Ys: The Oath in Felghana is a modern remake of Ys 3, one of the more radical entries in Falcom’s long running franchise. While the first two games were top down adventures in the same vein as Zelda 1, Ys3 is a side scroller similar to Zelda 2. The promotional website for Oath in Felghana goes into detail as to what the remake entails, stressing that it expands upon the original without heavy alterations or retconning. I can’t say for certain if it succeeds in this regard, but I can take a guess, because Oath is an excellent game on its own. It has an old school charm without feeling arcahic, yet it is a careful update that avoids adding the cruft and excesses of modern games.
Oath in Felghana once again stars series heroes Adol and Dogi, who have continued adventuring together after the events of Ys 1 and 2. Their journeys take them to Dogi’s homeland of Felghana, where bad things are going on. Naturally Adol takes up his sword and swears to put things back to normal. The story is simple (as is typical of Ys games), but also heartfelt. The cast is small enough that even the bit players have some character to them, and events unfold via a minimum amount of cutscenes and dialogue. It serves as a welcome distraction rather than an obstacle to the action.
Most jRPG’s are traditionally structured around towns, and the feeling of safety they evoke. You brave the dangers of the overworld in order to reach the next town, which then becomes your “base camp” of sorts as you gear up for a journey into the local dungeon. Oath in Felghana’s main town eschews this traditional structure. You don’t have to go there to heal, and while you sometimes return to advance the story, this doesn’t occur after every single dungeon. The town mainly exists to serve up a handful of sidequests and equipment upgrades. In this way, it exists as more of a pit stop than a refuge.
The rest of your time, then, is spent fighting and exploring. Like in Ys 3, the combat system apes Zelda 2, complete with upward and downward sword thrusts. While simple in structure, the combat remains challenging throughout. The bestiary is crafted around every one of Adol’s abilities, such that certain monsters can only be damaged via a certain move. At the same time, your foes have a tendency to work in a group, keeping pressure on you from the moment you enter a room. Thus both offense and defense require care and precision; failure to apply either will likely result in the player being caught in a wave of attacks which can easy kill you.
This is only possible due to careful manipulation of player stats. Adol’s health improves when he levels up, but not by very much. So throughout the game, an enemy that deals 25 — 30 HP worth of damage is a significant threat. This is compounded by the fact that enemies are stingy with healing items, and one of Ys’ staple features — the ability to regenerate health when standing still — is only obtained via a secret item. The only reliable way to stay alive is to level up (which fills your HP meter), and the only way to level up is to stay alive long enough to kill enough monsters. Skill simply has no substitute here.
To be sure, evel ups do make a tremendous difference. When it comes to some of the more challenging bosses, they can make the difference between victory and defeat. By the time you finish a dungeon, you’ll be able to overpower all the enemies within, but by this point they’ll be less than meaningless to you, dishing out paltry sums of XP and money. You’ll need to move on to the next area and its new batch of challenges. Combat in Oath never feels desperate, but it is always tense, and its unrelenting nature will keep players on their toes until the very end.
Oath in Felghana was originally released on PC, making the PSP version a port (though a port handled directly by Falcom). For the most part, the game is right at home on the handheld. The controls are a little awkward in certain situations, though there are options which can be toggled to make them more manageable. Visually, the character sprites have that rough, lo-res look of early 2000 games like Diablo 2, and are one of the only clues that this isn’t a native PSP game. Yet the visuals are hardly ugly; the colors are vibrant, and the architecture does enough to craft a unique mood for each dungeon. Perhaps most important to the game’s presentation is Falcom’s decision to include two old soundtrack arrangements from Ys 3, which can be switched between on the fly. To be honest, I enjoyed the new soundtrack the most, as they heighten the tension and tone intended for each area. Yet I am grateful for the old chiptunes as well, since they contain details which the new arrangements often omit. Together, the soundtracks demonstrate that live musicians can evoke more powerful emotions, but those old sound chips can evoke sounds that human performers would struggle to eke out of their instrument. And yes, the music truly is as good as I was told.
With only a month left in 2010, I have no qualms with saying that Oath in Felghana is one of my favorite games this year. It is a rare release which uses modern technology to enhance an old game, rather than to scrub the old out. The story is expanded, but it isn’t chatty. The quest is longer, but it still isn’t overly long (my first playthrough was around 15 hours, without a moment of boredom). It feels like an antique which was polished up and put back on display, rather than a modern replacement made of shoddy materials. I’m glad to see that Falcom is proud of their past accomplishments in an age where most developers are all too eager to destroy the past in a sea of retcons and tweaks. Ys 3 may have been imperfect, but now it has been made into a genuine classic.