadly, uncurable flu.
As the duo are noted adventurers, they're quickly brought into the confidence of the king and dispatched on a quest to find out what they can about what's going wrong.
But because this is a video game, despite their previous world-saving adventures, they begin anew here, devoid of the various powers and abilities they've no doubt earned so many times before. The excuse is that weapons in Altago must be powered by dragon energy — though nobody knows what dragons are, unless you mean the mysterious gods that supposedly created the world. So Adol's normal sword will do him no good; he and Dogi obtain new weapons connected with the land, which sets them back to level one for our adventure.
Combat is, of course, the meat of "Ys Seven." You've got one button for attacks, tapped quickly for a lot of light blows, held and released for a heavier strike; another for a dodge roll; a third to switch between party members; an inventory button; and some combined presses to execute special abilities. I'll get to that part in a minute, but first:
The point of switching between characters is that different monsters are vulnerable only to certain types of weapons. For instance, Adol's sword easily carves up soft, squishy things that simply laugh at Dogi's punches. And while Dogi can smash armor-plated creatures with aplomb, Adol's blade just won't cut it.
Other characters eventually join the team, bringing new weaponry into the fray. My personal favorite are the archers who sign up, because they fire rapidly and fight at a distance, which makes it easier to keep them healthy.
Only three of your party can run around at one time, and it becomes a good idea to keep a mix of weapon types on the field so you can buzz through monsters like a chainsaw. And while you personally control only one character directly at a time, the others fighting alongside you normally, just not doing quite as much damage — but usually not taking any either.
I suppose I should mention that, given the brawling style of the game, all battles are real-time as you wander all over the land of Altago. Your enemies are always plainly visible; no random encounters. If you're tired of mowing down the smaller fry, you can always ignore them and run right on past — though your wingmen will probably try to engage.
Oh, yeah, I promised to talk about your special abilities. Basically, like most role-playing games, your characters will have the option of steadily acquiring more powerful weapons. A not-quite-hidden part of this system is that each weapon also grants its user a type of special attack. In Aldo's case, they vary from giant sword sweeps that hit multiple enemies to laser-like blasts that nail anything in front of him.
Normal weapon attacks generate points which you spend when activating your specials, so you can't just constantly spam your big guns. Yet you don't want to spare the rod either, because after a certain amount of use, the ability becomes permanently available to that character, no matter what weapon is being used.
Each character also gets a real superduper attack, executable when you fill another gauge with the smaller special attacks. (It's best to save the superduper ones for real emergences, because in addition to doing massive damage, they are also the only way to foil massive attacks launched by the boss monsters — Titanos — you'll encounter throughout your quest.
Anti-Titano battles are the true high point of the game. I can't think of a single one where you can just pound the attack button and hope to win. You'll have to rely on proper timing, especially with dodges, and efficient utilization of your team's strengths and weaknesses.
Anyway, other role-playing elements are pretty prevalent here: the androgynous characters; the cheesy dialog; the need to constantly level up and buy new weapons and armor; and a severely limited inventory system (you can't carry much in the way of healing supplies, so if you are getting your butt kicked, it's best to retreat and grind through an easier area to level up, rather than getting everyone killed far from a save point.)
Now, the story itself isn't all that special — the typical "you're the chosen one" spiel — but (1) it's completely comprehensible, even if you haven't played the previous games; and (2) I must admit to being actually surprised when the villains manipulating Altago's miseries are revealed. They weren't who I was expecting at all, which is a good thing.
Now, any game on the PSP has to be one that you can pick up and put down at will, and I think "Ys Seven" is decently designed for that purpose, but not fantastic. The levels are increasingly complex, which helped to pull me in as a player, but a negative of that complexity is that save points, scattered throughout the world, become harder to find as you proceed.
In a device with limited battery life, I want to be able to save pretty much at will so that I don't risk losing progress. I understand the developers choice here — save points are also where you can switch between party members — but I think it should have been possible to insert a "save anywhere" feature, and still restrict party changes to certain places. (Just in case you aren't aware of it, the PSP does have a power-save feature with which you can safely suspend your game, but it isn't as worry free as an actual game save.)
Still, "Ys Seven" is a lengthy adventure, so if you likely its action-oriented gameplay, you'll get a lot of bang for your buck.
Publisher: XSEED Games.
Price: $29.99 standard edition. $49.99 premium edition (soundtrack, cloth map and art book included.)
Rating: T for teen.
Recommendation: It's a solid brawler/role-playing game that's more than 30 hours long, making it a decent buy if you like this genre.
Images courtesy of XSEED Games
Top image: Adol the Red (note the red hair) and his pal Dogi (with blue hair) explore Altago City and talk with its denizens.
Bottom image: Adol, in the center, and two companions battle a smaller Titano.