Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is several steps in the right direction for the series.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is arguably the most ambitious Ys title Nihon Falcom has released so far, with updated graphics and a much more in-depth (and darker) plotline. At its core, however, is still the soul of the much-beloved franchise but the changes implemented to both storytelling and gameplay make the experience a more refreshing one.
Our ever suffering hero Adol is traveling with his best friend and longtime companion Dogi to Balduq City when once again, he’s swept up in disaster. It seems that his many misadventures of past games have finally caught up to him and there’s a warrant for his arrest. Adol surrenders peacefully and is immediately shipped out to the city’s massive prison, subjected to constant interrogations and fellow inmates itching for a fight. But in true Adol fashion he quickly breaks out, only to dive headfirst from the pan of imprisonment and into the flames of rapidly rising stakes.
A mysterious woman forcibly imbues him with an equally mysterious new power which aids his escapes but also damns him to do her bidding. Adol, along with several other hapless victims who have also been transformed into Monstrum, is forced to fight dangerous monsters and defend the city while collecting strange resources. This is how the rest of the game plays out, with you dividing your time between staying hidden as you explore the city you’re now trapped in and occasionally being transported to this treacherous realm. Of course, Adol is never one to take anything lying down and delves deeper into the matter, slowly uncovering both the secrets hidden within the maze-like prison and the ones surrounding your newly given powers.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox focuses far more on storytelling than previous entries in the franchise, weaving an elaborate and darker plot that fleshes out the world and thoroughly develops the main characters. This is reflected in how they all are imprisoned in the literal sense — either within the prison itself, inside the city, and through the forced contract that transforms and binds them. And within their own pasts as well as the narrow-minded way the denizens view and treat them.
None of them are close to perfect, the Monstrum all possess their own failings which may or may not have contributed to the aggressively negative light they’ve been cast in. However, they are tragic and you find yourself hoping that not only Adol but the others can free themselves. Though I was worried about how such a drastic change in plot density and visuals would be executed, Nihon Falcom has managed to create a cast with engaging backstories and character arcs that tie into the overarching theme of the story.
Thankfully this focus on crafting a proper narrative has not harmed the most important aspect of any Ys game, combat, in any way. In fact, it only enhances it. Basic combat is largely similar to past titles, with normal combos being your main source of damage dealing. More powerful than normal attacks are Skills, which can be unleashed any time during battle by spending Skill Points (SP). SP is recovered by attacking enemies using normal combos.
But thanks to the curse that’s forced on Adol, he also receives a unique ability called the Crimson Line that works similar to the grappling hook in Persona 5 Royal. A symbol appears on a ledge that indicates when it can be used and Adol hoists himself up by creating a chain with his demonic energy. Its main purpose is to traverse through dungeons with ease, however, this move has battle applications as well. When that same symbol appears on a locked-on enemy, you can pull yourself towards it, even reaching airborne enemies instantly. This isn’t infinite as each use depletes your Gift Gauge. Plus, when it hits, the skill is unusable until it completely charges again.
Initially, Adol traverses alone, but as more Monstrum join him the player is able to access other abilities during battle and in the field by switching between them on the fly. Such flexibility in dungeon exploration adds to its strategic depth, creating an even more fulfilling experience for players.
Combat itself is as strategic as ever, with a strong focus on precise movements and strikes over blindly attacking foes. But added to that is this frenetic energy that permeates every battle, and is especially noticeable during boss fights. You quickly dodge attacks and are forced to constantly stay on the move, looking for openings to rush in and pressure said boss before it recovers. Switching between party members to exploit weaknesses and create openings adds to the thrills and brings home the themes of this forced cooperation through imprisonment. As the plot evolves so does gameplay and players find that the true comradery the cast develops over time is reflected in the fluidity of move mastery that comes over time with repeated practice. It’s a subtle yet effective representative of story and gameplay integration, which makes the journey that much more meaningful.
This journey is also reflected in the richer color palette and deeper hues of the characters when in their Monstrum forms and in the Grimwald Nox, versus the bright and vibrant colors of the general city and its people. It also serves as an excellent juxtaposition between the relatively normal world that Adol was a part of prior to the events of Ys IX and the much more dangerous one that he’s coerced into.
Of course, the art direction isn’t perfect, as the main cast’s outfits themselves range from somewhat cool to bizarre, and nearly all of them suffering from the fate of cluttered and overdone. And while the graphics themselves have never looked better within the franchise, there’s nothing particularly phenomenal about them compared to similar genre titles. In fact, textures can look downright muddy at times. Luckily the soundtrack is as solid as ever, with great music within and outside of battle.
Performance-wise Ys IX ran smoothly on the PS4 copy I had, though there have been issues with playing the game through the PS5’s backwards compatibility. Meanwhile, on PS4 there were rarely ever any framerate dips (and even then they were barely noticeable), and combat remaining fluid and responsive. This was thanks to a patch carried over from the Japanese version, which thankfully prevented those in the West from suffering through constant framerate dips. Other movements such as general running and climbing are just as fluid.
Overall, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox’s stronger focus on narrative and character arcs, combined with Ys‘ trademark of deep and rewarding dungeon exploration makes for one of the best entries in the franchise and marks a true step forward. With such a strong step into the next generation, I look forward to seeing where the series will bring us next. Hopefully, the experience will be even more polished.