Ys Strategy (DS) review
"This becomes most apparent in the campaign mode battles, which seem to be aimed at an advanced tutorial rather than the driving force behind Ys Strategy. Youíll constantly switch forces throughout the game, playing as Abelís allies (and, sometimes, foes) giving you a quick glimpse at the sparse changes of powers promised by each team. Which, basically, amounts to there being very little change in your tactics throughout the campaign."
Marvellous Interactive are an odd bunch. Seemingly obsessed with achieving strategic dominance over the handheld market, theyíve been throwing out a wide range of titles that could be realistically labelled as hit or miss. Luminous Arc, a laid-back TBS on the DS -- hit! Valhalla Knights a quest-driven RPG for the PSP -- miss! I could go back and forth between their titles as such, but Iíve only reviewed the aforementioned two, so doing so wonít pimp my work any.
Ys Strategy, probably the DSí first RTS, was released well before the aforementioned two and is based upon a pre-existing license with a small but rabidly loyal fanbase. If youíve not heard of Ys, then itís the tale of Abel ďDonít Call Me AdolĒ Renford, a red-headed youth thatís forever tasked with saving the world from the grasp of hideous, but interchangeable, evil. Traditionally action-adventure everywhere else but here, these games are as well received as they are travelled, falling upon platforms as old as the Master System and Turbo Graphix to high-performance PC remakes and shiny new PS2 ventures. Marvellous can hardly be blamed for trying to capitalise on the seriesí following, but we can complain about how they went about it. And by Ďweí I mean ĎIí.
Abel returns, but has fallen foul of the oldest of RPG clichťs and has dreaded amnesia, which is a handy way of ensuring that Strategy has no need to reference the sizeable backplot each new sequel adds to the timeline. Problems arise when the kingdom thatís randomly taken him in turns out to be the ancestors of a forgotten race of sages that just happen to be the only people capable of handling magical gems that long ago sealed a great evil. These gems are scattered all over the Ys world and have been happily separated for as long as everyone can remember, which makes it the perfect time for an overly-ambitious empire to decide that world domination is only a series of asinine fetch quests away. So it is that the Romun Empireís top four generals are sent out into the world to cause havoc and steal holy jewellery, as leaders of huge armed forces are wont to do.
They attack Esteria, where Princess Reonea has been hanging around with a polite red-haired guy as of late. What are the odds?
Ys has never really been a title noted for epic, twisting storylines, but Strategy makes a half-hearted attempt to change this. Unfortunately, anything interesting it tries to do with the plot gets drown in an over-abundance of characters that all vie so jealously for screen-time that the majority of the game is spent in static cut-scenes that jump from person to person so much that you never get time to familiarise yourself with anyone. Every battle you take part in is bracketed with these lengthy segments: the first few detail Esteriaís siege and resistance, before scrolling through the residency of Griaís husband and wife rulers; Xandriaís Egyptian-themed monarchy; Oriettaís corrupted rule; Afrocaís nomadic tribesman, and any of the other four factions Iím not going to include so to avoid being too listy.
Being listy is a big reviewing no-no. Note that down.
You can understand why the game struggles with cast overload if you take a step back for a second. Strategy needs a decent list of factions included within so it can showcase a different set of tactics and outlooks for each army should you decide to multiplayer it up or step away from the story-driven campaign mode and just wage random war. Each nation has the promised ability to go about things differently with a set of up to four special skills you need to invest in to be able to use. More aggressive states can throw lightning bolts and summon black holes to devastate enemy regiments or crumble fortifications, while others can employ anything from levying a temporary tax increase, boost their gathering of resources like wood and food or teleporting a platoon of monstrous wolves to any given spot on the map.
But, really, thatís the only difference that isnít cosmetic. Itís noteworthy that each differing party has buildings that suit the cultural background of their country and I appreciate that differing states spit out different looking special units, such as the monsters you can raise from temples being anything from armoured ogres, woolly mammoths or club-wielding beastmen, but, looks aside, a giant cobra has nothing to differentiate itself from the next armyís giant wolf. The workers collect resources at the same speed, the rock-scissors-paper mechanism used to determine who wins skirmishes between archers, footmen and spearmen remain concrete regardless; thereís only the four special skills that set the states apart Ė and, even then, the forth and most powerful choice is universal to all.
This becomes most apparent in the campaign mode battles, which seem to be aimed at an advanced tutorial rather than the driving force behind Ys Strategy. Youíll constantly switch forces throughout the game, playing as Abelís allies (and, sometimes, foes) giving you a quick glimpse at the sparse changes of powers promised by each team. Which, basically, amounts to there being very little change in your tactics throughout the campaign.
Whereas you can win any war with the tried-and-tested approach of building a huge mob and stampeding over the enemy, I won every fight without any pressing need to build a single offensive unit. As all the nations had exactly the same ability to gather resources, I stocked them out and built an Emelas Tower. These huge golden buildings need a lot of resources and time to build, but, once constructed, can grant you the win without spilling a single drop of blood. Once the tower is erected fully, the opposition has only a certain amount of time to destroy it before victory belongs to you. With this in mind, I set about ignoring my military ranks and flooding my youthful townscapes with uncountable hordes of workers to wile away at needed materials and to build unbreakable defences like pit-traps, huge walls and towers housing cannons to blast anything that dared stroll near. But, even without these things, once the tower is up, victory is all but assured thanks to its mammoth HP. A huge enemy force would need to start smacking it about the second itís built to be able to turn it to rubble before the ten minute limit is up and their game is over.
The campaign makes this even easier on you. Throughout the first chapter, the enemy will rarely set forth to test your defences, leading me to decide to slaughter them in a manly fashion for a subtle change of pace. Lead by flying horses spitting out magical bolts and a stampede of woolly mammoths, the usual collection of archers and swordsman trudged into an enemy camp and lay waste everything there. They put all the defending garrisons to sword without trouble; the biggest obstacle came in the form of pesky workers who have two ways of dealing with hostile intentions:
Worker under fire reaction one: Ignore them. We all know that huge eagles the size of a house and magical water maidens get bored and wander off if you pretend theyíre not there. Keep chopping down trees and those arcane blasts of mana will, more often than not, miss you as you nonchalantly wander around aimlessly. Head back to base camp to deposit your workís labour and the enemy will follow you even if it strolls them into the heart of your heavily defended home-base, like idiots, proving over and over that they canít hit a moving target.
Worker under fire reaction two: Run for your cowardly lives! Yeah, sure, youíre armed with axes and knifes and you outnumber the enemy 4-1, but running is good cardiovascular exercise. No need to even run away from danger; just pick a random direction and run, even if itís right into the amassed enemy forces. If you somehow run in a safe direction, go a reasonable distance then just stand, unmoving, on the same spot. Spearmen are like dinosaurs: if you donít move, they canít see you.
The second reaction makes offensive victories time-consuming bug-hunts as you squint at the tiny map hoping to find where the yellow swine have scampered off to, which makes the easier-to-achieve defensive stance the premier choice. Taking this route does make the rest of the game extremely formulaic and, as long as you keep up on your defences, completely without challenge.
Vying to ensure the game remains easy is the unit pathfinding. If you click a location for a worker or platoon of fighters to traipse up to, thereís always the chance theyíll get stuck staring at an impeding bit of landscape. This is fixable for a human player, but the computer AI simply has no answer for this. When battling a horde of angry Vikings in the second chapter, the Norse marauders build up a large invading force, but found a large body of water standing between their HQ and my Emelas Tower. They spent the ten-minute countdown they needed to beat paddling in the shallow fringe of the lake, completely unable to grasp the delicate procedure of taking three steps to their left.
Nothing ever really comes together from then on. Chapter one is a cakewalk and an undisguised tutorial; the second chapter actually throws some forces at you, but nothing a half-arsed defence canít effortlessly deal with and the final chapter makes no sense whatsoever. It doesnít help that the end-of-game fight happens at the end of the second chapter, and itís little more than a cinematic presented as battle against the big dark force thatís impossible to lose. Even when the game tries to mix things up, like when youíre tasked in finding the five gems scattered across a map, the only opposition you have to face all level are three water-witches which Abel can take care of by himself without much effort.
Which makes things a little bit odd. As soon as I heard that the DS had its own real-time strategy, I expected to complain about the size of the graphics and the difficulty on using the touch-pad to lasso units together. And I could if I was feeling anal, but these things worked better than I would have initially expected. Sometimes itís too easy to lose sight of a unit (especially fleeing workers), and itís just as easy to select more people than you want when trying to move troops en masse, but itís other aspects that weigh Strategy down the most. Why do I need two twenty-minute cut-scenes to tell me that Ispaniís Ricardo is a nice guy who owns a boat and has a girl lust over him that heís completely oblivious to? Why do I need further scenes later where he and a raiding party from the Viking lands decide itís worth waging bloody war over a flower? Itís the nonsensical plot and exploitable victories that hurt the game the most.
Hereís a poignant example to round things off: the third stage of Chapter one is a tutorial on how to use a harbour and manufacture boats. Youíre told the difference between the four types of ships you need to use and have to destroy an enemy warship in doing so. Then you never have the opportunity to use a single ship ever again. Ys Strategy drowns in content it tries hard to shoehorn only to then forget about in its haste to highlight then next unimportant inclusion.
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