Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is an action-RPG developed by Nihon Falcom and published by NIS America outside of Japan for the Vita in 2017. An enhanced port with new content was released at the same time for PS4, which found its way to PC and Switch in 2018.
After his trip to Xandria in Ys V, the ever adventurous Adol Christin and his travel buddy Dogi are on another boat set for adventure. Said adventure catches up to them mid-journey and the duo alongside others on the boat find themselves shipwrecked on the island of Seiren, an island untouched by time.
It's a long-running gag that Adol and boats do not mix, so it was good to see Falcom finally take things to their logical conclusion and have Adol suffer a proper shipwreck. This changes the format of the story, as instead of venturing out from a town to raid dungeons and save the day, Adol and the rest of the castaways must make their own village while exploring the island for a way home.
This makes this the most adventurous game in the series, as it's simply you versus the unexplored wilderness. It's satisfying to map out the island and hunt down castaways (more on this later), but the actual plot kinda drags. Beyond a minor sub-plot that takes up a chapter, it takes forever for things to properly shift from merely exploring the island to dealing with what it is host to.
I respect allowing the island (and its kick-ass music) to speak for itself, but for how little there is to grasp onto before the endgame, there is a surprising amount of dialogue to get through for an Ys game. There's a lot of talking that goes into introducing each party member and discussing the next course of action. It's a justifiable amount of dialogue, but by the end I didn't care a lot about the various castaways you find and do quests for.
Adol's side of the story mostly feels like an excuse to slowly but surely introduce the actual main character of the story, the titular Dana. She shares a connection with Adol through dreams, giving the two of them visions of the other while they sleep, eventually leading them to cooperate.
Her story in the kingdom of Eternia gives you a lot more direct story to engage with, but due to a bunch of timeskips and flashback sequences intermixed with the lengthy parts where you're playing as Adol, it can be difficult to keep everything in your head. Given the structure of the game, playing as one character or the other for the first third of the game wouldn't work, but I still think the story would be more easily digestible that way.
Ultimately, it's the most ambitious story the series has attempted so far and it is a success for the most part. Adol is an upbeat self-insert character as usual, but Dana's struggle to save Eternia and where both their stories ultimately lead is pretty cool. It's just that it feels like so much of the story could be cut down or rewritten to greater effect.
Adol's party members aren't that interesting and I remember dreading whenever I unlocked a bonding event with an NPC, since that meant listening to them go on and on about their character arc, which never captivated me properly. Thankfully, it's very easy to skip over that part and just focus on the adventure and Dana's story.
Lacrimosa of Dana naturally builds on top of the previous game, Memories of Celceta, a lot, but the core conceit of mapping out the game for rewards is handled much better here. Not only is the mapping radius bigger, but the game is subdivided into clear areas with their own map, letting you easily know how much remains unexplored and how many chests you have found. This simple change replaces the dread associated with missing a tenth of a percent of map and not knowing hwre it is with pure adventuring joy.
But beyond that, you are clearly making a bigger and bigger dent into the island each chapter, which is very satisfying. And as you discover castaways, you'll both get access to new areas and unlock special services from most characters.
It's a nestled reward system which pans out great. You fight to make progress, pick up items to upgrade yourself and your camp, which in in turn leads to new traversal gear or castaways, more equipment being available and areas to explore. The synergy present here in all the sub-systems related to exploration is exemplary.
The one lackluster part is how samey most environments are, but it does serve the purpose of selling the scale of Seiren island. You will be exploring all of it and there isn't any cheating done with the way environments interconnect from my experience. As such, you will find variety after a while where it makes sense for areas to be different. Thankfully, there are unique discoveries present in every area, which makes each of them feel a little special.
By playing any version but the Vita version you also get some extra variety in the form of some special elemental dungeons. These tie into a side plot giving you some more lore on Eternia, but they also offer more puzzles and let you play with some special combat forms unique to Dana in these dungeons, essentially turning her into a full party all on her own. It's a nice and optional chunk of game available if you ever want something more dense the simplistic dungeons of the core game.
While ostensibly being just another party-engine Ys game like 7 and Celceta were, Lacrimosa of Dana takes the important step of fully relinquishing control of the camera to the player and restoring the long-gone jump button, turning the game into what I'll describe as a Musou RPG. It's stupid fast, kinda braindead and very relaxing.
While there are some complexities present, you can get away with some incredibly sloppy play here and you'll still be air-juggling mushrooms, scorpions and sea horses with ease. I think it's fine for regular enemies to be this easy, but bosses were a disappointment this time around.
That's mostly because the individual characteristics are very lackluster and don't really matter. Since the Flash Move and Flash Move systems have returned (timed dodging and stance-changing which grant slow-motion and 100% critical hits, respectively), spacing is completely non-existant to the equation, barring the range of certain moves at your disposal. As long as your timing is somewhat decent, you can negate every single attack in the game with relative ease. Not even the final boss does anything to throw off your timing!
I get the feeling they were afraid of raising the bar by making the timing stricter, but bosses don't even make use of the returning damage type system, which exists to make each party member worth using. So for a boss you can just stick to a single character and easily brute force your way to victory by spamming attacks and chugging healing potions from the pause menu.
It's still really fun throughout, especially as you unlock the costlier and flashier moves and learn when it's best to drop your super move, but I wish the bosses were more engaging like they were in earlier instalments where you really had to learn their movesets.
Let's finish off by talking about how you upgrade your camp and your characters. One thing I'm glad to see make a return from Celceta (and something I wish other games would copy) is the material system, which is as simple as it is genius. Every piece of normal material belongs to a particular class of item, which can be traded in both up and down.
What this means in effect is that a class 1 wood item is worth 1 wood point, class 2 is worth 10, a class 3 100 and so on. So you're not actually collecting material, it's more of a diverse set of currencies. This means that everything you pick up is worth something and can be traded in for a higher class of item, or be exchanged for rare material (or be used to cook status-buffing food), which requires various amounts of other material.
You can use all this stuff to make better weapons, accessories and armor for your party, but they're also used in quests to make Castaway Village more homely and to prepare for raids, which is the last important piece of the game to talk about.
The raids were where it finally dawned on me that I was playing a Musou RPG. They pop up from time to time as the village gets attacked by monsters. Your party will then have to fight off waves of monsters with the help of the castaways you have befriended and any defensive structures you have built. It's incredibly hectic and fun, with rewards awarded for good performance.
For extra challenge, there are also hunts (which I think weren't on Vita) and special night time versions of some dungeons. The hunts are very similar to raids, only you must capture territory by lighting torches, which debuffs enemies and eventually brings out a boss. I haven't played much in the way of Musou, but this is pretty much the lite-variant of a regular Musou stage.
The harder night time dungeons are fun, if a bit ridicoulous, as they drown you in enemies. It's a decent challenge, but it goes to show the absurd lengths the game must go to become difficult. I know they series is meant to be a power-fantasy, but I wish they could balance things better and introduce mechanics that don't break the combat system as hard.