April 23, 2024
The latest in the real-time combat JRPG series, Ys IX Monstrum Nox finds Adol unearthing the mysteries of a prison city from within. But is it all by the numbers, or can Ys finally gain traction outside its core fans? The Finger Guns Review:

The Ys series of JRPGs is solid and dependable. No entries are terrible, but no entries push the boat out and really try to wow. It’s consistent, a series that ticks all the JRPG boxes, and where you know exactly what you are getting when you start it up. Where other JRPGs and franchises take risks and change up the combat or the world or everything, Ys is content to stay the same, and change only the story. Even then it’s still series staple Adol Cristin, still another one of his adventures, still the same. Oddly that business model works very well in a lot of video games; Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Fifa, Dynasty Warriors, they are the same every time, why change what’s not broken? It’s also not necessarily a bad thing, it makes a game feel instantly knowable, familiar, and comforting.

That’s where we are with the latest in a long line of Ys titles, Ys IX Monstrum Nox (‘Monster Night’ in Latin) arriving on PS4 on February 5th in the UK. If you’ve played an Ys (pronounced ees) game on PS4 previously, this entry will slip on like a greased flipflop, and because of that, you’ll probably feel both relief and disappointment. The story takes Adol Cristin, star of every Ys game bar one, to the prison city of Balduq, where he is incarcerated for his supposed ‘crimes’ in previous games. You are cursed with the powers of a Monstrum, a set of traversal skills that are pretty much the single innovation from the last entry, and it’s up to you to uncover a sinister mystery at the heart of the city.

So can an RPG that brings almost nothing new to the table still be enjoyable? Yes, of course, especially if you’re new to the franchise. If this is your first Ys, you can caveat much of what I’m saying as it will be new to you, and that’s all that really matters. This is a very standard Ys game and a perfect jumping on point. However if you are like me, and this is your third or fourth in the series, you may end up thinking Falcom need to change up the formula.

Let’s start strong. Ys IX Monstrum Nox kicks off with an intriguing story that sets up a ton of mysteries for you to wonder about, and then very slowly delivers the answers towards the last ten hours of its circa 30+ hour story.

Arriving in Balduq, a city that revolves around its large dominating prison fortress, Adol Cristin is arrested and incarcerated in said prison. It’s nice to see previous games and their consequences are catching up to him, even if they are trumped-up charges. And don’t worry, you can easily start with this entry, just assume this isn’t Adol’s first rodeo. Before that first night is up, he meets a mysterious hooded woman named Aprilis, who shoots him with a cursed bullet that changes him into a Monstrum, giving him certain powers, and says the city needs him before disappearing.

Adol seems remarkably unperturbed by the fact that this woman just took it upon herself to curse him, I mean, I’d be raging. But the curse is more of a gift, and he’s still alive so, *shrugs. It turns out you aren’t the only one; five others have been cursed as Monstrum, called upon to fight the monsters that curse the city whenever Aprilis calls on you. She is your puppet master and you fight to the tune of her fiddle. However, the reason you fight, the reason you’ve been cursed, what Aprilis wants and the secret at the heart of the prison, well all of these things are mysteries waiting to be solved. And pretty interesting ones to be fair.

The first five or so chapters (of nine total) however are really just exposition, introducing each of the Monstrums and finding out their secret identity. You also spend a large amount of time breaking into the prison in the north of the city multiple times, establishing different routes in. This early part of the game will be familiar if you played Ys VIII, it’s five chapters of mini quests and recruiting rebellious types, one after another, to kit out your hideout/bar, much like your village in Ys VIII. Its pretty tame, and it takes a while for the main plot to really get going.

I found the central mysteries intriguing enough to hold my interest through the mundane parts of these chapters. By chapter six you will start getting answers, and the narrative builds quite a head of steam in later chapters. Aprilis herself is the most interesting mystery, just as Dana was in Ys VIII. Aprilis has scars and wounds all over her body, and an artificial arm and leg. What is her reason for cursing the Monstrums, what is her agenda?

One mystery is stranger than all the others. Only a chapter or so in, you get the chance to play as a slightly different character still stuck in the prison. These sections are also quite dull and repetitive, but who this character is and what their connection or existence means was enough to keep me going.

Be confident in the story – like the other two PS4 Ys games, Ys IX starts slow, you can feel like you’re doing pointless tasks, but when it gets towards its climax, it’s heartfelt, surprising, and tragic. The same way the end of Ys VIII became far more epic than the rest of the lead-up, the same thing happens here and things take a dark and pretty unexpected turn. Your enjoyment of the entire game rests on how invested you are in your party of Monstrums and the mysteries set up at the start. You will be waiting until the very end to get your answers, but trust me the ending will leave a good taste, even if the slow burn is hard to get through.

Gameplay in Ys IX Monstrum Nox revolves around traversing the game world, completing quests and combat. Each of the Monstrums is given a gift/curse that can aid in traversing the city of Balduq and its surroundings and dungeons. Adol as the Crimson King gets a warp function to reach far off ledges, and between the other characters there is a double jump and floating flight mechanic, a second sight for hidden switches, a shadow gift that gets you into small crevices, and a power slam for bashing open new entry points. The best by far is the White Cat’s ability of running up walls which is fun and liberating in a genre that often doesn’t even have a jump function.

These gifts introduce more verticality to Ys IX than its predecessors have ever had. The traversal gifts replace the oft used items like climbing gloves and such from previous games that performed similar functions, but the wall-run and flight are very new.

The wall running, glide and warp abilities open up almost the entirety of the city – so much so that it feels like the game designers implemented a staggered barrier mechanic as an answer to this, to stop you from just going on a massive treasure hunt in chapter one. However, bar the city, and a couple of early dungeons, the rest of the game fails to implement areas that really utilise these gifts and at worst deliberately stops you from using the skills they’ve given you. Sure there are little sections for each gift to be used, but plenty of dungeons and outside areas have walls with lips on the top edge that means you can’t run up the wall – you’ll hit the lip. This isn’t Breath of the Wild. You cannot run up everything, and by the end I felt a little cheated.

The framework of questing returns, with large boards setup in your hideout where citizens can ask the Monstrums for help. For the most part these sidequests are actually mandatory and really slow down the action in the first few chapters. They are often badly written fetch quests with little of interest to do, on the meme-level of killing rats and finding lost cats, things like finding the parts of a recipe or stopping a shoplifter, and can get tiresome very quickly. At least most can be shot through with the skip function and fast-traveling around the city.

I say mandatory because, completing these quests and advancing the story earns Monstrum points, and for every 100 of these you open up another area of the city. Remember I said there’s a barrier function, well it sits blocking your way to different districts and can be destroyed by completing a challenge fight – the Grimwald Nox. It’s a shame these staged horde-mode challenge battles have been carried over from Ys VIII as these were by no means a good part of that game either. You are set against a few waves of enemies in that game because they are attacking your desert island village, but here the mechanic feels forces and unnecessary.  

The quests suffer from the same trait as the story, being really tame and dull to start with, but once you’ve become invested, the quests in the final chapters are heartfelt and interesting. Certain sidequests and party members have final quests tied to them that are just as interesting as the main story especially Renegade, whose inclusion is a step in the right direction for representation, but I can’t say why without spoiling his secret identity.

As a returning Ys player, I did enjoy the easter eggs and references to previous Ys games. There is a roo creature which were first encountered in Ys IV Memories of Celceta, and plenty of references to Ys VIII for those paying attention. If you still have save data from Ys Memories of Celceta or Ys VIII Lacrimosa of Dana, you can claim free items at the start of the story. A Celcetan Wrath that gives +200 health (which at the start is around 200%), and an Old Seal Ring that gives +15 strength and defense.

Lastly a few quality of life options are included that are becoming staples in JRPGs with long scripts. A message log, holding the entire transcript, in case you miss a line of dialogue in a script heavy game. It also has lots of helpful map and percentage trackers in the Journal, for those who want to 100% everything and get those trophies.

The way combat works in Ys IX Monstrum Nox is more or less exactly the same as in the previous two PS4 Ys games, and will be easy to relearn for veterans. For those new to the series combat is a real-time melee of complete chaos. You control one of three party members, and can swap between them at the press of a button. You have a single combo button, and can dodge with L1 or guard with R1, and can perform four assigned combat arts, much like the Tales series, by holding R1 and clicking a face button. These recharge with normal attacks, so battle is an alternating spam of combat arts, then normal attacks, then combat arts.

Dodging and guard when triggered at exactly the right moment, can slow time for the enemy and give you a few seconds to really put the hurt on. Combat Arts do this well, but you can also build up a boost mode, triggered with L1 and R1 together, giving you enhanced stats for a time. In this mode, you can also trigger the biggest of your attacks, each character’s EXTRA attack which deals massive damage and puts real dents in a boss’ health.

Boost mode and the ability to perform your Monstrum gifts in combat are the only real changes from Ys VIII, but the combat does generally feel easier than the previous game. In Ys VIII I needed potions a lot, in Ys IX on Normal mode, I barely needed them ever. It helps that in both games item use is in the pause menu, including administering health potions, which takes a lot of the tension out. Combat is still only targeted on you most of the time. Ys IX has five difficulty options probably as a reaction to it being a little easy on normal mode, so if you fancy a challenge there’s the ridiculous line-up of difficulties; Easy, Normal, Hard, Nightmare, Inferno and Lunatic.

Enemies are a little more interestingly designed this time around, but it’s rare any require a different strategy to fight. Each party member has a type of damage, Pierce, Slash and Strike, and if you match that with an enemy weakness you can Break their guard, introducing a tiny element of strategy to some enemies with high defense. Bosses are also not that interesting, apart from a few late-stage ones. There’s a great set-piece boss around the halfway point the requires far more intricacy and stages to beat than the average Ys boss.

I’m not one to get too hung up on graphics, but the Ys series has failed to really evolve with the current generation. Graphics on show in Ys IX Monstrum Nox are a good bit better than Ys VIII, but still very much PS3 era. While there’s little in the way of lighting, contrast and realism, character models are the most complex they’ve ever been for the series, but still very simple by today’s standards. I would also comment the running animation for party members and NPCs in cutscene is jarringly poor. Falcom have shown off a new engine in recent months, so fingers crossed any new entry in the series from now on will be a vast improvement.

I have heard fans wax lyrical about the series’ soundtracks, but I have yet to be wowed by Ys music. There are a couple of title themes that are pretty good, and an oft used refrain for Aprilis that was memorable, but I would be hard-pressed to differentiate Ys IX’s soundtrack from any other RPG or the combat tracks from your average Dynasty Warriors.

The voice work is standard for these types of anime-styled games, with the same recognisable voices you’ve likely heard in a dozen other Japanese titles. That said they are all plenty understandable, and none of the voicework stands out in a bad way.

Ys IX Monstrum Nox is a simple RPG, simple to play, simple to fight, simple to complete. It’s short enough at 30 hours for the main story, that even those with big time constraints could complete an RPG this year. However, that simplicity is its biggest issue too.  The simplicity in design and narrative leaves it unable to really compete with the heavyweights of the genre. It’s competent, does the basics well, but is rarely original, and rarely polished in any aspect except combat. That said, it’s one of the better second rung AA RPGs, cheap to produce, but therefore not on the same level as your average Final Fantasy.

It also feels too familiar, almost derivative of itself. It feels like they’ve taken every new system they made for Ys VIII and copied it into this one, whether it fits or not. While the story ends strong, it’s painfully mundane to begin with and only really achieves the level of interest it needs when you are nearing its final hours.

Finally if you’ve got to this point, and not yet googled the Latin title of this review it means ‘identical every time’ – I can use Latin too.

Ys IX Monstrum Nox may come from an established franchise, but it treads the line of least resistance, trying to be as safe as possible. While its painfully slow narrative ends strongly, combat remains its strongest asset. It takes no risks, ending up as an almost cookie-cutter version of the previous title in a different setting.

Ys IX Monstrum Nox is available February 5th 2021 on PlayStation 4 (review platform) and Steam, with Nintendo Switch to follow later in 2021.

Developer: Falcom
Publisher: NIS America, Nippon Ichi Software

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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