Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review — Going Down to Prison Town
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox follows Adol Christin on yet another of his fantastical adventures, but things are a bit different this time. Getting chucked in the Prison City of Balduq's famous prison is just the start of a much bigger, grander adventure with higher stakes and a more compelling narrative than ever before.
Ys IX: might not do everything perfectly, but it's one heck of a wild ride and a good contender for the best Ys game to date.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review — Going Down to Prison Town
Ys IX is easily the most ambitious in the series, thanks in no small part to the story and setting. Adol goes to jail, and Balduq’s lockup hides a massive, far-reaching secret. The Ys series is no stranger to either of those things — Adol in prison and big secrets to uncover — and Lacrimosa of Dana’s setting is one giant secret. Ys IX handles it in a deeper way, though.
Adol escapes, but not before encountering the enigmatic Aprilis and becoming one of her Monstrums. These Monstrums are sort of like Balduq’s superheroes. Aprilis tasks them with defending the city against the Grimwald Nox (more on that in a bit), but each Monstrum is free to do whatever they please in their spare time.
That means helping the downtrodden for some and just causing chaos for others, but it’s always directed at correcting injustices in the city.
The Romun Empire gets mentioned frequently in Ys lore, whether for oppressing provinces such as Felghana or warring with Altago in Ys Seven. It’s always present in some form, but typically distant and secondary to the main mystery. In Ys IX, imperial oppression is almost tangible.
Balduq and the wider Gllian region didn’t acquiesce to Romun role without a fight, leading to a social split affecting those who sided with Romn (the wealthy) and those who didn’t (everyone else).
Almost everyone has a reason to despise the occupying imperial forces, and if they didn’t before, the recent spate of unjust imprisonments and tight-fisted rule just gave them one. Granted, Ys IX doesn’t always handle these narratives with finesse.
Still, Balduq’s plague of problems makes the Monstrums’ and Adol’s missions feel much more personal and important than usual. It also makes for better pacing. Previous games, including Ys VIII, start much slower and ramp up at the end. Here, there's at least some important story facet always present and pushing you forward.
That sense only increases once the game settles into a routine built around the Monstrums’ base and the Dandelion organization. Lacrimosa of Dana made bonding with party members and NPCs a priority, but Monstrum Nox makes it more intimate by putting Adol and the others on society’s fringes, a true ragtag group of heroes banding together against the world.
Ys IX’s broader story is a bit more complicated. This has always been a series of mostly standalone games. Some story bits connect to each other — Felghana’s false god Galbalan returning in different forms in The Ark of Napishtim, for instance — but you can typically play each game without having a clue what happens in the others.
Monstrum Nox is different. Clear ties to previous games gradually become more apparent, and while many of them, such as recurring monsters, are just nice nods to series fans, the villain and the situation surrounding him are actually connected to earlier games, Ys V in particular. The trouble there is that Ys V is the only series game that never received a Western localization or modern re-release (barring the 2002 PS2 release) of any kind.
Other portions, namely the Clan of Darkness and their relationship with alchemy, have roots stretching throughout the series and even into Ys Origin.
You might feel a bit more confused than usual as the ending ramps up, true. Ys IX definitely feels like the Cold Steel 4 of Ys by tying multiple plot points together. Fortunately, even though what happens in Balduq builds directly on everything that came before, it’s still functional as a standalone story.
The city itself is almost as important as the other characters and the plot. Balduq might not be to everyone’s tastes after the Isle of Seiren’s open expanse, but it ended up being my favorite settings in the series.
Ys is about adventuring and exploration, but you often wouldn’t know it from some of the settings. Classic Ys uses fields and such as arenas for level grinding. Modern Ys gives us bigger areas with little reason to explore them. Even the Isle of Seiren is so much empty (but pretty) landscape, a vehicle for telling Dana’s story more than anything else.
What you trade in visual variety for (mostly) staying behind the city’s massive gothic walls you gain in personality and, better yet, a reason to explore. Balduq is crammed full of secrets, from hidden treasure chests to graffiti scrawled in secret, collectibles, and more. You don’t have full access to the city until much later, but even the earlier segments have plenty of alleys, tantalizingly out-of-reach rooftops, and other nooks to explore.
It’s a hugely refreshing change of pace from the previous pattern of enter region, follow path, find dungeon, repeat, and it gives you a chance to interact with Balduq’s people more. The result is a location not unlike something out of a Trails game and what feels like the fulfillment of Ys’ promise of exotic adventures.
Monstrum Nox’s special twist only adds to the sense of exciting exploration. Each Monstrum has a special ability of some kind they can use to reach new areas and explore the city further.
Adol’s Crimson Line acts as a grappling hook of sorts, for example, while Hawk can soar above the rooftops, and that's just the start. Moving around feels good, and there’s nearly always a reward for putting these abilities to good use aside from admiring the Monstrum’s costumes.
Balduq isn’t quite a sandbox, some areas look a bit too sparse and clean, and later Monstrum abilities don’t get to shine as much. Yet it’s definitely the series’ strongest setting and a design philosophy I hope Falcom continues to work with in future games.
With the broader story and tons of content packed into Balduq, Ys IX is still very much a traditional Ys game built around fast-paced combat. That combat isn’t much changed from Ys 8 or even Memories of Celceta for that matter.
Each character has a series of regular and aerial attacks plus a slew of learnable skills with varying effects. Attacks have one of three attributes, so exploring with a balanced party is as important here as it is in previous games.
One noticeable difference is how combat feels. Lacrimosa of Dana plays like an extension of Celceta, with loose, almost floaty combat. Ys IX feels weighty and definite without sacrificing speed. There’s power behind each sword swing and intention in every movement, a small set of changes that gives combat a more distinct and satisfying feel.
The Boost gauge fills more quickly as well, and you’re expected to use each character’s Boost abilities more frequently as a result. These moves are handy for getting an edge in boss fights or dealing with enemy swarms, and more importantly, they’re flashy as all heck and just fun to use.
A good bit of Ys IX’s combat actually takes place on Balduq’s streets, in addition to its sewers and dungeon areas. One significant part of the plot involves an unseen curse and the twisted monsters it gives rise to. The city hosts multiple portals where the worlds collide. Interacting with said portals literally takes the fight to the streets, as they unfold alongside Balduq’s homes, parks, and businesses.
That’s also one area where Ys IX’s mechanics feel a bit forced. The curse prevents Monstrums from accessing certain parts of the city until they dispel the darkness in a given region. It’s not unlike Ys VIII’s obstacles you could only overcome after finding a set number of castaways, but it comes across as a bit game-y.
On the plus side, the required Grimwald Nox fights aren't nearly as intrusive as Lacrimosa of Dana's village raids. They're part of the story and necessary for progressing, instead of interrupting your progress at important points.
Ys VIII was clearly a Vita game upscaled for PS4. While Ys IX won’t win any graphics awards, the visuals are definitely a step above its predecessor.
Balduq might be uniformly grey and imposing, but there’s a surprising amount of visual interest in the architecture and layout. Colors, particularly character clothing, are vibrant, and the character models look more detailed than ever for an Ys game.
The downside is a bit of camera and movement jank, at least on PlayStation 4. Camera movement is a bit jerky when you’re moving in open, especially crowded, areas, visuals don’t look quite as clear as they do indoors, and model movements are a touch rougher in some cutscenes taking place outside.
Ys IX’s soundtrack is absolutely stellar, dripping with atmosphere and adding an almost perfect touch to every scenario and location. It’s a bit different from previous Ys games and has a noticeable tinge of Cold Steel 3 and 4 in it, but the different tone also feels appropriate to Ys IX’s grander setting and more complex story.
Ys VIII released in the West with a rather infamous set of localization issues, but that's absolutely not the case for Ys IX. NIS America's localization for Ys IX is smooth and natural, with some nice character nuances and extra flourishes for the more dramatic and mysterious characters.
Ys IX Monstrum Nox Review — The Bottom Line
- Best setting in the series
- Huge map to explore, full of secrets to uncover and fun ways to uncover them
- Winning tweaks to an already strong combat system
- Compelling story and likeable, relatable characters
- Excellent soundtrack
- City progression feels a bit game-y at times
- Some characters and stories don't get as much attention as they could
- Slight camera and model jank at times
Ys IX is a departure in several ways from previous games, from the more concentrated setting to the deeper focus on character stories, and it pays off in all ways. A few narrative missteps and some awkward progression mechanics aside, it's an outstanding RPG and an impressive step forward for the Ys series.
[Note: NISA provided the copy of Ys IX: Monstrum Nox used for this review.]