Active since 1987, the Ys series has been around just as long as the Final Fantasy series, but it seems to lack the same type of cultural relevance. The series has been reliably sending Adol Christin on adventures and has, at least in the West, not been able to get over the hump that these other, more well-known series got over years ago. It’s certainly not common for a series’ ninth main installment to bring a series to higher modern relevance, but Ys IX: Monstrum Nox could just be the type of game that puts a brighter spotlight on the venerable Ys series. Without straying from the series’ established mechanics or narrative roots, Monstrum Nox crafts an intricate, dynamic action-JRPG, one whose combat is addictive and whose characters are engaging, resulting in what is easily one of the series’ best entries and an early contender for 2021’s shining JRPG.
Noted series trouble-finder Adol Christin and pal Dogi come once again to the center of conflict, this time in the city of Balduq, which is controlled by the Romun Empire and is known for its massive prison. Immediately on the run to escape from said prison, Adol runs into a mysterious figure known as Aprilis, who shoots him with a magic bullet and turns him into a Monstrum, giving him a special, superhero-esque power and allowing him to enter an otherwise-inaccessible world known as the Grimwald Nox to fight the monsters there. The catch is that Adol, along with the five other Monstrums he meets, isn’t initially allowed to leave the city. What ensues is a tale of deciphering both the Monstrums themselves and the city they’re trapped in. It’s evident from the get-go that something is amiss with the prison and the people in charge, especially from the interludes between chapters that give perpetual hints as to what is really going on in Balduq, and over the course of the 30-plus hour story, their connection starts to clear up.
The mystery isn’t the whole story, though. Instead, for the majority of the runtime, Ys IX is almost entirely character driven. Each of the five other Monstrums you meet has a chapter almost entirely dedicated to them. In gameplay, these act as your methods of inviting them to your party to help you unravel the confusion, but narratively, each chapter delves into each Monstrum’s underlying troubles. They’re not all particularly thematically unique or thoughtful, as you might roll your eyes when they talk about how someone’s courage was on the inside all along, but some of them actually touch on darker themes than other games in the series or genre might. It’s certainly more lighthearted than not, but the touch of depth in the storytelling is a surprising and interesting addition.
"Without straying from the series’ established mechanics or narrative roots, Monstrum Nox crafts an intricate, dynamic action-JRPG, one whose combat is addictive and whose characters are engaging, resulting in what is easily one of the series’ best entries and an early contender for 2021’s shining JRPG."
It helps that the story is largely well-written and the characters diverse because there can be an overwhelming amount of story and dialogue. Whether you’re focusing on the critical path or off doing side missions, you’ll be inundated with leagues of text, with characters explaining every detail of every objective. Many chapters open with you effectively being forced to complete side missions to advance the story, too. It begins to make sense structurally and narratively by the end, as completing these missions opens up a vortex to the Grimwald Nox and some side missions play a role in the main story, but it’s a major tone shift to go from fighting a major boss to being required to help a shop owner publicize their goods.
The only reason that it didn’t become a complete turn-off is that every character is engaging in their own way. Even outside of their particular story chapter, each Monstrum has a unique voice and motivation that comes across clearly, and even side characters that join you in your hub or that you come across over the course of the story are interesting, including impressive voice acting across the board that properly heightens emotional moments and brings some life when the dialogue gets slow.
Every Monstrum brings their own unique spin to gameplay, too. The bullet that Aprilis used to give Adol a special power also gave every other Monstrum a different so-called Gift, and when they join your party, every member has access to everyone else’s Gift. Most of these abilities have to do with traversal. Adol’s power is the equivalent of a grappling hook; the White Cat can climb up walls; and the Hawk can use his wings to glide. The world has been crafted around these added elements, too, with much more verticality and intricacy that makes the city genuinely interesting to explore. I wouldn’t say that the city of Balduq is remarkably large, and because it’s the main place you can explore outside of story missions, you might think that it gets boring after a while.
"The world has been crafted around these added elements, too, with much more verticality and intricacy that makes the city genuinely interesting to explore."
Instead, though, the consistent addition of new traversal elements makes it rewarding to return to places you’ve already been to see what new secrets you can find. Many environments outside of Balduq are highly complex and contain interconnected paths and multiple levels, which take further advantage of the Gifts and bring a sense of exploration to every location. Simply running around without using any Gifts is slick and smooth, and adding in the additional traversal powers makes for a hugely satisfying moment-to-moment experience.
The gameplay shines even brighter in its traditional real-time combat. It doesn’t mechanically reinvent the wheel, but it implements its own twists on modern action-JRPG mechanics and infuses them with rhythm and diversity to make it consistently enjoyable. You can have up to three Monstrums in your party at once, and switching between them happens at the press of a button. You have your standard attack and dodge, as well as up to four special skills that do more damage and use SP. There’s also a boost meter that, when filled, makes your character stronger and faster. None of this is necessarily unique to this game or series, but it somehow never seems to get old or feel repetitive.
Part of the reason for this is how quickly everything happens. At points it begins to take some hints from the musou genre and throw as many enemies as possible on screen at once, and you almost don’t have time to think about what you’re doing before you’re doing it but are able to take on many or all enemies at once. The camera doesn’t always cooperate, though, and will sometimes get caught up when you’re trying to fight a big cohort of baddies. The game also doesn’t require you to get too in tune with any character’s move sets or combos for that character to be effective. You might benefit from combining a couple skills together, but I found that mashing the special skills and timing the boost correctly worked most of the time, which allowed for a constant refresh of characters in my party based on new weapons and higher stats, instead of having to focus on one or two whose move sets I had mastered. Combine all of this with fluid animations and an constant stream of action and it becomes exhilarating and impressively diverse.
"The gameplay shines even brighter in its traditional real-time combat. It doesn’t mechanically reinvent the wheel, but it implements its own twists on modern action-JRPG mechanics and infuses them with rhythm and diversity to make it consistently enjoyable."
That’s not to say there’s no strategy whatsoever. Each character has their own special strengths and weaknesses, and you can equip weapons and armor with different damage types, as well as other items like Sacramentals that add a twist into gameplay. You can also manage the rest of your party to fight offensively or defensively, and they, along with other non-party members, are usually important aspects of combat. The game just doesn’t want to leave anyone behind. It allows you to play aggressively without having to micromanage every detail to succeed, and even if you fail, it gives you the option to retry in combat with weakened enemies or proceed in dungeons as if you’ve completed the relevant puzzle. I respect that it doesn’t require an overwhelming grind as well, especially because I was actually inclined to do so to experience the combat again, which then felt like more of an excess bit of enjoyment than a required piece of gameplay that overstayed its welcome.
Combat usually comes either organically in the world or through the Grimwald Nox. Enemies are littered around the world, which expands the further you progress through the game. Every story chapter takes you generally to a different place around the world and lets you explore new areas, whether it’s underground or in an entirely new location. These encounters, which happen all in real-time, are enjoyable in themselves, but the highlights of these sequences are usually the boss fights. Bosses are commonly massive and difficult enough to be satisfying but not infuriating, and it always lets you dial down the difficulty if you’re stuck. They’re highly diverse and often mesmerizing in size, and it rarely feels like bosses become formulaic.
The other main source of combat comes through the Grimwald Nox, which only the Monstrums can access. You go into the Grimwald Nox about once per chapter, and these fights, even more so than boss fights, are often where your skills are tested the most. They consist of multiple waves of enemies attempting to destroy a centralized crystal, and they get increasingly long and difficult as the game progresses. I found these fights to be the most satisfying because of how much they test your skills of managing larger groups of enemies in tandem with larger, more difficult individual ones, as well as how they build on one another over time. Some of these become more frustrating than any bosses because of the fragility of the crystal, but completing them is just as satisfying as fighting a boss, and you can replay them to get higher scores and ranks after the fact.
"Technically, Ys IX doesn’t push the boundaries that recent JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII Remake or Persona 5 Royal do, but it makes up for it with enough diversity in characters and level design."
Technically, Ys IX doesn’t push the boundaries that recent JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII Remake or Persona 5 Royal do, but it makes up for it with enough diversity in characters and level design. Environments are commonly filled with dull colors, and textures are muddy, especially in some of the flatter locations outside of Balduq. Character models are more colorful and diverse, especially among the main characters, and even the dozens of enemy types bring a bit more life to gameplay. Everything is backed by a wonderful soundtrack that is mostly peaceful during gameplay but ramps up in impactful story moments.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox makes the case for the Ys series to be put in the top tier of JRPGs. Its combination of established mechanics and storytelling with addictive combat and a wonderful cast of characters lets 30 hours feel like a breeze. It’s one of the more accessible Ys games in the franchise and is easily one of the series’ best, even when hampered by some overlong dialogue and a finnicky camera. Consistently engaging in almost every diverse moment of gameplay, Monstrum Nox delivers one of the most exciting recent entries in an already-packed, well-established genre.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Addictive combat; Smooth movement; Great characters; Big and diverse enemies.
Finnicky camera; Overwhelming amounts of dialogue; Forced side missions.