One of the other things I did in the breaks during my very busy Q4 (yes, about nine months ago) is finish up Book II of Ys. My major takeaway: It is amazing how Lunar stole absolutely everything from Ys - Alex, Luna and Lucia, Vane, Ghaleon, Zophar, pictoglyphic friezes, blue-tinged goddess real estate, entire cutscene sequences and shot compositions - and at the same time stole nothing at all, because Ys does absolutely zero with its material. Hey! These are good ideas! Why don't we tell a story with them?! Because Ys sure didn't.
I've gone over the gameplay failures after Ys I, and that assessment stands. The sequel does add a fireball spell, which makes boss fights play like My First Shooter instead of its predecessor's nonsensical non-affairs, and the puzzles are a bit smarter and more involved this time around, making varied use of a spell that transforms you into an enemy creature. Any hope for a satisfying resolution to the story set up in Ys I takes a big dive here, though, so it's the narrative missteps that have my attention. Ys II is remarkable in its ignorance of how to use the various elements of its medium - both that of the video game and the new CD-based platform on which it was published - to tell a story.
FRAMING: Ys I ends with Adol reaching the top of Darm Tower and being transported to the utopia of Ys - where, the villains monologue atop his ascent, more horrors and dangers than he can imagine await. But what instantly struck me upon starting Ys II is how the alleged utopia of Ys looks exactly like the world below, with the people living in the same thatched-roof brick houses and log cabins instead of the Greek-inspired palaces from previous glimpses of the legendary continent. This represents not only a failure of visuals, imagination, and just plain effort, but a failure of framing.
The attract mode cinematic - the first thing the player sees when she turns on the game, the full-voice visual and aural spectacle that served to distinguish the very first CD-based RPG of note from its 1989 competition, the sequence that makes the most profound impression on the player's memory - is dedicated to setting up the culture of Ys, setting up the goddesses and the priests, and frames the forthcoming adventure as a mystery: why did this perfect society vanish? Even in the first game, you're not after crystals or Triforce pieces or other magical artifacts; you're after books on the history of Ys - information. This promises plot developments, twists: a story. Instead, the first thing you learn when you finally get to Ys - your reward for completing the first game, heralded by the only other fully-animated cutscene in Ys I - is oh, Ys isn't perfect or even special, it's actually just a bunch of podunk nothing thatch-hut towns, and the entire mystery about its vanishing is thrown away with: oh, a monster attacked. The goddesses and priests have jack all to do with it. Even the final boss of Ys I being named after one of the priests has nothing to do with anything. These lightweight, no-sell answers throw away the promise and intrigue of every single question Ys I asked.
THE USE OF VOICE: It should be noted that the CD accoutrements in Ys II are a big step down from those in the first game. There are notably fewer of those talk-over-the-overworld cutscenes from Ys I I found such a nifty change of pace from the usual approach, for instance. Part of the letdown, though, is that the limitations of the devs' understanding of how to use the CD medium become more apparent in II, particularly regarding the use of voice.
Namely: they understand that voice should be used for important lines but don't understand what the medium can add to them - that voice acting can add inflection to lines, communicate meaning absent in text alone, and be used to characterize.
Take this crucial bit at the end, where one of the goddesses of Ys imparts unto Adol the truth behind the proceedings to date before the final battle. The script is clumsy, first of all: a huge exposition dump of explanations that should have been incorporated organically into preceding events. Beyond that, though, the voice acting adds nothing to the information. The use of voice alone enshrines this info as special, yes, and the actress's performance is serviceable, in a superior-Saturday-morning-cartoon way (which would, notably, put Ys leaps and bounds above most CD-based games in the era immediately following). But nothing is communicated in the voiced lines that couldn't have been in text.
Compare this to the cinematic from Lunar: The Silver Star that introduces the game's heroine, Luna. Yeah, on some levels, it's not that different or, arguably, better; Luna is more Disney Princess than her divine Ys counterpart, and the Ys voice actress, while she's not being asked for much in her performance, is clearly more capable than Luna's at this point. It's the bit at the end there, where Luna detects an off note in Alex's performance and asks what's wrong, that illustrates the greater understanding of the medium. For one, the voiced part of the script is about the characters' feelings and their relationship, not a backstory infodump; Lunar knows to use the parts where the characters are most vividly depicted through the newfangled CD audio & video to bring the human element to life and make the player connect with the cast more strongly. (Ys II falls down significantly in this regard, offering its hero *two* "romances" that consist in their entirety of a female supporting character suddenly proclaiming her love in a single sentence, with no emotional or relationship development preceding or following. This was still the era where "kidnapping rescue = perfect union," so the entire issue can hardly be deposited solely at Ys's doorstep, but it's one more problem in a game already full of them, and one more aspect Ys botches that a noted contemporary understands.)
Furthermore, the pauses before the last two lines ("...Alex. Please tell me what's wrong"), paired with Luna's shift to a slightly more serious tone, add a note of tension and serve to indicate that this situation is atypical, setting the stage for a significant change in the lives of the characters. The rhythm of her speech (her pleading insistence) underlines the heroine's care for the hero and complements Luna's look of concern - the audio is designed to work with and reinforce the visual. These are minor things executed in a rudimentary manner, yes, but they do help establish characters, relationships, and stakes - there's a clear awareness of what voice can add to a story that Ys lacks.
PACING: I made much hay of this with Ys I, but it bears repeating: the world of Ys I, in its entirety, consists of the first village, the second village, and the field between. Ys II has *slightly* more - a whopping *three* villages, plus a number of dungeons - but it again makes Ys I's mistake of having the final dungeon take up half of the game. At least Darm Tower has the advantage of verticality, with the number of floors you've scaled lending a sense of structure and progression. Ys II's Solomon Shrine (For Real This Time, not the landbound apparent shard of it you visit in the first game) is just splatted out over several sprawling maze-like screens - the same amount of real estate as Darm, just horizontal - making it a royal pain to keep track of where you've been and where you should hunt for the latest objective, not to mention how you should attempt to get there. This completely drains the tension that a last dungeon should have, replacing it with an "oh, God, please just be over already."
But it's when Ys II gets to its ending, or should be getting to its ending, that it truly falls down pacing-wise. The extent of its world and quest, while expanded from its predecessor, is still truly paltry. Ys II, though, gets the sense that, hey, maybe this game should deliver a longer experience, but it has absolutely no idea on how to do that, so once you get to the logical climax of the story, it stalls like it's been handed an updated autopsy report. Thank you for traversing the vast expanses of the Solomon Shrine to reach the Goddess Tower, the nominal object of the game! Now, to breach the real evil stronghold, you need a magic pendant! But its holder has turned to stone, and only the fabled idol can break the spell! --Oh, you got it already? Uh...great...great. ...um...--ah, oh, wait, it's missing an *eye!* You wouldn't want to use the statue without its *eye*, wouldn't you?
Did you remember the random ragamuffin back in that snow village who mentioned picking up some shiny object hours ago? Hope you didn't have to wander cluelessly for too long! But: he's gotta HOLE in his pocket, mishtah! Do you BELIEVE it!? A HOLE?!?! And, uh-oh - it seems that nasty evil wizard picked up the eye and brought it back to enemy HQ! Guess you'll have to search THE ENTIRE 10,000-SCREEN SHRINE to find where he stashed it!
So did you get the thing? OK. No, you can't use it here! You have to backtrack to another dungeon to use it. Only at the very top floor, though! Make sure you go all the way to the top!
All right, you got the MacGuffin to get into the real real final area and want to fight the last boss. So: did you get the Armaments of Legend? Well, you better. It's not you'd just run across them naturally in your travels, you know. This adventure is not designed for your expedience! There are three pieces. They're all in separate places! Some at the end of multi-stage fetch quests!
Also, you need to be max level for the final fight. You'll just die a lot otherwise, regardless of how skilled you are at "combat," such as it is. No one will tell you this, actually. You'll just have to find out through trial and error and error and error - and lots more wasted time, of course! No! You can't use that mega-expensive special item that gives you an extra life and has absolutely no use anywhere else in the game! You need to have the Magic Bullshit Ring That Confers No Actual Benefit and Exists Only to Eat up Your Useful Item Slot equipped in that slot to dispel the enemy's plot armor!
Oh, almost forgot! To reach the last experience level, you need like 5000 points.
The enemies at this stage each give you like 3.