Ys: The Oath in Felghana
by Polly

Looking back, I, and probably many of you who grew up with the same games I did, had some real bizarre ideas about games. When I was young, I never really thought much about what was "fair" when it came to difficulty,  or if the level design was good, or if a game had proper balance and pacing that rewarded you for learning the mechanics. Back then, we just called difficult games, regardless of how that difficulty was earned on the game's part, "really fucking hard," and only the best of us took up the challenge to slay them in our free time after school to regale schoolmates on the playground of our heroic endeavors and tell them all about the "cool stuff" they'd never be good enough to see. (Pretty damn full of myself, huh?)

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Say hello to Ys III: Wanderers From Ys for the SNES. Though by the time I played this game I was already in my first year of Junior High and recess was a thing of the past, this game was still a bit of a "dude, there's no way" affair among friends and acquaintances who were still into videogames by that point. We'd all rented it at some point and it was just one of those really fucking hard games that seemed impossible. 

I can look back on it now and think, "Well, of course it's hard. The controls are complete garbage, hit boxes are fucking bizarre, and everything in the god damn game does way too much damage, even when you're max leveled and in the best gear." There's just no way in hell I would play this game for fun now, but that's what we did back then because it's what we had.

My brilliant strategy was to just find a spot in the first dungeon where enemies would infinitely respawn, place a heavy object on the attack button, and come back later to begin actually PLAYING the game when my hit points were maxed at 255 and experience capped at 65535.  Surely the rest of the game would be a cake walk if only I could just be max level and steamroll everything! 

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG!

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Oh sure, you'll no doubt cruise easily through the first three or four dungeons if you're SUPER careful and don't think you can still go all Johnny Rambo on bosses, but things will begin going sour more often after that, and once you hit Valestein Castle all bets are off. With all the best gear and being max level, I remember still save scumming and reloading after nearly every enemy encounter or successful trap escape to conserve health because it's still quite easy to get one or two shotted as there are virtually no invulnerability frames after taking damage. 

The bullshittiness of the game didn't matter to me or anybody else playing it back then. The beast had been slain, so to speak, and it wouldn't be until years later when I'd revisit the game that I'd realize, "Holy shit...this game..is shit!" 

Oh boy, I can almost hear the Ys/Falcom fandom knocking down my door and blowing up my inbox now...

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In 2005, Falcom took a more modern...STAB (GET IT? BECAUSE YOU HAVE A SWORD? AND SWORDS STAB THINGS? GOD THIS WHOLE DUMBLR THING IS PAYING OFF!) at Ys III with Ys: The Oath in Felghana on the PC (and later PSP), with a Steam release arriving in the middle of 2012 courtesy of XSeed. 

This updated, repackaged, and completely overhauled version of Ys III is based largely on Ys VI: The Ark of Naphishtim's engine, which retained the series' roots as a top-down RPG, but made the combat...ya know...fun and active. Though I still think the earlier installments of the series are pretty ingenious with their idea of a simple "one-handed RPG" where you bump into enemies to attack them, I'm the kinda person that needs a bit more of an intense combat experience to really enjoy RPGs. Naphishtim was a brutal and satisfying experience, one I intend to actually revisit at some point in the future, but at the time it didn't really stick with me for some reason.

A generous friend gifted me Felghana during the last Steam sale and I'd been in a bit of a "clean out this god damn Steam backlog" funk for quite some time, so all the elements were mixed together for me to finally return to Ys III and hopefully not come away from it as deflated as I was when I originally tried to replay it a few years ago on SNES.

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I'm happy to say that Ys: The Oath in Felghana is definitely some of the more satisfying gaming I've had in a while. Sure, there are a lot of games I've enjoyed over the past year or so that did some amazing things, but I don't really feel any of them resonated so well with the very core of things I personally enjoy in games the way that this game did. Right game, right time is about the best explanation I have. 

Felghana's fast paced EVERYTHING is really one of its strong suits. Other than maybe the intro, the game breezes along at a hastened  pace, never really letting its tropey and fairly predictable storyline and characters get in the way of the frantic, yet oddly methodical combat. The rate at which the game doles out experience and upgrades also plays a huge part in making sure Felghana never lulls. Experience is awarded in a manner so that grinding is NEVER necessary on the standard, yet still fairly punishing, Normal difficulty. If you simply fight every encounter on your way to a boss, you'll be prepared. Upgrades work much the same way in that you'll almost always have the cash on hand to pick up the new weapons and armor you'll need and a few upgrades to boot, and new powers and bonus items are fairly easy to come across with a little exploration. 

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The Oath in Felghana embraces all the right things with what's become known as "Nintendo hard." You're presented with challenges that you aren't likely to overcome your first or second time and are tasked to pick apart each dungeon, new set of enemies, and bosses to figure out what makes them tick and how you can adequately go about making them un-tick. 

The first instance of this, "You're gonna fucking learn it or give up like a little babby" comes as soon as the game's first boss Dularn is encountered. Dularn has three very simple attacks that are all demonstrated one-by-one at the beginning of the fight, and then he begins mixing up the order and timing a bit so that you can't just learn one straight pattern to win. You've gotta learn how to dodge every attack from every angle and then exploit the moment he's vulnerable. I've read many posts from people online indicating that this is where they stopped, but for me each failure was a learning experience, one made less frustrating by the game's excellent choice in letting you simply retry a boss if you die to it, rather than booting you back to the title screen or a save point. By the time I beat Dularn, I'd done so flawlessly and it was satisfying because I watched, learned, and executed.

All of Felghana's bosses follow this same structure of having to puzzle out timing, proper defense, and when it's safest to strike, and some foes even bust out new and even more devious tricks once their health dips below set points. Boss encounters in general can swing wildly from one side to another in seconds depending on how big a mistake you've made, or just how quickly you reacted to and exploited a weakness. The flux on display in these encounters makes every boss feel like a dangerous sudden death scenario. I was on the edge of my seat when delivering a beatdown to the final boss, and that's just not a feeling I get much from games anymore.

Halfway through the game, even the normal trash mobs in dungeons will require a bit more than just swinging your sword blindly to win. Oftentimes, an enemy won't flinch when you attack them, or they can knock you back and possibly off a platform you just worked a few minutes to get to, forcing a walk of shame back to where you were for not reacting or paying attention. You just start to feel like a badass when you finally crack open how the game works and how to react to the challenges laid before you. 

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That said, there are a few issues with the game's balance that may or may not irk some, and a few bosses' patterns do appear a bit TOO random.

The damage formulas on both sides of the fence seem a little too influenced by minuscule changes to the defense stat. There were times when I'd get my shit handed to me by a certain enemy type, gain a level, and suddenly that enemy type was doing as little as 2-5 damage. That's really jarring and makes the game come dangerously close to feeling grindy. 

A few bosses toward the latter quarter of the game can also feel like an incredible amount of luck is required for victory. For the most part, the game handles successive random attacks by bosses fairly well, but in the instances it doesn't work, you can end up trapped and taking damage that feels unfair or be left with no opportunity to rebuff the enemy's attack for far longer than you should be. I saw instances of bosses unfairly canceling their vulnerability state with attacks that would simply be unavoidable as well, but that's really an isolated occurrence.  Frustrating as these minor annoyances could be, I never felt they weighed the game down much. I mean hell, even some of the best NES games out there that I hold dear still have some real bullshit in them, yeah? 

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Oh, and because Chelsea would have my hide if I didn't mention it, THIS GAME'S MUSIC IS STUPENDOUS! A lot of the original's tunes were good in the first place, but the reworking they get here is so fucking good. 

So...yeah! I totally dig Ys: The Oath in Felghana. It gives me a reason to never have to suffer through the original and really has me excited to sink my teeth into Ys: Origin and Ys Seven, both of which I already own, a bit later this year. Even better is that the brutal difficulty has whet my appetite a bit more for finally taking on Dark Souls, due to both games' reliance on ferocious bosses, understanding your own abilities, and reading boss' tells. Check it out if you're into action RPGs! 








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