Wikipedia’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Often when a game from a venerable franchise is passed our way you’ll see reviewers beavering away, quietly checking up on the franchise’s history on the various Wikipedia pages, suddenly able to demonstrate expert knowledge on the most esoteric of past franchise releases. It begs the question of what people (of which games reviewers are a sub-species) did before Wikipedia existed to fill in their holes – thankfully, with this review of Ys: Memories of Celceta we found the answer. They depended on the office Nigel. Nigel’s a great bloke, and an old-school hardcore gamer. After picking up Ys to review and demonstrating it out to whoever would stop and look most first impressions contained a vaguely comical reference to the lack of any vowels and general disregard to letters. Nigel, however, was fantastic. He glanced at the Vita and without so much as skipping a beat he said ‘Ys? Fantastic game. I played that years ago on the PC Engine.’. And from there on out we had a direct link with the roots of the franchise – take that, faceless editors of Wikipedia, probably furiously typing away in your pants as we speak!
Ahem. For the benefit of everyone else without a Nigel, the history of Ys dates back to the shoulder-pad infused date of 1987, and since then it’s managed to appear on about a hundred different platforms – the only real comparator in terms of franchise longevity and success over in Japan would be the Final Fantasy series. The games all star a hero named Adol, a wandering adventurer whose written accounts of his exploits still resonate a thousand years into the games’ future. There have been seven main numbered releases for Ys over the years, as well as a prequel. Rather wonderfully this is actually the third attempt to tell the tale of Ys IV, and Memories of Celceta has now officially replaced both Mask of the Sun and The Dawn of Ys in official series canon, although parts of both previous tales have been incorporated into this new one.
This latest iteration sees Adol impacted by that most tired of RPG tropes, amnesia. Finding himself in the city of Casnan with a local information dealer taking pity on him, Adol is tasked to map the great forest of Celceta by the local purple-haired Governor. Through his explorations Adol begins to unlock some of his memories, and the scope of his quest ever expands from that of a simple mapping exercise. Old acquaintances (otherwise known as party members!) are found, wrongs are put right, evil is bashed, and so on and so on. The plot might not be the most original, but it exudes a simple charm, the developments keeping you happy until you and Adol reach those final moments.
Throughout your travels you’ll find many examples of standard RPG fare (oh, new town! Slightly better weapons for sale in the shop!) although there are plenty of nice touches that help set the game apart. Over time your party will grow to six members, although you can only have three active members at one time. Don’t fancy playing along with your silent protagonist? Feel free to drop him to the sidelines for most of the game as you pick and mix from the remaining options – even better, but the members outside of your active party will still gain full experience and level up as you battle along. Memories of Celceta also comes with a nicely fleshed out item enhancement system; using bits and bobs you can gather from slain foes and collection points you can boost up to eight different statistics on a weapon or a piece of armour, leading to some beastly loadouts by the time you reach the endgame.
An action RPG can only be as strong as its combat system, however, and Ys doesn’t disappoint in this area. Each character has an attack type of slashing, blunt or piercing, with certain enemies more vulnerable to certain types of attack, which can lead to you jumping between your active characters to capitalise on this. If you wait a few seconds before you attack you’ll attract a blue aura, and then successfully connecting a basic attack will gift you some skill points, which you can then spend to perform one of a dazzling variety of skills. Combat is further enhanced by the existence of two dodge mechanics, flash dodge and flash guard; hit the appropriate button just before an attack lands on you and you’ll be gifted with either a period of slow motion ‘sword time’ to beat on your enemies, or in the case of the flash guard all your attacks will be criticals for a short period. Clearly these mechanics are meant to push you away from button spamming, instead providing you with an intelligent battleground upon which to learn your enemies’ tells and unleash your strategies, connecting with charged hits, perfectly timed dodges and linking complementary kills.
The only problem with all this is that if you choose to play on the ‘Normal’ difficulty you can afford to spam attack your way through much of the game. The balance is entirely off, with monsters and bosses providing very little in the way of challenge, with the overall difficulty more reminiscent of something you’d expect under a description of ‘Casual’ or ‘Easypeasy’. A New Game+ playthrough on Nightmare (with character levels, items, money, skills and weapons carried over) still had pretty much everything, except some of the bosses, feel underpowered; the balance issues aren’t a game-breaker, and there are plenty who would argue that a greater degree of accessibility can only help action RPGs, but the finished product would have felt a little shinier with a greater degree of difficulty tinkering apparent.
Balance isn’t the only area that could have done with a bit more attention – there is a shocking lack of voice work throughout the entire game. The very occasional word, or yelled name, will surprise you while reading through the story text, and you’ll catch the odd battle phrase behind the sound of combat every now and then, but nothing substantial to grab you and aid in characterisation. Combined with the standard Falcom approach to graphics (that is, hardly taxing the hardware) you could be forgiven for imagining that Memories of Celceta was planned for the PSP and had some later texture upgrades thrown in when upgraded to the Vita. That’s overly harsh, of course, and a few blurry graphics and a lack of a voicetrack don’t take anything away from the gameplay, but they act as barriers to Ys getting the wider market recognition it deserves by now.
The thing with Memories of Celceta though is that for every small thing that makes you shake your head another will pop up and remind you how fantastic a product this is. The musical score here is a piece of sublime wonder, full of seemingly simple earworm pieces that will stay with you for days after you pop the Vita down. The production quality is evident, perfectly complementing both the story exposition and the action-filled combat, leaving you wanting more of the same every time you finish a play session.
For a game whose hero is only one letter short from being named after the greatest monster of the past century, Ys: Memories of Celceta doesn’t do too badly at all. Sure, the lack of vocal tracks and the balance issues conspire to stop the game from reaching its full potential, but it’s still a game that can stand proud both on the Vita and within the Ys catalogue. Fine, it’s no Crisis Core or Birth by Sleep, but your time exploring this ocean of foliage is still time well spent, and may even open up a whole new series for you to go off and lose yourself in.