One of the most common complaints surrounding modern Zelda games is their continuous decline in difficulty. The original 8-bit classics were infamous for their challenging enemies and brain-stumping puzzles, but recent entries in the series have been criticized for offering little gameplay challenge (Wind Waker) or for hand-holding players toward every objective and puzzle hint (Skyward Sword). Many die-hard gamers have been begging for a Zelda game that brings back the old-school difficulty, yet remain unaware of an alternative series that sufficiently scratches that itch.
The Ys series of games have had a long standing in Japan, second only to Final Fantasy in the number of games released. Overseas, however, Ys is barely recognised by even hardcore RPG players, due in part to the consoles of choice that developer Falcom have released their flagship series for. Fortunately, by the year 2005, Ys was finally popping up on systems that have seen worldwide release, beginning with the PSP and moving on to Nintendo’s Virtual Console. Now, after embracing Steam’s digital distribution service, publisher XSEED is now giving PC gamers a chance to catch up on the long-running series with The Oath in Felghana, a remake of Ys III.
After vanquishing the forces of evil two consecutive times, series protagonist Adol and his companion Dogi (who, in case you were wondering, is not a doggie) decide to travel to Dogi’s hometown of Redmont, located in the continent of Felghana. No sooner do the two heroes get to unwind before they find themselves caught up on the town’s turmoil; monsters have been steadily increasing in number and ferocity all over Felghana, while the ruthless Count McGuire is attempting to collect a number of mysterious statues for some unknown (but clearly malicious) purpose. Knowing a typecast RPG hero when they see one, the villagers of Redmont quickly implore Adol to solve their problems with lots of exploring, monster slaying, and level grinding. Also, it’s his destiny or some such.Like most Action RPGs, Ys isn’t known for its compelling story or characters (despite being the hero of every game, Adol is never anything beyond a silent avatar for players). Rather, it’s the gameplay that has made Ys a long-standing legend in Japan, though it was the third game that first featured an action-oriented alternative to the Roguelike structure of its predecessors. Originally released as a 2D side-scroller similar to Zelda II, Oath takes the original concept and has rebranded it with a top-down perspective that is closer to Zelda: A Link to the Past.
While the camera angle has changed, the emphasis on button-mashing gameplay has not; players guide Adol in eight directions while frantically slashing his sword against an assortment of random foes that come between him and his latest objective. Such objectives include rescuing the town mayor from a mine infested with monsters, rescuing the town bishop from McGuire’s top knight, collecting ancient statues said to awaken an almighty evil, and so on: the usual stuff.
linearity locks you
areas out of order,
the blazingly fast
combat makes up
for the lack
Another similarity shared with Zelda is how every area is linked by a main “hub world”, with the game’s sole town serving as the base for NPCs and shopkeepers. As the story progresses, players will be tasked with travelling from one area to the next, which usually involves travelling east instead of west, north followed by south, and so on. The distance between areas usually take mere minutes, but a fast-travelling item eventually makes bouncing between town and dungeons instantaneous between save points, which is especially handy for managing equipment before a boss battle.
While the game’s linearity locks you from exploring areas out of order, the blazingly fast combat makes up for the lack of variety. Even from the start of the game, Adol features a number of sword combos and jumping attacks at his disposal, and it isn’t long before the game offers additional skills including double jumping, dashing, and elemental-based bracelets that perform magic attacks (which can be further upgraded by collecting gems corresponding to each bracelet).
And you’re certainly going to need all the help you can get; the Ys games have a long reputation for being mercilessly difficult, and Oath isn’t afraid to introduce players to the concept of repeated deaths and level grinding. The standard assortment of enemies littering the screen have basic attack patterns, but are prone to overwhelming slow-footed players with their sheer numbers. Despite its classic RPG roots, the game also lacks the option of buying and storing consumable items: instead, the only ways to replenish health are either through randomly dropped replenishments from monsters, save points, or levelling up.Speaking of which, the levelling up system is straight and to the point: kill enemies to gain experience points. Killing enemies in rapid succession will also increase the exp chain for as long as you can keep the murder spree going, and with dropped items that temporarily raise your strength, magic, and other variables, level-grinding has never been faster, and rarely as satisfying. Failing to keep an eye on your dwindling HP can be costly, though… falling in battle will reset your progress all the way to your last save point, and considering the length of the dungeons, a prudent player will know when to give up partway and quick-travel back to the nearest save point, or to stop at town to purchase and/or upgrade new equipment.
Thankfully, players are allowed to restart right before a boss battle should they fail to take down the titanic terrors. Unsurprisingly, the bosses make up the biggest challenge in the entire game. Featuring large amounts of health and several different attack patterns (which only grow in tenacity as their health drops halfway), learning when to dodge and when to mount an offensive is imperative, as is discovering each boss’s weakness. Often, an item or weapon discretely located in the dungeon is needed to make a significant dent on a boss. That, or more levelling.
But as punishing as Oath can be, players do not need to spend hours grinding and farming… even a single level or +1 bonus to equipment can make a significant difference, which makes upgrading to newer and better equipment as much a priority as memorising enemy patterns. It’s this quick fix of action and RPG elements that makes Oath as entertaining as it was in its original iteration, even if it means a sacrifice of additional content; with only one town, a linear story path and few side-quests, Ys can be finished in less than ten hours. While this may seem an unacceptable length for RPG enthusiasts, it conforms well with the faster, almost arcade-like structure of this game, and true masochists will squeal with delight over the unlockable (and significantly more challenging) difficulty modes.
As for its presentation, the remake of Ys III won’t win over PC gamers with its sprite-on-texture visuals, nor its stretched-out aspect ratio (though as of this writing, XSEED has commented that a patch may enable true widescreen). Fortunately, it also means that the game runs without a hitch with zero loading on just about any PC. Even if the visuals are not to your liking, the guitar-shredding soundtrack is bound to impress; if there is one thing Ys is known for besides its difficulty, it’s the award-winning compositions that have seen hundreds of arrangements and remixes. The PC version contains the most up-to-date arrangement of the original OST, but the ability to listen to the original chiptune would have been a nice extra.
It took several decades for Ys to finally make a name overseas, but amidst a sea of paltry JRPG offerings, its timing couldn’t have been better. For anyone looking for a solid RPG offering that’s half the length but twice as deadly, Oath in Felghana is a worthy introduction to the Ys franchise, with hopefully more titles to follow XSEED’s embrace of digital services.