Ys is one of my favorite unknown series. I’ve played pretty much every entry available, and have been extremely fond of them all. They’re games that know exactly what they want to be: lightning-fast Action JRPGs that feel SNES-like in their simplicity, but simply feel amazing to play. It should come as no surprise that I was excited to finally get my hands on Ys IX when it released in the west, more than a year after its Japanese release. So, was the wait worth it?
Grimwald? More Like Grimacewald. Ooh. Got'em.
Ys IX should have been a slam-dunk. My expectations for Ys games aren’t very high, if we’re being honest. All I need is for Adol to have an excuse to explore some ruins, fight some monsters, and probably save the world in the process (or at least whatever continent he’s currently visiting). As long as the battles feel good and the plot doesn’t get in the way, then Falcom has succeeded in giving me what I wanted. Until Ys IX, it has always succeeded in giving me what I wanted.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Ys IX is a terrible game, by any means. But it's by far the most mediocre Ys game I've played. It makes Ys VII look like East of Eden in comparison.
Ys IX has Adol getting trapped in the prison city of Balduq, located in Gllia, which is under Roman control. Normally, it’s easy to let the geopolitical politics of the Ys games fall off the wayside, but in IX, they take center stage, and guess what: it sucks! If the Trails games are any indication, Falcom does not have a strong track record when it comes to political writing, and that continues to be the case in Monstrum Nox. The game attempts to give gravitas to the turmoil between the Gllians and the Romans, but it ends up giving a half-hearted approach every step of the way. Particularly disappointing is the game's handling of the revolutionaries who want to take back their homeland, with the proposed solution being that “fighting isn't the answer," which makes no sense whatsoever.
There’s also the plot-line for one of the party characters, White Cat, which I just can’t let go. White Cat, upset by the plight of the poor residents that live in the slums of Balduq, takes it upon herself to take money from the coffers of her wealthy merchant father to give to them. This results in said poor residents “relying too much” on the charity of White Cat, refusing to work for themselves and spending all their money on gambling. White Cat decides that simply giving the money away doesn’t help these citizens after all, so she decides to…open a Flower Shop that will make people happy.
Typing all this out is just making me disappointed all over again. Obviously, a game released in 2019 couldn’t have predicted a COVID-19 Pandemic. Nor could it have predicted that the USA still hasn’t given its citizens any sort of help with this pandemic, as of this blog post’s publishing. But even despite all that, it comes off as an embarrassing understanding of people with low-income, and not the kind of stuff I want to engage with at all in a Ys game.
Hey speaking of Party Members: they’re not great! None of the main cast is very engaging and their personalities are incredibly one-note. I can’t touch on it too much because of spoilers, but for plot reasons, each member of your party has basically the same backstory, making them all much too similar to each other. The only time they ever differ is their reaction to whatever the plot is at the moment, where they all give a line based on whatever anime archetype they’re comprised of. I had to look up their names in the middle of writing this to remember who was who, and the members of the team that join your base — now an undercover bar instead of a shipwrecked cove — are equally uninteresting.
None of this would matter if the plot didn’t take up so much of Ys IX, but it does, and it’s also a negative. Each character is given their own chapter before they enter your party, making the pacing of the plot feel like molasses. Cutscenes constantly interrupt the gameplay, which would be fine if they were well-written or interesting in any way, neither of which is true. It takes forever for the actual plot to get anywhere meaningful, and I was completely checked out by the time it did.
Also, I couldn’t find a good-way to segue into this, but I was particularly disappointed in the gross outfit one of the characters in the game wears, who is 9 years old. And the game has some disappointing opinions regarding the disabled. It's hard to talk about without spoiling the plot, but basically, Ys IX thinks that a disabled person would rather be trapped in a prison city with nowhere to go so that they can walk than checks notes not have usage of their legs. And they magically regain their ability to walk anyway. I’ll leave the deeper unpacking of that particular thesis to someone smarter than me, especially because that's not a disability I have, but I can pretty confidently say after discussing with a disabled friend that the resulting implication is Not Great.
“Fair play, Mint,” you’re probably thinking. “But the combat has to be good at least, right? That’s what makes a Ys game a Ys game!”
To be fair, besides the music, combat is still the best part of Monstrum Nox. Attacks give great feedback, skills are fun to throw out, and flash dodges and guards feel incredible to pull off back-to-back. I'm also very pleased with the parkour abilities Adol and the Monstrums have through their “gifts." Wall-running, dash-teleporting, and gliding through Balduq was a blast, and I spent a good chunk of my time simply using these abilities to explore the city and find treasure chests and exploration points.
That’s about where the praise ends, though. Ys IX maintains the same Rock-Paper-Scissors style of combat applied to the last few games, where each character has a particular attack type that’s strong against particular enemies. Despite this, the game rarely — if ever — gives you a reason to switch out. About 70% of the enemies have no particular weakness at all, so there's rarely a point to switching unless the character you're currently playing as is low on health. Because of this, I had no reason to use Adol, who naturally becomes the strongest character in the game, and spam his gigantic, area-of-effect sword skill, which is the best one in the game, and which you will unlock about halfway through playing it. Ys VIII had an incredible combat loop, where you were constantly bobbing and weaving between attacks, swapping to whichever character was most useful on-hand to crush mobs of enemies. The energy just wasn’t there.
That same lack of energy can be found in the game’s setting. While the prison city is a cool, dense local, it’s also extremely grey. Actually, all of Barduq is grey. Because the game takes place in this central location, there’s not much room for interesting or colorful locals. It won’t be long until you find yourself in your forth grey and greenish-brown ruins, wondering if you’re experiencing some extreme déjà vu. Normally, that sort of thing doesn’t bother me as much if a game’s loop is entertaining, but Ys IX’s is not.
The game also attempts to repurpose the base attacks from Ys VIII, and while their importance to the plot is better weaved, they’re also not fun in any way. They start out fine enough, but there’s a painful difficulty spike two-thirds into the game where you’ll be forced to grind materials to upgrade your defenses, slowing the game’s already glacial pacing to a complete halt. I would have been happy for them to be removed entirely.
Tenth Time’s the Charm
By the time I was done with Ys IX, I was happy for it to be over. Not because I was satisfied with my time, but because playing it felt like a chore. This hit me like a punch in the gut because Ys games have always pleased my Goopy Goblin Gamer Brain. They’ve always felt like the opposite of a chore. But I realized near the end of the game that I simply wasn't having any fun. And that sucks.
I don’t think Ys is a lost cause after this disappointing entry in the franchise. But I sorely hope that Ys X shakes the formula up once again, and gets a bit more time in the oven. Retune the combat, or make a new loop entirely. Let Adol stretch his legs and go adventuring again! And please, for the love of God, keep the story simple. Let my Thoughts On: Ys X, which will probably launch in 2025, be more positive than this one. My heart can't take another hit!