Ys IX Monstrum Nox manages to pull off something very rare in an RPG; it provides platforming that actually feels good! In addition, it offers an intriguing story with a cast of colorful (but tropey) characters.
Title: Ys IX Monstrum Nox
Release Date: July 6, 2021
Suggested Audience Age: T for Teen (ESRB)
Time to Beat: 30 – 60 hours, depending on % completion
Availability: PC (reviewed), Switch, PS4
Recommended for fans of: Action RPGs, Exploration-focused platformers,
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.
Over the course of the past few years, I've been working my way through Falcom's Ys series of action RPGs. This experience has turned me from a franchise newbie to somewhat of an Ys guru. (I even wrote an explainer on the franchise and a series starting points guide.) However, at long last, I've reached the end of a very interesting journey with Ys IX Monstrum Nox.
I played through the game to nearly 100% completion on PC and streamed my entire playthrough on my Twitch channel.
Ys IX is an action RPG in Falcom's long-running series of games that depict the adventures of Adol Christin, a globe-trotting adventurer. In this entry, Adol and his partner Dogi arrive in the fortress city of Balduq. Unfortunately, their arrival is an unpleasant one and they are promptly confronted by the local authorities, leading to Adol's arrest under dubious charges. Adol manages to escape his bonds but not before coming to suspect that the city's aggressive police force and massive prison facility may be a front for something far more sinister. To make matters more complicated, during his escape, Adol is afflicted by a curse that grants him supernatural powers at the cost of his ability to leave Balduq city limits.
With that start, the rest of the game is comprised of Adol's investigation of the prison's secrets. Along the way, he teams up with others that have been afflicted by the same curse (collectively called the “Monstrums”). As a group, they seek to get to the heart of the conspiracy and break their curse.
Mechanics: Traversal & Exploration
The most unique aspect of Ys IX is the variety of Monstrum abilities Adol can acquire. Initially, Adol starts with a skill called “Crimson Line” that allows him to teleport short distances within his line of sight. As Adol teams up with other Monstrums, he gets access to their abilities as well. These include skills such as running up walls and gliding through the air. Collectively, this mechanic had me saying something I never say about RPGs: this game has awesome platforming!
Once you gain a full set of abilities, traversing the game world is really fun and the level design lets you take full advantage of this. As I explored the city, the prison, and the surrounding areas, I found myself really enjoying climbing every structure and soaring across ravines. In other RPGs that populate their maps with collectibles and points of interest, I tend to skip most of them. However, in Ys IX, I scoured each area thoroughly because doing so felt so good.
Mechanics: Battle System
Ys IX‘s combat doesn't reinvent the wheel; it uses the same battle system as the last several Ys games. For the uninitiated, you have a party of three characters, one of which you actively control and the other two are managed by AI. You can switch which character you control instantaneously in mid-battle which allows you to take full advantage of each Monstrum's strengths. Overall, it's a solid system so I understand why Falcom elected to bring it back once again.
The downside of Ys IX‘s combat for me was that I found it to be quite easy, even compared to other Ys games that use the same battle system. In most Ys games, I set the difficulty to Normal and find the challenge level to be moderate or even somewhat high. In Monstrum Nox, I set it to Hard and still only died a handful of times. I didn't try the next highest difficulty, Nightmare, but I suspect it would have made the game grindier, but not necessarily more challenging mechanically. Thankfully, you can adjust the difficulty whenever you like, so you can fine-tune it as needed.
Story & Writing
While it takes a while to get going, I found Ys IX‘s main plot to be pretty interesting. It features a supernatural mystery at its core, like most RPGs, but also gets into political intrigue and the history of the region. In other words, it works both as a narrative and as world-building for the Ys franchise as a whole. That being said, I think this is an Ys story that works best for existing franchise fans. It certainly can stand on its own, but it features a lot of tie-ins with the previous games, especially Ys VIII.
Where I had mixed feelings about the game was with the characters and dialog. The game features a large ensemble cast with six playable characters a variety of plot-critical NPCs. Each of these characters neatly fits into a certain role in the team and I found many of them to be quite likable. However, the characters lean pretty heavily into anime tropes which sometimes didn't mesh well with the game's more serious themes. Due to the large cast, dialog tended to feel drawn out at times because everybody has to chime in. I didn't really need to hear/read six variations of “I agree” every time the party made a decision.
Aesthetic Qualities: Visuals
Ys IX uses the same art style (and likely the same engine) as Ys VII, which launched on PS Vita. As a result, Ys IX is not going to blow anyone away with its level of detail or effects. However, on my mid-range gaming PC running at 1440p, it looked very crisp and maintained a solid frame rate even during the most intense battles. Compared to previous Ys games, the environments were somewhat drab but I found this worked for the game's tone.
Visually, where this game excelled was in the character designs, particularly the costumes. When I was streaming the game, I found myself regularly pausing to admire details like stitching and fabric textures. This made for some fun discussions of fictional fashion with my viewers. I appreciated the level of thought that was put into each character's style (playable characters and NPCs alike).
Aestheic Qualities: Audio
Ys IX offers voice acting in both English and Japanese. I played with the English voices and found the performances to be quite solid, on par with a good anime dub. The only issue I had with it was that voices are used inconsistently. The game would switch between having voiceovers versus being text-only abruptly, sometimes part way through a scene. I had to be mindful of this because the autoplay function wouldn't disable itself when this transition happened; this meant that I had to be mindful of the text advancing before I could read it or manually disable autoplay. I realize that using voices in a limited fashion is often done for budget reasons but the implementation in Ys IX felt clunky.
The Ys franchise is known for its strong soundtracks and Monstrum Nox is no exception. In addition to the usual classical and rock sounds I've come to expect from Ys, this game's soundtrack also works in some electronic and jazz influences. A few of the tracks were somewhat forgettable but there were still plenty of rocking tunes that I enjoyed listening to even after finishing the game.
Ys IX Monstrum Nox had its ups and downs for me but is overall a strong entry in the series. Where it struggles in some areas, (e.g. difficulty, dialog editing, and environment variety) the areas where it excels (traversal and world-building) were more than enough to make it a satisfying journey. If you like some platforming with your monster-slaying and treasure hunting, Monstrum Nox is the RPG for you.
Finishing Ys IX also got me thinking about where Ys is going to go next; what was once a series of straightforward hack-and-slash adventures has grown into a rather complex RPG franchise. While Monstrum Nox is mostly successful in adding to this complexity, I hope that future installments remember the series' humble roots and avoid bloat.