“Ys: The Ark of Napishtim” is published by Konami and developed by Falcom. It is the sixth in the long running Ys series popular in Japan which has also seen PC versions of the franchise.
The Return of Adol the Red
The Ys series centers around the exploits of Adol Christin, a character that has come into his own over the course of six installments as something of an adventurer in the wrong place at the wrong time. You don’t need to experience any of the previous installments to get into this one. The in-jokes that are in the game between recurring characters are the only things that might not make any sense but you won’t miss much.
Adol finds himself part of a pirate crew led by the infamous Ladoc on their way to the Great Vortex of Canaan where a legendary treasure is supposed to lie hidden. Unfortunately for him and his new friends, the Romun Empire is also close behind. Apparently they don’t like pirates and in a brief skirmish with a few of their warships, Adol is thrown overboard. He wakes up on a beach where he meets the island’s strange inhabitants who appear to look like elves with their pointed ears…only they have tails. He’ll also run into other humans like himself, survivors of their journey into the Vortex, who are at some odds with the natives. Unable to leave because of the Great Vortex surrounding Canaan, Adol is drawn into an adventure to find a way off while helping everyone else around him like the good guy he is.
The game is played through an isometric 3D environment. When you start the game, you’re given a choice of whether you want the difficulty to start at Normal, Hard, or Nightmare. This directly affects how tough the monsters are hit point wise and how expensive items and upgrades will be. The player controls Adol Christin as he explores the islands of Canaan, at first just trying to help and win the trust of the native Rehdans and then eventually to save the world when things get out of hand. All of the combat in the game is in real time meaning that its all action oriented. As Adol continues his journeys, he’ll run into titanic boss creatures and discover lost treasures that enable him to survive what is coming.
There are also three swords that he will eventually attain through the course of the game and will become his primary weapons. Each sword is focused on a particular set of powers inherent to it such as Fire, Wind, or Thunder. Each sword can also enable Adol to unleash a magical attack based on the weapon he is using at the time. As he collects crystals (known as ’emelas’ in the game) from defeated creatures along with the customary cash drop, he can trade the emelas in to enhance the abilities of his swords and…thus…their power and magic. Their magic, in turn, is tracked by a seperate meter that slowly refills itself. This can also be improved and each blade has its own store of magic. This way, you can swap between blades and unleash the magic from each one in a torrent of destruction. The only downside is that the swords that need to be charged have to remain equipped or they won’t. Again, this can be improved. Stores are also available in the Rehdan and the human town allowing the player to purchase potions and other items to keep Adol alive through the adventure, especially through the boss battles.
The inventory of the game can’t get any easier. All of the slots available in his inventory are all of the slots that he will ever need for items, armor, and accessories that he can use to defend himself from status effects or give him bonuses in battle. As he collects items, they’ll automatically show up in his inventory. There’s no real need to worry about dropping something that you might need, only a worry that you might sell something at a loss. Key items are given their own special part in the menu system allowing you to gloss over what you’ve got or to remind yourself of what you have to do next.
Getting Adol ready for battle is simple enough. Once you get more than one sword, you can switch between them on the fly using the L1 and L2 buttons. Equipping him with armor, accessories, and tools is done through the inventory screen and is as simple as clicking on something and filling a slot with it and watching his limited stats go up (or down). There are only so many slots for accessories but more can be added through the discovery of accessory slot expansions hidden in the many dungeons scattered throughout Canaan. This becomes especially important later on as you work to combine effects for the best payoffs. As for tools, those are you one shot items like healing potions that you can use on the fly. Once you’ve set up everything here, you’re ready to go. The only downside is in during the boss battles where your inventory becomes locked. If you’ve waited too long to equip that leg of beef or talisman, it’s too late now. Fortunately, you have your swords and can still swap in between them to try and give you that extra edge.
Adol also has a few moves of his own to help him out in the game. He’s capable of jumping about like a jackrabbit on crack to make it across those ‘just wide enough’ chasms as well as dishing out a few special moves such as a dash attack, upward slash, and downward thrust. There are also quite a few critters that can only be defeated through a combination of these moves, or by one move in particular, and it will be up the player to find out which ones work for what…especially when confronting the huge bosses.
Saves are handled at special monuments that are scattered around Canaan. You’ll find these glowing obelisks at the entrance to dungeons or deeper in when they are particularly large and they provide the only means of saving your progress. This works out pretty well for the most part and usually hint at greater danger ahead especially for the boss encounters.
The graphics in the game do a decent job. They’re not the best players will ever see, but they work. All of the characters on-screen are also well drawn and anyone who is a fan of tiny anime-style characters will find more than enough of them here. The special effects, especially in the boss attacks, also do what they need to do. Adol’s magic and special attacks really come to life on the screen and the boss creatures are also nice to watch. The many monsters and other obstacles in the game that Adol will encounter also come to life onscreen with different attacks and abilities. The character portraits, in particular, are where the artists have devoted quite a bit of time to fleshing out. Each drawing, representing the many characters in the game as they talk to Adol, are very well done. And although the camera is locked in the isometric view that the game presents the player with, it doesn’t prove to be a problem.
Soundwise, the game also does what it is supposed to be doing and it does it pretty well. The voice acting, in particular, isn’t bad with accented speech for some of the characters adding to the general flavor of the title. The only thing about the voice work that players will notice right off the bat is Adol’s ‘silent treatment’. More on that later. The music is also fun to listen to, but don’t expect symphonic scores or dynamic mixes with an orchestra. Much of it will remind players of the kind of game music done back in the 8 or 16-bit days. It’s not a bad track to listen to while adventuring through Canaan, especially the tracks from the limited number of animated cinematics in the game. For fans of Ys or of the music in general, the soundtrack is also available for sale as an import. Initially, it was included only as part of the Collectors Edition released in Japan but has become a separate purchase.
Is that a Tail?
Napishtim is not your typical RPG compared to the fare that gamers have enjoyed in the last few years. It has no stats to really manage, no skill trees to devote sleepness nights to planning your next upgrade, no abilities to improve with hard earned points, and even the inventory is effortlessly managed. Napishtim hearkens back to the early days of console RPGs and this is a mixed blessing.
On one hand, you have a game that is so basic as to defy any real worries about whether or not you need to study a skill tree or plan out how you will develop your characters. In its simplicity, you’re given an action RPG that allows you to explore a colorful world filled with adventure and action filled combat. It might not be a Diablo or Zelda, but the nostalgia inherent in its design belie a sort of simple enjoyment that can be fun.
However, on the other hand, this simplicity also works against it in the face of competition from the likes of Konami itself, Capcom, and console RPG titan, Square-Enix. The basic nature of the game, while simple to grasp, fails to really bring anything new to the table other than a reminder of simpler times through its nostalgic roots. Although it is fun, older gamers may be the only ones that may appreciate it while at worst the current generation of gamers may feel that the game is some kind of throwback to the SNES days with Z-buffering.
Working against it are one or two other things. For example, I mentioned that while everyone has a spoken part in the game from Olha, the Rehdan High Priestess, to a barmaid, Adol continues through the game with a kind of stony silence with his only interaction summed up as “Adol tells X all about his adventure up to this point”. You still see the same thing done in “Knights of the Old Republic”. The big difference, however, is that the player in KOTOR is allowed dialogue choices and some degree of player customization to make that character part of their imagination. In Napishtim, unfortunately, while the voice work is exceptional, it’s mostly locked into the recited lines in an extremely linear story path with no choices as to how the story could play out. And while Adol’s muteness might be to keep that a part of the player’s imagination, this gives the impression that Adol doesn’t do much other than plod through the story and nod his head at major events
before going back into the fray.
The game is also relatively short for an RPG, but that is probably because a lot of it is straightforward action with a few platforming puzzles put in for good measure. Most of the combat involves a heavy amount of button mashing, though, with a few exceptions depending on what enemies you’ll be facing. The same with the bosses who follow set behaviors that are fairly predictable. There are quite a few accessories and other items hidden throughout Canaan that completists will spend more time in trying to get, but on the whole, the game doesn’t have a whole lot of extras to really hold your interest or extend it’s relatively short life. When you finish the title, it does unlock a speed trial mode that pits you against all of the bosses in timed challenges so there is some replayablity but that’s pretty much it.
Until the Oath at Felghana
In today’s world where RPGs for both the PC and consoles continually raise the bar with titles such as “Morrowind” and “Fable”, where does “Ys: The Ark of Napishtim” fit in?
Ys is hard pressed to stand toe to toe with what is considered the bleeding edge. It stands out as an interesting oddity built around the foundations of a previous age than as something that will shake your expectations to the core. The designers have obviously tried to keep the key elements of the Ys franchise intact while embellishing most of everything else in the presentation of a formula that has been relatively unchanged since it started out. And, honestly, sometimes it’s just fun to play something so straightforwardly simple as Napisthim from time to time. Still, one cannot help but think of what else the game could have done with the power of the PS2 to make it more of an experience.
Fans of the Ys series will find themselves in welcome territory as they take Adol through another adventure against impossible odds. Others looking to fill their need to play an action RPG, though, may want to rent it first if they don’t know what they’re getting into. Otherwise, they might feel a lot like Adol waking up on Canaan’s beach wondering how they got there.