NISA published Nihon Falcom’s Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana back in 2017, and it was one of that year’s best JRPGs.
With Ys IX: Monstrum Nox, they’ve nailed it again.
Monstrum Nox follows returning series hero Adol Christin in the city of Balduq, which is well known for its large prison system. Unfortunately for Adol, he’s arrested right off the bat. While trying to break his way out of the prison, Adol comes across a mysterious woman named Aprilis who shoots him with a magic bullet, turning him into a being called a Monstrum.
The exhilarating combat, evocative music, fascinating characters, and heartfelt story makes Ys: IX Monstrum Nox is a must-play JRPG for fans of the genre. It’s an accessible, modern entry in the decade-spanning series that both veterans and newcomers can enjoy. While you don’t need to have played the previous games to get wrapped up in the story, series diehards will appreciate the subtle references to the saga’s past.
A Double Life
The game’s visual style and approach to exploration are a dramatic departure from Lacrimosa of Dana. Monstrum Nox is gothic and broody, with much of the action centered in the city of Balduq, compared to the Ys VIII’s tropical setting and varied scenery.
The Ys series is known for its phenomenal soundtracks, and Monstrum Nox’s tunes rise to meet that high bar, with a noticeably heavier mood to fit in with this story’s darker themes. NISA did an excellent job with the English dub too, and the quality voice acting even with the citizens and shopkeepers makes Balduq that much livelier.
Monstrums are new to the Ys universe, and they possess supernatural powers and edgy outfits that allow them to fight otherworldly monsters. While the Monstrum forms of the entire cast are revealed early on, their civilian identities remain unknown for a substantial chunk of the story in a way that invites favorable comparisons to Persona 5’s Phantom Thieves.
Despite their formidable powers and striking looks, Monstrums have one big shortcoming: they’re physically unable to step outside of Balduq. Their overarching goal is to completely break the curse and discover their origins. Each character’s development revolves around conflict in their civilian lives while also hiding their Monstrum forms from loved ones. Every one of their stories is fascinating and ties in well with the overall narrative.
This time around, Monstrum Nox’s plot progression has a lot in common with another beloved Falcom franchise, the Trails series. That means Monstrums have to fulfill bulletin board requests to show the citizens of Balduq that they’re not as scary as they look. Some quests are required in order to progress the story, while others are optional. Most players will want to take on these side missions though, as they really help flesh out the cast of characters and overall worldbuilding.
Gifts and Curses
Monstrum Nox maintains the series’s reputation for energetic real-time combat. Each character has a normal attack that builds SP, which is used to perform special attack skills. Each character can learn 10 of these skills through leveling up or from items obtained through side quests or treasure chests.
Combat plays out most similarly to a Tales game or Final Fantasy VII Remake, but without any of the latter’s pseudo-turn based menu options. Battles allow for a variety of offensive as well as defensive tactics, such as dodging and guarding. Executing either just before an enemy’s attack connects triggers a window for you to inflict as much damage as possible. This mechanic is especially helpful — and gratifying — during fights against bosses with wide-ranging attacks.
Monstrum Nox adds a new Boost mechanic to the mix, which players can activate to increase damage output, boost speed, and gradually restore HP. Each character has an EXTRA skill, or ultimate attack, that can be activated before Boost runs out. These EXTRA skills are far weaker than in previous Ys games, due to the fact that players can activate Boost many times during a single battle. Mixing all of these different mechanics allows for a huge variety of strategic approaches to any scenario, which means combat never grows stale.
A new feature to Monstrum Nox are Gifts, traversal mechanics unique to each character. Adol’s Gift is called Crimson Line, which he uses to grapple on to different waypoints throughout Balduq. Hawk can glide with his Hunter’s Descent, Doll can see through buildings and pinpoint collectibles with her Third Eye, and so forth. They can also be used in battle to clump baddies together or reveal enemy weak spots. Gifts are shared between party members, a thoughtful design point that means you never have to worry about who is in your current active party. It’s a considerate quality-of-life detail that lesser games would overlook.
As you progress, you’ll use these Gifts to access new areas of Balduq, and the city has a satisfying depth that will make you want to investigate every nook and cranny. Dungeons offer numerous branching paths and rewards for canny players with a knack for exploration and creative thinking — you’ll often need to figure out how to use Gifts to reach an inaccessible treasure chest, but your efforts are always worth it.
A trailer detailing the combat mechanics of Ys IX.
Running around Balduq is surprisingly similar to Marvel’s Spider-Man, as the sheer verticality that you can explore means you’re always stumbling across useful items wherever you go. While using Gifts to reach higher ground places, Adol and the gang will transform into their Monstrum forms. But as soon as they land on the ground or are seen by shrieking civilians, they’ll seamlessly revert back to their regular appearances. This happens constantly as you’re zipping around and really enriches the game's atmosphere.
Ys has always been relatively niche compared to its high-profile JRPG contemporaries such as Persona and Final Fantasy. But make no mistake: Ys IX is just as story and character-driven as its peers, with equally satisfying combat and battle mechanics.
Monstrum Nox sets a new high bar for the series, but it's not without shortcomings. There are multiple story segments where Adol breaks out of prison and is surrounded by traps at every turn. Falling into some of these traps will force you to re-do the entire section. While you have the option to skip these parts, you’d miss out on some nice treasure, which makes these bits something to be endured rather than savored.
The biggest issue, however, is performance. The game crashed more than 20 times, just at random times while going about the city. Certain cutscenes also caused crashes too, and although cutscenes are skippable, this isn’t an appealing option for those who gravitate toward the story-driven nature of the JRPG genre. While I really do love this game, this amount of crashes is unacceptable. Hopefully, the developers can fix this soon with a post-launch patch.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is an epic tale with a vibrant world within its walls. With its tried and true gameplay, this latest entry nimbly balances familiarity with the rush of innovation. You’ll develop true affection for the characters throughout this massive 40-50 hour game, partly because the side quests are so compelling. Despite some issues with performance, the strong points vastly outshine them. Adol always yearns for great adventures, and I can’t wait to see where the wind takes him next. 9/10.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox comes to PS4 on February 2.
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