It's new to me: Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand
Nihon Falcom developed a from-the-ground-up Ys for the Super Famicom, and it is basically the definition of a bridge game.
This column is “It’s new to me,” in which I’ll play a game I’ve never played before — of which there are still many despite my habits — and then write up my thoughts on the title, hopefully while doing existing fans justice. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.
In 1995, Nihon Falcom decided it was time for them to develop a brand new Ys. The last one they had put together themselves was Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, all the way back in 1989 on the PC-8801 and PC-9801. They had created the general story framework and composed the music for its console-exclusive sequel, Ys IV, but they were shorthanded and unable to develop the full game themselves after the originators of the franchise left Falcom to form their own company, Quintet. By 1995, though, with the PC Engine family of systems coming to the end of their lifespan, the computer platforms Falcom thrived on similarly getting long in the tooth, and Nintendo’s Super Famicom absolutely obliterating the Sega Mega Drive in Japan, Falcom decided to go with the preeminent JRPG system of the day for what would become Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand.
It is a Super Famicom title in just about every sense. It looks like one, which, duh, but what I mean there is that previously ported Falcom titles on the Super Famicom and SNES looked like… well, they still looked like Falcom games, with the same frames and menus and such on the SFC and SNES as their PC and PC Engine cousins. Ys V, though, looks more… generic? If not for Adol Christin’s signature red hair — which plays a major role in Ys V, thanks to misunderstood prophecies — you wouldn’t know by looking at it that this was a Ys you were talking about. There is also that it only released for the SFC, not even the SNES: a fan localization exists these days, so you can experience it for yourself, but Falcom didn’t bother finding a publisher for overseas distribution, and Hudson Soft was maybe a little too busy finding their own post-PC Engine footing at this stage to help out like they usually did.
The graphics aren’t bad, mind you, as there are even some neat environmental effects and designs: the art is just generic. The menus? Generic, looking like Falcom pulled the windows right out of a Squaresoft game and put them into their own. The enemies, generally, don’t look nearly as interesting as they did in previous Ys games (though the bosses are large and detailed and avoid this issue, with Falcom taking advantage of the Super Famicom’s extra horsepower for this).
Far more of a problem than losing the series’ visual identity, though, is how it actually plays. Ys V is fine. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, with an enjoyable story and characters and world, but you could easily make an argument that it’s the worst the series has to offer, and a lot of that has to do with the same argument you could make about the other contender for this, Ys III: it’s that the combat is more awkward than it is good. Whereas Ys III’s issue was that the console ports had some problems with collision detection, so your extremely short sword that you were now swinging instead of bumping with might get you killed due to its short range, should the game believe you were touching an enemy with Adol’s body instead of his sword, in Ys V, the problem is that everything feels mechanical, and the magic system is just pointless and complicated enough that it’s barely worth learning how it works.
There is no bump combat in Ys V, and while I lament the loss of that system, the issue here isn’t the lack of bump combat. It’s that the replacement action system doesn’t feel fun to play. It’s slow, it’s cumbersome, it doesn’t feel good — and “feeling good” is like, half the appeal of Ys games. Pinballing around a dungeon in the bump combat games while a guitar shreds and drums pound feels great. Running around firing off special skills and jump attacks in Ys Origin and Oath in Felghana is incredible. Switching between various party members for their different attack styles and advantages in Memories of Celceta is wondrous. In Ys V, you have a very standard, slow attack that doesn’t match up against other action RPGs on the loaded Super Famicom, and it’s paired with a magic system that is very DIY — you have to, through alchemy, blend elemental items together to create specific spells that you then equip to your weapons — and forces you to pay more attention to it than it should in order to ensure that your magic attacks continue to damage enemies.
It’s also just not very easy to deploy, since it’s designed to shoot magic attacks from your sword after an exceptionally lengthy charge-up period that requires you keep a button depressed, and too often you’ll come across foes who aren’t just immune to damage from whatever elemental magic attack you’ve devised, but might even be healed by it. That is, if you even manage to hit them with the spell in the first place. It ends up just being easier, more often than not, to forego magic and swipe away with your sword, especially since you can’t use these magic attacks in the sacred dungeons that bosses are within, since a major part of the game’s plot is that the use of magic in such a space basically trapped two souls within forever and set off the chain of events that lead to the present conflict. So, why bother, if it’s not even there for you when you presumably would most need magic’s help?
There might be a good reason to work on magic, anyway, to continue to grow it and to utilize it such that it improves the combat system, but the game does not compel you toward such a reason, either in instruction or in practice, and as someone who finished the game despite deciding he was just going to ignore the magic systems, the problem is that you don’t need to use the system that’s there.
There is actually one place where magic comes in handy, but you benefit specifically by not using it much in this realm: Adol gains levels for experience gained from defeating enemies with melee attacks, as well as experience from defeating foes with magic. He has two different leveling systems, each of which provide points into different statistics, so if you just wait until you’re pretty deep into the game until you find a foe very susceptible to magic, you can quickly gain a couple dozen levels for your magic-fueled statistics, and then be even stronger going forward for your melee attacks since the stats magic experience levels up are not necessarily magic-specific.
There are some good sketches of ideas in the system here, but the short of it is that the final product feels unfinished, and it’s not a surprise that Falcom would scrap everything about it going forward rather than leaning on it for a few games, as they have done with every other major change to combat besides the jump to side-scrolling action RPG for Ys III. The game feels unbalanced in more ways than just the fact you can forego utilizing magic, too: it’s just too damn easy. My sense is that Falcom knew the combat wasn’t quite up to snuff, but they over-corrected by making enemies too simple to defeat. There’s a reason that a second version of Ys V, subtitled “Expert,” would release for the Super Famicom just a few months after the original: Falcom knew they needed a tougher version of the game out there, and maybe that one makes the magic system seem more vital and worth it. I wouldn’t know, though, as I’ve only dabbled in it a bit, as the menus and some items have been given a fan translation, but not the full game.
I wonder if it was a little awkward to create a middling Ys game exclusively for the console that the creators of the Ys series thrived on with their own independent studio. Masaya Hashimoto and Tomoyoshi Miyazaki created and directed the first three Ys games, then left to form Quintet, which would develop some stunning action RPGs like Illusion of Gaia, Soul Blazer, and Terranigma. Meanwhile, Falcom had to hand the reins over to Tonkin House and Hudson to create the Ys IVs, and then did a mostly OK job with their own turn with the series post-Quintet departures. Falcom eventually got over the issues of Ys V — 2003’s Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim, was a step in the right direction for a sword-swinging Adol, and both Origin and the remake of Wanderers from Ys, The Oath in Felghana, showed that Falcom had mastered this bump-free version of the series. Ys V, though, just kind of is, in nearly every aspect.
I say “nearly,” because musically, Ys V is exceptional. It doesn’t sound like other Ys games in the same way that Lost Kefin doesn’t look like or play like other Ys titles, but the difference here is that the music is great instead of disappointing or half-baked. Falcom might not have been able to solve the puzzle of creating a killer top-down action RPG on the Super Famicom in their first (and only) go at it, but their composers, The Falcom Sound Team jdk, knew exactly how to utilize the strengths of the Super Famicom to create a memorable soundtrack.
Rather than reinvent the wheel here or shove a square peg in a round hole or whatever other appropriate cliche you would like to pretend I used, Falcom Sound Team decided to lean on what they knew worked for the Super Famicom from their very brief time developing for the system — Falcom handled the SFC port of Popful Mail a year prior, but that was their only first-hand experience with the system — and from using their own ears. So, Lost Kefin has some pretty Ys-sounding moments within it, sure — here’s the Ys V version of “Sinister Shadow,” for instance…
…but for the most part, the Sound Team did their best to ape the styles and sounds of some of the masters of the Super Famicom’s sound hardware, like Squaresoft’s Nobuo Uematsu, Quintet’s own in-house composers, and Yuzo Koshiro, who had composed for both Falcom and Ys specifically in the past, as well as for Quintet on ActRaiser, for which Koshiro and Quintet’s programmers literally invented some ways to program music for the Super Famicom/SNES.
Try to tell me that “Field of Gale” from Ys V doesn’t sound like an unused Uematsu track for the original version of Final Fantasy VII that was going to be on the SNES instead of the Playstation. You cannot, because that’s exactly what it sounds like:
It’s pretty easy to envision “Stormy Town” existing within Final Fantasy VI, or “Wind Knight” within Bahamut Lagoon, which was composed by Noriko Matsueda rather than Uematsu, but still falls under that distinctly Squaresoft or Square-inspired sound of the 90s.
And then there are songs like “Bad Species,” which have that Koshiro/Quintet vibe all over them. This is one of the most driving songs on the entire Lost Kefin soundtrack, but unlike past Ys songs that would be used in this space, this one is far more orchestral:
Seriously, here is what Terranigma did for their own boss fight music just a few months earlier in 1995, which was very much in line with what Quintet games had sounded like throughout the SNES era:
I’m not saying the songs sound exactly the same beat-by-beat or anything, it’s just that it’s clear that the ideas behind this sound were one and the same, and while Terranigma sounded just like you expect Quintet to sound, Ys V sounds like… well, like you expect Quintet to sound, not Falcom.
It’s not just that I can pick and choose a few tracks to prove my point, either: it’s that these sounds, these stylistic decisions, permeate the entire soundtrack. As much as any other part of the development of Ys V, the soundtrack was built from the ground up for the Super Famicom, to take advantage of what it did best and avoid what it did not do nearly as well as, say, the Red Book Audio-enabled PC Engine CD-ROM system.
And this also led to a far more relaxed Ys soundtrack than we’re used to getting, both prior to Ys V and after. One of the joys of Ys’ sound is that you will be in like, a random early-game field, and the song that accompanies it will be all shredding guitars and incessant drums and someone just tearing it up on synths as much as that’s possible: Ys’ regular locations sound like the final dungeon for most other RPGs. Ys V, though, is more restrained, with much more of a focus on the orchestral sounds, on more low-key synths, on flutes, on adding non-electric strings like harps. It all works exceptionally well because these are the kinds of things that the SNES truly excelled at. It just mostly means you no longer have music in a fantasy RPG that would have also felt at home in, say, Mega Man.
It’s to the detriment of Ys V that the feelings the music in the series typically generate are not here, but the soundtrack is also its most significant strength. And it’s not like the way the game actually plays would have felt better with music that was more in line with what Ys’ past sounded like: if anything, the slow, very much not fluid combat system would come off even worse than it does if the music behind it was as driving and forceful as in Ys games past. It might not necessarily sound like the Ys you’re used to, but it still sounds great, and is going to be what I recall most fondly from this game, easy.
The only way to play Ys V in English these days is through that fan translation. It’s the only Ys to not receive a remake at this point: the last remake was Memories of Celceta, which utilized a similar combat system to Ys Seven, with you able to switch between controlling one member from a party of characters at a time. Given Ys III was remade to fit into the VI/Origin style of gameplay, with platforming and jump attacks and an emphasis on elemental powers, Falcom probably won’t be remaking Lost Kefin for international audiences until they’ve established whatever the new form of Ys gameplay is going to be, which wouldn’t be until after Ys X releases and establishes such a thing, at the earliest.
Unless you are the kind of person who just has to know such things for yourselves, you might be better off waiting for the inevitable remake of Ys V. If the remakes of III and IV are any indication, then chances are good you would enjoy yourself far more this way than by seeking out Ys V while you wait. If you’re more like me, though, and do need that first-hand experience, well, Ys V isn’t bad. The problem is mostly that it isn’t better than it is, that its flaws are obvious, and that it exists in a series full of bangers. Lost Kefin might not feel like Ys for a number of reasons, but it’s not so off-base that it’s worth ignoring if you’re a series completionist type.
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