A Real Monstrum Mash
For as long as I’ve been acquainted with the company, Nihon Falcom has always been synonymous, for me, with words like “classic” and “timeless.” They obviously do their best—and, as far as I’m concerned, succeed—at keeping up with the times in some aspects, but they never feel the need to go out of their way to consistently re-invent the wheel like certain other companies who may or may not be famous for JRPGs do. In fact, Falcom’s been so consistent in terms of style for so long that part of me felt like we weren’t ever going to get anything overly wild from them. But, then, out of nowhere, we got Ys IX: Monstrum Nox.
YS IX is, by no means, a game that “jumps the shark,” but as far as Nihon Falcom standards go it actually feels pretty out there. I’ll be honest; Ys isn’t a game that I grew up with. But it is a series that I’ve played for long enough at this point to develop a great fondness for, and for the changes presented in this part to throw me for a loop. And, honestly, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to like it at first—especially compared to the masterpiece that was Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana—but it didn’t take too long for me to start getting into it. It’s certainly an unorthodox game by Ys standards, but if you don’t let that stop you then it’s easy to let yourself have plenty of fun with it.
A Prison of the Body, A Prison of the Soul
Ys IX starts off as nearly all Ys games do; with Adol, and his pal Dogi in tow, en route to his latest destination, in search of a grand adventure. And, as it would so happen, said destination just so happens to be the Prison City of Balduq. Fortunately, seeing as how Adol isn’t on a boat, he actually manages to get to Balduq… but is then promptly arrested for a variety of “crimes,” all of which seem to have ties to previous Ys games.
So, what would you expect Adol to do in prison? Attempt to escape? No, no, he gets interrogated for, like, five days straight or something. Then he attempts to escape—and he’s actually successful, too! However, right when he’s about to climb out to safety, a mysterious one-winged woman named Aprilis appears, dubs him the “Crimson King,” and forcibly bestows upon him—by shooting him with a gun—the curse of the Monstrum, which grants him superhuman powers while stripping him of his ability to leave Balduq altogether. And it turns out that he’s not the only Monstrum in town (er, city)—so, with little else to do aside from complying with Aprilis’ orders and hiding from those seeking to return him to prison, Adol begins what just might be his strangest journey yet.
I’ve already admitted that Ys IX visibly deviates from the norm when compared to the rest of the series, but don’t get it twisted; none of that concerns the story. On the contrary, Ys IX‘s story is one of the best that I’ve seen thus far—if not the best—in the entire series. Every single character that I met along the way was genuinely likable—save for the ones who were appropriately unlikable—with most being relatable as well, and the Monstrums—the primary cast of the game—had a pleasingly obvious amount of thought put behind their development as characters. Sure, it’s true that no game is without its tropes—and Ys IX does fall into a trope-y pitfall here and there—but overall it was an absolute blast to watch the characters interact with one another, and the story unfold.
There’s also something else about the story that particularly piqued my interest. You know how Ys VIII did that thing where the story switched to Dana’s point of view way back in the past? Well, Ys IX does that, too. Any guesses on who the secondary protagonist is this time around? Aprilis? Dogi? Mishy!? Nope, it’s none of those. It’s Adol—like, a second Adol. And this Adol is operating within the same time period that the main Adol is. It’s absolutely bonkers, and it keeps getting more bizarre the deeper you delve into the game’s story. As much as I love what Ys VIII did with its split-storytelling, the way this game does it makes things way more interesting.
Now it’s time to get down-and-dirty—that’s right, I’m talking about the gameplay. Most of this game—and I’m talking like a good 50% – 75% depending on how you classify dungeons—takes place within Balduq (prison included). Because of this, Balduq itself is actually built to scale, meaning that you’ve got a lot of tall buildings, different districts, and, you know, it’s huge. Needless to say, this is handled incredibly well. I can’t tell you the last time I saw a fully interactive city on this scale in a JRPG, or in any game for that matter. Its architecture is impressive and, despite not having the best graphics around (and also being mostly grey in color), Balduq still manages to come to life in a beautiful manner. Needless to say, however, Adol’s normal kit isn’t going to suffice in this kind of environment—and that’s where Monstrom Nox’s uniqueness truly begins to shine through.
Each Monstrum has a special ability known as a “Gift.” Adol’s is basically the ability to teleport to pre-defined locations and certain enemies (it’s way more useful than it sounds). And, while you only start out with his, you slowly amass more Gifts as you befriend other Monstrums (because they have the ability to share them with each other, I guess). This eventually leads to an entire party that can do things like run up walls, glide great distances, use x-ray vision, and more. It might sound a little broken, and at times you might even feel like it is. However, Ys IX has a surprisingly clever way of keeping players in check thanks to the use of a Gift Gauge—which ensures that you can’t use your powers indefinitely—and a liberal scattering of protagonist-hindering barriers.
How exactly does it translate into a normal Ys adventure, though? Simple; it doesn’t. Obviously, the progression formula works a little differently this time around. Each chapter begins with the player needing to collect a type of energy called Nox. Nox can be accumulated in one of two ways. The first is by completing quests. Quests work almost identically to the way in which they did in the previous game. By helping a specific person out with whatever ails them, you’re able to get your needed Nox, and also have the chance to obtain items—some being quest-specific—and can even recruit the occasional person into working at your hideout-turned-bar, the Dandelion.
The second way of nabbing Nox is by hunting down creatures called Lemures. As you walk around town you’ll notice glowing orbs of energy. If you interact with them, you’ll temporarily freeze the world around you, and engage in battle with Lemures. These battles spawn continuously, so you literally can’t do them all, but you do get plenty of rewards—Nox included—for keeping the streets clean of riffraff.
After getting 100 Nox, something called a Miasma Vortex will appear. While there are a few of these that are optional, collecting the appropriate amount of Nox and engaging the swarm of Lumeres living within the vortex—which plays out as a raid battle a-la Ys VII—will unlock a new part of the city. This typically leads to more story content, which leads to a dungeon, which leads to the prison, and, then, poof, you’re ready for the next chapter.
I’m well aware that almost everything I’ve said in this section sounds very strange given that this is a Ys review. To some of you, that might sound a little scary. If it does, that’s A-OK—I totally get not wanting your favorite series to change. But I have two major opinions regarding the flow of Ys IX‘s gameplay. First, I don’t think that this is going to be a trend. A prison city most definitely seems like a one-time thing, so, if it’s not your jam then I wouldn’t start freaking out just yet. Second, it’s really fun. I already said that I was a little hesitant going into it, too, and I was. But this isn’t even the first time that a Ys game took place in a single location, and after I realized that I got over myself and was able to enjoy it to its fullest.
A lot has changed in Ys IX, and, as far as I’m concerned, the changes are welcome. However, I’m equally as pleased to announce that they did not change the one thing that didn’t need any revamping—the combat. All-in-all, there’s not much that I can say here about Ys IX‘s combat mechanics that wouldn’t also apply to its immediate predecessor. That really isn’t a bad thing in this case, though. All it really means is that we’re getting treated to yet another round of buttery smooth hack-and-slash mechanics with a big helping of Ys-flavored difficulty piled on top. Combat isn’t hard to learn, but if you want to get any good at it you’re going to have to practice. Fortunately, battles are so much fun that practicing should feel like anything but!
Don’t Nox it ‘Til You Try it
I’ve done my best so far to answer some basic questions in this review, but I’m sure that you still have plenty of others. And that’s okay. After all, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is, let’s just come out and say it, pretty weird. But the most important question to me, however, is whether it’s any fun or not. And, despite all of the changes, I think that it is. Would I want this to be the formula for every Ys game from here on out? Heck no. But a literal antithesis to Ys VIII‘s Seiren Island—which is absolutely what this game is—is really charming in its own way, and the fact that Falcom was able to add so many novel features while still keeping this game Ys-like at its heart is genuinely impressive. You’d think that basically being able to do whatever you want in this game would make it ridiculously easy, but I can promise you that it’s not. It’s hard, it’s charming, it’s enjoyable, and, despite Adol looking like a vampire lord, it’s absolutely a Ys game to its very core.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: NIS America ; Developer: Nihon Falcom ; Players: 1 ; Released: February 2, 2021 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Ys IX: Monstrum Nox provided by the publisher.