The red-haired swordsman Adol Christin has been plying his skills against monster hordes for quite some time now as the hero of Falcom's Ys games. Many modern-day role-playing game fans probably wouldn't immediately recognize his name, however, as it has been nearly 10 years since the last Ys release outside of Japan. The Ark of Napishtim is the sixth installment in the venerable series, and like its predecessors, it focuses on both narrative and good old-fashioned action RPG mayhem. The game's jump-and-cut, monster-obliterating formula is enjoyable if not hugely deep, and the setting and characters are framed around de rigueur Japanese RPG tenets--mysterious ruins, elf-eared priestesses, and ancient technologies abound. But despite feeling somewhat formulaic, this installment of Ys still provides a bunch of challenging, old-school hack-and-slash action for devoted thumb-warriors.
The renowned Adol starts things off on the lam; the Romun military forces are after him, and he's forced to take to the seas on a pirate ship to escape their clutches. When his overzealous pursuers start to pound the vessel with cannon fire, our red-haired hero is thrown into the Great Vortex, a maelstrom that deposits him on an isolated set of islands populated by a native race of beast-folk called the Rehda. Strandings are apparently a common occurrence on the isles, which also boast a small population of Eresians (humans) who've washed up on the sandy shores only to find themselves trapped within the vortex. Adol is rescued by a pair of Rehdan priestesses and is nursed back to health before eventually setting out on a journey to investigate the islands' ancient ruins and the secret of the enormous storm.
All the dialogue in Ys is fully voiced, which manages to be both a boon and a serious detraction to immersion. There are a number of characters whose lines are read very well, with natural intonation and unique accents that give those characters much personality. Unfortunately, those few actors are counterbalanced by some of the most horrible screeching and bad falsetto ever to curse a role-playing game, and you'll come to loathe the appearance of certain characters. It's a shame the speech can be so uneven in quality, because with the number of allies, foes, merchants, and various bit players you come into contact with, having each part fully voiced helps to give the world of Ys a lot of character. Despite the fact that events fall out around mostly predictable lines, the cast manages to keep things engaging, while generally staying well out of the way of all the stabbing you'll be doing.
Your stabbing arsenal consists of three special blades called emelas swords, each one with a different elemental affinity: wind, fire, or lightning. As you cut through the countless, varied monsters you'll encounter, many will drop stones of emel, which you can then amass and bring to a smithy, who can use them to increase the power of your weapons. Upgrading the swords doesn't just make them stronger; as the emelas swords gain levels of refinement, they'll also become imbued with magic. Striking enemies in combat will then gradually power up the swords, letting you unleash a strong elemental attack when a magic meter is full. Managing your swords and emel is the main means for making yourself stronger, though you can also purchase and discover more powerful armor and such as you level.
Leveling comes through smashing all the enemies in sight, and while this is initially trivial button mashing, both the monsters you'll meet and the terrain you'll fight them in get trickier as you go on. Adol has just a simple set of techniques to master--a basic slash, a jumping spin slash, and a downward stab, along with the three types of elemental magic contained within his swords. You can tap the shoulder buttons to quickly switch which sword Adol has equipped at any given time, should it become necessary. You'll ply these same techniques on all the armies of beasts you'll face as you grind through levels and weapon enhancements to gain enough strength to defeat the punishing bosses and allow yourself to progress. You'll also have helpful healing items at your disposal that you can key to a single button to use during battle--and you'll need to do this for boss fights, as you won't be able to access your handy item menu during those encounters. The bulk of your battles are not wholly mindless, as you'll have to exploit the weaknesses of monsters to progress; some can only be stabbed safely from above or below, and many have a special attack you'll have to dodge. But you'll be running through the same few areas repeatedly to patiently farm emel and experience, then running back to town to rest and build your weapons. Most of the areas you'll visit contain just a moderate number of rooms, but you'll need to gradually work Adol up to the point where he can blast everything to dust before moving on, so there's a lot of back-and-forth traveling. This is pure old-school RPG leveling with plenty of repetition.
It's not so bad, though, as you'll be up against a varied pack of critters and some very cool bosses in this adventure. The boss monsters are suitably large and imposing, with a number of nasty abilities that pack quite a punch and usually look impressive to boot. The lesser beasts aren't quite so detailed, and neither are the characters' models, though all are cleanly made and animate well. The cast has the added benefit of anime-style character portraits and full-character sketches in various poses, which look great, and all the folks have these, down to the lowliest merchants and townsfolk. The 3D worlds look nice as well, with good color and texture in the terrain and in the towns and some good-looking accents in the dungeons. There's no movable camera, but the isometric view works just fine to let you see what you need to see.
The Ys series is also known for its excellent music, and while the soundtrack for this game doesn't quite live up to that lofty legacy, it's still solid and fitting. Some of the series' rock heritage peeks through in some isolated tunes, and the rest of the music is at least energetic and catchy, if not something you'd leave the game paused to listen to.
There's a handful of sidequests in Ys to partially distract you from your goal, but aside from some nifty items and extras, all the meat is to be found in the main quest. There are both normal and difficult gameplay settings, so experienced monster hackers who find the going too easy can flip to the harder difficulty for a steeper challenge. In both cases, the ride is good while it lasts.
Ys: The Ark of Napishtim isn't perhaps the sharpest-looking hack-and-slash adventure with the most refined gameplay, but it still provides a solid and satisfying experience. Fans of the series and button-stomping pros looking to carve up legions of foes in the company of a large cast of personable characters will be right at home with the latest iteration of Ys.