Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Nihon Falcom Corporation
Are you sick and tired of JRPGs leading you by the nose from cutscene to cutscene? Do you hear the call of adventure, but crave the thrill of fast and fluid combat? Do you own a PlayStation Vita?
If you answered 'yes' on all counts, Ys: Memories Of Celceta probably deserves to make its way onto your shopping list. This ground-up remake of Ys 4 puts us into the well-worn boots of Adol Cristin, which are definitely made for walking. Having found himself in a frontier town on the edge of civilization with a convenient case of amnesia, the rakish explorer discovers that he lost his memories while mapping the legendary forest of Celceta, so teams up with an old friend and plunges back into the unknown. With little save a sword, a mercenary information dealer and a blank map for company, the scene is set for a genuine adventure.
Celceta is an enormous tract of land, an intricate and confusing labyrinth of glades, swamps, tunnels and ruins that's somewhat reminiscent of a massively expanded Monster Hunter title. Most JRPGs would immediately funnel you down a preset path, but Memories Of Celceta is cut from a different cloth, simply thrusting an empty map into your hands and suggesting, perhaps, that you ought to check over there when you have the time. Most of the game simply revolves around the satisfaction of filling this map in, of discovering new areas, new places, new faces and eventually piecing Adol's memory back together.
And romping through hordes of foes with one of the most responsive combat systems we've seen from the series yet, if not the entire sub-genre in recent years.
The overarching plot subscribes to generic 'amnesiac mute hero with a trendy hairstyle saves the world' fare, but the storytelling is much more interesting than the story itself. As you explore the enormous forest, you'll encounter scattered memory fragments that fill in a portion of Adol's younger life, backstory or important plot details (Ys fans will relish the opportunity to discover more about Adol's childhood). These text-heavy scenes are delivered out of chronological order; initially confusing, but ultimately coming together into a solid little tale.
Better yet, several towns and villages await Adol's return, most of whom now view him with fear and suspicion after his first visit. Regaining your memories through flashbacks, then reuniting with characters Adol met previously who subsequently deliver an interesting story arc and eventually join the party, presents an interesting in medias res approach that continually ramps up in intensity over the course of the campaign.
Celceta is the real star of the show, however, a character in its own right. The sprawling woodland has been expertly crafted to encourage you to delve into its nooks and crannies, gradually offering up fast-travel shortcuts, backtracking opportunities and safe havens throughout your adventure. What initially appears to be a randomised jumble of discrete zones reveals itself to be intricately interconnected, as new party members continually provide different ways to interact with the environment (such as smashing through barriers or creating platforms with hanging gourds) and discover new areas. Crucially it's truly satisfying to explore and map out, with each new map segment resulting in impressive cash rewards.
As an action-RPG, character movement is pleasingly fast, allowing you to cover ground at a decent clip. Adol and two of his comrades sprint through the forest with grace and agility you'll rarely see in the genre... and scythe through the forest's bestiary of horrific predators like an unstoppable steel tidal wave.
Memories Of Celceta's real-time combat is utterly superb. Unimpeachably responsive, fluid and intuitive, the combo-heavy silken swordplay flows beautifully, putting regular attacks, blocks and evade dashes within easy reach. Often akin to a full-fat hack & slash brawler rather than an RPG, you've got split-second control over attacks and dodges, to the extent that a perfectly-timed evade results in a grace period of slow motion invulnerability. It's an razor-sharp joy that rewards momentum, observation and fearlessly pushing the advantage , rather than miring you in cumbersome animations and clunky knockdown cycles. Due to the open nature of the map, you're free to retreat at any time, or occasionally push into areas that you're not entirely ready for in exchange for increased rewards.
In all honesty, it's what I've always secretly wanted from Monster Hunter.
You'll need to think tactically to succeed, however, since Celceta's disgusting critters, cave lurkers and titanic bosses all present unique strengths and weaknesses. Thankfully you're free to switch between your two companions at any time, all of whom have access to different spells, attack types and combat roles. Bulky brawler Duran smashes through armoured foes with his massive fists, for example, whereas Karna pierces enemies with her wicked knives. Even the diminutive spiritualist Calilica uses an enormous stave to inflict ruinous blunt-force trauma on anything stupid enough to tangle with her. Analysing an enemy is as simple as tapping the touchscreen, meaning that choosing the right two characters for each specific area or boss pays dividends.
If anything, the combat is arguably too good; at least in that Adol and co. can cut through the rank and file far too efficiently on normal difficulty to present much of a challenge. Consider pushing the difficulty up to 'hard' for a more technical and satisfying challenge. As you'd expect from a JRPG, the proceedings are naturally underpinned by robust levelling and character progression, buoyed up with a smorgasbord of trinkets that provide situtational combat bonuses and sweeping buffs.
So Ys: Memories Of Celceta is good, in fact, very good indeed. I can objectively recognise that (and score it accordingly), but on the flip-side, I personally didn't find myself as engaged (or borderline-obsessed) with the game as I usually am with JRPGs. Working out exactly why took a fair few hours, though the visuals probably didn't help.
I'm reliably informed that Memories of Celceta was created in tandem with the PSP-bound Ys Seven, using much the same engine and development tools. It shows. From the jagged character models to cumbersome cutscene animations and middling texture work, it often feels like we're playing a polished PSP hand-me-down. Worse, there's clear evidence of colour dithering, a common technical limitation of countless 16-Bit PSP games that robs the visuals of their crispness and clarity, washing out the colour palette and making you peer through what appears to be a grain filter smeared with petroleum jelly.
Thankfully the rich and colourful art direction more than makes up for an underwhelming first impression, cliched character designs aside. Considering that Memories of Celceta a cut above any 3DS title and still looks handsome for a handheld game, it'd be unfair to ding the scoreline too harshly, especially since a pulse-pounding soundtrack rounds off the rougher edges of the presentation.
Small yet snowballing gripes ultimately hold Ys: Memories Of Celceta back from true greatness. The characters aren't quite interesting or consistent as we'd usually expect from a top-tier JRPG, especially Adol's bland lead performance. Subquests feel inconsequential. A weapon upgrade system manages to be both convoluted and hilariously pointless, given the quick turnaround between finding or buying entirely new armaments. And critically the story, as uniquely as it's told, never quite manages to capture the imagination and takes the best part of twelve hours to hit its stride.
When the combat and exploration is this good, however, I'm willing to give it a pass.
- Satisfying exploration, cartography and relative lack of hand-holding
- Superb, responsive and blisteringly fast combat
- Versatile characters and impressive level design
- Excellent soundtrack
- Story and characters aren't as strong or memorable as they could be
- Unremarkable softened visuals betray PSP heritage
- Numerous annoying gripes; arguably too easy on default difficulty
The Short Version: Ys: Memories Of Celceta is an impressive and atypical JRPG that revolves around the thrill of exploration. The storyline and characters aren't the most engaging we've seen from the genre, but the gloriously fluid combat and satisfying sense of adventure more than make up for it.
Another excellent localised title for the PS Vita, which continues to quietly deliver a selection of delectable left-field games for connoisseurs to enjoy.