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Ys: The Ark of Napishtim (PlayStation 2) artwork

Ys: The Ark of Napishtim (PlayStation 2) review

"Now here's something you don't see every day. With so many developers trying desperately to craft the next new thing, there has been a heinous drought in the world of nostalgia. I surely am not protesting the integration of new ideas, but it is sometimes refreshing and maybe even a little therapeutic to be treated to a modern game that is heavily influenced by the past. Few developers even attempt such a thing anymore, and the ones that do come up short all too often. Fortunately for us old ..."

Now here's something you don't see every day. With so many developers trying desperately to craft the next new thing, there has been a heinous drought in the world of nostalgia. I surely am not protesting the integration of new ideas, but it is sometimes refreshing and maybe even a little therapeutic to be treated to a modern game that is heavily influenced by the past. Few developers even attempt such a thing anymore, and the ones that do come up short all too often. Fortunately for us old farts that have been around since the dawn of gaming as we know it, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim performs brilliantly as a window to the past.

I will spare you the lecture about how to pronounce Ys. Call it Ease or Yeese or Wise or Balls, for all I care. My only prior experience with this series was back on SNES via Wanderers from Balls III, and I was not all too impressed. I am not a fan of the Ys legacy in general, nor am I personally familiar with all of the facts, so I won't spend any more time yacking about the history nor the politics of the series.

The silent protagonist in Ark is Adol "The Red" Christin, a fiery haired lad that has the misfortune of falling into the Great Vortex, a mysterious anomaly in the ocean that has claimed many seafarers over the years. Consider it the Bermuda Triangle on crack. Adol washes ashore in an unknown region and is nursed back to health by some of the natives, a tailed species called Rhedans. Most Rhedans don't care for outsiders much, but Adol soon wins over the trust of their chief. Up until much later in the game, most of the story is pretty trivial, but even the most unimportant of events are generally enjoyable due to suitable writing and voice-overs. When the plot tries to kick into high gear towards the final portions of the game, it becomes fairly obvious that the story seems like an afterthought based on the idea of creating worthwhile nostalgic gameplay. Overall, the storyline is not as bad, but perhaps underwhelming.

As you venture out of the Rhedan village and into the surrounding forests, things should start feeling just right. The action is a pretty methodical matter of action/RPG hack-'n'-slashing, but there is just something special about mauling your way through the hordes of goons that occupy this gorgeous landscape. Frequent data saves are just about mandatory, as it is not uncommon to wander into an area with enemies that Adol cannot even scratch and his current level. Normally once you have become stronger than the foes of any given area, the amount of experience rewarded for killing them is quite meager and makes level building a fairly hopeless task. However, moving on to the next area could prove fatal, as the enemies ahead are usually way tougher than you. There are times when actual player skill level and reflexes don't matter at all compared to statistics, so this system tends to create a meticulous paradox that can only be dismantled through thorough fortitude.

Eventually you'll be able to choose from three elemental swords (wind, fire and lightning) on the fly, and upon the proper upgrade, each will enable its own unique spell. Spells don't have a huge impact on the gameplay other than on some of the bosses, when distance attacks are the preferred (or only available) method. Armor and ability-enhancing relics are an understated but crucial part of success, and it is imperative to stay stocked up on the latest supplies. Any healing item may be used from the menu, but only one can be selected for quick use in the field. During boss battles, the menu cannot be opened, so access to healing becomes limited to the one item that has been chosen in advance. Boss battles are usually pretty fun, and there is a grand sense of accomplishment upon emerging victorious. However, while the steep experience curve can be mildly annoying during garden variety encounters, it can be absolutely hellish with some of the boss monsters. It is somewhat intimidating to chip away about 2 HP per hit from a beast that has several thousand hit points, but usually gaining only a level or two and/or upgrading your swords and armor can make an immense difference in the outcome.

At an early glance there seems to be limitless potential for exploration. Once you are able to depart from the Rhedan village, there are immediately multiple paths before you. However it soon becomes clear that even by the end of the game, there is not all that much ground to cover. The entire quest is set upon two rather small islands that are home to only two towns and a handful of dungeons. That said, Ark of Napishtim is not a very lengthy quest. If it wasn't for my massive amounts of compulsive level building, I probably would have clocked out at about 8 or less hours. There aren't many side-quests or secrets, although it is a somewhat formidable challenge to collect all of the relics. Since some of the harder-to-find equipment activates some pretty bombastic status bonuses, pursuing such items is a worthwhile diversion that slightly expands playtime.

My biggest caveat with the gameplay is jumping. It works just fine most of the time, when exact precision is not required. The problem comes into play on some of the trickier platform jumps. If the distance is too far to reach with Adol's normal frolicking prowess, you are required to attempt the "jump slash" in which you lunge forward like a drunken bull. It gets easier with practice, but there were admittedly a couple of times when the game had me totally questioning my skills.

Graphically, Ark of Napishtim is lovely. The nicely detailed polygonal characters smoothly compliment the boldly colored environments, and everything comes together rather gracefully. I would have liked more diversity in the location design, but the developers surely created a noteworthy means of visual expression. The overhead view is reminiscent of how action/RPGs used to perform before the interface was largely changed by the advent of 3D graphics, and I found it quite thrilling to find myself immersed in a universe where certain old lost concepts are combined with a new coat of polish.

The character designs are nothing special but are not truly detrimental to the experience. Adol hails from an era where being a rather plain swordsman was much more fashionable than it is today. These days he just looks like a generic clod, and there aren't really any other characters that bring anything new or interesting to the table. From the long-eared priestess jailbait to the extra profane mercernary-type with an attitude, and even the old rambly man that seems to be an endless source of strangely convenient knowledge, these stereotypes have been done many times before, and better. As nice as it could have been if this game had been filled with inspiring characters and a rip-roaring story, I do not feel as if these lukewarm factors really eliminate too much of the title's final appeal.

Every line of dialogue in the game is voice acted, right down to the most insignificant NPC conversations. Other than the occasional uber-botched accent and some fingernails-on-the-chalkboard voice work for a few of the female characters, the voice factor really manages to add a small but appreciated amount of personality to the formula. Part of the great atmosphere in the latest Ys would no doubt not exist without the often exceptional music. The soundtrack is not entirely consistent, but the standout compositions are remarkably memorable. There is one track in particular that has a tendency to drill itself into my head for days at a time.

Game completion triggers a boss challenge mode and a "nightmare" difficulty setting. Sparring with the bosses outside of the context of the game doesn't particularly appeal to me, but I will be sure to give the nightmare difficulty a shot next time I am feeling suicidal.

In conclusion, there is plenty to like about Ys: The Ark of Napishtim, and it's shortcomings are not so drastic that they are overly counterproductive to the experience as a whole.

Whew, I achieved my goal of getting through this whole review without using the phrase, "old school". Er, oops.

atra_vortex's avatar
Community review by atra_vortex (April 10, 2005)

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