Release date: July 6, 2021
Publisher: NIS America
While the Ys series has had a small but fiercely dedicated following for many years, Ys VIII was something of a turning point. With a shift to a more open world structure and a greater focus on story, as well as porting efforts that saw the game come to numerous platforms including Switch, the game was a success both in terms of sales and increased mindshare for the series. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is finally here to follow up on its predecessor’s breakout performance, and outside of some technical hiccups, it does so admirably.
Ys IX once again follows series mainstay Adol Christin and his partner in crime Dogi as they arrive in the mysterious city of Balduq. With Balduq’s claim to fame being home the most prominent prison in the Romun Empire and Adol’s penchant for finding himself in trouble no matter where he goes, it should come as no surprise that the story opens with a prison break after Adol is swiftly arrested before he can even step foot inside the city gates. Not far into his run for freedom, Adol comes across the enigmatic Aprilis, who afflicts Adol with a curse after delivering a cryptic message. Adol finds himself with newfound powers, and a cool new outfit, as a result of the curse but is also confined to Balduq because of it and has little choice but to join Aprilis’ cause alongside the other Monstrums (who came under her banner under similar circumstances). Thus begins Adol’s journey to unravel the mysteries of Balduq, Aprilis, and the curse.
As one might expect, exploring a prison city as a fugitive isn’t easy; doubly so when there’s a curse limiting your mobility on top of it. Leaving the city is a non-starter due to a mysterious barrier, and similar barriers block off sections of the city itself as well. Bringing down the barriers in Adol’s way comes down to dispersing the Grimwald Nox, the manifestation of negative human emotions that brings forth monsters known as Lemures.
The Grimwald Nox sections serve as raid battles similar to the ones found in Ys VIII: the Monstrums must defend a large relic known as a Sphene from waves of Lemures. Additional relics can be built to support defense of the Sphene as the story progresses, and supporting characters who join Adol’s cause will assist the Monstrums with support skills. Upgrading the Sphene and relics, as well as securing the aid of new allies, is vital, as the intensity of Grimwald Nox sieges will increase over the course of the game. Clearing sieges alone is enough to open new parts of Balduq and progress the story, but doing so efficiently pays off as well, as a scoring system influences the rewards doled out at the end of a successful defense.
Once a Grimwald Nox siege is overcome, a new part of the map will open up, allowing the Monstrums to explore more of the world. Ys IX eschews an open world primarily for a densely packed city rife with treasure chests, collectibles, and landmarks, all of which lead to rewards in their own way. Enemy encounters in the overworld involve small pockets of the Grimwald Nox with a handful of enemies, rather than the onslaught found in the sieges and in dungeons, but can be skipped entirely. While at first glance it can seem like the scope of the explorable area is reduced coming from Ys VIII, a greater emphasis on vertical exploration helps bridge the gap and the constant reward loop keeps exploration in Ys IX just as satisfying. In addition to treasure chests and collectibles, overall exploration is a key benchmark for completion as well, and a supporting character named Parks will periodically bestow Adol with a reward for mapping out Balduq accordingly.
Parks can primarily be found at Dandelion, which appears to be a bar on the surface but in reality serves as the covert base of operations for Adol and the Monstrums. To name a few of the useful features, other than Parks’s completion rewards, Dandelion houses a bulletin board outlining available side quests, allows players to reattempt Grimwald Nox sections, and grants access to a smithy for crafting accessories and upgrading weapons. Dandelion also becomes a one-stop shop early in the game thanks to a supporting character named Silhouette, who can fetch items from any shop that Adol has visited at least once (with a few exceptions). Beyond the functional benefits, recruiting new allies also makes Dandelion feel more lively and gives the group a nice sense of camaraderie. Many characters will join Dandelion through progression of the main story; however, there are others who are recruited through the game’s side quests.
Most side quests are listed on the aforementioned bulletin board and have their location marked with a green icon on the map. It’s important to note that not all side quests show up on the bulletin board, however, as some will simply be marked with a green icon on the map and “???” in place of a quest name. These quests, as well as some others on the bulletin board, are missable, so it’s imperative to check the map regularly. Although it’s worthwhile to do a lot of the side quests for the rewards and additional story details, the structure of the missions is a little disappointing. They largely come down to fetch quests or warping around the map to talk to certain people, but thankfully, the snappy load times for fast travel make them less inconvenient than they could have been.
While supporting characters are usually the focus of side quests, the Monstrums are given the spotlight in the main story, particularly in the first half of the game. It’s clear Falcom made a deliberate effort to put greater focus on this cast of characters, devoting an entire chapter to the backstory of each Monstrum, to mixed results. The main cast falls into tried and true JRPG paradigms, so there’s nothing groundbreaking here but the characters are still likable, and I enjoyed my time with them.
Following the heavy character development in the early chapters, the central plot starts to pick up steam in the back half of the game. Much like it is for the Monstrums, genre veterans likely won’t be blown away by the story beats but there is some intrigue and fun to be had with the twists in Ys IX. There are references to earlier Ys games scattered throughout the story, which is a nice treat for longtime fans but not so significant that they make the story hard to follow for newcomers.
Early and late chapters alike follow a similar structure: the party debriefs at Dandelion and settles on a new course of action, the main party explores Balduq and undertakes side quests, and, eventually, the Grimwald Nox manifests in front of a new part of the map. Overcoming the Grimwald Nox opens up a new area and with it, the main dungeon for each chapter.
Outside of exploring Balduq and the surrounding area, dungeons make up the bulk of Ys IX. These are filled with treasure and have their own map whose completion contributes to the overall exploration. The biggest difference is that while enemy encounters can be avoided entirely, and even forgotten after a certain point, in Balduq, dungeons are teeming with monsters and combat is mandatory. It’s best to show up prepared with upgraded gear, weapons, and a healthy stock of healing items; you’ll be needing them. Dungeons are also where the Monstrums’ Gifts, new exploration mechanics which allow all manner of movement such as warping, flying, and running up walls, are most prominently used.
Similar to items in the Zelda series, platforming and puzzle-solving in each chapter’s dungeon leans heavily on the Gift introduced therein, culminating in late game dungeons which require them to be used in unison. Dungeon crawling has always been one of the most satisfying aspects of Ys games, and the Monstrum Gifts add a nice new layer to the formula. The overall structure of dungeons is still similar to previous Ys games, however, with a challenging boss in the middle and a real nasty boss at the end. Normal encounters serve as the warm up to these boss battles, which are the biggest test of a player’s grasp on the battle system.
Those who have played a recent Ys game will be able to slide right into the battle system, and newcomers won’t take long to catch up either. It’s relatively straightforward, with a focus on hitting enemies with the right damage type: slash, strike, or pierce. Locking onto an enemy will reveal the damage type they’re weak to, and hitting them with the appropriate type will make dispatching them easier. Each party member has an inherent damage type but conveniently, accessories in the game can be equipped to change a given character’s damage type. Grasping the concept of damage types is important for a good offense in Ys IX, but understanding enemy attack patterns and defensive options is even more imperative.
The main defensive tools in Ys IX are Flash Move, which involves dodging right before an enemy attack hits, and Flash Guard, triggered by blocking right before an enemy attack lands. Which of these to use will come down to playstyle and situation, but in either case, they’re vital to the combat. Knowing when to move in with defensive moves and, in conjunction, hitting enemies with the right damage type is really what it comes down to, and that easy to learn but hard to master design is a large part of what allows the battle system to be deep yet accessible at the same time. It also translates easily to a number of different difficulty settings, so people looking for a hardcore challenge and those wanting a more casual experience (and everyone in between) can have fun. The only potential hiccup players might run into are image quality and performance issues.
Image quality on the Switch version of Ys IX is rough. Between some combination of the resolution and the quality of the textures, the game looks very soft in docked mode. There’s noticeable pop-in, both in the overworld and in unexpected places like small rooms. Unfortunately, the image quality has some impact on gameplay as well. Similar to the Dana sections in Ys VIII, there are portions of Ys IX played from the point of view of a character separate from the main party. These sections often take place in predominantly gray and brown dungeon environments and enemies with a similar color palette can be hard to discern in such settings.
Drops in frame rate are frequent as well, both during combat and when exploring Balduq, although thankfully, they rarely felt bad enough to sabotage me in battle outside of a few instances in the Grimwold Nox and during boss battles where the number of attacks and effects on screen made the action slow to a crawl. Image quality is a little better during handheld play, perhaps simply owing to the smaller screen, but the frame rate issues remain. Ultimately, it’s more of an inconvenience than something that renders the game unplayable, but the level of frustration could rise on the highest difficulties where a greater deal of precision is necessary.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is a solid entry to Falcom’s long-running action RPG series. Those who are familiar with previous games will find themselves right at home with the combat, while those who are jumping in for the first time will find an accessible and fun battle system with plenty of options to tailor the difficulty to their liking. Returning veterans and newcomers alike be warned, however: image quality is a compromise and performance ranges from passable to hardcore slowdown. It’s the only big drawback but it’s a big one, as it pervades the entire experience. Those who can look past those issues, however, can also expect to find satisfying dungeon crawling, cool new exploration mechanics, a likable cast of characters, and another great Falcom soundtrack tying the experience together. Although I wish this version of the game got a little more love and attention, there’s still a lot of fun to be had with Ys IX on Switch.
Copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.