Ys IX: Monstrum Nox Review
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is one of the most curious entries yet for the 34-year-old Ys series. With the previous Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana firmly marking Nihon Falcom’s intentions to shift the narrative presentation of Adol Christin’s neverending adventures to be somewhat more akin to their Trails games, Ys IX builds upon it in smart ways with the compelling mysteries surrounding the location of Adol and Dogi’s next destination, the strange Prison City of Balduq.
Adol finds himself in the middle of a prison break from the get-go. His escape leads him to a chance encounter with Aprilis, an enigmatic young lady that shoots him with a magical bullet. The shot transforms Adol into his new alter ego, a Monstrum known as the Crimson King. Although Adol’s newfound power gives him the nifty ability to grapple toward marked points and enemies, its price is heavy; he can no longer leave Balduq and has to find a way to break Aprilis’s curse on him. On the upside, Adol can interchangeably switch between his real and Monstrum form instantaneously.
Ys games have traditionally been standalone entries within the series. Ys I and II notwithstanding, the same generally holds true with Ys IX, yet on some level it does feel like a celebration of Adol’s past adventures. As with other Ys games, the script does make the occasional nod to his previous travels, yet Ys IX weaves it into the main story in inventive ways. Absolute newcomers hoping to start with this entry shouldn’t fret, but those who have followed the Ys games over the years will certainly appreciate how Monstrum Nox acknowledges the legacy Adol has built.
At the same time, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is, to some extent, an antithesis of Adol’s escapades. His curse as the Crimson King prevents him from traveling to other cities or towns, so this forcibly chains him down within the confines of Balduq by and large. Fortunately, Balduq is a huge city - so much that a good chunk of the game focuses on unlocking sections of it bit by bit. Plus, Adol’s iconic red hair is absent for most of the game since he’s on the down-low from the law. It truly does feel odd to play a blue-haired Adol, but it’s just another sign of the times changing I guess...
As with other modern Ys games, Adol isn’t alone on his adventures. He meets five other individuals throughout the course of his journey suffering a similar situation; they are also Monstrums unable to leave the city that also bear goofy codenames - the Hawk, the White Cat, the Renegade, the Raging Bull, and the Doll. All of them possess unique powers that either greatly enhance moving around Balduq or make life easier navigating dungeons. The White Cat’s ability allows players to run up walls, the Hawk lets players glide around, the Doll activates an enhanced vision mode to locate hidden passages, and so on.
Therefore, I think one of Ys IX’s greatest strengths is the feel of maneuvering around and exploring everywhere. As more characters join Adol’s party, their gifts are shared with each other. I was captivated to discover every nook and cranny because it was simply entertaining to fluidly chain movement abilities together. A separate gauge depletes when they’re in use, so you can’t glide or wall run indefinitely, yet it’s enough to not seem too prohibitive.
This, in turn, makes a lot of Ys IX’s level design a lot more engaging to navigate through. The city of Balduq itself may not have an abundance of wide-open spaces, but there is a lot of verticality in how its structures are woven together. An early chase sequence throughout a shantytown utilizes the environment well to make that instance exciting. Instead of running around flat horizontal areas, I was constantly making decisions on the fly of how to traverse my surroundings efficiently to catch my target. Nihon Falcom has stepped up making Balduq feel like an interconnected open world. There are still areas divided off into zones, but it’s nowhere near as egregious as exploring the Isle of Seiren’s frequent segmented map layouts in Ys VIII.
Part of my enjoyment moving through Balduq stems from being a bit of a sucker for gothic architecture too. There are a few high peaks I reached that really let me soak in the atmosphere. Contrary to the usual vibrant color palette in Ys games, Monstrum Nox is remarkably muted, drab, and borderline dreary. Truthfully, I was not a big fan of this approach at first. Ys games tend to exhibit a lively aesthetic after all, so Balduq is naturally a stark contrast… yet I started warming up to it over time.
I came to appreciate the relatively darker tone of Monstrum Nox’s story as far as Ys games are concerned. It still carries a lot of light-hearted wholesome moments, though the general air around the plot’s foundation feels more oppressive; frankly, I welcome the change of pace. I also think that the character writing on display is the strongest it has ever been since the Ys series started adopting the party system in Ys Seven. Much of Ys IX revolves around uncovering the identities of the other Monstrums. Each comes from different walks of life and enriches the overall narrative in enthralling ways. Hell, some might not even think the curse is all that bad for their own circumstances. I’ve enjoyed the allies Adol has had before, but this odd bunch of vigilantes may be my favorite group yet.
The same can be said about Ys IX’s supporting characters too. Early on, Adol and Dogi establish a base of operations at the Dandelion bar. Its functionally similar to Castaway Village from Ys VIII; Adol gradually meets and recruits several NPCs to join him in his cause. Players can give specific gifts to both party members and these NPCs that eventually result in some form of closure to a small story arc for that character. I feel that this aspect is more impactful in Ys IX than in Ys VIII because Adol’s supporting crew are residents of Balduq. They have established relationships and backgrounds that connect them to the setting this time around, so it feels all the more cohesive. Of course, the NPCs that join you at the Dandelion all have a purpose too, whether it’s to cook food, enhance equipment, exchanging materials for better ones, rewarding you on map exploration or collectibles, and such.
Another mechanic that makes a return from Ys VIII are the tower defense raid battles, and this time these sections are a lot more relevant to the plot. Throughout the game, there is a persistent meter that tracks a thing called Nox. This Nox meter fills up through either minor skirmishes, via small reality rifts throughout Balduq, or completing sidequests. Once it reaches 100, a portal to another dimension, the Grimwald Nox, appears. Thankfully, Ys IX has made these segments considerably less annoying than how Ys VIII handled them. Defense structures and enemy waves are closer together overall, so the condensed nature of where they populate makes them feel less dragged out. All six Monstrums also participate all at once as well, so they are relatively more lively and intense from the previous iteration. Like in Ys VIII, defenses like decoys, debuff zones, and additional firepower can be built and leveled up with materials to help you out, as well as characters having specific skills to assist you in these instances.
You can rest easy if you’ve played Ys VIII and are concerned about ‘true ending’ requirements. While the tower defense sections still have a ranking system, there is no reputation system in Ys IX you have to worry about. There is only one ending to the game - no true, normal, or bad endings. Aside from that, another mission type in the Grimwald Nox is destroying a certain amount of crystals before the time runs out. These are relatively much more simple. Completing these sections unlocks portions of the map to explore. You’ll be fairly limited in where you can and can’t go with barriers blocking you out everywhere at the beginning of Monstrum Nox.
If anything, chapter progression tends to get formulaic as I began to notice that they would fall into a loop of giving me sidequests to charge the Nox meter up quickly, complete a Grimwald Nox event to unlock a new area, and my next to-be party member will often be introduced in some way, shape, or form in that place I just unlocked. Once I resolved whatever dungeon the main story sent me to end the chapter, the next one would repeat the loop. This predictable, repetitive flow didn’t bother too much, though I think the story can seem arbitrarily constrained at certain points in order to adhere to this mold.
Sidequests in Ys IX are definitely one of its highlights, though how it handles them is quite strange. The majority of available sidequests are conveyed through the Dandelion’s bulletin board. Some are hidden and can be permanently missed if you advance too far into the story; they’ll show up in Adol’s journal with a blank entry and a miserable failed notification next to them. If you’ve already uncovered a part of the map prior to when a hidden quest would start, the map tab in the menu is generally good at placing a helpful marker that it’s waiting to be found; that is, if you’re vigilant enough to catch it.
Most of the sidequests are fantastic in fleshing out Adol’s party members or surfacing parts of Balduq’s culture and society. There are a few key sidequest chains that shocked me that they were mere optional sidequests because they seemed absolutely vital to the main narrative. Understanding the big picture in Ys IX: Monstrum Nox would not be possible if these specific sidequests were skipped or missed. Luckily, these essential ones seem difficult to accidentally miss for the most part thanks to how the game heavily coerces players to complete sidequests at the onset of chapters to charge the Nox meter.
My only significant issue is that the novelty of a particular sidequest chain overstays its welcome as it goes on. When you fail a part of it, it even gives you the option to proceed as if you’ve completed it as some sort of weird admittance from Nihon Falcom that it might be dragging itself along? The concept itself is neat and I honestly enjoyed how it was presented, but its execution from a gameplay standpoint ran its course to me.
Nevertheless, Ys IX is a blast to play like the previous entries. A party of three can participate in real-time battles at any given time and can be freely swapped between one another. Up to four different skills can be mapped onto each character and consume SP. A separate Boost gauge fills up as you fight and once it reaches at least halfway, it can be activated to enter Boost mode which grants HP regeneration and enhanced stats for a limited amount of time, along with the option to spend it all instantaneously for an extra ultimate attack. Each character is assigned either a strike, slash, or pierce attribute that will deal extra damage for enemies weak to a specific one. Foes can enter a break state that will further bring them into a world of pain. The Flash Guard and Flash Move systems remain intact as they reward last-second blocks and dodges toward incoming attacks with a raise in offensive power and speed for a limited time respectively, along with invincibility.
Some Monstrum’s powers add an extra element to fights now, like the Crimson King’s ability to grapple towards targeted enemies instantly. It quickens the pace of battles a tad and especially proves useful against irritating airborne enemies. Other than that, there are not a lot of noteworthy advancements or alterations to the modern Ys formula when it comes to its battle system, and that is alright with me because it is already utterly enjoyable as is. Every character has a different weapon, moveset, and set of skills that can be learned, taught, and leveled up; they all maneuver well and are simply enjoyable to play.
Music has always been a strong aspect of Ys and Monstrum Nox is no different. There are a lot of thrilling pieces that amplify boss battles. Some clever remixes of past themes are utilized very well throughout specific areas, locales, and moments. The sound design all throughout exploring Balduq is subtly sublime; the washed-out atmosphere actually somehow works in concert with background tracks effectively.
Nihon Falcom’s graphical engine has never been a jawdropper, but it is showing its age in Ys IX. Some of the scene choreography comes off as clumsy and unintentionally comedic. The one that sticks out in my mind is the animation of when NPCs are running away; it honestly looks awful. The outlandish outfit designs of the Monstrums does not do it any favors either with frequent, noticeable clipping. I sincerely hope that Nihon Falcom’s investment in their new graphical engine pays off in spades whenever we might see another entry.
PlayStation 5 owners looking to play this game on their spanking new next-generation console should beware, due to strange unexpected performance issues. I have played most of Ys IX on my PS5 and I crashed at least 10 times throughout my 33-hour playthrough of the game; one of them even shutting my PS5 off entirely. It’s not clear why this seems to be an issue, but it seems to also be affecting acquaintances who also have an early version of the game. I have reached out to NIS America about this ongoing issue; they have told me that they are aware of the problem and are investigating it. As of the time of this review, I have not been informed if there is any sort of patch that will address the constant crashes on PS5.
It’s a shame because, crashing aside, this game runs wonderfully on a PS5 at a stable 60fps with very fast loading times. I ran it on my PS4 Pro as well and the enhancements that a PS5 brought were quite obvious. PS4 Pro still holds an admirable smooth framerate in confined environments, but considerably less so when traversing Balduq itself; it can sometimes fluctuate down to nearly 30fps. The draw distance is also noticeably worse on PS4 Pro with people, environmental objects, and shadows popping in at a closer distance than they would on a PS5. I don’t think these few drawbacks are enough to serve as be-all and end-all for PS4 owners looking to play the game, especially when the game doesn’t suffer crashes on PS4 like it does on the PS5. For those who own both, you are stuck with a catch-22 between a system that can run it at a locked 60fps which can crash at any point, or a system with a noticeably inferior performance that can run it reliably. The crashes truly dampened my experience with it on PS5. It even crashed at one of the final cutscenes which led me to fight the final boss again on my PS4 Pro to ensure that it didn’t happen again. What a mess. I’m crossing my fingers that it gets fixed as soon as possible.
Those concerned with Ys IX’s English localization, due to how Ys VIII launched in a shoddy state, can put their worries to rest. The script is in excellent condition right off the bat. NIS America has strived to ensure that Ys IX won’t suffer a similar fate from all the trials and tribulations that the Ys VIII English localization had to work through after its initial launch in the west.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is another excellent addition to the Ys series. Its darker tone and gloomier atmosphere help it to stand out from the rest of the series, but it somehow works in its favor. The character writing and narrative framing is a remarkable step-up from previous titles, yet still preserves the thrilling intense action that the Ys series is known for. Some of Monstrum Nox’s sidequests stand among the best in the entire series. I have a few qualms with its repetitive structure, though what truly stings is the frequent crashes I experienced on the PS5. I loved my time with Adol’s adventure throughout Balduq and look forward to his next big adventure.
[Update - 1/29/21 12:16PM PT] A NIS America representative has responded to us at RPG Site concernng the crashing issues that Ys IX: Monstrum Nox suffers on the PlayStation 5 currently. They informed us that they have a patch planned to release soon to address its performance issues on it.