Though Nihon Falcom’s Ys (pronounced 'ease') has been sending gamers off on action-RPG adventures since 1987, you’d be forgiven for not being familiar with the series, with the last mainline release on a Nintendo console being the Japan-exclusive Ys V in 1995. Since then, Ys has seen something of a renaissance on PlayStation consoles, with 2010’s Ys Seven on PSP, 2013’s Ys: Memories of Celceta on PlayStation Vita, and 2017’s Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana on PlayStation 4 and Vita all releasing to critical success. Luckily for Nintendo fans, NIS America has now brought this last Ys title to Switch, and we couldn’t be happier; with its quick, engaging combat, memorable characters, and a uniquely beautiful world to explore, Ys VIII is a fantastic RPG and a perfect fit for Switch.

Ys VIII kicks off aboard the great ship Lombardia, a proud passenger vessel taking Adol Christin and his friend Dogi across the Gaete Sea to Eresia. While you’ll get to experience the elegance of high seas travel briefly, things quickly turn, and it’s not long before an enormous kraken attacks and sinks the ship, along with seemingly everyone onboard. The next time we see Adol, he finds himself washed up on the shore of a mysterious, tropical island — the cursed Isle of Seiren. As he starts to explore, he begins to find other castaways from the Lombardia, and after assembling a party of unlikely adventurers, sets out to rescue the rest of the survivors, unravel the mystery of the island, find a way to escape… and figure out how a young woman named Dana from his dreams fits into his predicament.

While it leans on plenty of familiar plot lines and anime clichés, Lacrimosa of Dana’s story is still genuinely interesting, and its island-bound scale helps keep the narrative grounded even as it veers into more fantastical territory. The likable characters go a long way towards holding interest, and the interactions between them become a real highlight as you grow your makeshift settlement of castaways. It’s also a particularly well-paced adventure — like many Falcom games, it feels more like a novel in terms of structure than most RPGs, with quick-moving plot points that still leave plenty of time for detail and world-building. It’s worth noting, too, that even though it has ‘VIII’ in the title, Lacrimosa of Dana works just fine as a standalone experience; like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, Ys games are more about a connected universe than sequential stories.

Unlike Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, however, Ys has been about active battling from the start, and Ys VIII is no different. Combat in Lacrimosa of Dana is real-time and takes place directly on the field, without switching to any separate screen. Foes frequent Seiren’s shores, and as soon as they’re in range, you can start wailing on them using the fast-paced hack-and-slash system. You’ll attack with ‘A’ — with multiple hits of the button stringing together automatic combos — and use skills by holding down ‘R’ and pressing a face button to call any of the four assignable skills you’ve set, while ‘L’ performs a quick dodge, and ‘R’ blocks.

You can switch between your three active party members by hitting the ‘Y’ button, and this is a key part of what makes Ys VIII’s combat so fun; switching is easy and instantaneous — meaning the next character will appear right where you were, instantly swapping places with your previously-controlled character — and can lead to all kinds of light strategy in your battle plans. In addition to their own skills, each character will deal in a particular form of melee damage — pierce, strike, or slash — and if you manage to hit an enemy with the type it’s weak against, it can end up in 'Break' state, toppled over and taking extra damage (among other debuffs). Beyond different attack types, characters actually feel quite different to play as well — from the relatively tank-like Sahad to the speedy Laxia — so hot-swapping party members is for much more than aesthetics alone.

No matter who you’re controlling, you’ll also have access to some fun techniques that elevate the battle system above simple button-mashing. ‘Flash Move’ and ‘Flash Guard’, for instance, are Bayonetta-style moves that trigger if you manage to dodge or block an attack at the very last moment, delivering an incredibly satisfying slow-motion effect and a significant damage boost for the next few seconds. These feel fantastic to pull off, and they go a long way towards making battles feel more skill-based than stat-based; we managed to eke out a few wins over far more powerful foes with sequences of successful Flashes, and the rush was incredible.

Other little wrinkles in the combat system further contribute to its personality as well. There’s a distinct focus on aerial attacks, for instance; it’s easy to juggle opponents up in the air, and finishing off foes while airborne will actually grant an experience point bonus. Similarly, landing a final blow with a skill (as opposed to a melee attack) will recharge SP, so tactical use of special moves can actually leave your gauge higher than before a battle. Setting off lots of skills will also fill up the gauge for an ‘Extra Skill’ — a character specific special complete with a bespoke animation and cut-in portrait that deals massive amounts of damage to multiple targets. Altogether, combat in Ys VIII is fast, frantic, and fun; deep enough to stay interesting, but simple enough to avoid ever feeling overcomplicated.

Of course, while Adol and friends will spend plenty of time defending themselves from the local fauna, the real goal of their adventure is to explore and map out the island, and that’s the other side of Ys VIII’s gameplay loop. As you set out from your makeshift home in Castaway Village, you’ll fill out Seiren’s map, noting down places of interest as Location Points. In addition to enemies, the landscape is riddled with resources, and by collecting fruits, plants, minerals, and more, you’ll be able to cook and craft new meals and items back at base camp. You’ll also come across new castaways, as you rescue the lost passengers of the Lombardia one-by-one — many of whom have special skills that they’re happy to share with you, by opening up new shops and services in Castaway Village. The village is a keystone of Ys VIII; it’s a place to rest and recharge, but you’ll also need to fortify and defend the settlement from beast attacks, which become more of a threat as you comb further into the island’s mysterious origins.

Rescuing castaways will also allow you to explore more of the island, by virtue of having more hands to help move obstacles like boulders and tress blocking your path. You’ll also come across Zelda-style ‘Adventure Gear’ that fulfills a similar purpose, as items that will help you climb, or breathe underwater, or light up dark areas. Between all these elements, exploring the island quickly turns into an addictive cycle of gathering resources, returning to base, advancing the plot, and then heading back out to a newly accessible area to push further on. It’s an enjoyable loop — streamlined by generous fast-travel points — that places Ys VIII comfortably in-between exploration-based RPGs such as Etrian Odyssey and more story-focused series like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest.

And while this works wonderfully as a unique gameplay template, a large part of what makes exploration so fun in Ys VIII is the incredible environments — like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, this is an adventure with a world that’s truly worth exploring. The Isle of Seiren is a perfect setup, in that it gives the environment a strong cohesive identity; rather than having disconnected areas such as 'fire world' or 'ice world', biomes blend naturally into one another, and there’s a geographic sense of progression as you venture further out from your base. The setting also means Falcom gets creative with how to differentiate areas from one another by theme, and that really pays off; variations in colour palettes, lighting, verticality, and density work together to give each domain its own feel, and there isn’t one we wouldn’t want to see on a postcard.

The Isle of Seiren is also lovely to look at in terms of graphics, and while it may not be pushing the limits of the system, Ys VIII still holds up very well visually. Character and enemy models are beautifully done, sporting impressive detail and smooth animation, and though you’ll spot low-res textures and low-poly features, the strong art direction and dynamic camera angles help smooth over these rough edges. Ys VIII started out as a Vita game before being ported to the PlayStation 4 and now Switch, and while those handheld roots are certainly apparent, so is the fact that a great deal of care went into its presentation, from costume design and the gorgeous 2D character portraits to the menus and UI.

Unfortunately, that care is also why it’s extra disappointing that there’s a non-trivial amount of jank involved. The translation — which reflects the redone version patched in after the original Western localisation was widely criticised — is excellent, but it could benefit from more editing; scattered typos, extra spaces, and alignment issues appear infrequently but noticeably throughout. We also came across a few missing icons and images in tutorial screens, even in the very early game. Issues aren’t limited to writing, either; they also include odd design choices, like the fact that dashing makes characters control like wheeled vehicles rather than running humans, and that there’s no rumble effect whatsoever, which feels like a notable omission in 2018. Obviously these are far from deal-breakers, but they stand out precisely because the core game has such high production values.

In terms of performance, we’re happy to say that this Switch port feels great. It looks excellent in docked mode, and while it can get a bit choppy in certain areas, in general it runs smooth and is lovely to play. The framerate feels much the same in handheld mode, with our only complaint being an odd issue in which the game seems to ‘lose focus’ for a bit from time to time — particularly in cutscenes — resulting in a blurry effect, sometimes accompanied by a quick camera shake, before snapping back to being as clean and crisp as it is when docked. It’s odd and annoying when it happens, but it’s definitely worth it to be able to take Ys VIII on the go.

On the audio side, Lacrimosa of Dana delivers a knockout performance, with a stellar soundtrack that jumps genres from orchestral waltzes and Celtic-inspired folk to SEGA-style guitar rock without skipping a beat. There’s a wide variety of instrumentation and musical styles, but it all comes together as a cohesive whole thanks to recurring melodic and rhythmic themes and thoughtful transitions. Falcom games are known for their memorable music, and Ys VIII is up there with the best of them. There’s also excellent English voice acting, which helps flesh out the personalities of your party and most NPCs.

Conclusion

With fun, fast-paced combat, likable characters, and an enjoyable story that takes full advantage of its beautiful shipwrecked setting, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is a top-shelf action RPG. Exploring the Isle of Seiren is as rewarding as mastering the character-swapping, hack-and-slash battle system, and both fit into an addictive feedback loop of adventuring that keeps everything moving at a quick clip. Editing issues and inconsistent image quality in handheld mode are small blemishes on an otherwise polished production, but don’t let them deter you; Ys VIII is a true gem.