Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review

It’s wonderful that after all these years the Ys series is still active. It is a staple of the action RPG genre since 1987! Most recently, Falcom has been reliably releasing a Ys game every 3 or 4 years, going all the way back to the 2003 release of Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim, which revived the series after a lengthy hiatus. Now, their latest release, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox, is available in the west, courtesy of NIS America, and it marks another decent, if perhaps stagnant, entry into the series.

Combat

I say stagnant because a lot of what we see here we have seen before in the three games release prior: Ys Seven, Ys: Memories of Celceta, and Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana. Most significantly, all of these games share the same battle engine that was established with Ys Seven, where the player has three active party members, and can switch between them instantaneously. Different characters have different damage types, so the player is encouraged to switch between them to compensate for the defenses and weaknesses of their enemies. I’d have hoped that with four iterations, this battle engine would have been perfected by now, but I’m afraid its underlying weaknesses may never be overcome.

Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review: Cast

I feel bad for saying this as an old fan of the series, but the battle engine used in these most recent four games is the weakest in the series as a whole (yes, including the Bump system from Ys I & II). I say this for several reasons, but let’s get straight to the most important one: the system is utterly blinding, and a good action combat engine benefits from being readable.

With a third person perspective viewed from a relatively close camera position, a lot of relevant information remains off screen, including enemies and fast-moving projectiles. Meanwhile, rather than having a single character to keep track of, three are running around, screaming the names of their attack moves over each other, and ultimately cluttering the battlefield. This clutter is exasperated by the game’s tendency to throw hordes of (often gigantic) monsters at the player, particularly during the frequent Siege battles that occur throughout the game (which were hard to enjoy for the same reasons in Ys VIII). On top of all that, most attacks produce large particle effects, which when combined with the hordes of monsters and player characters all attacking at once, displays something more akin to a show of fireworks than a discernable battle engine. So, yes, blinding is the term I use to describe this battle engine, but it’s not all bad.

The combat is at its best during boss fights, because for the most part, they are readable! Spend some time with a boss and you will start to understand its attack patterns, its timing, and how best to survive and whittle away at its life bar, all without being blinded by the mess of Seige combat! It’s during these encounters that the magic of the Ys series can be felt, particularly when overcoming a difficult and well-designed fight!

Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review: Boss Fight

These fights also reward a player who has learned how to Flash Guard or Flash Move. The battle engine feels most competent when you perfectly guard an attack and then counter attack relentlessly. Unfortunately, these techniques are severely overpowered, as they provide invulnerability, slow motion, fast movement, and hits that always count as striking weaknesses. Beyond that, they can be retriggered infinitely with proper timing, and extended with gear. This becomes the basis for surviving the Seige battles in which the player really cannot see or read what is happening, particularly on higher difficulties that can knock out characters in an instant. Still, Flash Guard and Flash Move were fun to use in boss battles, and those fights were where there was the most fun to be had in Ys IX.

Boss fights were also the best excuse to learn more able the combat styles of each of the six playable characters. Though I couldn’t help but to favor series protagonist, Adol the Red, I did spend time with each of them. They each have different weapons and can learn a variety of unique abilities that can be strengthened through repeated use. By the end of the game, I had picked three characters to focus on, and enjoyed exploring the world with them.

Adventure

“World,” might be a bit of an exaggeration really. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox takes place almost entirely in the Prison City of Balduq and its immediate surrounding landscapes, and while it is large enough to occupy a thorough player for well over 50 hours, it still never feels like a great deal of world exploration happens. Even when exploration does open up a bit, it does so slowly, and the areas to explore are, sadly, a bit bland. Most outdoor zones are large, but have only three or four monsters recurring throughout them, and so they quickly become repetitive if you stop to fight everything (though at least these battles are far less cluttered than the sieges). And even if you don’t, all that’s left aside from the monsters is trying to find treasure chests and crafting materials, or seeking out the waypoint of a quest objective. Usually this boils down to a puzzle of trying to discover how to get to that high place, which is ironic, because the characters in the game have abilities that make them incredibly mobile! But no ability to climb walls is stronger than a game designer’s decision to place an unclimbable ledge at the top of an otherwise climbable cliff.

Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review: Wall Running

So, Ys IX fails to be as fun to explore as the three similar games that proceeded it, but Adol is an Adventurer, not an Explorer, so I suppose I can forgive this limitation. Certainly, through the course of the game, Adol and his companions visit a variety of locales, but Balduq, with its ramparts, fortifications, and towering spires is where you will spend most of the game, no matter how much you might prefer to journey far away. Still, within those walls the game manages to provide plenty of that adventure that Adol is always searching for, thanks to characters that he meets and the story that plays out throughout the game.

The story itself is slow to unfold, because it is a bit of a mystery, and it takes its time unraveling. But I still found a lot to enjoy, particularly with some of the big reveals further into the game (though I don’t want to spoil anything here). The characters were a bit more hit or miss. The game has lots of very long scenes of dialog (occasionally voice-acted) where you learn about the characters, but not a lot of it is particularly interesting. Ys IX uses a method of storytelling that is somewhat rudimentary in this day and age: it’s mostly in the style of a visual novel, with in-engine characters barely animated (typical for many JRPGs). So really, it’s up to the writing to carry the scenes, but it’s okay at best. A few of the characters develop in interesting ways, but most of them feel fairly generic throughout. By the time the credits rolled, I can say I enjoyed a few emotional moments in my time with the game, but I can’t see myself remembering much about these characters by the time Ys X becomes a thing, whereas I still wish for the series to revisit some of my favorite characters from past games. There were at least a few mentions of Adol’s past adventures referenced throughout the game, through it still left me wanting for a continuation of (now decades) old plot threads. But, like the Prison City of Balduq, nearly everything in Ys IX is self-contained.

Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review: Balduq

Conclusion

Overall, I was a bit disappointed by Ys IX: Monstrum Nox. It’s not a bad game by any means, it’s just a bit stagnant where it sits in the series as a whole. It’s important to judge a game on its own merits, but I couldn’t help but to wax nostalgic while I was playing it. I missed the goddesses of Ys I & II, the large landscapes and large regions to explore, and more than anything, the near perfect combat, particularly from Ys VI: Ark of Napishtim and the two games that borrowed its combat afterwards. But here we are, four games deep into the battle engine that began with Ys Seven, and it still can’t live up to its predecessors. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox has its moments, and all things considered, it is a decent game. Despite my criticism, I still enjoyed it quite a bit. It succeeds in providing a lengthy action RPG that tells an interesting enough story, but it does so without ever reaching any significant highs. But more than anything, it represents an excuse to try something different next time around. I’ll be looking forward to was Falcom comes up with for Ys X and wishing for a brand-new battle engine to take the series forward! Despite the harsh review, I’ll always be a fan of this series.

Thanks very much to NIS America, Inc. for providing a product key for this review.

7/10

+Interesting story, and a few great plot reveals
+Great music, especially during boss fights and in dungeons
+Fun boss battles
+Occasional moments with emotional payoff
-Overcluttered combat, particularly during siege battles
-Limited exploration
-Outshone by its predecessors

Available on: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC

Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4 (on PlayStation 5 hardware)

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