Ys I is a humble origin, Ys II is a legendary ending, and Ys I & II are a collective masterpiece.
While Ys II is technically a sequel to Ys I, it’s better to think of the pair as two parts of one larger experience. Since they ultimately are. Part two of Adol Christin’s adventure picks up mere seconds after the first, without so much as giving you context as to where Adol is or why. Since you should already have it. Adol’s level is reset down to 1, but the overall enemy and level design are more complex than anything in the first game. Since difficulty curves typically rise as you reach a halfway-point. At the same time, II is more than just a simple extension of I, introducing new gameplay mechanics while recontextualizing the whole story in the process. What was a simple quest in Ys I becomes a legendary epic in Ys II — bringing Adol Christin’s first adventure to an unforgettable close.
Ys II’s story is longer, its maps denser, environments richer in detail, and gameplay just a tad more involved than I. Although Bump Combat is still in play, battles are no longer buttonless due to the inclusion of magic. Pressing the magic button activates whatever Adol’s currently equipped spell is, offering you an assortment of magical abilities to play around with. Magic adds variety to combat. It forces you to reconsider if you’re using the right tools for each situation. Sometimes Bump Combat is too dangerous or unwieldy to pull off, whereas magic lets you attack from a distance and take advantage of openings Adol’s swordplay can’t.
More importantly, magic offers a real sense of progression coming off Ys I. Since Adol loses everything at the start of Ys II, magic keeps you feeling strong in the interim. You may have lost your levels and gear, but you get a useful new mechanic as a trade-off. Interestingly, Adol’s magic meter combines traditional MP with a regeneration mechanic. Using too much magic at once will briefly block Adol from casting even if he has MP to spare. It only takes a moment for the magic meter to start refilling, but this prevents spells from being spammable. You can’t just lob fireballs from a distance and hope for the best.
As the only offensive spell in Adol’s kit, Ys II gets a lot of mileage out of Fire. With Fire equipped, players can shoot out fireballs in whichever direction Adol is facing — perfect for taking out long-range foes and downright necessary for most boss fights. Holding down the magic button also allows you to fire off a stronger charge attack. The Fire spell can be further augmented by equipping the Hawk and Falcon Idol accessories. Both idols add a homing feature to your fireballs, with the latter specifically tossing multiple homing attacks into the equation.
While Fire is an important spell, Ys II mainly uses magic for non-combative purposes. Light illuminates the surrounding area and reveals any hidden pathways or treasure in your vicinity. Return lets Adol teleport between six key areas, allowing you to warp back to towns or even within dungeons without the need of a Wing. Time magic stops basic enemies where they stand and renders them defenseless. Shield rapidly drains the magic meter once activated, but Adol won’t take any damage so long as he has MP remaining.
Your most used spell after Fire, Alter turns Adol into a demonic Roo. As a Roo, Adol can understand the “Roonic” language and freely speak to other demons without aggroing them. Every single enemy has unique dialogue and a name to differentiate them from each other. Human NPCs also get new text when spoken to as a Roo. Later dungeons demand that you use Alter to speak to enemies and human NPCs alike, adding a layer to Ys’ investigation loop. A monster can get information a regular adventurer can’t, after all.
Bump Combat still sees plenty of action in spite of some magical dominance. The vast majority of enemies are better handled with Bump Combat in the long run. Magic tends to be situational, mainly used to get around navigational puzzles or during boss fights. You can use Fire for basic encounters, but the gameplay’s fast pace very much encourages non-stop bumping outside of bosses. Enemy placement likewise makes it very satisfying to rip through demons diagonally. In more than a few cases, careful positioning can trap multiple enemies in the same bump and slaughter them with little retaliation.
It should be noted that Ys II’s difficulty curve is more forgiving than Ys I’s. Magic naturally plays a role here, but better equipment across the board also helps. The Cleria Ring lets Adol randomly parry enemy attack in lieu of taking damage. The Ring of Ease greatly reduces MP cost for all spells. The Spirit Cape allows you to heal by standing still inside of dungeons, and the Goddess Ring gives Adol a nice offense & defense buff just in time for the final battle. Most importantly when it comes to the difficulty, Ys II raises Adol’s maximum level to 55.
Adol’s max level in the first Ys is 10, a cap most players will reach before they ever hit the halfway point. This establishes a defined difficulty curve for the second half that cannot be overcome with anything but skill. It also means Ys I ends up an RPG with little sense of progression outside of gear. There’s absolutely a charm to this design philosophy (and it fits well considering how short Book I is), but a leveling system that follows you the whole game is better suited for a longer RPG like Book II. You’re always getting stronger, and gameplay doesn’t stop being engaging just because you’re allowed to grind. Battles still demand tight reflexes and navigation is a puzzle more often than not. If anything, Ys II’s easier combat is offset by harder level design.
By expecting the audience to have played the first game beforehand, Ys II can afford to be far more complex in design and scope. Dungeons are maze-like from the start, demanding navigational skills you would have refined conquering Darm Tower. You need to pay attention to dialogue and remember key details in the level design if you want to mitigate as much backtracking as possible. Dead ends are a common occurrence and it’s all too easy to get turned around if you have a poor sense of direction.
Dungeons are dense to say the least, turning fantastical set pieces into labyrinths that rival Darm Tower in complexity. The Sanctuary of Toal immediately throws you into the deep end. While the upper levels are simple enough, the Rasteenie Mines that make up the lower levels are already more complicated than any of Ys I’s dungeons in terms of navigation. Your goal is to place the six Books of Ys at their respective statues, all six hidden within the mines. The deeper you explore, the more branching paths and dead ends you run into. You will get turned around if you don’t make a mental map of the area (or better yet, a real map).
On top of that, you need to rescue a missing doctor trapped behind a cave-in along with finding the Fire and Light spells. Simply focusing on finding the six shrines isn’t enough. Needing to overcome multiple goals in a single location is a staple of Ys II’s level design, so it’s necessary that the concept is introduced early. Dungeons only get more elaborate from here. Aesthetically, the Sanctuary of Toal & Rasteenie Mines do a lot to differentiate themselves from Ys I’s Rastin Mine. The upper shrines are pristine and well-kept, alluding to their holiness. The mines are tinted in a deep purple, beams of sunlight piercing through the foundation. Rooms seemingly loop unending, but abandoned mining equipment and rare vegetation can be used as landmarks to guide you.
The Ice Ridge of Noltia is a frozen mountain that introduces fields as dungeons for Ys, now a staple of the series’ level design. Snow perpetually falls upon the ridge as the wind roars from every direction. Adol leaves footprints in the snow where he steps, and the air is so cold that you can actually see his breath. The ridge is held together by an interconnected cavern system and several ice slopes that Adol will slide down unless he finds & equips the Stone Shoes — one of three puzzle items players need to complete the dungeon. Careful exploration is required to find the Blizzard Bulb and Anti-Illusion Mirror, let alone know what to do with them. The dungeon even tucks the Spirit Cape away in an easily missable cave to reward especially observant adventurers.
The Moat of Burnedbless rests far below Ys’ surface, an underground civilization as if out of Hell itself. Rivers of lava flow by glowing brimstone as geysers spew magma. The Colony of Lava is the only human settlement down in Burnedbless, and dialogue with just about anyone makes it clear the villagers are hiding something from Adol. While the dungeon’s layout is maze-like, progression comes down to dutiful investigation. The Colony of Lava’s villagers have no reason to hide anything from a demonic Roo. Ringing the Evil Bell near the moat’s entrance reveals a local Roo’s Nest where you can find a Roda Leaf that lets you traverse poisonous screens safely. A kidnapped boy can only be rescued by equipping the Whisper Earrings his father lent you so you can hear his pleas for help.
Interestingly, rescuing Tarf functions as a more challenging version of Feena’s prison breakout from Ys I. In the first game, saving Feena is more a test of your observation than anything else. There are a few enemies between her cell and freedom, but nothing particularly dangerous. The challenge lies in finding the Prison Key and remembering to spring her. Tarf is another matter. You can’t just beeline to safety. The level design splinters, making it easy to get lost if you haven’t gotten a feel for Burnedbless’ layout. There are several enemies on the way to the Colony who will quickly kill Tarf if left unattended. Rescuing Feena was just practice for the real deal.
Solomon Shrine is Ys II’s final dungeon and comparable to Darm Tower in scope. Instead of 25 floors, the shrine is broken down into multiple large sectors and sub-areas. You need to explore everything and leave nothing unexamined. Staying observant and paying attention to which sector you’re in is critical to not getting lost. Navigation isn’t as simple as going up or down floors when you need to backtrack. The Shrine’s six sectors are only the tip of the iceberg, so you have to actually learn where everything is in proximity to each other and how to get there.
The Underground Canal runs beneath the shrine and is a fairly meaty area in its own right. The canal is initially flooded, locking Adol out of the lower levels, but finding the Floodgate Key drains the water and grants you access to the rest of the mini-dungeon. Stairways that were once blocked off turn into shortcuts that lead to treasure. The Campanile of Lane is a high bell tower used for sacrificial purposes. There are no enemies inside, but the atmosphere is tense as a new sacrifice is offered every five rings. Your first visit is a race against time to save an innocent girl, the ominous sound of bells accompanying your ascension. The Goddess’ Palace is the only part of the shrine left untouched by demons, a story sensitive area where you can breathe and progress puzzles.
Progression inside Solomon Shrine feels dynamic by taking you across a variety of set pieces. On top of the different settings you’ll be visiting, the dungeon makes use of several mini-quests to pace things out. A total of three gatekeepers guard the front, east, and western wings of the shrine. While the first can be outsmarted by simply transforming into a Roo, the other two require a physical pass and password respectively to unlock. The former you get from talking to a suspiciously passive Zavanite as a Roo, and the latter you learn by eavesdropping on a demonic meeting.
When Adol is later forcefully transformed into a Roo, you have to discover how to turn him back. Nothing points you towards what to do next or who to talk to, but you aren’t optionless. If you spoke with NPCs in the neighboring Ramia Village, you’d know that Regg can understand the Roonic language and potentially help Adol get his body back. Alternatively, using the Lila Shell to speak with Hadat will direct you right towards Regg. In either case, progression is gated by your own ability to remember key information.
The dungeon even does a great job at framing Adol like a proper hero while building to the grand finale. Runaways hiding out in a small section of the Underground Canal are petrified shortly after you find them. You have to not only scour every inch of the Shrine to find the Dream Idol, but remember to head back to Ramia and reclaim the Black Pearl you gave Tarf all the way back at Burnedbless. A petrified warrior isolated from the group is carefully hidden in another part of the Canal. Once healed, he gives you the strongest sword in the game and lets you unlock the strongest armor from Hadat back in Ramia.
By the time you’ve turned yourself back from a Roo and saved the lives of several would-be-sacrifices, the sun has set on the shrine, casting everything in an ambient golden hour. The shift in atmosphere lends the impression that the end is finally looming on your adventure. To call the Shrine of Solomon labyrinthine would be an understatement, but its overwhelming structure makes for an epic note to end Ys I & II on. The dungeon demands your full attention and requires meticulous exploration, both to make basic progress and so you can study the level design well enough to backtrack without issue. Ys II won’t appeal to everybody, but it offers the kind of dense level design that rewards cartographers, note-takers, and explorers who want to do more than be directed from point A to point B.
Where dungeon design feels like a natural extension of what came before, Ys II’s boss design pivots from I. Bump Combat is put on the backburner for the most part. Almost every boss is fought using magic as your main means of attack instead. The first five bosses all focus on the Fire mechanic, creating bullet hell-esque showdowns that build off one another until the last two battles. Velagunder introduces the importance of weaving between bullets and waiting for the right opportunity to strike (or outright creating the right opportunity by destroying its arms). Tyalmath jumps all over the arena, firing off ice spikes in multiple directions when it lands. Careful positioning is important so you can not only dodge the incoming spikes, but find an opening where your fireballs won’t be blocked by them either.
Gelaldy is a giant head who follows you around the arena and spits out a massive worm that does the same. You need to bait the boss carefully, wait for it to spit its worm out, and attack at the precise moment its mouth is open. Gelaldy teaches you to create distance, observe patterns, and stay active even when on the defensive. Druegar is a massive spider who fires homing shots and lays eggs that scatter bullets everywhere upon hatching. You need to burst the eggs with Bump Combat while baiting the boss so you can damage their face with Fire. Failing to manage the two tasks in tandem either floods the screen with bullets or drags the battle out.
Zava is the final Fire-centric fight and arguably the hardest boss in Ys II, pushing your mastery of magic to its limits. Rather than fighting her head-on, you need to take out swarms of summoned bats in multiple cycles. Each cycle adds more bats for you to fight, littering the arena in chaos and leaving little room for error. One wrong move can end it all and the fight only gets harder as the bats get more aggressive. Once enough bats have been killed, Zava moves to the center of the room and starts peppering bullets all around the arena. The battle turns into a war of attrition where you can’t let your reflexes slip up for even a second.
Ys II’s boss design can come off gimmicky, but they’re not without their merits. The first set of bosses offer an important change of pace coming off of Ys I, whose seven bosses all utilized Bump Combat. Frontloading II with magic also injects boss battles with a nice dose of variety while at the same time teaching you new skills. Magic ends up a fully fleshed out mechanic while letting Bump Combat keep the spotlight at the end of the day. The last two bosses are pure battles to the bumping death.
Dalles teleports around the arena, shielding himself in a wall of meteors you need to carefully maneuver around to deal damage. Bullets force you to keep moving at all times. Dalles is one of Ys’ easiest bosses, all things considered, but that doesn’t make him any less fun. His battle is non-stop action, requiring little else but relentless Bump Combat. The final boss Darm is a similar matter, and a capstone for Bump Combat at that. Meteors and bullets rain down on the arena as Darm pelts attack after attack at Adol. The second phase devolves into pure mania when Darm starts spamming a laser beam and flooding the screen in bullets that’ll shred Adol to pieces. The longer the battle lasts, the more chaotic the background gets, the sky shredding itself apart as you bump the Demon King into submission. Ys II’s ending couldn’t be more epic if it tried.
Each boss presents a rewarding and unique challenge to overcome. There’s almost a puzzle-like quality to the magical fights, requiring you to “figure it out” in order to deal damage. Fire is an engaging mechanic to use in practice, calling for proper positioning and some foresight. Strategy winds up just as important as skill. And even if Bump Combat is downplayed, reflexes still play a key role in overcoming Ys II’s bullet hell sensibilities. The Bump Combat bosses are few, but they’re unforgettable duels that act as the culmination of everything you’ve learned between Ys I & II. Good boss design builds upon itself to a great finish.
It’s worth pointing out just how immersive Ys II is, which is saying something because Ys I was no slouch in this department. Environments are bursting with life, little details rounding out Ys as a setting. Townspeople leave out fresh produce on their tables, stack barrels full of apples, oranges, & potatoes, and keep their fireplaces lit. Flowers sway and shop signs pound in the wind. Lava boils deep underground where the colonists of Lava hang garlic outside their homes, seemingly to ward off evil. Ominous valley fog pairs perfectly with Solomon Shrine’s almost Babylonian architecture. You can actually see Darm Tower down on Esteria from the Campanile of Lane’s rooftop, putting the whole world into perspective for just a moment.
NPCs have even more personality. Dialogue regularly updates after major story events, rewarding players who keep tabs on villagers. Lilia has several unique conversations prior to her kidnapping halfway through the story. Adol will actually refuse to tell Lilia’s mother that she was petrified if you speak to Banoa before undoing the curse. Hadat has a new hint for virtually every single set piece within the Shrine of Solomon, ensuring you’re never actually directionless. Adol even has a scroll that updates with in-universe guidance from the Goddesses whenever you visit one of their statues in a new dungeon. Ys’ world is a puzzle and NPCs are the solution.
Ys II’s lore fits together to reveal a much richer narrative under the surface. Ys is a land rooted in legend, where goddesses once walked alongside man and demons now take their place. Esteria’s humble nature is replaced with a grandisority that only feels appropriate given how far Adol’s come — how far you’ve come. Reah and Feena are recontextualized into the very twin deities of Esterian “mythology.” The brief time Adol and Feena spent together is granted greater weight by their tender goodbye. The story comes together into what feels like a sprawling saga when all is said and done. Everything feels wrapped up even if Adol still has a lifetime of adventure ahead of him.
That Ys II can function as a natural continuation of Ys I while crafting a unique identity through its magic system and complex dungeon design is nothing short of commendable. The game only grows in scope. Ys I & II are considerably shorter than most individual RPGs, but they feel so much larger thanks to their split. The level of care Book II puts into nurturing the seeds Book I planted bloom into one of the medium’s best duologies. Ys I is a humble origin, Ys II is its legendary ending, and Ys I & II are a collective masterpiece — two of the finest RPGs in the genre.
A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.
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