JRPGs have no shortage of fantastical fantasy and sci-fi settings, and Nihon Falcom’s Ys series is certainly no exception to that with mythical lands like Celceta and imposing gothic cities like Balduq. However, the very best game of the series takes a wildly different approach, and it’s a brilliant change that helps make it one of the most vibrant JRPGs of the last decade.
Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana immediately sets itself apart by taking series protagonist Adol Christin and stranding him on a deserted island with a cast of other colorful characters. The game’s narrative wisely puts the castaways at the center of its story, even while looping in all the fantasy elements Ys is known for, and it creates an emotionally resonant experience that easily draws in new and old players. Despite being six years old, the game’s brand-new PS5 version makes it a dazzling experience worth getting stranded over.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Ys series, each game takes place at a different point of Adol Christin’s life, who becomes the most famous adventurer the world has ever seen. While the games technically share lore and some characters, each one can be played as a standalone title. Ys VIII sees Adol and his faithful companion Dogi board a passenger ship called the Lombardia, but when a massive sea creature attacks the vessel, Adol and the rest of the crew wakes up on the cursed Isle of Seiren.
While Adol initially starts off alone he soon stumbles upon other survivors, and they band together to create Castaway Village. What Ys VIII really gets right is not forgetting any of its characters, even making side characters feels like a vital part of the crew’s survival on the island. Some of the people you save make up the main party, like the headstrong noble Laxia or the lovable big goof Sahad. The main characters of Ys VIII are all fantastically written, and every party member has their own dedicated narrative arc that plays out across the game.
However, they aren’t the only characters that serve a purpose, as each castaway provides some kind of bonus, like being able to forge new weapons or create valuable medicine to use in combat. Survivors can be found across the Isle of Seiren, and you’ll oftentimes need to figure out how to reach their location in order to save them. You don’t have to save every castaway, but the game’s story and ending, in particular, can change based on how many survivors you find.
Occasionally the Castaway Village will come under attack by hordes of monsters, requiring you to play in a kind of survival mode where you can set up traps and decoys to help defend the village. During these segments, every castaway takes part in some way, such as providing the party with stat boosts, instantly repairing defenses, or stunning enemies with an assist attack.
There’s a real sense of camaraderie that develops between the castaways, and a host of side quests and optional conversations help flesh out their relationships even more. That sense of camaraderie never leaves, even as Ys VIII's story introduces some wild fantasy ideas like ancient mythical creatures, the extinction of entire races, and otherworldly beings.
While Ys VIII easily features the best cast and narrative of the franchise, Ys has always been known for its intense action combat, which unsurprisingly is absolutely stellar here as well. Ys VIII’s combat plays out at a blisteringly fast pace, with you controlling one character and the AI controlling the other two party members.
You have a host of normal and special attacks that can be used in a variety of combinations, and there’s a huge focus on timing your attacks and pulling off dodges. Combat simply feels fantastic and pulling off a perfect dodge gives you a nice little time slowdown for a few seconds. The game also uses a rock-paper-scissors paradigm for enemy types, with enemies being weak to slash, strike, and pierce damage. Each party member specializes in a different attack type, so combat becomes a game of swapping between party members on the fly to adjust to each battle. It sounds stressful, but fantastic party AI really helps make everything streamlined.
There are a wide variety of locations to explore, and each one is filled with hidden treasures and secrets, not to mention the dozens of sidequests and optional story scenes packed into the game. The original PS4 version had some technical issues that, sadly, help the experience back, but those have been ironed out in patches and the release of the new PS5 version makes it play crisper than ever.
Ys VIII’s vibrant tropical island is such a refreshing setting for a JRPG, and even though it’s not really the most graphically impressive game, brilliant art design still makes the world shine. Phenomenal writing and character development are at the heart of Ys VIII, but a highly satisfying combat system only elevates it as one of the best JRPGs of the last decade. Ys may not have the mainstream notoriety of other JRPG franchises, but boy does it deserve it.