Missed Opportunities: The Aggressively Average “Ys IX: Monstrum Nox”

In a world of uncertainty, there is something perhaps comforting about the formulaic, which may explain why we get franchise series–even outside of sports games–that continue to produce fresh but all-too familiar entries. Much in the vein of those games that reskin enemy types–and there’s a lot of that in Ys–there’s the sense with these titles that, “Well, it worked once before, so why not again?”

Well, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox certainly works. As you might expect from a series with so much history but not nearly as much experimentation as, say, Final Fantasy, each new entry continues to refine as opposed to reinvent the franchise. The only real shift in Ys has been a result of evolving technology; like Zelda it switched from top-down to side-scroller and then to three dimensions, and moved away from having a single hero, Adol Christin, to a party that you could actively swap between, each with their own play style and flashy special moves. The niche it has decided to fill is a similar one to that of the Tales series, but with more of an emphasis on action, particularly dodging enemies.

Ys IX: Monstrum Nox_20210127134855

Moment-to-moment, Ys is a lot of fun. Combat is fast-paced, bosses sometimes have weak points that require a bit of strategy, and dungeons are dotted with hidden treasures. There’s a lot of emphasis on exploration this time, too, thanks to the game’s central gimmick, which is that Adol and his five cursed companions have each gained a traversal power–a grappling claw, a sprightly wall run, a shadow dive–that allow them to increasingly zip around the various districts of the Prison City of Balduq.

But in the bigger picture? Ys is inescapably formulaic, however much the game somewhat lampshades this in an early, comic prison scene in which an incredulous interrogator can’t get past just how many seemingly contrived shipwrecks or legendary adventures Adol has stumbled onto. Each chapter has an almost identical structure, and familiarity quickly sets in, even if the characters and districts differ. Adol is tasked with traveling to a district of the city, which means he has to break down the magical barrier by completing side-quests (all of which are conveniently located in areas he can already access). Once through, he’ll then recruit a new Monstrum ally and, with the aid of their Gift, find a path into the prison. As for the hook meant to string players along? Each chapter ends with a tantalizing glimpse into a life of a prisoner, one who looks an awful lot like Adol.

In the bigger picture, Ys is inescapably formulaic.

Compounding the issue is that Ys IX feels incredibly similar to Persona 5, and it’s an unflattering comparison. The structured routines of Persona 5 are intentional: you’re getting the sense of what it’s like to balance daily life and social commitments with that of your Phantom Thief alter-egos. More importantly, though each “chapter” of Persona 5 ends with a big heist, each of those Palaces is intentionally distinct, fashioned out of the mindset of the person whose heart you’re trying to change. By contrast, Ys IX keeps traveling to the same “metaverse,” a spiritual realm known as the Grimwald Nox in which the Monstrums are bound to face Lemures, the accumulated enmity of Balduq’s citizens. There’s no specificity to this threat: they are abstract evils given fun-to-thwack forms. These areas aren’t even all that different from their real-world counterparts, so much as they are filtered over with the red light of this dimension’s crimson moon.

There’s a deepening mystery at the heart of the game’s prison, one that exposes the tentative peace between the Romuns who conquered Balduq and that of the native Gllians and their Hieroglyph Knights. Each new character that Adol frees adds a unique perspective to the conflict, from the seething anger of Iris, a young would-be-assassin, to the disillusionment of Lucien, who dared to question the false imprisonments his fellow Knights were starting to carry out. Margot’s cautionary tale is particularly instructive, as this old firebrand must confront the violent consequences of the resistance movement she inspired. Sadly, these tales come across as vignettes set in the world of Ys IX. Whereas Persona 5 centered an entire social link system around meaningful interactions with your allies, who would in turn support you in battle, Ys IX doesn’t require to you prioritize who you work with so much as it just makes you wait for the story to advance far enough such that you can purchase them a gift. Ultimately, they’re just one more thing to collect.

Though Ys IX alludes to a lot of Adol’s previous adventures, with his memories being the very reason why he’s singled out in the first place, it’s time for the series to take a cue from Nihon Falcom’s other flagship series, Legend of Heroes, and to stop making such standalone entries. Instead of essentially rebooting Adol from scratch each time and focusing on tiny slices of this Earth-adjacent fantasy world, the game can build on Adol’s relationship and the deeper lore between rival nations and gods. This would allow characters to actually mean something and, more importantly, add range to Adol’s environments, as opposed to all the repetitive ways in which Ys IX travels through old waterways, canyons, and ruins back to the same bleak stone prison.

It may be time to take a cue from Legend of Heroes and stop rebooting Adol from scratch each time.

I enjoyed Ys IX, but I can’t celebrate the low bar it continues to clear. Balduq is a massive city with about a dozen hidden escape routes and a complex history behind each of its districts. It doesn’t seem unrealistic to expect that the game itself should be as interconnected when it comes to plot as it is with its level design, or that, when Adol travels between entirely distinct regions, the gameplay should more meaningfully adapt to his environments with him. In the end, the monstrous curse that Ys IX faces is an averageness of its own making.

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