Ys Origin for Nintendo Switch Review: A Tower Worth Climbing

A cult favorite installment of a long-running Japanese RPG series comes to the Nintendo Switch in Ys Origin. Originally released for PC in 2006, this Ys prequel was first localized in North America in 2012 but may have found its ideal home on Nintendo's handheld console. Nihon Falcom developed the original game and DotEmu, the French company that handled the game's previous console ports, brings the game to the Switch. Compared to heavyweights like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Ys remains an underappreciated RPG franchise outside Japan. Ys Origin's Switch port will offer newcomers an easy entry point to the franchise.

Ys Origin is a prequel to the original Ys game, Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished, set 700 years before that game occurs, during the fall -- or, more literally, rise -- of the ancient kingdom of Ys that gives the series its name. Ys' twin goddesses lifted a portion of the land, along with all of the kingdom's survivors, up into the sky, escaping a horde of demons that attacked without warning. But the demons were undeterred and built a massive tower to reach the floating kingdom. When the goddesses disappear, the people of Ys send a search party back to the surface who must then brave the menacing spire in search of their lost deities.

At the outset, players can take control of one of two playable members of the search team. Yunica Tovah is a pious devotee of the goddesses and apprentice knight who forces her way onto the search party despite her inexperience, fighting with a battle-ax. Hugo Fact is a mage and the son of one of the Six Priests of Ys who help rule the kingdom on the goddesses' behalf. He's confident, bold, blunt, and a powerful magic-user gifted with a unique weapon called the "Eyes of Fact."

Completing the game with both Yunica and Hugo unlocks a third, mystery character whose identity we won't needlessly spoil here despite the game's age. Each of these three characters plays entirely different from the others, which is good since you'll need to beat the game with all three if you want to see the story in its entirety. Luckily, the game doesn't waste your time with filler. Players can finish each playthrough in 6-10 intense hours, which is lean by JRPG standards.

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(Photo: Nintendo)

But Ys Origin doesn't play like your typical JRPG. Like the other Ys games, Ys Origin's gameplay has more in common with the Legend of Zelda series than its turn-based brethren, but with a higher challenge level. Exploring the tower is a dungeon crawl. The characters battle hordes of monsters, uncover treasures, and use items they discover along the way to unlock doors and unveil secrets. But the combat has an element of bullet-hell gameplay to it. The enemies are numerous and aggressive, and one careless move can send you back to the nearest save point.

The arcade shooter style is central to the game's boss fights. Players will face off mostly against giant monsters that let out a hail of deadly pellets that they'll have to dodge and weave around if they want to last long enough to land a shot on the boss' weak spot. These battles will test you and can be frustrating at times, but that does tend to make the eventual victory sweeter. The way the game couples action RPG and shoot 'em up gameplay with a story unveiled through multiple characters over multiple playthroughs makes Ys Origin a surprising predecessor to Nier: Automata, especially in how Hugo's Eyes of Fact functions similarly to Nier's pods.

It's easy to get lost in the game's rhythm, thanks to its driving soundtrack. It blends dramatic strings with fast, soaring beats to create the sense that you're in the world's fanciest mosh pit. It's perfect monster-slaying music, and worth a listen apart from the gameplay.

As a narrative, Ys Origin will act as a taste test for newcomers while filling in blanks for those familiar with Ys' mythology. The characters have compelling arcs through the game, though the plot is simplistic. Combined with the stellar gameplay, it should be enough to keep players hooked, though climbing the same dungeon three times is, to some extent, innately repetitive.

If you're familiar with Ys I and Ys II, there's an added pleasure in playing through the ancient history that set the stage for those games. The entire game takes place in the Tower of Dahm, the massive final dungeon of Ys I, reimagining landmarks like Rado's Annex and the Devil's Corridor. There's a similar pleasure in fighting bosses from those original games updated for three-dimensional gameplay. Players also learn the history of some artifacts from those games and discover new meanings behind names and concepts introduced in the classics. It's like seeing a favorite game get the remake treatment, but instead of replaying the old narrative, there's a whole new story to discover.

As a game from almost 15 years ago, Ys Origin doesn't sport cutting-edge visuals. The graphics in-game are serviceable, and there's an exciting anime-style opening, but there are a couple of 3-D cut scenes that show their age. But the undemanding graphics, the edge-of-your-seat gameplay, and the brilliant score make it the perfect game to play with your Switch in hand and headphones in place.

Ys Origin is an engrossing dungeon crawler with a killer soundtrack that can serve as a great introduction to Ys series, or a rewarding prequel for longtime fans who missed out on previous releases. Any Switch owner looking to sink into an action RPG would do well to gives Ys Origin their attention.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Ys Origin goes on sale on the Nintendo Switch eShop on October 1st. The review code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.