Monday, January 11, 2016

RPG Talk: Ys Origin - Part 1: Yunica Tovah

I finally broke down and got on Steam last year. I forget what exactly did it, but I had been gradually hearing about really good indie and niche games over time, and a lot of actual JRPGs have landed, so I figured, "Okay, I'll get on board, but I'm only going to buy games if I know I'm going to play them in the next two weeks. No building up a backlog!"

(So far, I'm succeeding.)

One of those games I bought was Y's Origin, which is so good in some ways and a bit disappointing in others. As with previous RPG posts, I'm going to talk about the plot, spoilers included.

But first a brief history of Ys, because Ys Origin is very much a nostalgia trip.

Ys: The Vanished Omens was the first action RPG I ever played. It was on the Sega Master System and at the time its story was better than average, because it was a mystery. Long ago the land of Ys was a mystical land of plenty, its inhabitants led by two goddesses and six priests, until one day the civilization vanished.

As wandering swordsman Aron Christian (later corrected to his original Japanese name of Adol Christin in subsequent releases) I explored the land of Esteria seeking out the cause of the recent demon outbreak and along the way discovering that they were somehow tied to the lost civilization of Ys.

The twists and turns and the real reason behind the disappearance of Ys were pretty good for its day, being gradually told through six books left behind by the six priests, each offering a piece of the puzzle. The game culminates in Aron/Adol climbing a massive tower to confront the main villain, whose identity comes as a complete surprise when he drops the sixth and final book, revealing himself as a descendant of one of the six priests. (Though sadly, no motivation for why he turned out to be a bad guy. This was the 8-bit era...)

The Ys series has never been a huge hit, but it's popular enough that it has seven mainline installments that revolve around Adol Christin and his adventures across the world, regardless of whether the land of Ys is even involved.

Ys Origin is different in that Adol isn't the main character. Released in Japan in 2006 and brought to the US on Steam in 2012, Origin is a prequel takes place 700 years before Ys I, just six months after the civilization of Ys is lifted into the sky to escape the onslaught of demons that seek to destroy it.

The demons below have been building a crazy tower (the one from the first game!) in an attempt to reach the floating sanctuary, and to make matters worse, the twin goddesses have disappeared without consulting with their six priests. In a panic, the priests send a search party of twelve down to the ruined surface to find the goddesses and bring them back. Though immortal and powerful spellcasters, the goddesses Reah and Feena are fallible and capable of being harmed (though it's not clear whether they can actually be killed).

In Origin there are three playable characters, two of which belong to the search party, with only the search party protagonists being unlocked at the start.

Yunica Tovah is the granddaughter of Priest Tovah and daughter of Saul Tovah, who was one of the two knights who stayed behind fighting the demons to buy time for Ys to rise into the sky. As an apprentice knight Yunica wants more than anything to protect the twin goddesses, who she has known since she was a little girl.

She's also unusual for being the first female protagonist in an Ys game, and there are several things the game does right by her.

Yunica is the Adol analog in this game, meaning she's the closest of the three playable characters to playing like him. If you want something similar to the mainline protagonist, you play as Yunica, not one of the two guys. She's not portrayed as an overly tough lady, or an overly girly one, and no one says a thing about her swinging a battleaxe instead of a more delicate weapon. In fact, you could genderswap a lot of her scenes, leave the dialogue alone, and she would come across as a dedicated and sincere young man.

There's a lot to be said for that, especially coming from a Japanese RPG, which tends to have trouble putting female characters on equal footing with male ones. (See the head scratching reasons why Final Fantasy XV has an all male cast and why you can't play as a female character in Tri Force Heroes.)

By virtue of being the player controlled character, Yunica gets to do everything that a male protagonist does, including being the leading vanguard in exploring a tower full of demons while other members of the search party regroup after their disastrous landing on the surface.

She gets taunted by the villains and gives them guff back. Though she has her moments where she oversteps her limits to her detriment, it's not anything that I haven't seen before with male characters; even the part where she's moping about being useless (which is one scene and then gotten over with).

Yunica bounces back, and has key moments like where she takes up her father's sword and when she becomes a full-fledged knight. They're all things I would have wanted as a kid if I had a girl for my protagonist. Yunica is strong without her strength being the end of all things.

True, her storyline isn't that original, but Origin is a love letter to fans of the original game, and playing Yunica in particular is like playing an older game with similar story expectations. She scales the crazy demon tower, saves the goddesses, discovers the real origin of the demons, and the game ends with the stage having been set for Ys I 700 years down the road, including Yunica choosing to remain on the surface instead of returning to the floating land of Ys (which explains why her descendants are NPCs in Ys I).

It's so incredibly rare to see a female protagonist in this kind of medium, in this particular storytelling style, and it was nice to see her hit many of the same tropes her progenitors had, but the one trope I didn't expect to hit was the death of the love interest.

This is the part of Yunica's story that worked least for me, and it's made harder by the fact that Yunica and Roy have almost zero chemistry.

Roy is introduced as a friend who grew up with Yunica and looks after her like a teasing older brother. He doesn't have her back so much as he's trying to keep her in check because she's still an apprentice and not as experienced as the other knights. It's clear he's doing this because he cares, but she never asked him to do so and she's annoyed that he does.

In the second half of the game though, she saves all the other knights, including Roy, who finally seems inclined to believe she can take care of herself, and reveals that he has something to ask her after all this is over. From context this can only be a marriage proposal, which feels really weird considering that Yunica does not appear to be into him as anything other than a friend.

The people she's most concerned with the entire game are the two goddesses and to a lesser degree discovering the fate of her father. If Roy is not immediately present she doesn't think about him at all. He narratively occupies the same space as every other knight in the game.

Then came my least favorite scene, though it makes sense from the villain's perspective so I couldn't say remove it.

Yunica has absolutely no magic ability, coming from a land where magic is bountiful and plenty. She's not an outcast for not having any. People love her just fine. But one of the villains lays a magic trap knowing that Yunica lacks the means to escape.

Roy comes to the rescue, and at the cost of his life, manages to concentrate long enough to break the spell so Yunica can properly kick the villain's butt.

There is naturally a sad scene afterwards where Yunica comforts the dying Roy. He doesn't break out any deathbed love confessions, but he does put his remaining magic in a necklace that he gives her since she doesn't have any magic of her own. Yunica also says something about having always known what he was thinking, but it feels rather hollow because as the player that's not possible from what we see.

I can't help suspecting that we had a male writer who was unsure how to write a romance with a female lead that he left too much implied, or perhaps the player was expected to view Yunica through Roy's eyes. In any case I ended up feeling more sorry for Yunica losing a friend than feeling sad myself since my connection with Roy was not that strong.

Roy barely had any interaction with her when they weren't with the other knights, rendering him as simply one of the group, plus a little more because he'd known Yunica longer, but he didn't stand out. It might not have bothered me at all if Yunica's storyline had been the only one included in the game, and barring an unanswered question or two it works fine as a stand alone.

But Yunica isn't the only playable character, and for everything Yunica's storyline does right, it's a pale shadow of the two. Nowhere do we see that clearer than in Hugo's story, my second playthrough.