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‘Ys: The Oath in Felghana’ – Designing One of the Greatest Action Games Ever Made

The shift from Bump Combat to the Napishtim Engine in the Ys franchise is a truly impressive one. The series had always maintained a steady fanbase, but The Ark of Napishtim elevated Ys into an entirely new level of presentation, direction, and action. Ys VI showed that Adol’s adventures mattered and that Falcom’s design concepts for the series could properly translate into a more modern style of game. Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand had previously tried to modernize the series on the Super Famicom, but ended up lulling the franchise into an almost decade long hiatus. Picking up where the last game left off, The Ark of Napishtim sought not just to continue Adol Christin’s adventure, but actively fix Lost Kefin’s combat.

Thus, the Napishtim Engine was born. Where Adol previously simply had to bump into enemies to damage them (in most games sans Wanderers from Ys and Lost Kefin,) the Napishtim Engine offered a more traditional approach to combat, albeit one that placed an emphasis on the importance of mechanical mastery. Ys VI was difficult by design and wouldn’t simply allow players to button mash their way to the end as they once could in Ys V. Hugging the first boss and simply attacking them as fast as possible would result in death within seconds. Enemies hit hard and Adol often didn’t hit hard enough, ensuring that battles were won only after players took the time to learn boss patterns and the general controls.

There’s an almost dance-like rhythm to how boss fights progress in The Ark of Napishtim. The Napishtim Engine’s first appearance allowed Adol to perform three hit combos, jump in order to avoid damage, briefly slash in the air, perform a down thrust, and make use of sword exclusive skills. Overcoming the hardest challenges meant using all these abilities in conjunction with one another. Harder difficulties, in particular, demanded players take the time to dodge and attack accordingly. The Napishtim Engine creates a genuine back and forth where battles weave from Adol getting a chance to do some serious damage before needing to fend for his life.

In order to give combat more variety, the Napishtim Engine was designed around three swords: Livart, Brillante, and Ericcil. All three could perform the standard three hit combo, but they each had their own unique attributes. Livart could be chained into a fourth strike that would allow Adol to actually continue comboing with well timed button presses; Brillante could be charged up by holding the attack button down, unleashing a massive burst of damage; and Ericcil’s three hit combo was fast enough where they could be continuously chained into one another, building up a charge that would thrust Adol into enemies or over gaps.

Each sword also had its own weight. Brillante strikes slow to make up for its high damage output; Ericcil doesn’t do too much damage, but its jabs are fast enough where that’s seldom a probably; and Livart serves as a comfortable in-between. No one sword is inherently better or worse than the other. Which in itself actually poses an issue for the Napishtim Engine. If the three swords simply offer three mildly unique styles of play, why have them at all? Livart is the “standard” weapon and gets the job done plenty well, so why should Brillante and Ericcil play a role? Of course, the clear answer is that they were included for variety, but Falcom realized that variety was not what the Napishtim Engine needed moving forward. At least not variety through three slightly different weapons.

Released roughly one year and a half after The Ark of Napishtim, The Oath in Felghana marked the Napishtim Engine’s triumphant return, and it brought with it an onslaught of mechanical changes and fixes. Perhaps Ys VI’s greatest flaw in retrospect was the emphasis it placed on item and equipment management. Despite the focus on fast paced action, The Ark of Napishtim was still very much trying to abide by JRPG staples. This meant that Adol could go into his inventory and pop healing items outside of boss battles along with equipping multiple accessories that would change his stats or just prevent status ailments. These are all genuinely fine ideas in theory, and they didn’t hinder the experience too much, but they do fly in the face of the Napishtim Engine’s inherent speed. If players are toggling through menus, they aren’t experiencing the action.

As a result, one of The Oath in Felghana’s main priorities became minimizing the amount of time players spent inside menus. This, in turn, created a Napishtim Engine staple that would makes its reappearance in Ys Origin: consuming items through touch. Rather than picking up a healing item and needing to open the menu to use it, The Oath in Felghana made it so simply walking over a dropped item would in Adol immediately consuming it. Healing became a natural part of the gameplay loop and no longer something tucked away behind another screen. This change also made it so Adol couldn’t equip consumable items and bring them into boss fights, requiring players to get through the game on skill alone.

Along with healing items now being integrated into the moment to moment gameplay, enemies now dropped potions. Rather than healing Adol, these potions would buff Adol’s stats, increasing his offense, defense, or magical abilities. Comboing enough enemies in succession, and keeping said combo active, would also increase the experience Adol would gain from defeating enemies. By comboing enough enemies, Adol could nearly double the experience he gained from battle. Naturally, these changes aren’t just great because they reduce menu time. Rather, they also allow for more aggression in combat.

Since healing and buffs were now a given in gameplay, enemies could be designed to not just hit harder, but interact with Adol more complexly. A good deal of enemies now actively engage Adol by running in to attack him before backing away. They aren’t just static monsters that rush in to do a bit of damage before dying. Enemies interact with Adol far more intelligently than they did before, and simply rushing in to attack without any thought will lead to certain death in the latter half of the game. When the core gameplay loop is designed around consumable items that provide healing through a single touch, common enemies can provide a great deal of challenge without coming off unfair or stalling the combat flow.

Which is an important aspect to consider about this minor change to the Napishtim Engine. Since enemies can and will drop healing items, players are more or less encouraged to power through an area that may be giving them trouble even when on low health. Since they’ll, by design, find healing sooner or later, there’s no real incentive for players to hold back or return to a save point for safety. Logic would dictate that it’s better to be safe than sorry, but The Oath in Felghana’s natural gameplay flow encourages constant progression. Players are inherently rewarded for continuing, especially if they have an experience buff active, so there’s no reason to turn back.

Of course, this is to say nothing of the biggest change The Oath in Felghana actually brings to the Napishtim Engine: combat. Rather than relying on three core weapons to give the swordplay variety, combat has been changed up so that Adol has access to all his core sword abilities from get-go. Not just that, the gameplay loop is much faster as a result of the changes made to swordplay. Rather than having access to a three hit combo, Adol’s natural combo chain goes up to six swings now, each one building off the last. Adol’s airplay is much improved, as well, as he can now go into each a three hit combo mid-jump, land a weighty down thrust, or pull off a single circle swipe while airborne.

Adol may not have three weapon types to pick and choose from anymore, but his singular style of swordplay offers more variety than The Ark of Napishtim ever did. Coupled with the dropped items, Adol’s gameplay is bitingly fast. His six hit combo alone allows him to cover an incredible amount of ground and is long enough where he can chain from enemy to enemy within battles. The changes made to airplay, alone, makes combat far more satisfying as Adol can now combo airborne enemies. Where he once needed to either swing at them to knock them down, Adol can simply knock them into a proper combo without wasting any gameplay time.

Rather than bringing back weapon specific skills, Adol now has access to three types of magic at all times: a fireball, a spin attack, and a charging attack that works as a parry of sorts. These abilities use their own perpetually refreshing magic meter, making them a core part of the gameplay loop rather than something Adol will pull off every now and then. As they’re also not tied to the weapon button, they can be naturally integrated into combat. Certain bosses even make use of the spells as part of the gameplay, giving them a greater importance in The Oath in Felghana than they ever had in The Ark of Napishtim.

Interestingly, Oath makes two other important changes to the Napishtim Engine that would be carried over into Origin. In Ys VI, Adol was locked to his default speed and singular jump for the entire game. While this didn’t pose a problem, it did mean that Adol moved at a very methodical pace, one that didn’t necessarily incentivize fast paced action. Before Oath’s midpoint, Adol will be able to find upgrades for both his pace speed and his jump. Now, Adol can dash at all times in order to make the combat flow even faster, and his new double jump adds an extra layer to airborne combat. They’re very minor additions in the grand scheme of things, but so are the rest of the fixes made to the Napishtim Engine.

When it comes down to it, the Napishtim Engine was perfectly serviceable as it was in its first incarnation. Were The Oath in Felghana a standard sequel, simply reusing the Napishtim Engine as it was, it would still have been a strong action game. It’s easy to fall into the “don’t fix what isn’t broken”  mindset, and no one would have been able to fault Falcom for keeping their cards so close to their chest, especially after just getting Ys out of its hiatus. But that’s exactly what makes The Oath in Felghana such an excellent action game. Falcom understand that the Napishtim Engine not only could be improved, it should be improved.

The Oath in Felghana cuts out of the fluff, trims all the fat, and ends up being all the better for it. Its changes are as minor as they get, but they’re refined and done so out of a genuine understanding of what the Napishtim Engine needed refined. Ys was never a franchise that was meant to stagnate. Even Ys I & II, a duology more or less designed to be one single game, makes enough changes between entries where the experience is far from static. Ys success stems directly from Falcom ability to self reflect and evaluate when changes need to be made. The Oath in Felghana is a triumph in game design, not because it radically saved a franchise, but because it understood the design elements that needed to be included to make a great action game.

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