America - Front
America - Back
By Thomas Froehlicher 01st Feb 2020 | 4,868 views
Following the well-deserved success of Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, Falcom had finally found an IP to rival The Legend of Heroes. The Trails of Cold Steel series having now come to a conclusion - at least in Japan - it's not surprising to see the publisher returning to Adol's adventures with Ys IX: Monstrum Nox.
Roaming around with his mate Dogi as usual, Adol quietly enters the city of Balduq. Alas for him, the security forces at Balduq's gates aren't so peaceful. Our adventurer is arrested and sent to the dark prison that Balduq is famous for. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox revolves around the numerous mysteries of this giant jail. Adol himself is one such mystery; while escaping, he comes across a hooded woman who turns him into a Monstrum, a supernatural being gifted with special powers. Why was he given those strange capabilities? What is the truth behind the obvious contradiction surrounding Adol's escape? Falcom's game provides answers to these and other questions very progressively, so as to keep the player interested until the very end.
Once out of jail, you might naturally look forward to experiencing the open world in Ys IX: Monstrum Nox. Unfortunately, though, it's not open at all. Japan's reluctance regarding gameplay freedom can be felt once more in Balduq, where you visit one district at a time, without being able to visit the entire town from the start. In fact, you need to clear all of the quests in a given area and then progress the main scenario in order to open the next area (a sort of dimensional door then appears and, after a challenge battle, the invisible walls are pushed back).
It's an odd design choice, because travelling within the city is extremely fun, partly thanks to the weird powers of the Monstrum. Adol and his partners all have special abilities that allow them to deeply explore their environment: Adol can teleport to rooftops, White Cat can run on walls, Hawk can fly above buildings, and so on. There are quite a few discoveries to be made in each area, such as hidden quests or symbolic spots. As in Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, Monstrum Nox has a lengthy side-quest involving the search for natural or architectural marvels. Most of them are located in high places, which allows you to enjoy Balduq's diverse townscape.
Monstrum Nox is divided into chapters, each one focussing on one particular party member. This makes it more like Tokyo Xanadu than its immediate predecessor. All party members have equal screentime, so each chapter goes into great detail, laying out the personality and history of each main protagonist. These characters have sufficient background for you to feel close to them, leading to efficient and enjoyable story-telling. They all have an intriguing or dramatic past, regrets, fears, and more. The best example is Doll, a puppet who constantly sees flashbacks of her past, and never stops wondering when and why she was given a soul. The story of Ys IX: Monstrum Nox doesn't just consist of your typical heroic-fantasy tropes either; it features strong moral and emotional development, and in the end feels deeply humane.
I also want to stress that Ys IX: Monstrum Nox includes a large number of secondary characters. These people end up dwelling in Adol's secret base and brighten the mood thanks to their diversity. You find personalities as unexpected as a 12-year old assassin girl, a grandma resistance fighter, and a water demon. Plenty of surprises await you in the numerous side quests by which you unlock all of these characters too. Despite being secondary cast members they also play a major role, periodically featuring in side stories and interacting with Adol on numerous occasions, so much that you can feel almost as close to them as to the playable characters.
The pacing of the narrative is also a highlight - the story features plenty of questions, surprises, and astonishing plot twists. The superb epilogue perfectly wraps up a strong effort to tell a beautiful story through lovable characters. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox, in the end, applies perfectly the recipe for a great JRPG. When you consider that many developers forget such elementary rules, I can't help but admire Falcom's accomplishment in achieving that here.
When you come to explore the outskirts of Balduq it is, once again, handled in a linear and pre-determined way. But there's an even bigger problem with these segments - the level design is a lot less exciting than it is within Balduq. Wild areas, including dungeons, are a lot less complex and thrilling to venture through than they are in Ys VIII Lacrimosa of Dana. Areas are flatter, and only a few dungeons feel really great (one that require observation and thought). Generally speaking, there's no longer that feeling of being part a giant world, and most areas aren't especially varied or memorable.
However, it's not 100% negative, because dungeons make clever use of the Monstrums' exploration skills. You often have to think your way through them, using the right ability at the right time. These skills are even used in boss fights, which is quite remarkable in terms of game design. But the best part of Monstrum Nox is undoubtedly Baldqu's jail, which is absolutely loaded with traps. While investigating the place, Adol turns into a sort of gaming Indiana Jones, facing hidden holes, dancing blades, unbeatable robots, and many other vicious dangers. On hard mode and above, most of these traps kill you on the spot, so these particular sequences are pretty intense.
The music is great too, both in dungeons and pretty much everywhere else. Falcom's sound team clearly did their best to create entertaining melodies that go well with the pace of the gameplay and the locale. It features a broad selection of different inspirations, including gothic, bucolic, and symphonic sonorities, making it arguably more compelling than the soundtrack in Ys VIII.
Falcom knew that the battle system in Ys VIII was widely appreciated, so no changes are felt in combat. The traditional formula for an Action RPG returns, namely one base combo that's completed with special skills, performed by a combination of R1 and one of the PlayStation buttons. You gain quite a few of those skills by leveling up, and you can register up to four at the same time to vary your attacks. The two big features in Ys VIII's combat - dodging and guarding - are back as well. Depending on which one of the two you choose to focus on, you can also either slow down time around you or increase the speed of your actions. Regardless of which one you prefer, these are powerful counter-attack measures that are very intuitive to use and enable you to tackle higher difficulty settings.
Defense missions also return in this entry. This time you have to protect a sort of obelisk from waves of creatures. However, unlike the fence in Ys VIII, the obelisk can actually be located right in the middle of the stage, which means enemies can come from all directions. They also come in larger packs than before and can teleport right behind you. It becomes very intense and a little confusing at the same time, but the feeling of a giant clash taking place is quite fun.
The framerate holds up well, especially since the last update, which brought with it significant improvements to boss battles. Only a couple of locations in Balduq cause some hiccups when travelling around. Notably, Balduq is the largest continuous area ever created by Falcom - a challenge that leads to some compromises, including fog in the distance and rough textures.
Like any decent Action RPG, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox includes numerous boss battles. In this particular entry, none of these bosses are re-used later on in the game, and the bestiary could fill an encyclopedia as a result. Main bosses show impressive patterns and incredible strength towards the end of battles, making them increasingly intense (arguably the mark of a great Action RPG). However, the low default difficulty level, much like in Tokyo Xanadu, can ruin this sense of intensity, so I'd highly recommended you start the game on hard mode or above. Falcom has also included a mode called Boss Rush, which allows you to experience the boss fights again in harder conditions if you do decide the play the game on its default difficulty level.
Despite this, I'm of the view that Ys IX: Monstrum Nox fails to find the perfect balance of difficulty. Part of the reason lies in the basic monsters that you come across here and there that are especially slow and not very interesting to fight (again, just like in Tokyo Xanadu). The healing system is also far too generous (Adol being able to carry potions, plus large quantities of food with high recovery power). That means you have nearly infinite and permanent healing, which doesn't drive you to play to the best of your ability. The game should only allow access to a handful of potions, then I think the balancing would be flawless. Another regret I have is with the camera, which is a bit too far back from your character. True, it proves quite useful in keeping the gameplay precise, but it gives the impression of playing a Diablo-esque game and it's not very dynamic.
A mix of Ys VIII and Tokyo Xanadu, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox doesn't innovate very much but it adopts qualities from both those titles to create a great experience. Boasting cool Action RPG gameplay, fantastic characters, marvellous music, and a strong narrative, Falcom has yet again created a compelling JRPG that's true to the roots of the genre. Its linearity and lack of freedom will disappoint, but almost every other aspect is stellar.
Review based on a Japanese version of the game.
After graduating from a French business school, Thomas felt an irresistible force drawing him to study Japanese, which eventually led him to Japanese Profeciency Test level 1 in 2012. During the day, Thomas is a normal account manager. But at night he becomes Ryuzaki57, an extreme otaku gamer hungry for Japanese games (preferably with pretty girls in the main role). His knowledge now allows him to import games upon Japanese release for unthinkable prices, and then tell everyone about them. You may also find him on French video game media. Feel free to contact on twitter at @Ryuz4ki57