An Oath Remade!
Following the release and success of Ys VI: Ark of Napishtim in 2003, a title that brought the Ys series back after a 9-year-long hiatus since the last mainline entry, Falcom was seemingly at an impasse about what to do next. Naturally, they would want to follow up on this title with another entry that iterated on the foundation of VI and had a title containing the numeral VII. But instead, inspired by their 1997 remake of Ys I & II, dubbed Ys Eternal, Falcom pursued yet another remake, this time of their 1989 title, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys.
Now, Ys III is commonly considered the black sheep of the first run of Ys games, as it was a side-scrolling action game in the same vein as Zelda II, and its general structure was different from everything that came before it. As such, Falcom decided to go for a reinvention rather than a modern recreation. Or at least that’s what I would say if not for the fact that, in 2005, two different remakes of Ys III were released. The reinvention by Falcom, The Oath in Felghana, and a direct remake by Taito, simply entitled Ys III: Wanderers from Ys.
Why did this happen? I honestly have no idea, but, for whatever reason, during the tail end of the PS2’s life cycle Falcom was committed to bringing the entire Ys series to the PS2, which saw releases of an updated version of Ys Eternal, a remake of Ys III, a remake of Ys IV, a remake of Ys V, and a Konami-developed port of Ys VI. There would be a certain logic to this— associating the series with the PS2 by releasing all of it on the system— but Falcom never attempted to bring The Oath in Felghana or its successor, Ys Origin, to the platform. So I don’t know what the hell they were planning.
All I do know for certain is that they made Ys: The Oath in Felghana, which established the series under the publisher XSEED, who shepherded the Ys namesake starting with this title’s PSP release and continued to do so, localizing the games with love and bringing as many as they could to PC. …Before the rights to the series were picked up by NIS America, who botched both the localization and PC port so badly that they had to re-localize the entire game and bring in Durante to fix their mess.
Tangent aside, let us continue this staggered look back into what I dub the ANOFO trilogy of the Ys series!
Ys: The Oath in Felghana Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed) and PC
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: XSEED Games/Marvelous USA
After saving the world two times over in the original duology, and another additional time in part 4, which was a prequel for some arbitrary reason, Oath in Felghana sees Adol traveling to the homeland of his steadfast and wall crushing companion, Dogi, in what is to be a pleasant and uneventful trip. But because Adol was chosen by the divine and cursed by the daemonic, trouble has a habit of following him wherever he goes. As such, it is hardly surprising to learn that the land of Felghana to be in dire trope-riddled fantasy-styled straits.
You have monsters roaming around like they own the place, a corrupt power-lusting king, an ancient dark one, a hero of legend, a rival character who succumbs to darkness, a hermit mentor, a pure and innocent maiden, a strong but mostly ineffectual friend character, and a staple of innocent hardworking villagers. It is all textbook stuff befitting the fact that this is a remake of a game that came out in 1989, and while I do normally roll my eyes at this sort of thing and pay it little mind, I actually greatly enjoyed the story of Oath in Felghana, and for three reasons.
The story is told with the earnestness and passion that exemplifies many of Falcom’s titles, with the plot being played completely straight but affixed with nebulous details and charismatic dialogue that make it clear that those writing and translating the game were putting their all into it. NPCS are limited to a relatively small number by Falcom standards and are all corralled in the town or Redmont, which doubles as the narrative and upgrade hub of the game, meaning that players are going to be sent back there regularly, indirectly urging them to talk to everybody once every time they visit. And because the game is paced well enough, players won’t ever need to make special inopportune trips to Redmont to progress character side stories and stay current with their lives. Which is more than I can say about Ys VI, where it was incredibly easy to lose track of the character-specific micro-plots.
Though, and this is kind of embarrassing, part of the reason why the story kept me as engaged as it did is due to the simple fact that Felghana has partial English voice acting. Every major story scene is voiced, minor characters have spoken dialogue sprinkled sporadically throughout the game, and even humanoid bosses have vocal grunts that make them and their attack patterns easier to follow. It is a feature that I missed out on when I first played the PC version back in 2013, but after an update in February 2020, the previously PSP exclusive voice acting was patched into the game.
As I said in the past, I consider voice acting, full or partial, to be a luxury feature that, if executed right, can do a lot to add to a game’s personality and charm. And this is absolutely the case with Oath in Felghana. It’s definitely a cast born from budgetary restrictions but consists of a series of anime veterans who, even if they only get to voice a character for a few lines, deliver a palpable passion and sense of emotion with every line, vicariously adding to the character in the process, and making them more endearing as a result.
It is an impressive improvement over whatever the 1989 original offered (which did have voice acting in the PC-Engine port), but as for the gameplay, just about everything aside from the general level themes, enemy designs, and world design were scrapped when it came time for Falcom to reimagine Ys III, and mechanically the game is pretty much just Ys VI, but better. Which is to say it is still an overhead action game predicted by simple kinetic combat against foes who can easily overwhelm the player due to the lack of i-frames and the up-close nature of the combat. Yet due to the mobility and speed available to the player, combat becomes mostly driven by careful maneuvering and going in for aggressive slashes.
As for how Felghana improves things, it does so in two major ways. Enemies drop not only scatterings of upgrade materials, gold, and healing items, but also buffs that boost Adol’s strength, defense, or MP regeneration speed and can be built higher and higher as he collects more enemy drops. All while a persistent combo counter is maintained, boosting the EXP Adol receives from each felled for up to a maximum of 1.99 times. While these seem like minor changes, they go a long way to improve the pace and tempo of the game, urging players to move fast yet carefully, trying to keep these combos going for their own benefit, and giving them a nice stat boost as they successfully hop from enemy cluster to cluster while exploring each environment.
It is a system that lights a fire under one’s butt and directly rewards them for moving fast and dealing damage faster, encouraging the player to spot the tells of enemies, take the initiative, and slaughter them up into bloody giblets and sparkling doodads while steadily amassing greater power and might. All of which is predicated by such a simple three-button combat system of attack, jump, and magic, with none of the special moves or dash jumping experimentation seen in Ys VI. It is fast, basic, and it feels damn good when you hop, hit, and huff from room to room.
This sense of speed is carried over with the game’s revised magic system. Instead of having multiple weapons with charging magical abilities that did not gel particularly well with the frantic gameplay, Adol now has a constantly regenerating magic meter and access to three offensive spells that double as ways to affect the environment. Fireballs can be used to attack distant enemies and burn things up. A rotating wind-based spin attack is ideal for crowd control and functions as a glide jump. While a charge ability allows Adol to deal big damage with a single hit and dash his way through projectiles while also breaking walls. Or at least small chunks of walls that have been pre-cracked. Presumably because breaking down meter thick sheets of stone was Dogi’s shtick before he became a playable character in Ys Seven.
I like all of these magical skills, but as I played the game I noticed that I basically was not ever using the fireball or charge spells unless required by the environment, as the developers accidentally made the wind spell the best move in the entire game. It is a glide jump, an AOE attack, and deals damage faster than a regular sword strike. Because of this, I stuck to the spell 90% of the time after I got it, and can’t really even defend that as just being my preference. Next to wind, the other spells just don’t compare. And the developers would, to an extent, realize this later on.
So, yes, aside from these two major changes, the core remains the same, but with slightly less platforming and more traversing from screen to screen to lay a beatdown on baddies as Adol accumulates EXP. Where the two main pace breakers are bouts of story/plot progression and boss battles that serve as the capstone, or mid-point, of the game’s various dungeons. After having dabbled in these designs last time, the developers were able to craft a series of better designed battles that remain even more invigorating than what came before, and also significantly more difficult.
Their patterns are aggressive, their damage is big, and they require a composed mixture of wise caution and brutal aggression to overcome, with players needing to learn when to jump, run, and weave your way through slashes and bullets before the bosses make their opening. It can be foreboding and intimidating, certainly, but after taking the time to learn the fights, moves, and feeling out the bosses, I was able to get through each of them after an average of about 4 tries each. And if that does not sound very appealing to you, consider starting the game on easy, as this is one of those older games where you need to commit to your difficulty from second zero.
Regardless, I had a blast learning these fights, from the wake-up call that is the first boss to the final boss, who took me two nights and maybe 12 tries to overcome (because I did not want to use the single-use revive item). They are tough, but rewarding, and manage to capture everything I like about action games without requiring more rigorous inputs and always allowing players to grind things out until their numbers are more in their favor.
As for the presentation, I continue to be at odds with it. The pre-rendered porcelain-figurine character sprites still rub me the wrong way when shown up close due to their low resolution and questionable design aesthetic, being not-quite-chibi representations of the characters and monsters they are supposed to represent. However, they are mostly kept at a distance and generally blur into moving shapes during the ebb and flow of combat and gameplay as a whole, when my eyes were more preoccupied with two things. The dazzling display of effects seen throughout combat, from the hit sparks to shimmer of magic, and most certainly the twinkling spoils left behind by felled foes. Along with the environments themselves.
The mixture of 2D pixel-art textures and basic yet fully defined 3D geometry gives this ANOFO trilogy of Ys games a distinct visual style seldom seen elsewhere. They, in some respects, resemble what one would expect to see from games developed for the PS1, PSP, or even DS, but contain a level of visual detail beyond the capacity of those systems. Homes are lined with a carefully placed mixture of sprites and small 3D models, all beautifully textured. The tufts of grass in the background sway at the behest of the wind. And the environmental lighting is both varied and multi-colored.
Felghana is flushed with these minor bits of flair that prevent the game from ever truly feeling old, like it was restrained by the technical limitations of its era, and or was aiming to be a retro throwback either. I wrote in my notes that this game looked like an “HD glow-up of a PS1 title”, and while that might not be the most articulate way to describe it, it is accurate. The game possibly could be paired down to run on a PS1— I mean, they did port it to the PSP after all— but when playing it in full 1080p with all the bells and whistles on, it manages to feel far newer and looks stimulating, beautiful, and in a certain sense, timeless, as it is not truly conforming to any generation. It is doing its own thing and looks fabulous for it.
But this was all true of the prior title, and, as if it hadn’t already improved enough, Felghana also addresses my biggest problem with Ys VI’s environments by expanding the scope and style well beyond forests and caverns, with the environments spanning a variety of colors and flavors. Between the snow and ice drenched mountains, the orange magma filled volcanic caverns, and the dark purples of the underwater trek down to the final boss, the environments are a treat to behold and occasionally left me idling about as I let the visual identity of these locations sink in… while taking a couple of screenshots for this review.
Shifting over to the soundtrack, Oath in Felghana features much of the same score as the original Ys III, but completely remixed and recomposed into something more reminiscent of the rock-infused fantastical score of Ys I & II rather than the more experimental score of Ys VI. At first, I was a bit upset by this, but after making my way through the 10-hour campaign, I remembered why I adored Felghana’s soundtrack when I first played it 7 years ago. It’s catchy, has a lot of energy behind it, and sets a tempo that is supported by the gameplay, with booming environmental themes that both characterize the land Adol is traveling across while urging the player to remain steadfast as they slash up the enemies before them.
In conclusion, Oath in Felghana is… pretty wonderful all things considered. The story, while fairly generic, is propped up by a quality translation and passionate voice acting. The gameplay is a marked improvement over its predecessor and provides a fulfilling challenge. The campaign is well-paced and expediently does what it needs to. The visuals, barring the dopey character sprites, are gosh darn gorgeous. And the soundtrack is definitely up to the high standards of any Falcom title. All of which amounts to a truly fantastic action RPG, and one that I would recommend with no reservations.