This is a Ys IX: Monstrum Nox review for PS4, with no spoilers outside of plot details revealed in the trailers.
I’ve dabbled with the Ys series for some time now, but I’ve never been as excited for a release as much as Ys IX: Monstrum Nox. This was largely due to the excellence of its predecessor, Lacrimosa of Dana, which elevated the series to new heights. The fun gameplay, likeable characters and interesting plot combined for a superb RPG experience full of enjoyable things to do.
- RELATED: Ys VIII Lacrimosa of Dana Review
Here, Falcom have largely taken the same formula and doubled down. Almost everything that made Ys VIII so good has reappeared, with some additional gameplay enhancements that improve upon it. In doing so, they have pulled off the impressive accomplishment of setting another new benchmark. Simply put, Ys IX Monstrum Nox is the best of the series so far.
Adol Christin, the flame-haired, self-proclaimed adventurer, has been on enough journeys by now to know trouble is never far away. Shortly after entering the grand prison city of Balduq with faithful companion Dogi, his past escapades catch up with him. Adol ends up hurled inside a cell on tenuous charges, and we’re given a snippet of his exploits as he is grilled on the details. If this is your first venture into the series, it really doesn’t matter – Monstrum Nox is a self-contained story with some Easter eggs and references only.
Half-way through Adol’s inevitable swashbuckling escape, he runs into the mysterious hooded figure of Aprilis, who inflicts a curse that turns him into a Monstrum. These beings are granted special powers, but are confined to Balduq where they are notorious wanted criminals. This is a big problem for an adventuring free spirit like Adol – now dubbed the “Crimson King” – who must break the curse at all costs. More pressingly, Monstrums are also compelled to regularly slay monstrous creatures in an alternate plane called the Grimwald Nox.
In practice, this means whenever the plot is ready to move forwards, the party is summoned beneath a spooky red sky with two moons. Aprilis stalks forward and delivers a somewhat overdramatic monologue, sparking a gauntlet of battles. With each passing victory within the Grimwald Nox, another part of the map is unlocked.
Back in the normal world, Adol is now a fugitive but it’s nothing a simple blue wig can’t solve. In fact, this element of the plot is forgotten about almost immediately. His disguise allows him to freely roam Balduq – except for the areas cordoned off by the curse.
As Adol grows more acquainted with each of the other Monstrums, the playable party begins to expand. The effects of this are twofold. Not only do new characters allow switches within battle to use different playstyles and attack types, but they also confer their own powers in the field, known as Gifts.
Adol’s own Gift, Crimson Line, grants him the ability to instantly zip to nearby ledges and crevices. Further Gifts include skills like running up vertical walls, gliding through the sky or X-Ray vision. This is where Monstrum Nox really improves on previous entries. The exploration of Balduq is just so much fun, at times emulating a Batman or Spider-man game. It’s enjoyable to run up a building, double-jump along the rooftops and glide across the river until a Crimson Line-friendly spot presents itself. I liked to challenge myself to make it as far as possible without touching the ground, which was such a pleasure I rarely utilised fast travel.
Unlocking new areas of Balduq was always exciting as it gave another chance to search every nook and cranny with the growing list of powers at my disposal. In amongst these areas are a heap of collectibles. Graffiti on the walls, landmarks, shiny petals and old-fashioned treasure chests are all worth the hunt. These always come with decent rewards once the relevant person to report to has identified themselves.
The superhero parallels are also felt in the premise. Monstrum forms are essentially secret identities of prominent individuals within the city. I thought the designs were cool, but I was rarely surprised by any of the alter ego reveals. The identity of the next Monstrum to join your party is always fairly obvious, perhaps undercutting a chance to spring a genuine surprise or two.
These comparisons to the superhero genre are meant as a sincere compliment, but unfortunately Balduq still falls well short of some of the cityscapes we’ve seen elsewhere. As fun as it is to explore, I wish there was a bit more of it, and with more variety. Most districts have little to differentiate them, generally with only one novel building each. There are very few people dotted around, ending with a somewhat bland setting that lacks character and soul.
I love Falcom’s RPGs enough that I always feel obliged to add the caveat that they work with a small team and budget. They invariably fit a lot of quality within fairly modest packages, and what they lack in graphics and scale are more than made up for in other areas.
In the case of Ys IX, one of these areas is the battle system. The trademark frenetic action combat returns, and is just as entertaining as ever. Speeding around the screen to hack and slash everything in sight is ridiculously fun. New skills are learnt often, expending an SP gauge that recharges so quickly you can freely let loose with everything you’ve got. Landing enough skills will fill a separate Extra gauge that can temporarily power you up before unleashing an enormous strike against every nearby foe.
When not on the attack, dodging in the nick of time bestows a short period of invincibility and slows down time to land an extended flurry of attacks. Similarly, blocking at the right moment enables a brief window of critical hits.
Once Adol gains party members, a simple press of the button will swap them over. Each party member has a slightly different playstyle, but most importantly deals a different damage type. There are three main attributes, and enemies usually have a weakness to one of them. This encourages you to swap around, but in all honesty I still used Adol at least 90% of the time and rarely ran into any trouble.
Anyone who has played Ys VIII will immediately feel at home, as it’s essentially the exact same system. Frankly, a flash move is pretty overpowered as the slow-motion makes it possible to grab a flash block at the same time. If you pull this off, you can quickly charge up the skill gauge as well as the Extra gauge. By the time you’re done, even a boss can be decimated within seconds.
I still find it inexplicable that the all-important Extra skills are activated by pressing the skill and dodge buttons together. It’s so easy to do this accidentally in the heat of battle that I had to switch the button combo around in the menu. Thankfully, controls are simple enough to change and this switch helped me immensely.
Another area where Falcom consistently delivers is in the sound department. Outside of a couple of uncharacteristically jarring tunes in Balduq City, Ys IX has a superb soundtrack. The many fast-paced, exhilarating tracks fit the mood to a tee, and encapsulate everything great about the gameplay. Each dungeon theme is more energetic than the last, making it all the more gratifying to blast through and wipe out everything in your path. Though these are the highlight, there are also some nice calmer and more sorrowful tracks to capture the more emotional moments for Adol and his companions.
For the most part, Adol is a silent protagonist. There are dialogue choices to make, but as we see so often in the genre, they generally make no difference whatsoever. It’s obviously just a way of moving the conversation along whilst keeping Adol involved, but still feels a bit forced to pick between two incredibly similar options. In my view there should be some sort of bonus for getting the right answers, which would have been a neat touch to actually make players take the choices a bit more seriously.
Despite his general lack of speech, it’s still nice to see Adol’s enthusiasm for adventure shine through. He can’t hide his excitement when the gang are sent into ancient ruins or underground tunnels, and his passion spills over to the other party members. As usual, amongst the trail of chaos and destruction in Adol’s wake are strong friendships and umpteen broken hearts. You really can’t help but love him.
The plot starts simply enough, but it soon transpires the prison of Balduq is shrouded in mystery. The past of Aprilis, the Grimwald Nox and the Monstrums’ curse pose many questions themselves, but after a couple of chapters there is a ‘WTF’ moment that will intrigue and tantalise until answers are revealed. I will spoil nothing, and only say there are some huge and startling revelations as the story unfolds.
Along with the plot twists are poignant, emotional points that tug on the heartstrings. My only criticism here is that meaningful events can be glossed over, where the characters unrealistically move past massive bombshells with barely more than a raised eyebrow.
In between story events, Adol’s rather conspicuous hideout is the Dandelion, a bar that acts as a hub and gradually accumulates a colourful selection of residents. The characters are a pleasant bunch with solid backstories and development despite limited screentime. Adol can learn more about them in bonding events unlocked by offering presents and completing requests. These characters also (somehow) assist Adol in the Grimwald Nox with support skills, but in truth there is so much going on during these battles I never paid much attention to what they actually did.
Each chapter requires Adol to win at least one mandatory battle in the Grimwald Nox, available after accumulating 100 Nox points around town. These are gained by beating monsters within Balduq or completing side quests. Incidentally, a handful of Nox points would probably have been the best way to reward correct dialogue choices. The quests themselves are probably the game’s low point, and represented the only single aspect of Ys IX that dragged. They are admittedly pretty short and it’s easy enough to blitz through them, but very few significantly piqued my interest. It’s all standard fare, often involving simply visiting a series of waypoints on the map or backtracking to a previous location to beat a semi-powerful monster. I was far more anxious to open up a new area so I could get back on the rooftops and start hunting for secrets again.
The exploration, combat, soundtrack and platforming are all great, meaning Ys IX is truly at its best when it mashes them all together and sends Adol hurtling through a dungeon. Slashing monsters at breakneck speed, solving puzzles and using Gifts to scale the terrain is a true joy. Terrific music inspires exhilaration and ensures no dungeon is a chore. I was always excited to take on the next one, and relished covering every spot on the map and discovering every single treasure.
These invariably end in boss battles against a single colossal foe, meaning it’s easier to learn attack patterns and pull off more dodges and blocks. This always feels good, no matter how many times you’ve done it before. However, I will grudgingly admit sometimes this was more luck than judgement.
A handful of these battles also employ some interesting mechanics that demand the use of Gifts to succeed. Unfortunately, these are few and far between and the vast majority remain simple – hack away for a while before dodging a few times and attacking again. Here, a bit more imagination and variety would have been welcome. There are six distinct Gifts and this was largely a missed opportunity to introduce some additional skill and strategy to the decisive encounters.
Another thing I considered underutilised was the alternate dimension of the Grimwald Nox itself. This is only visited to fight repeated waves of enemies, and could have been used a bit more in other parts of the game. I’ve always liked puzzles that required hopping between different dimensions, like the Dark World in Zelda: A Link To The Past. It would have been interesting to mix up some of the dungeons with some more testing and engaging riddles.
These gripes are nothing more than some musings throughout a hugely enjoyable 40 hours that were ample to mop up all collectables, optional events and relationship conclusions. This runtime passed so quickly it can only point to a great experience alongside the Monstrums.
After the series-high of Ys VIII, Falcom have nailed it again with another impressive accomplishment. The Ys series is firmly on an upwards trajectory, and I’m eager to join Adol on another adventure, wherever the road may take him.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is available here.