[9 November 2010]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Released for Windows in Japan in 2005 and ported only just this year to the PSP, Ys: The Oath in Felghana is a lush remake of Ys III: Wanderers from Ys localized by publisher XSEED Games.
However, “remake” here isn’t as simple as a Lunar-like boxed set with revamped cutscenes. Ys III‘s graphics have been completely overhauled, translated actually rather successfully to 3D. The story has also been expanded upon, localized not simply in house but by licensing a translation from the fan community—a practice they’ve continued from their localizations for the I and II remakes released last year (Spencer, “Ys: The Oath in Felghana Uses Fan Translation as a Base”, Siliconera, 21 June 2010). They’re solid translations. Certainly, corny and at times full of wallbangers, but that’s just the nature of the series—you enjoy it or you don’t.
Furthermore, of the new and remade Ys installments seeing Stateside release in the last two years, Oath in Felghana is unquestionably the most refined. It’s honestly a little difficult to believe that Ys Seven, which was released this past August, is cut from the same cloth (despite Seven technically being developed several years later and offering all those ambitious new features that Ys fans were supposed to love). Nor does Seven share Oath‘s voice acting. While I would never be that gamer who insists an RPG isn’t complete without 1900 lines of recorded dialogue—in this game it really, really helps. The dreaded voicelessness of its protagonist, about which I’ve griped previously, is way more palatable with our gentlemanly narrator handling the task. It lends the entire thing a way more cohesive tone, something it’s difficult not to appreciate coming after Seven.
Ys: The Oath in Felghana, like its Ys III original, follows Adol Christin and his trusty heterosexual lifemate, Dogi, three years after the events of I and II. This time they are returning to Dogi’s hometown on Felghana, which he hasn’t visited in eight years, to investigate rumors of monsters in the area. It’s the typical Ys formula: silent protagonist and his sidekick arrive in a town where monsters are appearing and there will be ancient ruins and they obtain the gift of magic and corrupt nobles are inevitably involved and there is your beautiful lancer rival and you will fight every classic JRPG monster in the book a million times, while collecting women like cats, etc., etc., ad infinitum. It is safe to say that you aren’t playing this game for an innovative and original storyline that has never been done before—that isn’t what JRPGs excell at, nor does Ys games in particular. And while in Seven the whole thing feels so divorced from its roots as to be pointless, Oath in Felghana proves you just can’t knock the classics.
As I said, though, this remake would be lost without its good execution. The music overdoes its synthesized electric guitar at times, but it’s generally enjoyable and certainly memorable in key scenes. And while it isn’t as though the voice cast is flawless, all of the principals sound just as good as they should, especially Elena. In a genre filled with perky but weak blondes requiring constant rescuing and pity for their tragic lives, she actually sounds like a normal, honest-to-god teenager. Updates to the art and the overall look of the menus and design really make you feel as though you’re playing something special, and while it can feel overwrought, it never reaches the point of gaudiness.
As for the gameplay, the good news is that the combat is everything that the publisher promised it would be. After the functional but overcomplicated mess of Seven, it’s good to see that Oath in Felghana‘s direction is clean simplicity: it’s a lot of smashing of X, alternating with some smashing of Square, and sometimes you have to combine Circle and X for a jumping attack. Exciting! Well, there is also the Triangle boost button and the triggers get used eventually, but on the whole, you are hacking and hacking away by your good ol’ lonesome, just as the Ys gods intended. This remake also tidies up inventory management a little by removing MP and HP items completely. Instead, HP recovery powerups can only be found as drops from enemies, and your MP will recover naturally between battles.
It sounds a little easy peasy, and it is, but the real heart of any game system is balance. I can guarantee you that Very Easy mode on Oath can be more difficult than Normal on Seven. The key is additional and more intelligent platforming, better dungeon design, and greater enemy variety. It all adds up to a way more comprehensive action RPG experience, something that comes off as classic without seeming like a relic. The way in which skills are progressively layered in over a long time frame, while still keeping you from experiencing any kind of perpetual tutorial level lurch, really must be congratulated.
If there is one thing that threatens to bug me about the game and the series as a whole though, it’s the absurd way that the women characters are written. At times, it’s cheesy enough that you have to laugh. But at others, it makes me wonder if the designers really thought that their male players needed an ego boost by proxy. We are, after all, explicitly encouraged by the narrator to play as though we ourselves are Adol. And, hey, no problem, I play as guys all the time. Except the game is convinced that I’m absolutely sexually irresistible. It made me feel that I wasn’t so much a character as a sex object, my very nature becoming the focus of every woman’s obsession. “Ladies, please!” I wanted to tell them. “Love me for who I am!”
In the end, it’s more silly than damaging. It’s all rather adorably chaste, after all. Besides, all the men are obsessed with Adol too; they just seemed more focused on thrusting their long swords into Adol’s lithe body . . . ahem. At any rate, sexual politics of the series aside, you’d be hard pressed to find a JRPG (or really a video game anywhere) that wasn’t a little problematic in its manners of representation. Unfortunately, that’s a subject that extends much further than the scope of any one review.
Otherwise, the game is well-presented, fun, and memorable. Fans of older conventional JRPGs who don’t want something unyielding will feel quite welcomed in Ys: The Oath in Felghana, which tempers its classical feel with scaleable difficulty and generous second chances. Players of the original might find the experience different enough to give it a go, while newcomers to the series definitely don’t have to worry about feeling lost. Furthermore, in an age where even the traditional JRPG seems to be co-op almost by necessity, Oath in Felghana is blessedly single player and a completely stand alone experience.
The inclusion of the fan community in revitalizing the Ys series is definitely one of its most promising aspects at this point. With this game especially, XSEED have made it clear that they know exactly who their audience is and how to reach it. Let’s hope to see more of this degree of polish out of the publisher’s choice of projects in the future.