Some games are just comfort food; for me, those are JRPGs.
“JRPG” actually used to be something of a real genre with real rules for awhile there, not because the Japanese developers of roleplaying games only made one kind of title per se but because of where the energy was — first among the hobbyists and then commercially — for the titles that made the jump from Japan to America. That’s not to say everything that slipped through into the Western market was neatly siloed into one box or another; 1990’s ActRaiser for the SNES combined platforming, a very lightly-RPG flavored leveling system, and of all things, a city-building component that formed a significant section of gameplay. Overall though, and without spending thousands of words on the development of the Western market for Japanese video games, the JRPG genre in the nineties and the aughts was understood to have a few key components.
First, and by far the most important, is the iron law of numbers going up. Japanese game developers arguably realized this well before their mainstream Western counterparts, who took quite awhile to start stapling permanent progression onto every single title they put out; for most of the nineties you wouldn’t see RPG elements on big Western titles unless they were explicitly roleplaying games, aimed at the specific niche audience Ultima and Wizardry always had been and usually based off of some set of tabletop gaming rules. There are some complicated factors relating to how important arcades were to game development in the period, both as a platform for publishing titles but perhaps even more so as a general inspiration for tone and pace. For instance, the biggest first-person perspective titles in the early nineties were slow point-and-click dungeon-crawler types of games, which generally had adventure-game style progression (you find more items you need to give you more varied sorts of actions to perform in the game world), or they were Doom, which was about as far from a numbers-increasing progression game as it’s possible to program without pumping quarters into a cabinet. The dungeon-crawlers were beginning to fiddle around with RPG elements, and the System Shock games would be the inheritors of that fusion, but it was Doom that rode the zeitgeist.
On the other hand, the Final Fantasy games plunked along on the NES and SNES with their simple “gain levels, get better items, make your numbers bigger than their numbers” formula to excellent results; turn-based or not didn’t really matter — Chrono Trigger is an equally-beloved entry from that same company around the same time — and there wasn’t really a unifying aesthetic either, as the games started off blatantly ripping off Dungeons & Dragons and then got weirder and steampunkier with it as their own internal aesthetic iterated on itself over years of development. The series would have its coming out party with Final Fantasy 7, and we’ve already covered most of what happened with that in the review of the remake from last year. A dam was broken, localization of these titles suddenly became a priority through the lifespan of the Playstation and Playstation 2 all the way up through today, and players had access to not just two or three JRPG titles a year, but a whole catalogue of stuff from forgettable to underrated to downright bizarre.
Fast-forward to today, and Ys VIII: The Lacrimosa of Dana, which is pronounced “Donna.” It’s the latest entry in an incredibly long-running series that started in 1987, and whose first three titles were the only ones who made it over to the United States before publishers, given access to handheld devices like the PSP and then the Vita which could easily run emulated versions of these older games, began to bring the whole catalog over. The premise of the series was that you played as an adventurer named Adol who was questing around a thinly-veiled fantasy world version of the Mediterranean Sea, and who was constantly getting shipwrecked on islands, losing all his gear (and levels from the previous game), and having to, well, go on an adventure to get it all back and explore the fantastic new land.
The gameplay for Ys I and Ys II were almost embarrassingly simple; there was no attack button, and Adol did damage by simply walking into enemies. They had explicit progression mechanics and equipment improvements, however, and some of the grinding that comes with all of that stuff. The game would keep its character action roots as it grew over time; Ys III, which was remade as Ys: The Oath in Felghana, was a side scrolling action platformer, for instance, and by the time the series reaches our current title, Ys VIII, it’s a 3D field-based character action title; you run around an island that, rather than being an open world, is segmented into “fields” (or rooms, basically, but outdoors) that have set enemies and resource harvesting points in them that respawn when you leave the field and re-enter. You have an attack button, a jump button, a dodge button, a block button, and then a button you can hold down to turn your four face buttons into special moves that cost an MP-like recharging resource. This is your bare bones combat.
It’s not particularly hard, either! There’s difficulty modes that will certainly make it so, if you’d like, but having played a little bit this gets more into the realm of tedium than enjoyable difficulty. No, the combat is fairly easy in Ys VIII outside of the boss fights and that’s how I like it. This is the core loop of the comfort food JRPG: combat enough to keep things stimulating without being too hard (unless you go looking for optional side-mode danger, which you can in Ys VIII’s night missions), while the rewards from that combat in both experience points and crafting materials feeding into a bunch of different progression systems.
What are you progression in Ys VIII? Well, there’s your character level, of course. Then there’s the level of your weapons, at the blacksmith, and the level of your equipment, at the tailor’s, and the number of special healing potions you have, at the doctor’s, and the number of crops at your farm, at the…child genius farmer’s?…and the fish that you have to trade with the majestic, silent stork at the edge of camp for more crafting materials, and the number of shipwreck survivors you have in your camp so that you even have a blacksmith, tailor, doctor, child genius farmer, and so on. It never really makes the jump to being a basebuilding game or a shop management game the way ActRaiser or Recetear did respectively, as all of this is mediated mainly through watching cutscenes and seeing new world states just appear, rather than you deciding where to place the blacksmith or how much they should charge or what have you. The closest you come to something like that is in the wave-based horde defense mode (of course it has one) where you’re able to upgrade the defenses that are scattered about the map, but not place or reposition them. But it gives exceptional flavor to a game that might be otherwise stultified by relatively low-impact, high-volume character action combat theatrics.
The game has a cartoony anime style that games like these — which is to say, games made by Nihon Falcom, the developer of this and a number of other dearly-beloved JRPGs that are only now really starting to make their way over to the West for wide audiences — cultivate for both practical and aesthetic reasons; going with a less realistic style means lower demand for graphical fidelity while keeping a visual package that fits the game’s tone of somewhat-cartoony adventure, and it means more time to spend on stuff like fleshing out the fishing minigame. It’s not an impediment to jumping around genre conventions, either; despite the game’s look, there’s an extended story sequence involving one of the shipwrecked passengers being a serial killer; the section ends with three people dead (two at the hands of the killer; the killer at the hands of a fantasy dinosaur). Still, the game manages mostly to keep it light; the dramatic high point of the game’s take on Jack the Ripper is cut with an extremely goofy meditation on the Hegelian dialectic of good and evil. Again, if we were actually confronting weighty themes or consequences in the game, it wouldn’t be comfort food.
The last game I got these vibes from was The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, but that’s also a three-game long epic that comes out to something like 100 hours of play if you do everything in it. Still easily one of the best JRPG play experiences I’ve ever had, but a bit much for casually playing through. Before that, it was Skies of Arcadia, the Dreamcast and then Gamecube cult classic about air pirates and fallen civilizations — it had a lot of the same formulaic elements, down to the rudimentary basebuilding (here you were collecting crewmen for your airship, not getting shipwrecked survivors together to build a castaway camp). I’d be willing to wager most people who play JRPGs have a couple of games like this in mind which aren’t necessarily these two, but which sort of fit the general formula; lots of horizontal rather than vertical design, formulaic, trope-based character writing with a lot of heart, and a battle system that you don’t want to push too hard into high-level tactical play because it might collapse on itself. It’ll give you 40 to 50 hours of content with only a few embarrassing stock anime moments (this one gets the comedy bit of Adol accidentally seeing the female lead naked out of the way in like, minute 22), and then it’ll get out of your hair. Not every game needs to try to be a Game That Says Something; most of those games fail utterly at it, anyway. Ys VIII is just here for you to cozy up to and spend some time with, and that’s all it needs to be.
Ys VIII: The Lacrimosa of Dana retails for $40 on Steam, with sales that routinely take it down to the $25 range (which is where I got it during the Winter Sale). I think it’s worth it at the $40 price point, especially if this is a genre of games you’re into, but wishlisting it and waiting a month or two will probably get it to you at that reduced cost, and it’s not going anywhere.
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