The Ys series has always captured the heart and soul of an adventurer. Throughout its nearly 30-year run, developer Nihon Falcom has complemented fun exploration with adrenaline-pumping boss battles, all starring its iconic red-headed protagonist Adol Christin. Ys VIII stays true to the franchise’s core values, but those elements plays off each other wonderfully, creating an engaging gameplay loop that had me glued to the game for hours on end.
Ys VIII puts exploration front and center. After a vicious monster attacks a ship transporting Adol and various others, they end up stranded on a deserted island overrun with strange creatures. To survive, Adol must gather resources, build up a base, and find a way off the island. During his journey, he can recruit fellow passengers to jobs on the base, such as a blacksmith, tailor, and gardener. Watching your headquarters grow is exciting, and it was one of my favorite parts of the experience. I loved venturing off to explore more of the island, then coming back with new materials to craft better things.
The vibrant island also has mysteries to uncover, taking you to deserted pirate ships and ancient towers. Some sections of the vast landscape are blocked off until you recruit more members or obtain certain gear; special gloves let you climb vines to reach new areas, while another item allows you to breathe underwater. I enjoyed revisiting areas to obtain treasure I couldn’t get before, and unlocking the new abilities for Adol keeps gameplay fresh and fun. Climbing vines adds some verticality to the experience, and battling creatures underwater is slower and methodical, making you anticipate where your opponent is going to be rather than striking where they are.
Narrative beats slowly unravel as you progress. At first, your goal is merely to figure out a way off the island, but then the focus turns to discovering why all the beasts are roaming around it. The answer is more interesting than I expected, but the plot tends to drag with awkward dialogue and boring, long-winded sequences. The latter especially hits when you play as Dana, a mysterious girl Adol is connected to through his dreams. These perspective shifts often have you backtracking, and feature some of the most lackluster dialogue in the game, as conversations feel more like filler than interesting revelations about Dana’s world.
Part of the story also revolves around building bonds with the strangers you meet. You can get to know your fellow castaways better by completing quests and giving them gifts, which often nets you new items and improves their support skills in battle. Ys games aren’t traditionally built on strong characters or story, and while Ys VIII is an improvement, these areas remain weak. That being said, I appreciated the little bonding moments and having characters with more personality, like a sassy noble to a lighthearted fisherman who add some levity to the journey.
Outside of exploration, Ys VIII’s bread and butter is its stellar action combat, which is fast and smooth. Specific weapons are stronger against certain creature types; selecting the right one is essential for bringing down foes. For instance, pierce weapons are strong against flying enemies, while slash ones are superior against soft-bodied creatures. At any point, you can swap to a character in your three-member party to take advantage of this. All combatants have different fighting styles, from slower powerhouse tanks to quick-jab fencers, which adds variety to fights.
You also have skills and special moves to unleash, but the focus on the dodge and block mechanics is the shining star of combat. If you dodge at the right time, you can unlock a flash move, which makes you invincible for short time and slows everything down. This is key for creating openings to get the edge on enemies. Similarly, if you guard right as an enemy strikes, you unleash a flash guard, where all attacks briefly become critical hits and all damage is nullified.
My most satisfying moments were when I pulled off both a flash move and flash guard in succession to wreak havoc on bosses. These big battles don’t disappoint, as you go up against larger-than-life enemies and live to tell the tale. Every boss has weak points to target, so part of the fun is finding the right area to hit and recognizing their patterns. The bosses are a highlight for me, as they force you to pull out all stops and really showcase the battle system coming together at its best. Dodging, jumping, and using your skills at are opportune moments are key, and taking down these large enemies is an adrenaline rush.
The only time combat frustrated me was due to controls. The dodge and block buttons are on the shoulder buttons, and if you press them both at once, you trigger your special. When you’re in the heat of battle, accidentally hitting both at once is easy, wasting your special. This happened to me on more than a few occasions.
Ys VIII gets its hooks in you with its progression loop; you’re always making new discoveries and locating new materials to craft something better. Nihon Falcom also does its best to inject variety when it can, from battles that involve your entire village to Dana learning different fighting styles throughout the game. With a wealth of content to pursue, you always have something to do, even if it’s merely fishing or cooking. On top that, Ys VIII has a lot of memorable battle moments; I only wish the story and characters held the same allure.