Originally released for the PC-88 in 1987, Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished quickly became a JRPG staple. Combining fast-paced, buttonless gameplay with narrative presentation that far surpassed any other console game from the era, Ys solidified itself as a behemoth amongst its contemporaries. Ys was given yet another layer of welcome complexity with its PC Engine remake in 1989. Now combining both Ancient Ys Vanished and its successor, Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter, into one cohesive package. With crisper visuals, fully voice acted cut scenes, an even stronger musical score, and the same fast paced gameplay, Ys carved a niche of sorts for itself in the RPG stratosphere.
Through the Bump System, combat could happen at an alarmingly fast pace, with players simply needing to move Adol into enemies to slay them. Without needing to press a button to attack, Adol’s movement were faster than, say, Link’s from The Legend of Zelda. Such an approach to action allowed gameplay to constantly be on the move. Boss fights in particular thrived off the Bump System, creating frantic duels where players were expected to have a mastery of movement to succeed. Even when Ys II added button-based combat through magic, the Bump System ensured the action remained satisfyingly fast.
In terms of presentation, the inclusion of voice acting and cut scenes elevated Ys’ already well thought out narrative. Although the duology’s story might come off cliched in a modern context, it is worth remembering that cliches don’t necessarily damage a story. After all, all plots are inherently built on pre-established cliches, tropes, and ideas. Worth noting is also the fact that Ys was something of a trailblazer at its time. Ys’ plot was deceptively simple, weaving a complicated tale of lineage, destiny, and divinity that put other video game stories from the era to shame. With voice-acted cut scenes now in the mix, Ys not only pushed itself further, but what was capable within the medium.
Like Ys I & II before it, the duo’s successor, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, was also released on the PC-88 before receiving a PC Engine remaster that brought with it an audio and visual update alongside voice-acted cutscenes. Unlike Ys I & II, however, Wanderers from Ys drops the Bump System in favor of a more standard approach to combat. All the same, while a button needs to now be pressed for Adol to swing his sword, battles are designed with speed in mind. Auto-attacking may no longer be possible, but the overall game design keeps the spirit of the originals intact.
It certainly helps that Ys III keeps the duology’s presentation intact even when moving to a 2D, side scrolling plane ala Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. By sheer virtue of adding a standard means of attacking, Ys III should feel more traditional, but its insistence on experimentation while keeping the series’ core concepts in place (exploration, light puzzle solving, fast gameplay) means that Wanderers of Ys feels right at home with the previous two installments even if it forgoes the Bump System.
On the flip side of the spectrum is Ys IV: Mask of the Sun, one of two Ys IV titles released in 1993. In being developed for the Super Famicom, Mask of the Sun could not retain the same presentation style of its predecessors due to technical limitation. Unlike the PC Engine, the Super Famicom simply was not powerful enough to handle voice-acted cut scenes. While this meant that the series’ fourth installment suffered from far worse cut scenes, the Bump System was not only back, but Mask of the Sun in general modeled its design quite heavily after both Ys I & II. If nothing else, Mask of the Sun was a familiar, albeit a bit worse, return to form.
Mask’s sister game, Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys was developed specifically with the PC Engine in mind. As a result, The Dawn of Ys in many respects plays out like the true Ys III. It takes place before Wanderers of Ys meaning that only Ys I and II are referenced; it uses the Bump System exactly as it was in the original duology while also adhering to the duo’s style of level design; and the presentation is by far the most cinematic of the pre-Napishtim Engine titles. While The Dawn of Ys was deemed non-canon in favor of Mask of the Sun for years to come, it was the one sequel that best emphasized what the original Ys represented.
What’s most important to note about the series’ first five major entries is that– while all similar– not a one takes inspiration from another game. At least not to the point of compromising their own identity. Wanderers from Ys comes the closest by seemingly lifting its combat from Zelda II, but it still is very much an Ys game on every other level. Even Mask of the Sun which was released on the Super Famicom makes sure to use a visual style similar to the PC-88 originals so as not to get lost in the homogenized Super Famicom JRPG aesthetic. Which makes Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand all the more perplexing.
Released for the Super Famicom at the very end of 1995, Ys V was the series’ fifth canonical entry and the first to more or less find comfort in playing it safe. Where previous entries were comfortably non-traditional in regards to the RPG genre, Lost Kefin is as bog standard as Super Famicom JRPGs come. Visually, Ys V is nothing special, having abandoned the series’ vibrancy in favor of a more muted color scheme not too dissimilar to Final Fantasy VI which released one year prior. While the series never had a single defined art style, even the sprite work is reminiscent of Square’s titles from the era, robbing Ys’ visual identity even more.
Although the soundtrack does remain rather strong (always one of Ys’ strong suits,) there is a noticeable lack of care in the actual placement of certain tracks. As expected for a game on the Super Famicom, there are distinct town, shop, and home themes. The problem is that Ys V’s tracks are so long that most players will almost never hear the end of any of these tracks unless they deliberately wait them out. Songs shift so often outside of dungeons that the musical composition cannot be appreciated as easily as was once possible on the PC Engine or even PC-88.
In regards to dungeons, Ys V is sorely lacking with the exception of its final dungeon. Said set piece is actually quite well designed, clearly acting as a condensed (and more cohesive version) of Ys II’s gargantuan Shrine of Solomon. Unfortunately, the rest of the dungeons fall either far too short for their own good offering very little in the way of exploration, or are simply too easy.
Above all else, Ys up to this point had always been a franchise that clearly prided itself on its difficulty. Not a single game in the series shied away from brutal boss fights or difficult set pieces with Darm Tower at the end of Ys I actually depriving Adol of his best equipment and offering him a stronger set of gear that would specifically result in Adol being unable to damage Dark Fact, an already fairly challenging final boss. From as early as the first game, and quite frankly the franchise’s very first boss fight, Ys made it clear that challenges were meant to be overcome.
Said philosophy seldom, if ever, applies to Lost Kefin. At its hardest, a puzzle near the end of the game can kill Adol fairly quickly, but most bosses simply don’t do enough damage to be a risk. Even the final boss, which theoretically should be the game’s largest challenge, can be brute forced with little to no effort.
Ys V’s difficulty curve was so low, Nihon Falcom re-released the game less than three months later as Ys V Expert. Although the re-release more or less only buffed enemy stats and toggled a few attack patterns (which disappointingly left bosses virtually intact,) the gameplay benefited considerably from some degree of challenge. The difficulty curve was still quite low when compared to previous entries, but it was no longer brain dead. It is a genuine shame such a problem existed in the first place as Expert shows just how conceptually sound Ys V’s combat actually is.
On a purely surface level, not taking into consideration enemy design or general speed of gameplay, Ys V lays a very solid foundation for combat. Adol’s swords can either slash or stab depending on what he has equipped; the ability to raise his shield means that combat could theoretically work in a back and forth manner; jumping allows Adol to reliably dodge and lunge into enemies; and magic is back through the Fluxstone mechanic, a system that allows for experimentation via magic crafting. Unfortunately, these mechanics just don’t work all that well in practice.
Even with harder enemies to take down in Expert, the combat is simply too slow. Ys went from a series with non-stop action to one that routinely struggled to keep up with A Link to the Past, a game that quite frankly took its time in regards to combat more often than not. Adol had to be positioned properly to attack, movement was now comparatively quite slow, and neither jumping nor blocking were properly integrated into the gameplay loop. As a game, Ys V is clearly trying to present itself as a contemporary JRPG, but, in doing so, it fails to craft an identity of its own.
If nothing else, the story at least reads appropriately Ys with plenty of strong moments in the second half. The presentation is lacking, unfortunately, but Lost Kefin actually does do a better job on than front than Mask of the Sun did, if only because it recognizes its limitations. Of course, this does mean Ys V can come off stilted in a franchise that strived for the cinematic– and most cut scenes read as if they could have taken place in any Super Famicom title from the era– but the plot genuinely is commendable for the most part. The stakes are high, the twists are appropriate, and the finale makes great use of both build up and pay off.
It isn’t as if Ys V is totally devoid of merit in regards to gameplay either. As previously mentioned, Lost Kefin laid a foundation for strong combat which is exactly what happened with Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim. Released a whopping eight years after Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand, The Ark of Napishtim has more in common with its Super Famicom predecessor than it does its PC-88 progenitor when it comes to combat. Adol may not be able to block, but he can jump and has to attack manually. The main difference between V and VI, however, is that the latter honors the moment to moment pacing of Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished.
The Napishtim Engine’s existence doesn’t suddenly validate Ys VI as a better game than it is, but it does shine light on how a traditional approach can be spun well. By all accounts, The Ark of Napishtim should be a standard action RPG, but it ends up so much more than just another RPG thanks to how it prioritizes difficulty, speedy combat, and level design. Lost Kefin does not do that. Instead, it is complacent to follow the leader. Said complacency did lead somewhere good– with the three Napishtim Engine titles arguably serving as the franchise’s peak– but it is disappointing to see such a unique series take such a generic approach to game design if only for a single entry.
With so much of Ys’ history on display, it can be difficult to see Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand as anything other than an enormous misstep. While it very much stumbled on multiple levels, it is a decent action RPG in its own right. It perhaps won’t appease hardcore fans of the series, and rightfully so, but it does offer a fair share of enjoyable content. More importantly, however, Ys V is the basis that the Napishtim Engine is built off of. While The Ark of Napishtim immediately made its structure its own, it cannot separate itself from Ys V, not truly. Lost Kefin is a cautionary tale that put a franchise on a creative freeze for eight years, but– just like a certain kingdom of sand– it is a tale which also demonstrates that one bout of failure doesn’t mean all hope is lost.