Ys IX – Monstrum Nox is the next entry in the long running Ys series, developed and published by Nihon Falcom and NIS America respectively. Even though this is the ninth mainline game in the franchise, as a newcomer to the series I felt immediately welcomed.
The story starts rather abruptly, record scratch, freeze frame, you’re breaking out of jail (which you’ll do repeatedly actually). You’re just about to escape from the prison when a mysterious woman shoots you with a cursed bullet, you gain some incredible powers, then you pass out. The game then jumps back a bit in time to show you that you’re Adol Christin, an adventurer. You’re quickly arrested by the city officials for your previous exploits on past adventures, but not before a few character introductions.
At this point I suspected I might need to have played previous entries in the series to fully appreciate this one, but thankfully throughout my time with Ys IX many of these little throwbacks are clearly done in such a way as to tease newcomers and give returning fans a cheeky grin at a reference here or there, making it all very accommodating and tasteful.
Once the story catches up past the exciting opening scene, you’re out of the prison and with a quick scarf and wig, hiding in plain sight among the townsfolk to continue your journey. It’s explained your curse has made you a Monstrum, and won’t let you leave the prison city you now inhabit. Monstrum’s are called to enter the Grimwald Nox, a mythical event that see’s you fighting off waves of monsters with five other similarly cursed individuals.
The story is competently written and never too jarring, but it does come close to yanking the immersion out from under you several times. Some characters have surprisingly interesting back stories and motivations when investigated, but this is constantly overshadowed by the anime-style cliché character traits they exude. The circumstances and plot surrounding characters feels three dimensional, but the characters themselves only ever feel two.
Aside from that the story is good and the world feels fleshed out and developed, with some moments leading to a commentary on wider society and governmental structures you wouldn’t expect from a game like this. If this is common in the Ys series, then I can see how it’s maintained itself after nearly 25 years from the first games release in 1987, as it makes the whole package feel more adult and believable.
The gameplay for Ys IX consists of two things; combat sections, and ‘run-around-and-talk-to-that-guy, -now-this-guy, -okay-now-him’ hub exploration sections.
The combat see’s you starting as only Adol, but as you progress through the game and unravel the mystery of the other Monstrum’s (you’re unaware of their real world identities during the Grimwald Nox’s) they will join you in events outside the Grimwald Nox, allowing you to switch between Monstrum’s seamlessly mid-fight. The combat is solidly done, rewarding skilled gameplay with timed guards or dodges to slow down time or increasing critical hit chances temporarily. The true meat of the combat comes once you unlock enough Monstrum’s to swap to different weapon types mid fight, allowing you to pick the best weapon for the opponents weakness.
Whilst this is a competent combat system, that’s all it ever lives up to. The characters get a basic combo and four unique combat skills each, but these rarely lead to any interesting chaining of moves or tactics. On top of that, all too often the enemy encounters are either laughably easy, or so many enemies are on screen at once that its almost guaranteed you’ll lose a large chunk of health. Whilst satisfying, the combat has surprisingly little depth for the amount of mechanics it has, relying on upgrading other aspects of the Grimwald Nox to aid you in battle.
On the other side of the coin is the hub exploration, which see’s you running around the town of Balduq solving as many problems as possible because you’re such a great person. The immersion here is wafer thin, as you’ll readily transform between your Monstrum outfit and your prison break disguise in front of civilians after dropping thirty feet from a rooftop to the busy streets below. Ironically, these sections of the game are where the world building really happens, and eventually I admit it does start to have its own silly charm to it.
The art style of Ys IX really does stand out, not necessarily for being unique but because nothing ever detracts or feels overlooked. The character designs all feel unique and are clearly distinguishable aside from some stock NPC’s, but even then the important ones are immediately recognizable.
The enemy design in this game is fantastic, not just for the sheer madness and creativity of some of the designs, but also for the variety of enemy types that you’ll encounter throughout the game, making each new Grimwald Nox event in game feel like a wind up to some unforeseen new foe.
The animations are 80% brilliant, in that the monsters all have unique wind ups and tells, with bosses having some incredible animations and moves, as well as the Monstrum’s during combat. However, outside of combat everything is laughably stiff and wooden to watch, with one animation applied to each action like running, walking, etc. One cutscene in particular of guards supposedly running ‘full speed’ to catch me was made hilarious by watching both them and Adol moving at a brisk walk at best, like some reverse Benny Hill chase scene.
The sound is probably the least endearing part of the experience. There are a few tracks in the soundtrack that you’ll get accustomed to very quickly, as not only are they played when exploring, but they’ll also play in the background whilst you’re engaging in dialogue with the dozens of characters. The inclusion of background music was no bad thing, but it really wouldn’t have hurt to include a few more tracks to add some variety to the dialogue sections, which will by far take up the most time in a playthrough.
Other than that, Ys IX’s soundtrack does have one or two memorable tracks, the Grimwald Nox opening theme having me on edge whenever I heard it. The voice actors really understood what they were making and as a result all dialogue felt like it was truly spoken by that character, even if the words themselves aren’t so believable.
Overall, Ys IX – Monstrum Nox seems to be playing to its strengths when compared to previous entries which makes it appealing to long time series fans, delivering its own unique gameplay and style. A pretty good peach, but not everyone will like peaches.
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