For the handful of weirdos who owned the TG-16, the name Ys (pronounced “incorrectly”) will likely evoke fond memories of the adventures of professional prophecy fulfiller Adol Christin. Alas, the series has been robbed of wider popularity in the West thanks to a spotty release history. The unexpected appearance of Ys: The Ark of Napishtim on US shores brought renewed hope for fans, but further sequels have thus far remained exclusive to Japan.
This absence is unfortunate: Napishtim was a good game with only a few minor faults which kept it short of greatness (e.g. the entirely unrealistic premise of trying to save a village full of furries). Ys: The Oath in Felghana corrects these flaws with an improved version of the Napishtim engine, demonstrating Falcom’s long-standing motto of “Making charming but flawed games and then getting it right the second time since 1981.” In fact, this is doubly true in the case of Felghana: rather than being a true sequel, the game is a completely overhauled remake of Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, the sidescrolling black sheep of the Ys family in which an excellent soundtrack heroically stood alone against the dark forces of awful hit detection and bizarre movement physics.
The story remains mostly the same in this remake—something or other about ancient artifacts sealing away a mysterious and powerful JRPG plot device—and so the visuals are the most immediately obvious change from the original 16-bit game. The Japanese PC games market is a strange beast, where typical system requirements are often much lower than what Western gamers have come to expect, but it all makes sense when you realize that 90% of Japanese PC games are naughty point-and-click Choose Your Own Adventure books. Felghana can supposedly run on anything from Vista down to Windows 98, so those who are behind on the technology curve have reason to rejoice.
It doesn’t sound right to call the graphics the “weakest” part of the game, but it’s probably fair to say that they are the element which will impress the least: Felghana looks like a decent PS2 game running in high resolution. The 3D environment graphics are simple but functional, and the bosses are colorful and attractive even if they are a bit polygony around the edges. The sprites used for NPCs and small enemies come off slightly less well: they are well-animated, but are of that flattened 3D-model style which always looks a bit weak compared to hand-drawn pixel art. Overall, the game looks quite good in motion, and the action will be moving so fast that you usually won’t notice any minor visual deficiencies.
Speaking of action… while filling out the “genre” field for this review, I was faced with a dilemma: Falcom plasters the term “Action-RPG” all over the packaging, but this is a lie cooked up to trick RPG fans into getting their asses kicked. The 2D sidescrolling gameplay of Ys III has been scrapped in favor of 3D action-platforming. The simple “jump, duck, attack” combat has been greatly expanded: you slash, jump, double-jump, charge your Mega Buster magic attacks, use special skills to clear obstacles or reach distant platforms, and so on. Yes, there is a token nod towards “leveling up,” but this only grants a simple increase in stats without any customization. There are a few hidden chests with extra equipment scattered throughout the dungeons to encourage a little exploration, but rarely do puzzles ever get more complex than “Hit this switch to make that platform move.” And while there is a shop where you can buy a smattering of useful items, the game entirely does away with typical RPG “potions,” instead substituting a Final Fight-style “pick up and eat things that fall out of dead enemies” method of health restoration. To summarize, Felghana has far more in common with Mega Man Zero than it does Final Fantasy, or even Zelda for that matter.
You’ll carve through mobs of enemies with only occasional trouble in the platforming dungeon areas, but the intense boss fights are the real core of the game and bring a sharp increase in difficulty. Although the specifics vary from boss to boss, a general strategy prevails throughout the game: repeatedly die until you figure out how to avoid all of the screen-filling attacks the bosses throw at you. Sooner or later you’ll realize that someone at Falcom is way too much of a bullet hell shmup fan, probably when you notice that there are so many projectiles flying around that you can’t see the floor anymore. In the one attempt where you successfully navigate the stream of HP-sucking madness, it will actually only take you five minutes to kill the boss, but that one successful attempt will sit atop a pile of several dozen failed attempts.
I won’t deny it: even on the Normal setting, Felghana is brutal. There were a few times when I had to give up on a boss fight and sleep on it, by which I mean “huddle in a blanket and sob uncontrollably while tracing bullet patterns in the air.” An Easy mode is available for those who need it, and Falcom later added a Very Easy mode in what may have been the most subtly insulting patch release in gaming history. Masochists are welcome to attempt Hard, Nightmare, and Inferno, which not only increase the strength and HP of enemies but also give bosses new attacks, denser sprays of projectiles, and the ability to inflict a soul-crushing despair.
And I haven’t even said anything about the town. Well, OK, it’s your typical boring RPG hub town… other than the freestyle electric guitar solo in the second theme. I avoid throwing out words like “best” or “favorite,” but in a series which is already known for its stellar music, Felghana might (I SAID “MIGHT,” DAMMIT) have the best soundtrack ever. Seriously, you may need to occasionally hit pause and ask “Soundtrack, please, can you tone it down a bit? I’m trying to play the game.” It’s not hard to believe the allegations that Falcom probably makes more money from CD sales than it does from its games.
Ys: The Oath in Felghana is fairly easy to obtain for experienced importers. An excellent fan-created English translation patch is available, but the game is so action-heavy that it can easily be enjoyed without it: you should be able to infer most of the plot if you’ve played any JRPG, ever. Non-importers and non-PC gamers may also be in luck: a PSP port was recently released in Japan, and there are rumors that Falcom’s passive indifference towards foreign markets may finally be eroding.
But if all else fails, you can always just settle for buying the soundtrack.