There's something dodgy going on in the foreboding stone city of Balduq, and seasoned adventurer Adol Christin finds that out the hard way when he's abruptly arrested upon arrival. Our red-haired hero escapes his captors with the help of a mysterious woman, but her assistance comes at a cost. Now saddled with a curse that prevents him from leaving the city, Adol has no choice but to obey his saviour, and strike at the corruption that spreads across Balduq.
Right off the bat, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox serves up an interesting basis for its story. Falcom's series has always placed recurring protagonist Adol in creative situations, and this latest instalment is no different. This time around, Adol isn't just some plucky swordsman looking for adventure — he's a wanted fugitive, and the first few hours of the game set the tone for an altogether darker tale.
Fans will find the overall structure of Monstrum Nox familiar, however — especially if you've played Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana. The 2016 release saw Adol shipwrecked on a long forgotten island, where he had to band together with other survivors in order to escape. Monstrum Nox's setting may be completely different, but you'll still find yourself gathering allies, returning regularly to a base of operations, and steadily unlocking new areas of exploration.
Unfortunately, Monstrum Nox just doesn't feel as cohesive as its predecessor, and this is mostly down to the city of Balduq itself. Ys VIII's Isle of Seiren presented a large and varied landscape — a memorable mix of pristine island paradise, ominous ruins, and unknown danger. Balduq, on the other hand, is disappointingly drab and dreary. It's all grey streets and grey buildings, set against a motionless grey sky. It's clearly going for a kind of oppressive, gothic tone — but lacklustre visuals undo the illusion almost immediately.
It's a good job, then, that the city keeps you preoccupied with its many secrets. Over the course of the game, you gain access to various platforming abilities. Before long, you'll be sprinting up walls and gliding from great heights. It's a far cry from the gorgeous style and satisfying slickness of Marvel's Spider-Man, but Balduq becomes a much more interesting locale once you're dashing across its rooftops like a true renegade. There are loads of hidden treasures to discover, and respawning monster portals ensure that you're never too far from any sword-swinging action.
Platforming also plays a key role when it comes to dungeon crawling. Balduq is home to many an underground labyrinth, all of which put your dexterity to the test as well as your combat skills. In typical Ys fashion, dungeons are fast-paced affairs, keeping you on your toes with monster-mashing brawls, some light puzzle solving, and, of course, over-the-top boss fights. Once again, the stone grey architecture makes everything feel a bit too samey, but overall, hacking and slashing through the dungeons of Monstrum Nox is good fun.
Indeed, it's really the tried and tested Ys combat system that holds everything together. The controls are as responsive as ever, with Adol and other playable party members able to pull off flashy combos and special attacks, all while performing evasive rolls, jumps, and dashes at a moment's notice. It's all so smooth and satisfying — especially once you've unlocked each character's full range of techniques.
As for the plot, things move at a slightly slower pace than long-time Ys fans might expect. Monstrum Nox boasts a pretty big cast, and it likes to give each new face a reasonable amount of time in the spotlight. As a result, we get whole story chapters dedicated to a single party member, usually exploring their personality and motivations. In that sense, Ys IX can feel more character-driven than its predecessors, which leads to some surprisingly impactful interactions later on.
However, the focus on individuals means that the overarching plot often takes a backseat. Main story elements tend to lose steam quite quickly, as they're brushed aside for the latest dose of character development. We're left with a core narrative that feels fragmented and even a little contrived once all's said and done.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is another solid action RPG, but it lacks the overall cohesion of its island-based predecessor. The city of Balduq is a disappointingly monotonous setting, and the game's storytelling often feels disjointed. But as is usually the case with Falcom's long-running series, it's the fast-paced, satisfying, and addictive gameplay that elevates the experience. Adol's latest adventure certainly isn't a classic, but for the most part, it's still a fun ride.