It's been a long time between Ys games outside of Japan, but Konami finally brings this action role-playing game series back to North America for its sixth installment, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim. Ys' own red-haired swordsman Adol Christian returns to obliterate untold numbers of monsters, and we were able to guide him through the early portions of the game. While there's much button-mashing and hacking to be done, there are also some interesting combos and upgrade options thrown into the mix to make your acts of heroism all the more efficient.
The world of The Ark of Napishtim consists of just three small islands called the Canaan Islands, separated from the rest of the world by a great maelstrom. When those in the outside world have the misfortune to sail into the Great Vortex (as it is known), the survivors wash ashore on the islands' beaches and live their lives there, unable to return through the storm. Adol is one such victim, deposited on the coast of the forested island of Quatera. Luckily for him, he's planted at the feet of two young priestesses who whisk him to safety. The inhabitants of this island, the beastlike Rehda, are highly suspicious of humans, whom they call Eresians. Apparently, Eresians float ashore with a bit of regularity and tend to have an irreverent attitude toward the Rehda culture and the islands' mysterious, ancient ruins. The Rehda would like nothing better than to have Adol out of their hair, and to have him sent to the neighboring atoll where the castaway Eresians have set up their own village. But the bridge connecting the two islands has been broken. Relatively quickly, you're able to explore some of the surrounding wilderness, putting your sword to work on a variety of critters.
The controls for Adol are simple and intuitive; he's able to jump and he has a few different default sword-strike abilities. You can sweep your sword in front for a three-hit attack, you can take a leaping spin into the air to slash flying enemies and bring them back to Earth, and you can bring your sword down while jumping up to stab foes in the area directly beneath you. While a majority of the enemies do succumb to a full-frontal assault, charging in a straight line while swinging your sword blindly doesn't get you very far. Enemies like to swarm, and relatively early on you encounter monsters with special charge attacks or uncommonly high defense, both on the ground and in the air.
There's lots of stabbing to be done, but the fun doesn't stop there. The islands are home to special blades called Emelas swords, and each sword has its own elemental affinity. The first such sword you receive is called Livart, the wind sword, and initially it just looks like a prettier sword with which to split the heads of rabid chipmunks. However, bring enough emel stones to a worthy smith, and the sword's abilities can be upgraded. In the case of the wind sword, upgrading extends the normal ground chain attack by adding a whirlwind move as a finisher. Not only that--if you time your button presses carefully, you can keep the whirlwind going for as many as four revolutions, ensuring that any creature that blunders into your path succumbs quickly. As you defeat enemies using one of these special blades, you'll accumulate magical power. When you've got enough power, you can press a button to unleash a large spell around Adol; in the wind sword's case, it is a giant tornado. This does much to smooth your way as you plumb the islands' secrets, and there will be more such swords for you to discover along your journey.
We tried the game out on normal mode, and insofar as the difficulty is concerned, the game likes to ramp up the strength of its monsters fairly quickly, but you'll also level quickly as well. Because the game is dotted liberally with save points, and because these said save points fully replenish your health, there doesn't seem to be an egregious amount of bumping your head against the same room of monsters for long stretches of time as you hope to incrementally augment your abilities. Difficult monsters yield plenty of experience for Adol, as does dropping emel stones that you can use to augment your weapon, which will then let you proceed at a pace that seems pretty brisk.
Most of the artistic strength and personality in the game comes via the character portraits both large and small, which are comprised of detailed anime designs for each character you meet. Otherwise, the world musters up passable environments and characters in 3D, with some variety and color to them that sets the scenery for a whole lot of slashing. Some of the spell effects for the Emelas sword--particularly the large power burst--look good, and the bosses we met were suitably detailed and imposing. There wasn't any voice acting in the version we had (just dialogue text and the aforementioned portraits). We didn't get to hear a large breadth of the musical score, but what pieces we did hear matched the action and environments well and was very easy on the ears.
Ys: The Ark of Napishtim works around a very simple action RPG formula, but fans of that formula may find this game right up their monster-smashing alley. Stay tuned to this gamespace for more updates on The Ark of Napishtim as its release on the PlayStation 2 fast approaches.