Remember the days where you’d hear about an amazing new game, only available in Japan? And when we’d eagerly await news on a North American and European release? I’m trying to channel that kind of excitement into this piece about Ys X: Nordics – the latest entry in Falcom’s long running Ys franchise. Put simply, it’s one of the most enjoyable game experiences I had in 2023, it is almost certainly heading for the West and I feel compelled to tell you about it.
If you’re not familiar with the Ys series, it’s a long running action RPG series that started life in 1987 on the NEC PC-88 series of computers. Each series entry puts you in the shoes of famous adventurer Adol Christin as you slash your way through challenges, while following the many stories told within each game. The first three games made their way to the West early on arriving on systems such as the Turbo Grafx 16, Super NES and even the Sega Master System. The Turbo Grafx version was widely praised for its cinematic presentation and served as a very early showcase for CD technology way back in 1989.
However, after Ys 3, the series basically vanished from Western shores. The story continued in Japan, albeit slowly – there were two unique games known as Ys 4 – Mask of the Sun on Super Famicom and The Dawn of Ys on PC Engine which I’m a huge fan of. In the early 2000s, however, Falcom unveiled Ys 6 – The Ark of Napishtim which received ports to both PlayStation 2 and, eventually, PSP. It was at this point that the series returned to the West with each new entry receiving localisations. Between Ys and Trails in the Sky, Falcom finally achieved a new level of success around the world.
Finally, in late September 2023, Falcom unleashed the latest entry in the series – Ys X: Nordics on PlayStation platforms and the Switch. I picked it up on launch day and it ultimately made it on my Game of the Year list (the video should be embedded a little further down on this page). I played through the game on PS5 but, over the holidays, I had a chance to play a chunk of the game on Switch.
In terms of underlying technology, Ys X is pushing no boundaries – it’s a handsome game but Falcom is a small studio, which ultimately limits their potential in terms of visual accomplishment. However, this game uses their new engine which I think brings with it some nice improvements. With Ys 8 and 9, you could feel that the technology was built on a foundation targeting platforms such as the PS Vita. Maps were often small divided up into chunks with loading barriers between each section. Character movement felt somewhat stiff and lighting, especially in Ys 9, was extremely flat.
With Ys X, however, the size and scope of each section has increased significantly with loading screens existing primarily between interiors and exteriors. The maps are more complex and more detailed all around. Animation is hugely improved across the board with movement feeling much less stiff than the prior two entries. The use of colour is also strong with striking blue skies carrying you through the adventure.
Furthermore, major cutscenes now receive good quality animation work which, again, was somewhat lacking in the last two games. Basically, while it still very much looks like something you’d expect on Nintendo Switch, it feels more attractive and polished all around while also just feeling better in the hands. Moving Adol through the world, attacking enemies and using his various Mana powers are all satisfying.
From a performance and visual quality standpoint, the PS5 version is – unsurprisingly – the best of the bunch. It runs at native 4K at 60 frames per second while completely eliminating all loading times – the developer even removed the loading screens you’ll find in other versions, which is great. This is the version I played through and the one I’d recommend. However, the Switch version has its own appeal and I wanted to check it out on the go. As noted, the last two games didn’t run very well on Switch and, initial impressions of Ys X suggested that might also be the case here but thankfully, things smooth out and after many hours of play, I found that it is largely acceptable but not amazing.
Firstly, image quality takes a hit on Switch – the game delivers a 900p output in docked mode and around 600p in portable. The resolution is expected for the Switch, though, and looks fine enough I’d argue. Unfortunately, on top of that, visual cuts were also necessary despite the somewhat simple designs which surprised me a little. There’s this nice mix of bloom and volumetrics used on PS5 that seems to have gone missing on Switch leading to scenes that sometimes seem darker than they should.
Shadows are also much lower resolution with a lot of visual breakup and noise especially on self-shadows. Texture quality takes a minor hit in spots and, as a result of the lower resolution, texture filtering also exhibits additional blur at oblique angles. I also noticed some differences in water rendering between the two. Plus, things like pop-in are often much worse on Switch with nearby objects appearing often out of thin air. Still, despite these changes, the overall visual identity is largely intact and the game still looks good on Switch.
When we talk about performance, we should keep in mind that Ys 8 on Switch exhibited serious frame-rate issues throughout making it a sub-optimal way. Ys X in comparison does manage to reach a more stable 30 fps frame-rate most of the time but certain effects, especially of the alpha variety, can cause the performance to dip sharply. This is pretty much the main issue this time – transparency-heavy alpha effects. Whether in cutscenes or battle, the Switch’s mobile hardware clearly does not play nicely with them and the frame-rate drops hard when they appear.
Still, despite this, I definitely feel that the Switch version of X feels more consistent and better overall than the last two games. It’s ot perfect by any stretch but noticeably better. Curiously, there’s a PS4 version and there’s even a demo! What’s interesting here is that on PS4 Pro, there are modes included – you can cap at 30fps or go for unlocked with a 60 fps target. The game holds the 30fps target very well from initial testing but the unlocked mode is pretty unstable in areas with lots of enemies or NPCs around so I can understand the option. Visually, it falls between Switch and PS5 and runs around 1080p. Ultimately, given the visual target, I am slightly surprised by the unstable performance – it suggests that the game is limited more by CPU than GPU. The Switch I can understand but the Pro should do better, I think. At least the game is buttoned up nicely on PS5 which is the preferred way to go for sure.
Beyond the tech I also wanted to discuss the game’s structure and design. Basically, the multi-character system from Ys games starting with Ys 7 is out, instead replaced with the Cross Action system. Throughout the game, you primarily control Adol or Karja, as she is sometimes referred. You can switch between the two with a single button but the main draw is combo attacks. By mixing normal attacks, skills and combo attacks, you can create some pretty excellent combos that feel great to pull off.
You also gain access to Mana powers during the game which grants you abilities such as the Mana String, which works like a grappling hook, Mana Ride, where you jump on what is effectively a hoverboard known as the Grimble Board and the Mana Burst, which allows you to summon special attacks sometimes used in puzzle solving.
The world is broken up into a series of islands that you explore by way of the Sandras – a large naval vessel you command throughout the game. As you progress, you’ll slowly begin to uncover the map while visiting many new locations. In a way, it reminded me most of something like Skies of Arcadia’s airship and it feels like a proper old school overworld map, which I loved. There’s also ship to ship combat and even ship boarding mechanics in there.
I also greatly enjoyed the story telling in this one – it feels like a more personal story and features some surprising twists and turns along the way, especially near the end. If you’re reasonably OK with Japanese language but need to look up words from time to time, as is definitely the case for me, Ys X features a robust log system that catalogues all dialogue. You can basically review any lines you might have missed including replaying associated voice clips. I found this very handy. Even once the game gets full localisation, I expect it’ll still prove useful. And speaking of audio related topics, there’s also the soundtrack which, in typical Falcom fashion, is of excellent quality with a nice mix of driving tunes and calmer melodies.
OK, I accept that this piece isn’t quite what you’d expect from standard Digital Foundry output and some might say it’s not even the style of game we tend to focus on – but what can I say? Ys X: Nordics made a genuine impact on me in 2023 and I really wanted to talk about it – perhaps in the same way that those late 80s/early 90s games journalists wanted to evangelise some of Japan’s finest games months – even years – before they arrived in the West. I’m hopeful Ys X will arrive a lot sooner than that, and when it does, look out for it.