"Every time you complete a dungeon, you can count on an interesting plot twist, some new items, and a sense of accomplishment that should be at odds with your realization that the dungeon you just conquered wouldn't have puzzled a two-year-old, but somehow isn't."
A harpy is a creature from mythology. While the lower portion of its body looks for the most part like a bird with oddly alluring legs, the upper portion is all woman. In Wanderers from Ys III, one entry of many in the famed Falcom-developed series of action role-playing games, the harpy hasn't heard of that little invention known as the bra. It was this that originally attracted me to the game so many years ago, when I was an adolescent boy scrutinizing every image from those Nintendo Power special issues.
I knew the game had a fantasy motif, I knew there was a pair of uncovered breasts, and I knew the game had awesome cover art. In those days, three impressive elements like that were enough to make me long for the game. It was only just recently, however, that I had the chance to add this title to my collection. After so long a wait, I had to wonder if Wanderers From Ys III would impress the socks off me, or if I would find it to be a good title made less thrilling by the hype my mind had built around it. And after plugging the cartridge into my flickering Super Nintendo, I found to my dismay that the latter was true. While Wanderers From Ys III is certainly a good title, it just doesn't have quite enough of the magic in all the right places to make it a true classic. And though you'll have to pay more for this particular cartridge than you would for most others on the system, that's not so much a sign that the game is high-quality as it is a testament to fan loyalty to the Ys franchise and the fact that American Sammy was only willing to take a small risk and produce a few copies of this title for what at the time was an untested system. It's not all that hard to determine the source of their concern.
When you first play, you have the option of starting a new game or continuing. The battery pack included within the cartridge is a necessity, of course (though only just barely, a subject I'll discuss momentarily). If you've not played before, you'll of course want to choose the 'New Game' option, at which point you'll find yourself treated to what at the time must have been very impressive cinema. Two wanderers named Adol and Dogi are exploring some remote region of the world when they stumble across a fortune teller's stand. Adol isn't interested, but Dogi goes for a fortune reading. All goes well until the fortune teller realizes with horror that his hometown is Redmont, and that a horrific evil known as Galbalan is somehow involved in his future. This causes Adol and Dogi to decide they should head for Redmont, just for the hell of it. And so they do, and so the adventure begins.
If that sounds like a rather lame intro, don't be fooled. First of all, you have the visuals. They're actually quite good. Though Adol does look around a bit too much while the screen pans to show them walking from right to left, the Super Nintendo really wasn't capable of a whole lot more. Characters have a vague anime touch to them that looks much nicer than it might have in the hands of lesser developers. As for the story itself, I was far from impressed at this point. However, things quickly develop a little depth as you advance further into the quest. While the story never reaches proportions of Final Fantasy, it's better than something from even the most recent of Zelda or Castlevania titles. You'll witness betrayal, friendship, heroism, romance and stupidity, all rolled into seven or eight hours and handed out in generous chunks.
Wait a minute. Did I just say seven or eight hours? Indeed I did. One of this game's biggest flaws is its length. For a role-playing game, even of this particular variety, seven or eight hours doesn't seem like a whole lot. And it's really not. Those seven or eight hours may keep you quite entertained, but when they end they end and there's not much reason to play through again. Item collectors will be disappointed to find that the prescribed time also covers the unearthing of every single item in the game. It even allows you time to level your character up to the maximum level permitted. Trust me when I say this: eight hours is a likely maximum, ten hours if you suck. Period. That's it, end of story.
So, it all comes down to whether or not those eight hours are worth your time. And they are, fortunately. That's because despite its simplicity (or perhaps because of it), Wanderers From Ys III can often be a joy to play. Every time you complete a dungeon, you can count on an interesting plot twist, some new items, and a sense of accomplishment that should be at odds with your realization that the dungeon you just conquered wouldn't have puzzled a two-year-old, but somehow isn't.
When I refer to dungeons, what I really mean is levels. To give you an idea of the structure for this game, imagine a single town something like the second town in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for the NES (a game I'd swear this title borrows a lot from), a single-screen world map with good visuals but an astounding lack of locations, and around eight levels. See, each area on the map is a set of one or two levels. You find a new area, you beat the levels, and then you don't come back unless the story requires it (which it does only once or so) or you want some experience and gold. I've just described the entirety of the game's structure.
So, suppose you're working on that new game file I mentioned earlier. You stock up on items in town, then you head out to your first dungeon, full of high hopes for the game and with stars sparkling in your eyes. You enter that magical first area. Your hero appears on the screen, walking like Mario or Link or whatever hero you might have played as in some other action game. Cautiously, you edge past shrubbery and find yourself standing at the entrance to a cave. You enter and find that you're facing a slew of monsters. No problem, you tell yourself. You hop down to their level and they soundly kick your ass.
Fortunately, you saved at the entrance (the game lets you save anywhere but in a boss chamber where an undefeated villain lurks) and you are quickly back on the task. This time you play more cautiously, beat a few monsters, and suddenly your level goes up. Just like that, your maximum HP increases, and your hits do a little more damage. You're no fool, so you rush back to the exit with plans to head back to town, only to find that there's no need. The minute you leave the cave, your life meter magically refills. Smirking, you save the game (one can never be too careful) and head back into the cave convinced that you'll go much further. And you do. You go around six enemies further, in fact, and then quite suddenly you're staring again at the 'Game Over' screen. So you continue from that last save, and then you build your levels some more. Just to be sure, you go up two more levels, then tackle the cave again. Much better. You make it most of the way through, get some items, go back to the exit and save (it's only a quick little jaunt to do so), then head back in even deeper. Somewhere along the way, you raise another level and you find a boss. Then there's a battle, you win, your life is refilled, you save, and the journey continues.
If all of this sounds a little redundant, that's because it is. Wanderers from Ys III is nothing if not redundant. Progressing far into the game at all often requires camping out in a suitable location near some cave exit and battling opponents until you go up a few levels. By the time you're maybe halfway or two thirds of the way through the game, you may well have maxed out your life meter. Then if opponents are still kicking your butt, it's time to actually slow down for a minute and learn about the ring system.
See, this game doesn't employ traditional spells like a typical Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior. Special abilities are linked to magical rings you can obtain or find in treasure chests (generally someone gives you the ring, though). The Power Ring increases your hit strength, the Time Ring slows your enemies, the Shield Ring takes the brunt of your opponent's attack, and I've just described 60% of the rings the game has. Though it's nice to have these rings in your possession, of course, they do no good unless equipped. You can only equip one ring at a time, and the minute you put it on you can count on it sucking down your ring meter. If the ring meter empties, you can't use any rings again until it refills. In the early levels, this isn't a problem. In the final stages, you'll be watching your meter religiously, switching from ring to ring (or to no ring at all), growling when you have to wait a few extra seconds while your ring drains. After all, a few seconds in the middle of the stage are a few seconds less of time to use your ring against that boss you know could be waiting for you in the very next chamber. The ring system can sometimes be frustrating, but that's actually for the better; a little bit of strategizing never hurt anyone. It's nice the game forces you to prioritize ring use.
On a more negative note, the rings also allow you to be quite cheap against all but the last few bosses. While it's true that your opponents often have some pretty cool patterns that conceivably could force you to memorize them and then attack accordingly, the rings ensure that the best strategy almost always is to walk in with the Shield Ring equipped and just hack away at whatever harpy, wildcat, or dragon might stand in your path. When this strategy fails to work on the last few opponents, you might find yourself quite bewildered.
Which is another problem. This game suffers a lot from uneven difficulty. I already mentioned that the enemies in the first dungeon can easily defeat you, to the point where the first half-hour of play can be quite frustrating. But suddenly, when you've leveled up and discovered the joys of rings, things are too easy. The levels are laughably short, and you can just romp through with the appropriate ring guarding you, no questions asked. Then when stages get a little longer (though only the last two areas have truly gargantuan layouts) you are without your full use of the ring again and suddenly the game is challenging all over again. A little more attention to balance on the part of the developers definitely would have been appreciated.
But I suppose they were occupied elsewhere. The game has some pretty nice audio, and I'm sure that didn't happen overnight. The quality of compositions here really is impressive. You can definitely tell this is an SNES game, not an NES one. There are multiple instruments, loops, and everything is happening simultaneously. Tunes are crisp and clear, created with instruments that set the tone for the game well no matter if you're in a town, a castle, or a mine shaft. No one tune is used too much, and you'll likely find yourself wishing more developers of the time would have taken notes with Wanderers From Ys III serving as the source material. Even the sound of a sword striking against a monster's body feels a cut above average.
Something that certainly is not a cut above average, however, is this game's visuals. Aside from the splendid but infrequent cutscenes I described near the opening of this review, most of what you'll be looking at fails to impress. The characters are too small to have a good level of detail to them. Mostly you're fighting slimes and statues. The former are too miniscule, the latter too...statuesque. The monsters that fall in the middle are animated from only a few frames that run the rather narrow gamut from 'acceptable' to 'somewhat nice.' Even bosses look rather standard. The harpy I mentioned earlier looks nice enough, but again the detail just isn't there. As is the case with so many aspects of this title, it only gets impressive in the last two hours or so of play, when the adventure is about to draw to a close. Still, in the game's defense, it must be noted that this was pretty close to a launch title for the Super Nintendo, and the simplistic visuals do get the job done. They just don't get it done as stylistically as the competition at the time, which was pretty much limited to ActRaiser.
However, those times have passed. We now have a wide variety of games to choose from. There have certainly been some astounding platformers and action RPGs produced since. Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are two examples of games similar in design to this, but imbued with a lot more of the 'right stuff.' If you've played through those already, though, and you happen to find Wanderers From Ys III available in some bin for a decent price, a purchase is a no-brainer. Even if you don't like it, chances are you'll find someone else who has been itching to add it to his collection. And if you do like it, well, you've got a nice little title and a showpiece. Either way, you're a winner.
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 29, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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