A man walks into a bar. Why? Well, he doesn't know either, and that's pretty much the entire plot of Ys: Memories of Celceta in a nutshell - a game where, in true Japanese role playing style, an amnesiac hero with a large sword heads off on a quest to recover his lost memories, rediscover why he lost them in the first place, and save the world in the process. Or, at the very least, explore and map out a huge, mythical forest in return for a massive reward pot of money.
Ys: Memories of Celceta, a PS Vita exclusive, is the latest in the incredibly long running (if lesser known) series of role playing games, Ys, which made its debut in 1987 alongside Final Fantasy. Yet despite its suitably exotic and awkward to pronounce name (Ees? Yees? Eyes?), Ys is actually a fairly by-the-numbers RPG. You'll make your way across the game's sprawling map, whacking monsters as you go, as you eventually piece together the hero's memories, solve some quests, and level up your party members to take on bigger, badder foes. Along the way, you'll come across a variety of slightly odd people who'll offer to join up with you on your quest, working their way into your party, with each coming with their own special abilities and powers.
But despite not doing anything phenomenally ground breaking, Ys is actually really good.
While the story takes more of a backseat than we'd like, with a plot that relies heavily on clichés, it's a tale that's been well paced, with just enough cutscenes and narrative bits to help drive the story forward. At least partially, this is because the characters have a bit of personality - from the overtly masculine pub owner Mucho (who never missed a chance to flex and shout "I AM A MAAAYUN"), to the angry Commander Leo, and his hapless followers Panza and Sancho, who're desperate to be the first ones to map out the forest, yet don't seem to have all that much luck - with enough weird characters and plot twists to keep the story going.
With large gaps in between story segments, though, it's the battles where you'll spend most of your time in Ys, engaging in combat that has more in common with a hack and slash dungeon crawler like Diablo than a role playing game like Final Fantasy, with monsters littering the plains, and no defined battles to speak of - all you have to do is give the baddies a good whacking when they come close, as you fight your way through caves, across rugged mountains, and through the valleys to accomplish your quest.
While it'd be easy for a button masher like this feel repetitive and dull, Ys helps keep things interesting in several ways, with a variety of attacks and other little tweaks that keep things feeling fresh, without being overwhelming. While the Square button handles your main attack, and you can hammer it as much as you want, you can press X to dive/dash out of the way of any incoming blows (which can be incredibly useful when you're faced with some of the game's larger, more powerful, yet slower foes), or press Triangle to block, which, when timed correctly, can stun the baddies. Feeling more reaction-based than a game like Diablo, Ys' constant battles feel more fluid - and if nothing else, it can be fun just mashing X to roll across the landscape rather than being boring and running.
Pressing Circle, meanwhile, lets you switch between members of your party - which can be crucial to your success from the very start of the game. Each of your party members has their own class of weapons - swords, spears, steel glove thingies, etc - and each type of monster usually has a weakness. While the AI will usually control your buddies for you, and send them off either attacking things, or running around in circles like a dog chasing its tail, the human touch is better - and by taking control of the right team mate, you can lay the smack down on the enemy, taking advantage of their weakness. If damage points are flashing up in purple, you're using the wrong weapon - if they're yellow, you're dishing out double damage thanks to the weapon weakness.
But there's more than one way to make sure you're dishing out the most possible damage, which is where Ys' in depth crafting system comes in. While you're on the road, whether you're beating up baddies, or, as the AI seems to prioritise, pummelling tree roots to within an inch of their life, you'll be collecting hundreds of bits and pieces, from bits of wood, to gems, coal, iron, steel, and even mushrooms - each of which can be used to upgrade your weapon of choice at your nearest town. Head into the weapons shop, and you'll be able to refine the raw materials you've found, and then use them to upgrade your weapons - which don't so much increase the damage the weapon dishes out, so much as add lots of lovely status effects to it. Whether that means you end up with a sword that has a chance of freezing and opponent and heals you while you have it equipped, or a spear that can set fire to things, you can modify your weapon to have as many, or as few status boosting things as you want, turning an average sword into a much more useful piece of kit. Even better, when you find a new weapon, you can fuse it with the older one to carry your upgrades forwards.
Of course, as you'd likely expect, there's plenty to do if you fancy straying off the beaten path, too, with dozens of side quests that provide an extra reason to go out grinding your way through a forest. With a range available from each of the towns, there's a surprisingly broad selection of things to be done, from villagers asking you to defeat a specific creature, clear out a cave of baddies, or in one case, simply take over running the guy's shop while he's out (it's harder than it sounds).
But what of the problems? While major issues are few and far between, Ys does have a few odd difficulty spikes, as it keeps throwing enemies at you that are a much, much higher level, and which you can barely scratch with your current weapons. Your only option here is to pretty much run past them and hope for the best, before returning to give them a bashing later, which can be a bit of an odd feeling when you've only just set out on your adventure. Oddly, the game does look a little bit blurry on the PS Vita screen too, as though it's being viewed through a weird, oily filter, which is lacking the crispness that these games usually have. We aren't sticklers for graphics, yet this one's a bit weird. Beyond that, the only real criticism we have is of the story, which is a bit weak at times, when we'd have preferred something a bit more gripping.
Still, if you're looking for a game you can sink your teeth into long term, and get dozens of hours of play out of, Ys is well worth a look. What it lacks in storyline, it more than makes up for in gameplay, with real time battles that actually work (unlike many other Japanese role players), a great crafting system, and pick up and play appeal in spades. As a PS Vita exclusive, this is one more reason to buy Sony's handheld.
Format Reviewed: PS Vita