Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review (Switch)
Release Date: July 6, 2021
File Size: 3.2 GB
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: NIHON FALCOM
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Version Reviewed: 1.0.2
For RPG fans on the Nintendo Switch, it’s hard to deny NISA’s presence. Not only do they release their own RPG titles in the West, but they have also localized and published a number of major and niche RPG releases throughout the life of the console. Thanks to their mixed efforts, we have two of the latest installments in Nihon Falcom’s Ys series: Lacrimosa of Dana and the most recent Monstrum Nox.
Since its origins (Ys Book I and II, not to be confused with Ys Origin), Ys has been known for its fabulous soundtracks and action-oriented combat. Each installment and a number of remakes have gradually expanded on these foundations, resulting in a series that is wholly unlike other RPGs. Not slow-paced and cryptic, but blistering and bombastic. Not on the cutting edge of visual fidelity, but always bright and colorful. How does Monstrum Nox embellish on these qualities in the ninth mainline installment? Read on and find out.
There has always been a certain level of kinetic activity in the Ys series, and while Monstrum Nox is no different, it does slow things down ever so slightly in comparison with Lacrimosa of Dana. As Adol and the other Monstrums, you’ll be able to jump, attack, and swap between active party members using the B, Y, and A buttons, respectively. You’ll also be able to dodge and perform a guard ability by tapping the left and right shoulder buttons, though holding down the former will cause your playable character to sprint and the latter allows access to the player’s equipped Arts. These combat moves cost SP to perform, a resource that climbs with each successful basic attack, and can be mapped to any of the four face buttons. Dodging at the right time will trigger a slowdown effect called a flash move, while guarding right as an enemy attacks will trigger a flash guard, which increases SP gain and the likelihood of critical hits.
With these basics out of the way, there are some additional and exclusive mechanics that are gradually unlocked throughout the course of gameplay that drastically vary the flow of action and exploration. These are Monstrum gifts, abilities granted to the party with each new member. Adol will start with a sort of direct, dash-based move mapped to the ZR trigger, but you’ll unlock more as the story progresses. These abilities are all largely related to exploration, but they are applied to dungeon and boss combat during the chapter in which they are introduced. This often results in some of the more unique and enjoyable encounters in the game.
Monstrum Nox is all about uncovering the secrets of the city of Balduq as well as the mysterious Grimwald Nox, which is why most of its core gameplay mechanics revolve around movement and combat. Balduq is a different sort of overworld for the Ys series in setting only, as it still features a gradual-unlock system that results in a sprawling, easily-traversable environ, but is rather limited in its initial excursions. During each chapter, the player can choose to either engage in side quests or seek out the many Nox points- small enemy encounters- scattered throughout the city in order to fill the Nox Gauge, which opens Nox points featuring raid battles upon maxing out at one hundred percent. Similar to the previous entry, raid battles task the player with defending a structure from hordes of enemies.
New to Monstrum Nox, however, are raid battles where the player must seek out and destroy a number of narrative-specific crystals within a time limit. These capitalize on the movement elements of the game, and also offer more than one success state. Upon completing raid battles, the player will be able to enter new areas of Bladuq, often advancing the narrative.
After having conversed with a number of NPCs and uncovered the particular plot elements of a specific chapter, the player will then delve into one of Monstrum Nox‘s dungeons. These are more linear, combat-focused areas where healing is more limited and enemies come in slightly different varieties than those found in Nox Points. These are more than often the highlight of the game’s structure, offering playgrounds rife with rewards that require a keen eye and a strong understanding of Monstrum gifts in order to obtain. Dungeons also end in titanic boss battles that feature devastating attacks and sequences requiring Monstrum gifts to overcome.
Aside from simply fighting and running about, there are numerous activities and collectables to be found in Balduq. The player can choose to seek out landmarks, collect glowing flower petals, and decipher the graffiti scattered about each area, each corresponding to a specific NPC who will grant the player rewards based on collecting certain thresholds. There are also a number of treasure chests hidden throughout Balduq, a few of which will require specific Monstrum gifts to access. Side quests are often opportunities to engage with smaller and less-consequential events going on throughout the town, though there are a specific subset of quests that tie in closely with one of the game’s most fascinating narrative twists. Many of these quests are forgiving in nature, with any quest requiring a technical challenge having a “skip” feature that allows the player to bypass difficult segments.
It’s not very often I divide the narrative and aesthetic sections, and it feels even more uncharacteristic given that Ys is a primarily action-oriented series. While there is a chronological order to the Ys games- and Monstrum Nox does in fact reference a number of Adol’s previous adventures throughout dialogue, albeit superficially- there is no overarching narrative to connect dots between. In other words, this is very unlike Nihon Falcom’s other flagship Kiseki, or Trails series.
However, I found myself rather enraptured by the narrative of Monstrum Nox, though it did the majority of its prologue and first chapter to get to this point. The first party member in the game offers one of the more bland narratives, but it feels proper that it is completed early on in favor of the more fascinating Monstrums you’ll meet later on. It is actually the story of Adol that is the most intriguing of the bunch, and while I could reveal why that is the case in this review, I’d like to hold that particular element close to the chest, as it also has ties to the aforementioned subset of side quests. What I will say, however, is that this element ties directly into what I believed was simply a bit of hokey flavor text at the start of the game, stating:
What is real… is defined by what is not.
Who one is… is defined by who one isn’t.
To move forward, one must accept these truths.
Yes, in this prison — this cradle — my dreams and reality became one.
In the same way, as an introduction to the Ys series, I think Monstrum Nox offers a strong cast of characters whose traits are easily defined and appreciated, though I think veterans of the series will appreciate their deviation from parties from previous games just as much. While the degree of characterization does not go much further beyond their introductory chapters and a select few side quests, it is nice to see how each of these party members has come to take up residence- and the Monstrum curse- within the narrative. Though some might be wary that the title screen damsel Aprilis is not very dissimilar from Ys VIII’s Dana, the two have legendary backstories that are different enough to be appreciated in their own right.
If you are looking for a series that hints at a greater world and history, you’ll find that Ys delivers a fantastic twist on real-world mythology and history, with Balduq and its backstory having distinct ties to the Hundred Years’ War. There are some more overt references, such as the Romun Empire and Britai Region, but there are some other neat ties to be found in the charming bastardization of reality, particularly Monstrum Nox‘s own cues. In any case, much of the narrative should prove easily digestible, though there are a rare few tantalizing moments that end up more compelling than one might initially expect.
Aesthetics and Performance
Despite its storied legacy, Ys has never truly been a series on the cutting edge of graphical fidelity, and Monstrum Nox is further proof of this. In many ways, its level design, modeling, and texturing feels less like a step up from Lacrimosa of Dana and more of a step to the side. The attack animations of both playable and enemy characters alike are fluid and flashy, but particle effects and lighting result in a title that ends up feeling dated in comparison with other high-profile RPG releases. On one hand, Nihon Falcom’s dedication to keeping character portraits similar to gameplay models is somewhat commendable, but other developers have managed to accomplish anime-style aesthetics with far greater results, such as Square Enix’s Dragon Quest, Level-5’s Ni No Kuni, and Arc System Works… well, just about every product.
It feels especially unfortunate that the more stylized character portraits fail to reflect their in-game counterparts, which can be seen especially with the first party member, Black Cat. A keen eye will notice that some of the minute differences in character builds are not represented well, and some of the newer character models feel like a bit of a step back in comparison with their Ys VIII representations. Really, that previous statement can only be attributed to Adol and Dogi, so I’ll just say the latter of the two does not look great in this game.
One of the highlights of the series is its consistently-enjoyable and high-intensity soundtracks, and Monstrum Nox delivers this in spades. Many of the themes found while traversing Balduq are more subdued and easygoing, but all of Monstrum Nox‘s battle and dungeon themes are not only driving and catchy, but memorable, to boot. The mix of orchestral elements, homey jingles, and rock instrumentation is one rarely found in other RPGs, and helps Ys stand out from its contemporaries in a fascinating fashion.
The more problematic element of Monstrum Nox is that, despite its relatively mundane presentation, the game’s performance takes a dire hit on the Switch. Having played in both handheld and docked modes, I can safely say that while the game’s dungeons- arguably its best sections- play smoothly and enjoyably, areas of Balduq and raid battles can have heavy frame-rate drops, resulting in single-digit numbers during hectic moments. It is an infrequent, but unfortunate occurrence, and one can only hope for some sort of optimization patch in the future. However, the Ys games, and much of NISA’s published catalogue, have rarely received performance patches post-launch on Nintendo systems. In the same way, I was unable to complete a quest due to a failed trigger, and though this only occurred once, I hope this receives a fix in the future.
Impressions and Conclusion
As a fan of the Ys series, Monstrum Nox delivers more of what has defined the modern entries with a few added levels of nuance. While Lacrimosa of Dana’s exploration mechanics felt more slow-paced, Monstrum Nox feels much more free form in its execution, resulting in a game that only feels as slow as the player prefers. Monstrum gifts enhance the flow of gameplay to such a degree that one wonders where the series could go next with its exploration mechanics. Perhaps something more mechanical, in the vein of Zelda’s dungeon items? This is pure speculation.
Monstrum Nox‘s characters and narrative also feel a bit more at the forefront, as well, with its NPCs having a more active role in the narrative. There are factions and figures throughout that add nuance to the overarching plot as well as the arcs of each party member. Balduq is an inherently fascinating location despite its more familiar architecture, and the narrative resulting within it feels better realized as a result, with a mixture of cryptic and long-forgotten secrets as well as contemporary concerns and complications. As previously mentioned, the game incentivizes engagement in its side quests through some of its more unexpected narrative twists, and the game feels best appreciated when engaging with all of its content.
While combat is most definitely more of the same, its pacing feels tweaked to a level that is more manageable than previous entries, at least in dungeons. Boss battles and the ways that Monstrum gifts are integrated into them are more rewarding than ever, but raid battles are still a bit too hectic and harrowing for this reviewer’s tastes. The ability to replay and grind resources in order to lessen the intensity and gather the high-rank rewards of these encounters is welcome, especially since Balduq’s topography and enemy distribution make pure grinding less accessible, but raid battles rarely feel like something I want to replay. Character level progression feels constant, and so long as you are mindful of your equipment purchases and upgrades, you shouldn’t find yourself at a disadvantage too often. Upgrading and unlocking Arts still feels like a bit of a toss-up, but their strength doesn’t feel like a major area of concern.
The accessibility options available for players make interacting with Monstrum Nox‘s full suite of features easier than ever, and players disinterested with side-content can advance the exploration of Balduq in other ways. Side quests that are not accomplished can be circumvented via the black market dealer, who will offer failed quest rewards at later points in the narrative. An impressive variety of difficulty levels are on display, with options for those looking for a punishing challenge as well as those simply wishing to enjoy the experience. Though it rarely presents something more ambitious in terms of gameplay, Ys IX is chock-full of what makes the series appealing in its current state, and offers a narrative and gameplay balance that feels more in-step with many contemporary RPGs. Despite all of this, if performance and smoothness are high on your list of priorities, Monstrum Nox might prove problematic, but if you’re looking for one of the most accessible and engaging entries in the Ys series, you truly can’t go wrong with this title.