Ys Origin comes to the Nintendo Switch, marking only the second time the long-running franchise has come to the console. With fast-paced gameplay and fantastical story, is it worth picking up? Read on for my thoughts!
Full disclosure…I’ve never played any of the Ys games. I know they started all the way back in the 80s and continues to this day (with a new entry planned for early next year). Thankfully, Ys Origin is a prequel to the WHOLE series, actually taking place about 700 years before the main series. As such, it’s a pretty excellent starting point.
Ys Origin first launched back in 2006 (though didn’t come to the West until five years later). With a port on the PS4 and Xbox a couple years ago, it’s the Nintendo Switch’s turn to snag the game. Having no knowledge of the game, or the franchise in general, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Firing up the game and getting through it’s very anime-inspired introduction, you’re immediately told about the world of Ys. We see it initially as a verdant world, but as demons take over the land, those who were able to escape, sought refuge with the twin Goddesses of the land; Reah and Feena. Desperate to escape and save their people, the twins utilized the power of the Black Pearl (an important artifact to the whole series) to raise the temple and turn it into a city in the sky.
The demons weren’t about to be denied, however, and built a massive tower to reach it. The result is an all-out, seemingly never ending war. When the goddesses mysteriously run away in the night and down to the demon infested land, a team is dispatched to recover them. The main story of the game involves ascending the Demons tower to rescue them…
This is where we, the player, come in! Right off the bat you have to choose the character you’re going to play as. This isn’t your normal choice, as the two options (Yunica and Hugo) have drastically different playstyles. Yunica is a melee fighter, while Hugo is all about the long-range magic. So depending on how you want to play should influence your choice.
Beyond that, they both feature diverging story paths. While the basics of the story remain the same, the characters have unique story elements. Since one of the main goals of the game is to encourage multiple playthroughs to get the “full” story, having these differences feels crucial.
Soon enough, I was plunged into a 2D-sprite based world. The combination of old-school aesthetics with 3D exploration made for an interesting dynamic. In many ways, the overall design reminded me of games like Zelda and Castlevania. Exploration is crucial, but doing so incorporates some unexpected platforming elements and a ridiculous amount of combat.
I won’t go much more into the story aspect of the game to avoid any spoilers for newcomers, but suffice it to say it’s packed with all kinds of fantastical lore. The characters bring plenty of drama into the story as well (as only anime can), making for engaging moments and story beats that keep pulling you along even when you know you’re only grinding.
Addictive Combat and Gameplay
Knowing this was a JRPG, and seeing the 2D style, I was expecting something along the lines of a slower-paced title. Sure, it’s an action-RPG, but I wasn’t expecting the fast-paced ass kicking that was in store. The gameplay feels more akin to something you’d find in an arcade, as enemies swarm you and boss battles play out almost like bullet-hell styled games.
I chose Yunica for my first playthrough, as I enjoy melee combat more and the battles were both intense and satisfying. For all intents and purposes, the game is a button masher. You can spam the single attack button to plow through enemies, but there are other elements that add to the overall strategy of the gameplay.
For one, as you explore the Tower, you’ll encounter various upgrades you can apply to your weapon and armor. Not only that, but there are other skills you can acquire as well which are crucial to exploration as well as fighting. Combined with the “boost” feature (which increases your speed, attack, and defense) and you’ll find a surprising amount of ways to influence the flow of combat. Handling all of these functions will require you to keep tabs on various gauges and cooldowns; something that gets more difficult as you end up swarmed by various enemies.
Unlike normal RPGs, you won’t have nearly as much control over the minutiae of specific elements as you’d expect. Buffs (increased armor, XP boosts, etc) aren’t controlled by potions or consumables. Instead, they appear via random drops by enemies. So the more you kill, and continue on through battle, the better stats you can get. In this way, it’s more of a dungeon crawler in the style of Diablo than a traditional RPG.
I loved it.
It took me completely by surprise, but the result is a combat system that’s almost impossible to put down. Even as you’re swarmed by enemies, you can shift the tide of battle with a well timed boost, or skill. As your fallen enemies drop items that boost your attack while giving you extra XP, you barely even notice the fact that you’re doing a ridiculous amount of grinding as you climb the mysterious building.
As I mentioned, there are certainly some Castlevania-esque moments, as you have to explore the tower to find the right power-ups you need to move forward. Thankfully, the exploration isn’t nearly as confusing as some of those latter Castlevania games could be. Even though there is plenty of experimentation involved in how you move the story forward, I never once felt lost. Progressing forward is challenging, but in a way that doesn’t send you immediately to the internet for a guide.
Ultimately, this combination makes for a game that’s ridiculously hard to put down. Even as I got my butt handed to me by bosses (or a particularly tough section of enemies) I felt compelled to keep trying, changing my tactics, in order to move forward.
Even better, for a busy Dad-gamer like me, is the fact that the story is relatively short, coming in at roughly 8-9 hours per character storyline. This means you can breeze through the story, absorbing plenty of lore and intriguing details, without feeling like you’re taking up too much time. Considering how limited my gaming time can be, this is probably the best part. Hell, even starting back on a second playthrough with the other character, knowing the overall length, I don’t feel like I’m neglecting the other games in my pile. Even playing 15-20 minutes at a time on the Switch, I can beat it in a couple weeks (if not less)!
Where it Falters
Much as I enjoyed battling my way through Ys Origin, there were plenty of head scratching moments as well. Namely, the fact that it still feels very much like a game from the mid-2000s. Despite having come to a number of new platforms over the years, the game is little more than a port.
Graphically, it’s crisp and clean with its overall style making it look great despite its age. Everything else, however, feels pretty dated. The Menu system and UI feel clunky to get through and counter-intuitive. Using or equipping items isn’t immediately clear (and the game doesn’t offer instructions on doing it), so you’ll have to mess around with it to figure things out.
Beyond that, the complete lack of any quality-of-life improvements to the game feel frustrating. For one, there’s no map to speak of. Despite tasking you with exploring this massive tower, uncovering hidden passages, and backtracking you’re not given any sort of map to reference where you are. Hell, most of the time you don’t even know what goals you’re trying to accomplish next.
Worse, however, is the lack of any updated save system/checkpoints. As is true of older RPGs, the only way to save your progress is at specific save points. Many remasters alter this, often frustrating, practice by adding in manual save options in the menu, or even more robust auto-save features. Ys Origin does not.
The game sticks to the original save spot style (only offering a kind of checkpoint for boss battles). Considering you have to actively look around to FIND those spots, via statues that need to be purified, it’s super annoying. When you’re in the midst of combat and swarmed by enemies, sometimes you dash away to try and catch a breather. There were a couple times where I dashed into a location with even stronger enemies I wasn’t prepared for and subsequently died; sending me back to my last save point. The result was losing several levels/item acquisitions worth of progress and having to replay it all over again.
Sure, you could retrace your path after leveling up a few times to hit a previous save statue when you have no idea where the next one could be. I did this a handful of times while grinding for bosses. The problem, however, is enemies will respawn once you return to an area. While clearing out stages multiple times is almost necessary to get the experience points needed it still feels like a holdover from a bygone era of gaming.
Despite this issue–and a couple times of turning off the console and swearing I was done in frustration–I found myself unable to stop playing. Between the story, characters, and addictive combat, I couldn’t stay away for long.