The PC Engine version is much better.
The game plays like a traditional Ys games; and so anyone who has played one of the many versions of Ys I or II out there will know what to expect. For anyone who hasn’t, this can be described as a simple, fast paced action RPG. You move around in four directions and fight by running into your opponents slightly off center. These battles will usually involve you getting knocked back until you get the right angle of attack, whereas you will then bulldoze through you opponent, quite literally. These battles net you experience for you to level up and become stronger and gold to buy better equipment and other various curative and utility items. Any damage you have taken will heal if you stay put for a few moments provided you’re not in a dungeon. Occasionally, you will have to fight a “boss” opponent who is much stronger than your average exp/gold fodder you will spend most of your time fighting. These battles take much longer to win, and will often require many failed attempts to win successfully.
Like Ys II, the game features a simple magic system that allows you to cast certain spells depending on which weapon you have equipped. One sword allows you to shoot fireballs and another heal you, for example. Magic points are used up when you cast a spell, but these points are difficult to recover. Unfortunately, not all the best weapons have spell casting abilities and the attack spells, even upgraded tend to do less damage than a attacking normally. Thus, you will only find yourself casting these spells when you need to, such as in a narrow one square wide hallway where you can’t attack an enemy slightly off center. This is a huge change from the effective fireball spamming you could pull off in part II of Book I&II and Dawn of Ys. I suppose this is a good thing, but I felt they could have implemented a system I could, and want, to use more.
Remember how I said you could bulldoze through your opponents with the right angle of attack? The same will apply to your opponents as well, due to a lack of a “grace period” (i.e. period of time where you or your opponent is impervious to damage). A weak monster that happens to be fast on its feet might only do 1 point of damage to you, but could rack up hundreds of points against you in a matter of seconds if you’re not careful. And monsters you are supposed to be fighting at your current level will be doing much more damage than described above, so combat tends to be very dangerous with the possibility of the tables turning very quickly. It’s also frustrating that you can plow through your enemies until you manage to corner them against a surface. Then, because you can’t knock them back any further, have just set your self up for a devastating counter attack that will often result in your demise. This problem isn’t exclusive to Mask of the Sun either; the same thing would happen in Book I&II and Dawn of Ys. The problem is that this version plays much faster than the aforementioned games and the angle of attack is much less forgiving, making a successful recovery from a mistake more unlikely.
If the combat against small time monsters sounds frustrating, the boss battles happen to be much, much worse. If you just go through the game killing everything thing in your path, you will still find you are too weak to win a boss battle. Trial and error might help you determine battle patterns, but you’ll find that it won’t be quite enough mostly due to the limitations of your movement (four directional) and due to the damage they can rack up for the reason described in the previous paragraph. And so one resorts to long, drawn out sessions of level grinding in order to live through these battles. If you want to go through with that, you better be prepared to reload your game often. This level grinding and reloading will serve to pad what is otherwise a fairly short 8 hour RPG. The save system, thankfully, is very forgiving. You can save in multiple save slots anywhere, and anytime you are not in a boss battle. And you will be thanking the stars for this feature because you will use it, and you will use it a lot due to the game’s difficulty. This is a feature I would like to see implemented more frequently, as I absolutely hate having to redo long sequences in an RPG because I couldn’t save my game, especially when there’s a lot of dialogue to go through again.
The visuals are quite mediocre for an SNES game released in 1993. It’s an improvement over Book I&II, with better looking sprites (especially the monsters) and backgrounds. However, it could have been better seeing as the visuals Square Soft pulled off in Secrets of Mana (released around the same time) completely blow those of Mask of the Sun out of the water. Heck, Dawn of Ys, the PC Engine version of Ys IV, manage to look better than Mask of the Sun, and on an 8 bit system no less.
The soundtracks of the Ys games have had endless praises sung by their fans. Mask of the Sun, manages to have a pretty good soundtrack that lives up to its pedigree. Some of the tunes are quite nice, and I found myself pausing the game from time to time to just listen to the music. It is obviously inferior to what was pulled off on the PC Engine Ys games, but it manages to stand well on its own. The tunes themselves are very similar to the ones found in Dawn of Ys only with a faster beat, which suits this version rather well.
The game’s plot is in the same vein as Ys I&II. The hero in the previous Ys games, Adol sets out on a journey after receiving a plea for help. In the process he uncovers the history and the secrets of an ancient, yet advanced, lost civilization. And he must stop those trying to unleash those long lost powers unto the world again. All in all, it’s a decent, though all too commonly seen “save the world from destruction” plot.
The characters are a mixed bag. I found most of the new NPCs, like Karna and the guy who “breaks” you out of jail, to be completely forgettable. Karna is a notable example considering how awesome she is in Dawn of Ys. However the villains, Eldeel in particular, were better characterized than in Dawn of Ys. In Dawn of Ys they came across as being kind of goofy and vapid. In Mask of the Sun, they are more sinister and threatening, and make for much better villains. There are many characters from Ys I&II that make an appearance in the game, and you do actually get to revisit the setting from those games, so this is a plus for any fans of the previous Ys game.
In the end, I found the shortcomings of the combat system made the game too frustrating for me to outweigh the merits the game had in characterization and sound. As such, I cannot recommend Mask of the Sun to anyone who is not a dire Ys fan who wants to play every iteration of Ys ever released. Ys IV: Dawn of Ys on the PC Engine is not only a much better version of this game, but the best the series has to offer as well. I might have forever given up on Ys games had that not been the next game in the series I played. I wholly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in the series.