Adol Christin really needs to stay away from ships. Adol is, of course, the protagonist in Nihon Falcom’s long-running Ys series, disproportionately many of which games involve a shipwreck at one point or another. This is one of those games; scarcely has the play time begun before Adol and the passenger ship Lombardia find themselves under attack by a mysterious sea creature. The ship is lost, and Adol finds himself washed up on the shores of the strange and foreboding Isle of Seiren, which does not help him get to Altago one little bit.
Those of you who’ve played Ys Seven may be wondering why Adol is trying to get to Altago. The answer is that Ys is notorious for following no sensible chronology; not, perhaps, to a Legend of Zelda degree, but nonsensible all the same. Indeed, Lacrimosa of Dana is not set after Ys Seven at all, but rather follows immediately after Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand, released on the Super Famicom in 1995 and never in English in any way, shape, or form. Since the overarching plot of the Ys series is not really that significant to any given game, this isn’t really a problem, but it’s slightly disorienting at first, as the player attempts to recall when on Earth Adol spent time in Xandria.
On the topic of plot, Lacrimosa of Dana has a lot of it. I mean a lot. This is easily the most plot-heavy Ys game, replete with side quests, subplots, and flashbacks to an ancient civilization thousands of years in the past. There’s a lot of dialogue and a lot of cutscenes, and this is where the player really begins to notice that NIS won the bidding war, and that the localization is not handled by usual Ys-localizer XSEED. By which I mean the localization is a bit rough around the edges, replete with pronoun soup (the dreaded "singular they" is a constant companion, and the way it has melted the brains of the writers shows through, since they often completely lose track of who or what they’re talking about), stilted literal translations of Japanese idioms, sudden unexpected swear words, and bizarre word choices, such as one character who consistently refers to another as "senpai" in Japanese, and as "superior" in English, which is a completely strange thing nobody would ever actually say. There are also a few moments where the localization team should have checked the text to make sure it works correctly in context.
But I’m being too harsh, perhaps. For all the text this game contains, it generally works out just fine; so long as you’re wearing pronoun-filtering glasses so you don’t get lost in the miasma of politically correct illiteracy, you’ll find it plenty readable and engaging. The voice actors even manage not to make too horrible a stew of things, even though they clearly didn’t get proper direction, and the tone of consecutive lines often doesn’t match at all.
Anyhow, never mind the screen text, feel the gameplay. Lacrimosa of Dana is, of course, an action RPG by the developers who invented the action RPG, so one probably comes into the game with fairly high expectations. I am pleased to report that it does not disappoint; this is a further refinement of the system pioneered in Ys Seven and later developed in Memories of Celceta, and this time around Falcom has really nailed it. Gone are most of the annoyances of those two games — party members no longer charge around at random, aggroing every mob in sight, for instance — leaving only the fun bits. Once again, the player will form a party of three characters, one for direct control and two AI sidekicks, and the characters are split into three types: slashing, shooting, and striking. These are the classic Dungeons & Dragons attack types with slightly different names, of course, and they come into play because some mobs will be weak against one of the three types. Those mobs are also strong against the other two, meaning that it’s important to have the right character for the mobs you’ll be fighting. Making things simpler is the "break" mechanic; attacks of the correct type will fill the mob’s break meter, and, when that meter fills, it breaks the mob’s defense and allows attacks of all types to do full damage. It’s often the best course of action when fighting type-specific mobs to switch to the character that can hit their weakness (which can be done with a single buttonpress) and focus on breaking them as efficiently as possible.
The defensive abilities "flash guard" and "flash move" return, and they’re now both easier to perform and more potent. Pressing L1 or R1 right as an attack connects will cause your character to flash move or flash guard (respectively), which avoids the incoming attack and also grants bonuses; flash move slows down time and makes you invincible for a few seconds, while flash guard causes all your attacks to be critical hits for a few seconds. These are extremely important abilities — some attacks from late-game bosses are impossible to avoid except by chaining flash moves — but they’re made so easy to use that it becomes second nature quite quickly. Memories of Celceta’s skill system also makes a return, with each character learning different attack skills that are bound to one of the four face buttons. Skills consume focus when used, as before, but focus is vastly easier to build; every attack builds focus, with "charge" attacks and attacks on stunned or broken mobs building far more. Indeed, skills themselves build focus as long as they hit anything, and refund half their cost if they kill anything, meaning that, rather than saving them for special occasions, skills become an integral part of the ordinary flow of combat.
Combat and exploration are the heart of Lacrimosa of Dana, but there’s a surprising amount of other stuff to do. There’s fishing, because all JRPGs have that, but it’s not especially hateful; there’s no requirement to micromanage rods and lures and lines and bait like oh hey some games I could mention — it’s just a matter of finding schools of fish and then mashing the X button a bunch. The interface even literally says "mash X," which is aces. Fishing can also be completely ignored if you so desire, and the game will still be perfectly playable; you’ll miss out on a few decent rewards and a few achievements, but nothing you can’t live without.
If you don’t want to fish, there’s also a whole village to develop by finding and recruiting castaways, building facilities and defenses, and completing sidequests. There are even "gift" items to be given to the people of the village to raise their level of affection toward Adol. Why would you want to do that? Don’t say sex, because there isn’t any — like all Ys games since the first, Adol is aloof and chaste, and does not involve himself with any of the ladies, no matter how obsequiously they flaunt themselves at him. No, the affection meters are important because they impact the effectiveness of the character-specific bonuses you get during the "interception" and "suppression" events.
Periodically, monsters will attack the village em masse, and there will be a big setpiece siege battle called an "interception." Waves of mobs will spawn, and it’s up to the player to kill them all before they can break down the defenses and overrun the village. Every villager has a special ability he can use periodically to help out — well, usually to help out — and the effectiveness is determined by the villager’s affection. Get all the villagers maxed out, and you’ll notice a huge impact on the flow of battle.
Which brings me to the most notable thing about Lacrimosa of Dana: it’s huge. Really, genuinely large. Ys games normally run in the ten to fifteen hour range, but this one is easily fifty to sixty. The Isle of Seiren is quite large and packed with things to do and treasures to find, and on top of that there are some Chrono Trigger-esque sequences set in the past, in which the titular Dana has to change something to help Adol and company progress. On top of all that, there are also multiple bonus dungeons, bonus interceptions and suppressions, another bonus dungeon that unlocks once you’ve beaten the game, and the single most robust "new game+" mode I’ve ever seen in my life:
Arguably the game’s biggest weakness is that, par for the course with Falcom, it looks decidedly last-gen. Falcom, despite its legendary standing in the industry, is a very small, independent company, and, while its art direction itself is excellent, the technical aspects of the visuals are often laggard compared to the competition. There’s nothing here to challenge Final Fantasy XV’s graphics, in other words. On the bright side, there’s also nothing here to challenge Final Fantasy XV’s load times; Lacrimosa of Dana provides an option to disable loading screen tips, since they can slow down the loads. The comedy twist is that, even with the tips enabled, the load times are so fast you can’t even read them. Almost instantaneous. It’s a bit of a revelation here in 2017 to have a video game you can spend more time playing than waiting for! As is always the case with Falcom games, the sound in Lacrimosa of Dana is fantastic, and the music deserves every bit of praise that’s been leveled at it. The titular theme itself is phenomenal, drawing you directly into the game and never getting back out of your head.
There are five difficulty levels, and the difficulty can be adjusted on the fly if you find you’d like more or less challenge, which is a nice thing to see. On the less bright side, the difficulties appear largely to alter the hit points and damage output of the mobs; the Ark of Napishtim-series Ys games had highly robust difficulty that made the games almost an entirely new experience, so it’s a bit sad to see the exact same gameplay with grindier mobs. Still and all, for those who want to replay the game with ever-stronger mobs, the new game+ menu offers an "infinity mode" that levels up the mobs and triples the drop rates, potentially allowing for ever-harder runs until you just can’t take it anymore.
In conclusion, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is a brilliant game, chock-a-block with content, and an absolute blast to play. I have plenty of nitpicks with it, but no serious complaints; the game never has any moments that feel like a complete slog to get through, has lots of interesting things to discover, and has a few plot twists that you genuinely won’t see coming. The heart of Ys, however, has always been accessible, action-oriented RPG gameplay, and Lacrimosa of Dana delivers in spades. I award it a full complement of monastic lamentation haircuts!