Digging for Treasure: The Ys Series

It is entirely possible that the action-RPG series from Falcom is your next favorite game.

Welcome to Digging for Treasure, a semi-occasional Fanbyte column where I try to highlight games that aren’t the most mainstream. You may have heard of them, you may have even played them, but this column is for people who haven’t and need a convincing push to try a new game out. If you have suggestions, go ahead and email them to imran@fanbyte.com.

You’ve probably heard conversation about the Ys series somewhere before. Whether it’s because of its strange and nigh-unpronounceable name or its extensive history, discussions of Adol the red-headed adventurer have likely percolated somewhere in most RPG fans’ periphery at some point or another. They have never been the same kind of ridiculous hits that a lot of JRPGs proudly proclaim themselves to be, nor do they sport the commensurate budget that goes along with that success. Still, you’ll find there’s an ever-growing audience for the series that is eager to bring new players into the fold. There’s a good reason for that: the Ys games are fantastic and they might be something you will love, too.

The top-level pitch for Ys is that it’s an action-RPG series starring Adol, a variably-silent protagonist that ventures all around the world having adventures. In each adventure, Adol meets a new cast of party members, NPCs, villains, and monsters as he finds himself embroiled in another adventure. The games acknowledge each other with references and occasional returning characters, but they’re kind of like episodes of a TV show, and are not all sequential. Sometimes a later game takes place earlier in a timeline, sometimes it skips a few adventures, but it largely does not matter.

Ys I & II Chronicles

What you’re initially coming to the series for is a rockin’ soundtrack, usually replete with electric guitar and drum cymbals to accentuate battles, and those battles themselves. Nothing about the Ys battle system could be described as cavernously deep, but the combat feels good, keeps you pushing for better stats, and has you managing multiple characters to keep up on the game’s Rock-Paper-Scissors weakness system. The battles feel good to play and I often find myself diverting to take out a weaker enemy than I need to just to hit something with a sword for a few seconds.

I would maybe use the word “kinetic” to describe battles, which isn’t a bad thing. The minute-to-minute gameplay of the Ys series is fun if not terribly complicated.

Moreover, the stories vary, but they’re much better than you might suspect. Ys VIII, for example, shipwrecks Adol on an island and tasks him with building a small community of survivors while they explore. The little vignettes about each castaway on the island are intriguing and channel Dragon Quest’s own vignette-based storytelling, but the narrative eventually shifts in a major way that had me desperate to find out more. While other JRPGs insist on building a world that they have to detail to you in one playthrough, Ys demands you build the world one region and one adventure at a time.

The series has an intimidatingly long past that likely makes western players feel like they’re already well past the jumping-in point. Even just looking up the “Ys” on Steam brings up nine games that are not all neatly numbered, so it’s hard to blame anyone from taking one look at the series and simply deciding it’s one of those things that has passed them by.

Ys: Memories of Celceta

But doing so would be a mistake! Thinking that you need to play all nine games is also a mistake. Everyone is going to have different ideas of what they think is the best Ys title and thus have different recommendations for you, but a lot of it will simply depend on what you’re looking for. If you want a 3D action battle system, then Ys VII, VIII, or IX are probably your best bets. Best story is maybe in the eye of the beholder.

My personal recommendation is to start with Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, because I did that. I think that game is genuinely incredible for my sensibilities at the least. The moment Adol steps onto the beach at the beginning of the story, the music goes so hard you would think you’re at the final dungeon of a lesser JRPG. The narrative arc about the island and the characters on it kept me interested and I was compelled to see it through to the end. Your mileage may vary, but that’s the one I suggest. And hey, a PS5 version of the game is actually coming on November 15 which will load faster and feature all the unlocked DLC from the Vita and PS4 versions.

The Ys titles aren’t without their flaws, but they have so much confidence in themselves it’s almost like the flaws don’t matter. Like, sure that cutscene just focused on a guy pulling a sword off his back from thin air, but if the game doesn’t care, why should I? These definitely aren’t RPGs for people who need Final Fantasy-caliber production value to enjoy playing, but if you’re looking for the best hole-in-the-wall equivalent in a JRPG, I think Ys is probably up your alley.

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana

The games are frequently on sale, but I would maybe try and do a little digging on which platform you might prefer to play them on. The Switch versions aren’t always great, but developer Nihon Falcom typically doesn’t do a great job porting most places. If you have a Steam Deck, you might be golden, or a PS5 using backwards compatibility for some of the newer games. It’s a bit more research than you might initially want to do, but I think it’s most definitely worth it.

Give it a try, playing games is boring if you’re never open to what else you could be playing outside what you hear about all the time.