The Ys series has a peculiar past consisting of large gaps between sequels, a slew of different developers creating non-canon side projects, and an overall lack of localisation in Europe and North America. However, despite all of this turmoil, its refined mechanics and generally dependable quality has earned it a loyal following all over the world. Now this cult Japanese role-playing game has returned to the loving arms of creator Falcom, and while its latest instalment may be steeped in genre tropes, its overall execution is so strong that it feels much fresher than it arguably should.
Ys: Memories of Celceta puts you back inside the shoes of series protagonist Adol Christin, who, having managed to escape the forest of Celceta, stumbles back into civilisation with amnesia – his recollections shattered by whatever it was that he experienced in the overgrown environment. In spite of such hardship, the hero’s hunger for adventure persists, and so he embarks upon a journey through dangerous dungeons, lonesome clearings, and more, all in the hope of piecing together his misplaced memories.
Unfortunately, it’s not an especially strong narrative. The setup is about as clichéd as it gets, relying on an amnesiac lead and characters that all possess stereotypical qualities. However, a good translation makes the dialogue flow, and the personalities eventually manage to invade your heart. Nevertheless, the game’s real draw is its fast-paced combat, which makes it a joy to slice, strike, and punch your way through the many beasts that would otherwise eat you for dinner.
Battles occur in real-time, and involve you and your party of two computer controlled companions running around the locations, attacking or avoiding enemies at will. Standard blows, special moves, and super techniques make up your offensive options, while you can dodge and block on the defence, and also make use of consumable items from your inventory. It’s all very simple and intuitive on the surface: basic button presses execute the actions, and highly responsive controls allow you to accurately dish out damage in the right direction as well as avoid incoming onslaughts.
The hidden depth of the combat comes from deciding which attacks to use and which party members to take control of. Standard moves build up your SP bar, which fuels your special techniques and super attacks. The former deal greater damage and reward you for using them to finish off an opponent with extra health orbs or items being dropped, while the latter act similarly to a Final Fantasy VII limit break, where you’ll unleash a flurry of concentrated attacks. Blocking just before an enemy strikes augments your next few hits with critical damage, and dodging just before an enemy hits you slows down time, rewarding you with a deadly window to deal some meaty damage. Finally, enemies have varying weaknesses to specific kinds of attacks which include slash, piercing, and the blunt variety, so switching to a character in your party with the right weapon yields better results in battle.
What appears to be a simple hack-‘n’-slash battle system soon grows into something relatively complex, but it crucially remains accessible. A varied set of foes with a wide range of attack patterns make each and every encounter both tactical and entertaining, while boss fights challenge you to make the most out of hidden strategies that are buried below the combat system’s humble exterior. It’s all wonderfully cerebral, and the deeper that you immerse yourself in Adol’s adventure, the more that it keeps you on your toes, engaging you throughout.
Of course, the other primary part of the experience is the exploration. Towns offer safe havens to upgrade or buy equipment and items, find side missions, or advance the plot – but you’ll spend the majority of you time out in the wilds, partly because the aforementioned draws of civilisation aren’t all that useful. Upgrading weapons may seem like a neat mechanic early on in your journey, but it’s soon made redundant by the treasures that you find outside, and the side quests on offer are dull and simple, with many adhering to the ‘fetch x amount of x’ template. Out in the forest and dungeons you’ll also discover stones that facilitate fast travel, as well as healing and quick saving, which make town inns seem completely unnecessary. The bottom line is that because combat is so fun, the other elements hold little interest, and the fact that mapping the forest is a joy further fuels the desire to stay outside.
Not that the title’s much of a looker wherever you spend your time. Textures are low quality and muddy, while the colours are subdued, and the locations look dull as result. At least the character stills and menus are beautifully drawn, and the lack of visual muscle allows the frame rate to run silky smooth – but it’s still somewhat disappointing to see the PlayStation Vita’s hardware being so underused. Additionally, some of the dungeons suffer from a confusing structure, making finding crucial items that you need to progress a little tricky and easy to miss. Thankfully, the rocking soundtrack hits the perfect tempo while you search, as is to be expected of the typically brilliantly scored series.
Ys: Memories of Celceta doesn’t bring anything new to the action RPG table, but makes such strong use of its combat that it’s still hard to put down. It may not have the most engrossing narrative or original ideas, but it still manages to keep you hooked throughout the course of its campaign. Thus, much like its redheaded hero, you’ll soon forget about the negative aspects of this journey and gleefully step foot into the forest of Celceta.