Review: It's like Cast Away, only with people around and no volleyball to talk to.
Last year on PlayStation 2, the legendary Japanese PC franchise Ys made its first appearance in the US since the 16-bit days, with Ark of Napishtim. The game quietly came and went on PS2, lost in the shuffle of a surprisingly busy February of 2005, and wound up shipping the same day as Gran Turismo 4 to boot. A year later, the game has reappeared on the PSP, a platform dying for more RPG content, seeing the best PSP RPG (Tales of Eternia) isn't coming here anytime soon unless you import. Fundamentally Ys on PSP is the same as PS2 with some minor changes, making it unnecessary if you've played it before, unless you really want a portable RPG, one that is slightly superior to both Legend of Heroes and Kingdom of Paradise ? two decidedly mediocre RPGs. But still, don't expect an epic on the scale of Final Fantasy or even Xenosaga ? it's a competent action RPG, but nothing more or less.
Like every game in the Ys franchise, Ark of Napishtim tells the tale of the apparent mute Adol Christin (since he never speaks) and his adventures. While out on a ship, he's sucked into what's known as the Great Vortex (perhaps the Bermuda Triangle), and ends up washing ashore on the Caanan Islands, home of the Rheda tribe who aren't exactly high on humans, due to their aggressive tactics and general disregard for their sacred land after they too get sucked into the Vortex. Though initially treated coldly by the local villagers, Adol becomes respected for an act of heroism that ultimately begins his journey of exploring his new world, whether its to rescue it from the clutches of other humans or merely to figure out how the hell to get off the island and back home.
The plot has almost always been secondary to Ys though, and this version is no different. Adding to the old-school factor is that Ark is a game without any party members to assist Adol, as he adventures alone with merely his trusty sword and some important items and accessories. Ys is also not a traditional turn-based RPG, as it follows the trends of the PC-style RPG by being a hack & slash oriented game. This is not really a surprise itself seeing that the franchise has always been a PC series first, built for that audience rather than the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest crowd. But the action RPG orientation is sound and it really gets the genre down to brass tacks ? that being wandering around killing stuff and discovering the secrets of your environments.
Its that environment that leads to one of Ark's major flaws ? the game world is small. It seems very large because there's so many distinct areas and the game is split into screens not unlike, say, the original Legend of Zelda (a blatantly obvious inspiration to this day), but after a while you figure out that there's not a whole lot of meat to this world. It's not that the game is really short either; there's a lot of backtracking and a constant stream of battles which pad the length of the game a bit. And here's the killer ? the loading times are absolutely atrocious, and you see them so often that most people won't have the patience to deal with them. In addition, the game is a lot more challenging than you'd expect, as the enemies are very aggressive right at the outset and without proper strategy and keeping an eye on health, you might die a lot until you figure out the proper way to handle enemies. Which can be tough when there's 5 of them ganging up on you.
Thankfully Adol can upgrade his equipment and items by buying armor and upgrading his swords by acquring emel stones off defeated enemies that can be refined for creating stronger weapons with various elemental quirks. Clearly developer Falcom didn't want you fooling around too much with equipment since there's not a whole lot otherwise, making you adventure rather than customize all day. Naturally Adol can level up through extensive battling ? though it's possible to sneak by the tough boss battles and basic encounters without a whole lot of it, power leveling is one way to defeat the tough difficulty.
One of the few changes from PS2 to PSP is in the visuals. Gone are the anime-styled cutscenes, replaced by game-engine scenes that are still fine. The polygonal game characters have been replaced with the original sprites from the Japanese PC version, which should make the Ys purists happy since the sprites fit right into the mix of the game. The environments are pretty and on PSP, it finds a home in style. The other big change is the complete removal of the solid voice acting from the PS2 version; it's all text now, a major downer. I know PSP disc size is small, but when a game like GTA Liberty City Stories mixes the huge city, a large soundtrack, and lots of voice acting, it seems like a copout. All that's left is the decent music and the sounds of Adol getting his ass kicked...something you hear an awful lot.