Ys VIII: A Dreamboat Action RPG

Ys VIII is an action RPG developed by Nihon Falcom and published by NIS America. It released on the PlayStation Vita and PS4 in September 2017 and was later ported to the PC and Nintendo Switch in June 2018. MSRB is $60. I played the Nintendo Switch version.

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Nihon Falcom, together with Platinum and Atlus, make up the Holy Trinity of Underrated Game Devs. But while Platinum has found success with Nier: Automata and Bayonetta, and Atlus has exploded with the Persona series, Falcom is still struggling to get their flagship games, Trails and Ys, into the same spotlight. I’d say Falcom is the Little Brother of the bunch. They are the quintissential “AA” studio: they make well-designed games, they just don’t have the budgets to do anything graphically impressive.

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I first heard about Ys VIII (pronounced “ees”) back in 2018 thanks to YouTuber reviews. Turns out this series has been around since the ’80s and has a small yet dedicated fanbase. Imagine a marriage between Zelda II’s exploration / RPG mechanics and a Platinum action game. Sounds like a power couple, right? That’s more or less how Ys VIII plays.

Oh and before you get turned off by that big number “VIII” in the title, don’t worry. This game is a standalone story that you can jump right into. It’s my first Ys game, too.

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In Ys VIII you play as the red-haired anime boy Adol, a self-proclaimed adventurer. During a voyage aboard a fancy ship, you are suddenly attacked by a giant monster and shipwrecked on a deserted island. After you get your bearings, you start to rescue the other passengers and build a thriving village from the ground up. As you explore more of the island, you find that there is more to this island than you originally thought.

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While the game’s environments give a rustic “PS2” vibe, the art direction does a good job delivering pretty vistas with bright colors and good use of line and space. And in handheld mode, everything looks really crisp on the small screen. It’s really in the cutscenes where the graphical limitations show. The soundtrack, on the other hand, seriously slaps. It’s a rock/metal heart-pumping good time, and I’ve definitely listened to it outside of the game.

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The bread and butter of Ys VIII is exploring the island and fighting monsters. The island is separated into several connected areas littered with landmarks, materials to gather, and enemies. You unlock the world piece by piece as you recruit more villagers and acquire new items, very similar to traditional Zelda games or my recently-reviewed Ever Oasis. However, there is little to no puzzle solving – save in a specific area of the game. But there’s still so much to do that I didn’t miss it.

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The combat leans more on the action side of the Action RPG genre. You have both basic attacks and special skills mapped to the face buttons, and each has some usefulness. One may send the enemy in the air, while another is a broad horizontal swipe that hots multiple enemies. You have a stamina meter for your special skills that you have to manage and replenish by timing your standard attacks just right. Eventually your party will expand, and each party member will have a specific type of weapon — slash, pierce, or bludgeon. Enemies will be weak to one of those types, which means it’s important to switch characters often and learn everyone’s moveset.

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If you time your dodge right, you perform a Flash Move, which gives you an opening to dish out more attacks. Similarly, defending at just the right time performs a Flash Guard, which makes every hit do critical damage for a bit. You need to take the time learning enemy attack patterns in order to time these right, and later in the game it’s more or less essential you do so. Bosses are decently challenging and most have a gimmick to keep you on your toes.

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Building up a village from scratch on a deserted island makes for a compelling gameplay loop. Almost every castaway you rescue will add something useful to your camp — including a blacksmith shop, a trader who will make your early game items still useful, and even a small plot of vegetables to farm. The fact that there’s no money and everything is unlocked by gathering resources helped add to the realism to me. But don’t worry, the game adds helpful items and trading options that prevent this material gathering from growing tedious.

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There’s a fishing mini game in Ys VIII, and it might be one of my favorite ones yet. It’s simple enough to just pick up whenever, yet complex enough to keep me coming back. Maybe it’s because the game is about surviving on an island, but I found that this fishing gelled into its other gameplay loops better than most other RPGs.

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Every so often, the village will come under attack from monsters, and you will need to return to defend it. These Raid Battles are like miniature tower defense challenges, only you’re literally fighting the monsters before they reach the village gate. But you can upgrade various other things in the village to slow them down and give you the advantage. It’s another fun distraction — I even found myself redoing Raids so I could get a better score with it. The minigame has a strong arcade vibe to it.

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Conversely, you can also engage in Hunts where you and the villagers invade an enemy defense point. It’s like a reverse Tower Defense; you break through the enemy defenses and claim territory. These Hunts were even more fun than Raids, and once again I found myself playing these over and over again to get a max score.

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With such an emphasis on fast-paced gameplay, I was expecting the story to be bare-bones. I mean, stranded on a deserted island is one of the oldest story tropes in the book. But actually, the game’s story developed in interesting ways. Adol starts dreaming about Dana, a woman who lived in the island with her civilization a long time ago, and eventually you begin playing as her. You start switching back and forth between eras, similar to A Link to the Past, where doing something in Dana’s time will affect the island in Adol’s time. Unraveling the mystery of this lost civilization was well-paced, with solid character development. The themes about the callousness of nature were well-executed as well. It wasn’t an award-winning story, but it gave me plenty to think about and feel.

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Improving up the village and doing side quests for the villager unlock special cutscenes for each them. It builds a feel of community that I have rarely seen in an RPG. You feel like a tightly-knit group by the end of the story, and I really appreciated that. If you find Animal Crossing’s social aspects appealing, but need a game with a bit more action, might I suggest this one?

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If you asked me (which, if you’ve gotten this far, I’m assuming you are), Ys VIII is not only the best Action RPG on the Switch, it’s the best I’ve ever played. It’ll probably be the new gold standard that I’ll use to gauge others in the same genre. I’m definitely interested in the rest of the series, and I’m looking forward to Ys IX’s Western localization coming out next year.

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