2022-Jun-11: Ys I & II Chronicles: Bump and Grind

The Ys series was always something I cast a side-eye at. I loved Ys Origin and Ys: Oath in Felghana, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that most of the Ys games now follow the formula of those two instead of the bump combat of yore. This is a realization that didn't fully cement until my roommate did a full-series playthru (at least of the non-bump games) across a couple months of Twitch streams.

But what about those bump combat games? I'd had Ys I & II Chronicles on my dance card for awhile and decided it'd likely be a tiny bit too grindy for the typical cadence of my streams, so why not fool with them a bit on the side? Chronicles comes as a duo and is a remake of a compilation, or something of the sort. The first duology on PC landed in 2001 as "Ys I & II Complete"; apparently it wasn't complete because "Ys I & II Chronicles" landed several years later in 2009. This version arrived on Windows and PSP. The version I ended up playing released in 2013 on Steam and GOG and is titled "Ys I & II Chronicles+": the plus indicates both Complete and Chronicles are playable.

As I understand most of the differences between Complete and Chronicles are cosmetic: art style and voice-over selection mostly. I played Chronicles. The remake largely leaves the core game alone, instead applying a visual and audio update, adding hand drawn character art and voice-overs to important dialogue, and adding general polish. Under the coat of paint, though, it's still Ys 1 and 2.

So bump combat... It's kind of a bugbear in action RPG circles but it's really quite simple and consistent. When you run into an enemy one or both of you takes damage. Who takes damage is decided by positioning. If you run face-to-face into the enemy you both get hurt. If you're offset, only the enemy gets hurt. If you attack from a different angle than face-to-face, only the enemy gets hurt. How much damage is done is decided purely by stats with no randomness involved. Enemies will, in general, seek to align with you so attacks will hurt you, with harder enemies being smarter and faster. Typically once you begin running into an enemy, they'll get hit-stunned and you'll be able to keep pushing and hitting them ad infinitum.

Here's the thing about Chronicles though: you can move in 360 degrees. Your enemy cannot. Most enemies can only move (or at least face) in cardinals. This means if you attack an enemy from a 45 degree angle 99% of the time you're safe. This makes combat extremely easy and even enables you to go fighting monsters extremely out of depth safely for more experience. Having played at least a few minutes of NES and TurboGrafx Ys 1, I feel this might be a tiny bit of an oversight in remaking.

Bosses mix this model up. Each boss has A Thing That Will Hurt Them and making contact any other way will hurt you instead. What hurts each boss changes, and you have to find it to make any headway in a battle. Typically fights may require re-attempts to figure them out.

Story-wise, Ys 1 and 2 are quite a bit meatier than most RPGs of the era. A large chunk of the actual plot doesn't really get revealed here until Ys Origin in 2006, but that's beside the point. What you do get is a fairly detailed but sparsely told tale of (and I'm spoiling here a bit) goddesses with amnesia and a swordsman named Adol who's trying to gather ancient tomes detailing the history of a lost magic land they protected. It's pretty neat. It was especially neat having played through Origin and seeing how it all snaps together from the other side.

In execution, at least in Ys 1, it translates to a MacGuffin hunt as you try to hunt down the six books of Ys. However the actual MacGuffins are pretty moot; they show up as rewards for major plot events rather than needing to be hunted down. They do, however, provide a good lens into the story as your reward for finding each book is a little bit more of the nature of the goddesses and the land of Ys, with these details growing increasingly pertinent to Adol's current situation as you go.

The game loop of Ys is appropriate for a JRPG from the 80s: there's distinct phases of progress and grind. Ys reinforces this more than most with one of the most demanding stat comparison algorithms in combat ever, and this remains a hallmark through the entire series. There's a very clear line in the sand for any given enemy where insufficient strength renders you unable to damage them and insufficient defense renders you one or two shottable. Sometimes all you need to go from this state to the inverse is a single level. In short: there's not much you can do if you're under-leveled but grind.

On the plus side, between the fast combat action and that little trick about diagonal approaches, grinding is a really fluid mindless affair. That's good, because for the most part you'll need to do it at the entrance to every new location in the game. At least for awhile. In Ys 1 this eventually reaches a terminus at the lofty level cap of ten. I'm left wondering if leveling up was even a necessary mechanic in the first game.

The progression of Ys 1 feels oddly zoomed in, compared to practically any other RPG. It is only half of the story, but also about 75% of the plot takes place across two dungeons: the Shrine and Darm Tower. There's a third dungeon you dip into for a brief interlude, and you do a fair bit of grinding in the overworld, but most of what you're going to be fighting rests in the former two locations. It really messes with one's sense of how far they've progressed, or at least it did with me. I got to the end and felt like I was just getting started. In a sense I was.

Being the first game of the series and an extremely early action RPG, even the remake has some pretty big anti-patterns baked into it. Healing is glacial and requires standing absolutely still for up to 2-3 minutes to recover (when you can heal at all). One of the later bosses pulls the awful "Long invulnerability phases where you have to dodge, punctuated with a handful of frames of vulnerability" gimmick, and the final boss is essentially bullet hell where you've been level capped for hours and you just have to hope you outlast all the BS and do enough damage. The latter took me about a dozen attempts. Fortunately both games clearly signpost coming boss fights and let you save anywhere, so re-attempts are just as fast as fighting. I imagine on older disk based systems saving and loading imposed a bit of a time penalty though.

All in all, I wish I had more to say, but in truth Ys 1 is just a cycle of grind for experience/cash until you can survive fights in the next area, delve through a simplistic linear dungeon, fight a boss, get a thing, go back to town to progress the plot, rinse, repeat. It's all very prototypical of the genre.

Ys 2 though is where things start to gel into a more coherent form. The imposing level cap is raised and levels made significantly less impactful individually. Now instead of a level-up making you multiple times stronger, there's a smooth progression of power. There's also a new magic system to give you options besides bump, and magic even remains effective through the entire game. There's a deeper more involved plot than "Find the books", and it's told fairly well with a couple of minor bumps in the road.

Ys 2 starts right after 1: Adol finds all six books, saves the world, and while preparing to journey to parts unknown suddenly blacks out and wakes up elsewhere. He comes to find he was transported to the land of Ys, floating in the sky out of sight of the ground. With the books in his possession still, he's able to use them to commune with statues of former priests of Ys to find his purpose for being summoned there, and that's none other than slaying the big bad guy that's threatening everything. Okay it's still a little trite, but it's well told and quite solid for the 80s.

This plot does send you journeying between multiple towns, meeting a ton of NPCs and coming up against multiple obstacles to overcome rather than just being told "Okay find the books: go!". Unfortunately it is a bit prone to awkward plot triggers, wherein you have to talk to just the right NPC to make a thing appear to actually make progress. Sometimes the right NPC multiple times, or multiple right NPCs in a specific order. It can be a bit vexing to know what to do but you have to go find the right NPC that'll tell Adol what the right thing to do is.

Ys 2 throws you into the deep end a bit quicker than 1. There's one screen of goons to grind on to start out, then the first dungeon; and the first dungeon is a gigantic labyrinth that dwarfs anything in the original. I got completely lost before giving up and making a map. Within this giant maze there's six rooms you need to find to return the books, a key item, a key NPC, a spell that you must have to fight the first boss, and four additional quest-related items. This is the first dungeon in the game, immediately outside the first town. You'll be close to level 20 before finishing this, compared to Ys 1's entire game level cap of 10.

Giant labyrinths represent a pattern in Ys 2 that repeats all the way through. There's four major areas in this one, and each one is far larger and less linear than anything from Ys 1. It definitely feels like the devs found their original effort too linear and decided to swing way over to the extreme other end of the scale. Without maps, you'll spend most of your time wandering around lost in identical looking corridors with many exits sprawling in every direction. The level curve assumes you'll do this. Going straight through will see you needing to stop and grind for up to ten levels after very dungeon to eventually reach the 50s where you're intended to finish the game.

Despite most of Ys 2 consisting of alternating stages of "Getting hopelessly lost" and "Grinding", it's enjoyable. Grinding is fast and kind of hypnotic, and hunting the best enemy to fight to maximize experience gain is kind of a meta-game on its own. Getting lost can be mitigated by going in with the knowledge that you'll need to make (or source) maps for every area of the game; there's no such thing as a linear path in Ys 2. The final area especially is a gargantuan maze consisting of three tiers: a top tier with six areas alternating between indoor and outdoor paths, a middle tier that's a multi-story sewer (no I don't know how that works), and a third tier with the dungeon's inner sanctum that is one of the most linear areas in the game. Much like Ys 1, the final area of Ys 2 represents about half the game's total play time, so its massive size is somewhat justified.

Bosses are a little odd. Now that you have two methods of attack, bosses are immune to one or the other. The first five bosses all require being taken down with fire magic while the last two require good old bump combat. These bosses are unique and varied and fairly well balanced. Ys 1's boss fights seemed to be over-tuned and just bullet and attack spam and silly gimmicks, but these are done well. The final boss does have another bullet hell attack, but this one is properly telegraphed and more possible to avoid.

The totality of the plot snaps neatly into Ys Origin. I feel like I missed out a bit playing them out of order. I definitely recommend, if you're going to play Ys I & II, to go check out Origin after. It kind of ties the plot together into a more coherent and modern package, and Origin is a pretty great game in its own right.

In total it looks like both games clocked in at 15 hours for the duo. Fairly short. I believe the original versions would take longer just due to general slowness, disk loads, and QoL bumps. Ys games after about 2003, though, hang their hat on replay value tokens like a ton of difficulty levels, speedrun modes, etc. Chronicles has these as well.

As for Chronicles, I'd describe it as "Endearingly crusty", I guess. The remake definitely makes it far more playable. Things are smoother, faster, QoL is there... but the old jank of the 80s budding action RPG genre shows through in its original luster. I think that's the proper place for a remake, to make access easier while still showing what the original was. Not to say I'm unhappy with more radical remakes like Oath in Felghana: that's great too.

Maybe I'm just easy to please. Or maybe I just like experiencing games.