As I started up Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, there were two questions rattling around my skull. The first was, will the game hold up to the hype? Released on PS4 in fall 2017, there was already buzz about it floating around, with some going so far as to call it one of best releases of the year. The second question I had was, will I be able to fully enjoy it without playing the previous games? I had never played any title in the Ys franchise, and being a chronologist, I was fearful that the sequel nature of the game would hold me back. With these two questions looking to be answered, I dove into the game.
The prologue starts off shaky, with the franchise protagonist and professional adventurer Adol Christin talking with his longtime partner Dogi about past adventures. Thankfully, the conversation was interrupted and the focus shifted from their previous journeys to the present crew, guests, and setting of the Lombardia, the luxury ship where Adol was working in exchange for the passage. The deluge of information during the entire prologue is a bit overwhelming, as trying to introduce gameplay, characters, and the world at large all at once is a monumental task that the game doesn’t really excel at. The narrative kicks into high gear when giant tentacles rise from the sea while Lombardia is passing the mysterious and cursed Isle of Seiren. Despite Adol’s best efforts, the ship is destroyed and everyone aboard is tossed into the sea. An anime style opening scene then plays and the game truly begins.
The main plot revolves around the need to escape the island, but it’s more than just that. The story is a big part of the game, and arguably its greatest success. While the initial focus in the narrative is escaping the island, the game lets events outside the island escape take center stage to a great effect. The story flows naturally, evolving and twisting as the island reveals new secrets, and the cast of characters grows. There is not a single moment of the plot that feels slow or cumbersome. With over half of the content being cutscenes and story-beats, it’s impressive that the world never fails to delight.
Central to the adventure are these characters, who are a huge highlight of Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana. The fellow castaways are not just detailed models, as each has a personality that’s bursting with originality and character. Their roles are further increased as they move and grow with the story. The life these individuals exhume is a true mastery of development, and are part of what turns a strong story into an amazingly woven tale. Captain Barbaros is one such standout, a passionate leader who works hard to deserve his title and rectify the shipwreck even though it wasn’t his fault. He’s not alone as a fascinating character as with each castaway introduced, they become and remain relevant to Castaway Village evolving over time through interactions and story paths. Built in a secure area found on the Isle of Seiren, the survivors build up amenities and service areas in a grand way. There’s an organic feel to the village and its residents, and it adds to the game to have a locale fundamental both to the story and to the gameplay.
While the story is a huge chunk of the game, the other major piece is the combat. Introduced slightly at the end of the prologue, the fighting system is the connective tissue that keeps the story together. At its core, it’s nothing special; button mashing and dodging. But combined with up to four equipped special skill attacks learned throughout play, the combat mechanics allow you to customize how you play. Starting with just Adol, you’ll begin to find castaways to join the party, each with their own weapons and strengths, in more than just unique attacks and skills. Every character has either a slash, hit or shoot type of attack. Certain monsters have a weakness to one of the three, and this encourages playing with different characters to maximize the damage output. When using this system, you can break enemies to allow all types of attacks to deal massive damage against them. You can also gain other tactical advantages, like a bullet time that activates when you perform a perfectly timed dodge, or a quick block button that gives you 100% critical hit chance attacks for a short time.
Even with such an impressive story and standout combat, Ys VIII’s biggest strength is the audio design. While not present during every single story scene, every character you meet has a voice, and the performances are on point. Composers Hayato Sonoda and Takahiro Unisuga tie everything together by capturing the essence of the mood and environments in an audible display of genius.
Sadly, no game is perfect, as there are some flaws. Visually, the game is a mixed bag. While the character and monster models are detailed and fairly unique, the environments look very bland. There's little in the way of color or detail that differentiates areas like biomes, which often makes the land hard to navigate. It’s also slightly jarring to have such unique assets built only to place and interact with them on sets that have such a generic feel. Thankfully this can be forgiven, as the size and scope of areas never get too burdened by these limitations. There’s enough difference in the island sections on a grand scale to make your way around, even if in the small scale in can be hard to traverse at times.
There are also a lot of mechanics, like fishing, crafting, resource collection, raids, beast hunts, and many more, that are introduced as the game goes on. While Ys VIII has a good pace overall and never overwhelms you, all these activities can pull the focus a bit thin at times. Also, despite the great story, Adol himself is a very bland character. While he's occasionally voiced, you only get to choose between two text options during the scenes without spoken words. While it’s clearly meant to help put you more in the story, it makes him a blank slate with no personality. In most other games he would be just a fine character, but here in this world that’s inhabited by such exceptional figures, he fades into the background in comparison.
When it comes down to it though, the flaws are just nitpicks, as Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is a game that put my two initial fears to rest. The game doesn’t dwell on Adol’s past adventures, and the world opens up naturally as you progress through it. The hype coming in was real, and while I expected a great game, I got a truly tremendous title that kept me engaged and desperate for more. The pace is on point, as the story and combat work well to keep things moving forward, but never rushing too quickly to leave you behind. The story is true artistry in motion, keeping things fresh and gripping even hours in, not afraid to take risks or introduce new things in ways that feel organic every single time. The Switch has found another great title, thanks to the port of Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you miss out on it, you’re doing a disservice to yourself - do not pass up on this game!