As much as we may love our Japanese role-playing games - and as many as we've played over the years - there's always a handful of series that you just never get round to playing, no matter how much you might want to find time to give them a try. For us, that series is Ys - a long running set of games with an impossible to pronounce title, which follows the globe-trotting adventures of a single red-haired guy. Now on its eighth mainline entry, the equally unusually punctuated Ys VIII -Lacrimosa of DANA-, this is a tale of shipwrecks, castaways and survival - kind of like Robinson Crusoe, but with more spiky anime haircuts and oversized swords - and one that anyone can get into, regardless of their familiarity with the series.
Ys VIII continues the story of self-proclaimed adventurer, Adol Christin, who, along with his best friend Dogi, are en route to their latest adventure when things take a turn for the unexpected. While sailing past the legendary Seiren Islands - the game's equivalent of the Bermuda triangle, where many a ship has disappeared - Adol and co's luxury liner, the Lombardia, gets attacked by a rather large and rather angry sea monster. Washed up on the very islands they'd hoped to avoid, it falls to Adol, with the help of the Lombardia's Captain Barbaros, to round up the survivors from the ship, and try to figure out a way off the Seiren Islands, as you attempt to uncover the mystery of the treacherous coastline once and for all.
As such, the plot in Ys VIII feels a little bit different to your average Japanese role-playing game. You're not really saving the world from a terrible bad guy here, or averting an apocalypse-style crisis - instead, you're simply exploring the island, and searching for survivors from the Lombardia, clubbing together with your fellow castaways to create your own little temporary settlement until you can figure out how to leave. But while it may feel a little more homely, that's not to say that this isn't a plot with plenty of twists, turns and intrigue. With the islands rumoured to be cursed by a mysterious power, it doesn't take long until Adol starts having strange dreams and visions of a mysterious blue-haired girl - a girl who may turn out to be the key to solving the mystery of the islands...
The game's main story revolves around you exploring the island, mapping out every nook and cranny as you rescue any survivors along the way. From your initial few folks to a bustling camp of two dozen people, the more people you find, the bigger your 'Castaway Village' gets, opening up more stores and facilities to aid you in your adventures. More people also means you'll be able to explore further afield too, as certain obstacles, like fallen trees, boulders and mud slides, all require a certain population to be able to shift it - many hands make light work, and all that. Having new areas to explore also brings you one step closer to finding a way off the island, as you slowly start to uncover its mysteries, and of course, rescue more washed up folks from the Lombardia.
In fitting with the Seiren Islands' dangerous reputation, you'll come across many a formidable foe on your travels, some of which are a little bit tougher than others. Each new area you arrive in has its own set of wild enemies spoiling for a fight, with at least one whopper of a bad guy patrolling the area and spoiling for a fight, while special 'boss' monsters known as 'variants' act as the gatekeepers to new areas, characters and the like. Combat in Ys VIII is fast-paced and fun, and is a distinctly button-mashing affair, mixing speedy sword slashes with well-timed guards and dodges to gain the upper hand in battle. As you level up, you'll learn new 'skills' - special, flashier attacks that deal greater damage but consume a portion of your SP (skill point) bar, which can be mapped to R1 + triangle/square/circle/x as shortcuts for speedy access in battle.
Each character uses one of three different fightings styles, with each style being strong against a different set of enemies. For example, main man Adol uses Slashing attacks, which can make mincemeat of any 'soft-bodied' enemy nearby (think squid-like jellies, giant seahorses and the like), while your female companion Laxia prefers to Pierce her foes, making her particularly good at showing any airborne foes who's boss. Big guy Sahad, meanwhile, a cheery sailor you join up with early on, uses the final type of attacks, Strikes, which are great for smashing up 'armoured' enemies, as he goes to work with his preferred weapon, a giant ship's anchor. You can take up to three people in your party on trips, so it's well worth making sure you have a mix of all three types of attack to cover all your bases.
Outside of the battles, though, there's a few other times the game will call on your combat skills. As the story progresses, your base camp - Castaway Village - may get stormed by the local wildlife, with it falling to you to fight them off, and defend your little home. There's two different variants here, either an 'Interception', which is a straight forward face off against wave upon wave of enemies, or 'Suppression', where you can be a little more crafty. Here, you're on enemy turf, and you need to concentrate on luring out a boss monster by destroying all the monster nests (which enemies will keep spawning from until destroyed) and planting torches to secure areas of the forest for your friends to defend. It may sound a little confusing on paper, but it's really just about working your way through an enemy stronghold, and destroying their defences (monster nests) until you reach the boss creature at the end.
All in all, Ys VIII is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, and one that will definitely have us hunting out the other games in the series (starting with the PS Vita instalment, which the editor assures me is every bit as good). Putting you back into the shoes of seasoned adventurer Adol once more, its unique setting and structure make for a nice change of pace, heavily focussed on exploration as you scour the island for new companions, useful materials and ultimately, a way home. It has a pretty strong story too, with a great cast of characters, and although it doesn't really match the epic tales of the grander Final Fantasy-style role-playing games, it's well worthwhile getting lost in Ys.