There’s the tacit expectation that franchises will evolve over time. But occasionally, the pressure to advance can spoil an otherwise splendid series when rash ideas or slipshod mechanics are needlessly shoehorned into a sequel. In the case of a once prodigious properties like Star Ocean, any accrued goodwill might even be undone when the developers release something as disappointing as Integrity and Faithlessness.
That push for gratuitous change has seldom been a part of Nihon Falcom’s game plan. The Tachikawa-based studio’s Ys franchise is a textbook example of this approach, exhibiting only prudent and protracted alteration across its thirty-year legacy. Play any of the studio’s efforts from the last ten years, and you’ll recognize the Falcom’s forte for channeling the quintessential components of classic gaming. Here, ageless plot, engaging play, and melody intermingle in a manner that largely shirks contemporary trend.
As such, players might approach the Switch release of Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana expecting a nostalgic take on the crimson-haired Adol Christin and his faithful sidekick Dogi. And in many ways, Lacrimosa obeys convention, extending a set-up that’s familiar and combat that revisits the enemy weakness system found in Ys Seven. Yet, in many more ways, the title is a gentle departure, taking judicious risks and sincerely trying to offer a fresh experience for loyal fans of the franchise. Straddling the obstinate space between reiteration and renovation, Lacrimosa of Dana delivers an experience that’s on the threshold of timelessness.
When the prologue opens with Adol aboard a ship, Ys loyalists will know where the plot is headed. As one of the unluckiest mariners around, Adol the Red find himself in peril when the vessel is attacked by a giant squid, sinking the craft. Fortunately, fate intervenes, and the protagonist awakens on the shore of Seiren Island, a landmass where legend maintains that no one has ever made it off the isle alive.
And if Lacrimosa of Dana were to follow routine, Adol would quickly learn of his role as savior from the local townfolk, shepherding the citizenry to safety as a calamitous event emerges. But here the role of great redeemer seems to remain vacant, as the red-haired lead is tasked with eking out an existence for a growing group of castaways on the island. Pleasingly, there’s a sense of responsibility and interdependence that reverberates through the game’s early hours, as survivors depend on each other.
What’s pleasing is the Seiren doesn’t feel like the typical town bustling with NPCs who were generated to contribute a few lines of dialog. Instead, Lacrimosa focuses on the team of survivors forced to band together in an effort to endure on an island that’s abounding with antagonism. As such, there’s considerably more dialog here than in most Ys entries. But there’s an upside to all the exposition, with players becoming privy to some remarkable backstories that help make the title a memorable experience. Later, the game’s eponymous heroine arrives via dream sequences. Initially, these sequences seem to tarnish the well-crafted momentum of the game. But as the plotline persists, it gives way to a much larger story that’s more in line with the type of narrative that the franchise is known for.
Unlike most games which divide a game world into conspicuous, often elementally-themed zones, Lacrimosa’s island feel refreshingly organic. As you map out Seiren, you’ll be goaded into noticing the natural details, with topography, flora, and even lighting varying as you move away from your base camp. And here, the eighth franchise entry reveals a new gameplay loop, as you harvest edibles, materials, and encounter other survivors, which all help your island settlement thrive. Refreshingly, it’s not a carbon copy of a voxel-rendered or Burton-esque survival challenge, but a gratifying complement to the customary succession of boss battles.
Naturally, combat is a core component of what makes Lacrimosa of Dana so enjoyable. Here, Falcom falls back on their traditional approach, which aims to strike a balance between accessibility and nuance. Like Seven, parties are comprised of three members, who can be swapped with a press of the button. And while the AI is competent enough to hold its own, efficiency dictates switches to an adventurer who specializes in a certain type of damage (slashing, piercing, or smashing) that’s powerful against certain type of enemy resistance.
Pleasingly, combat, even again subordinate foes remains compelling throughout the game’s 30+ hour campaign. Much of this stems from a persistent sense of vulnerability. Although Adol and company can dart around like wildcats, a few errant moves near enemies can prove perilous. But Lacrimosa always provides players with the tools for success. Beyond individual skill sets, a well-timed dodge or guard can either slow time or elevate strikes into criticals. Like most contemporary Ys entries, combat is extraordinarily refined, mirroring the polish of an action game with a much-smaller scale. About the only stain on the system is the title’s lock-on system, which can focus on arbitrary targets, and muddle the camera angle.
Unsurprisingly, boss battles are the true tests of proficiency, and for better or worse, Lacrimosa will toss a few pop-quizzes at players. During these sequences, a mastery of mechanics isn’t enough to survive. Instead, players must carefully observe movement and attack patterns, looking for opportunities for retaliation. But here, the big bads aren’t dummies, and when damage in inflicted, they’ll change their approaches, requiring an abrupt change in tactics from gamers.
After the original Japanese release of Ys VIII for the Vita, Falcom went back and retooled the game, adding a significant amount of new content. Beyond an extra dungeon and more backstory for Dana, and locales that are retooled at night, there are inceptions and suppression tasks. The former take place on the peripheries of your settlement, with waves of enemies encroach, recalling a tower defense-like game. Suppression runs are the opposite, With Adol and his comrades seeking out to destroy monster nests in the wild, before the propagation of foes threatens your encampment. While both veer toward the noncompulsory, both commissions are compelling and provide plenty of perks for players.
When Ys VIII was first released on the Vita and PlayStation 4, many complained about NIS America’s localization. Here, the Switch iteration received the retrofitted discourse, which still suffers from the occasional typo and grammatical gaffe but offers a more refined adaptation. Similarly, the porting is just as competent, with the game maintaining a stable framerate in both docked and handheld mode. Sure, keen eyes will spy the sporadic low-res texture or a drop in fluidity when overlooking busy areas, but essentially the Switch version does it’s best to keep things smooth when the action heats up. Sonicially, the game is suburb, with the JDK team entwining the strings and synths, creating a soundtrack that’s filled with memorable melodies.
Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana feels like the series installment that could make gamers outside of Japan finally take notice of Falcom’s masterful series. The franchise has always been a magnificent merger of components, mixing the exhilaration of exploration, impassioned combat, and a plotline that rooted in timeless archetype. With Lacrimosa of Dana, the Tachikawa-based team builds on the series’ successful blueprint, ensuring any vicissitudes are essential. Admirably, these qualities shine through the Switch iteration.
Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana was played on the Switch with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: Switch, previously on PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and PC
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: NIS America
Release date: June 26th, 2018 (US)
Price: $59.99 via physical and digital download