PSP Backlog Quest: Falcom Imports
After several months of working on some big review projects, I’ve finally found some time to return to my beloved PSP and get out another Backlog Quest update. The battery is starting to give out on the old girl, but I still managed to get in some time with a couple of Japan-only Falcom games to regale the RPGaming public with: Ys vs. Sora no Kiseki: Alternative Saga and Nayuta no Kiseki.
Let’s start with Ys vs. Sora no Kiseki, a 3D arena fighter that mixes characters from the Ys games and the Trails in the Sky series. I played this game in Japanese and despite the language barrier, the story has a predictable crossover setup that is still conveyed clearly. In story mode, there are several different characters to choose from — such as Adol from Ys and Estelle from Trails — and each character wakes up in a mysterious world and keeps encountering characters from their respective franchise who are acting strangely. The chosen character remedies this problem by literally beating the sense back into the others. The gameplay feels like the other PSP Ys games so it’s fast-paced and fun even if the story is incomprehensible. Also, as expected of a Falcom game, the soundtrack is fantastic. While the game is simple enough to be playable for anyone who wants to import it, I faded on it after a snafu: I accidentally backed out of the story mode to the main menu without saving — I’m sure there were some warnings in Japanese I couldn’t understand — and I lost several hours of progress. Someday I’ll come back and play more, but that was just too painful of a hit to suffer for me to continue.
So after that, I moved on to Nayuta no Kiseki, an action RPG spinoff from the Trails series. I’m a huge Trails fan so I have been curious about this game for a while. It turned out to be a hidden gem on the PSP, but not for the reasons I was expecting.
The Trails games are known for their interconnected plots and interesting characters, but, although it’s billed as a Trails game, other than some shared terminology and artistic motifs, there is little to tie Nayuta into the larger Trails universe. As far as I can tell — and I’m relying on a fan translation so it’s possible I’m missing something — this is a completely different world from the Trails games. It comes off as an instance of using a popular name in the title to capture sales for a totally different game.
Instead of melding elements from Ys and Trails like I was expecting, it seems to share more DNA with a different Falcom franchise: Zwei. I’ve written plenty about that series so I’ll try not to belabor the comparisons even though they are readily apparent. Like Zwei, Nayuta incorporates the main character doing melee attacks, this time using a sword, and a second character that uses ranged magic attacks. Rather than swapping between the characters as done in Zwei, Nayuta‘s fairy-like character’s magic attacks are mapped to a single button and magic spells can be changed on the fly.
In another divergence from Trails, the story in Nayuta isn’t that great. The titular Nayuta stumbles into an entrance to a magical world connected to his own while he is on his home island on a break from school. He meets our bad guy, Zext, who is intent on destroying the world, so Nayuta teams up with a protector of that other world, the fairy-like Noi, to stop him. The story is probably the weakest I’ve seen in a modern Falcom game. At one point Nayuta is trying to hide a character from the bad guys, so where does he think to stash her? Why, of course in the first location he encountered the antagonist in; he will never think to look there. That scene is just indicative of how simplistic the plot beats are. Even the characters didn’t manage to charm me like they usually do in Falcom games. Nayuta is a bland JRPG protagonist who’s determined to do good, his female childhood friend spends the whole game pining for him, and his sister, Eatheria, is a great cook who’s totally ok with her young brother going off to another world to fight evil. Usually, when Falcom relies this heavily on tropes, there is at least character development beyond them or a subversion of them, but that never occurs here.
The game isn’t completely devoid of interesting story ideas; at the beginning of the narrative, characters often talk about not wanting to fall off the “end of the world.” I initially took this as a signal that this is a primitive society that doesn’t understand the spherical nature of planetary bodies. Much to my surprise, late in the game, the characters go to space and you discover that an explosion has occurred that took out a huge chunk of the world. It was an instance where Nayuta did an excellent job of playing with player expectations, but that’s one of the few positives in the story. Eventually, it devolves into a well-worn tale of humans destroying the world so the god-like figures are going to wipe out humanity. Plucky little Nayuta has to carry the mantle and save humanity. The story is never aggressively bad, but it was a huge disappointment compared to what I’ve come to expect from Falcom.
A good professional localization might have helped, but the translation is exceedingly literal. This is a game that should have a lot of silliness and joy injected into the script but instead it’s bland and straightforward. I was warned that I might be better off playing it without the translation and while it wasn’t that bad, it was frustrating at various times.
Thankfully, Nayuta doesn’t dwell on the story too much and the combat makes up for the narrative’s shortcomings. It is a really well-executed evolution of the combat in the Zwei games and I think it’s the best action RPG I’ve played on the PSP. It should come as no surprise that it shares the fast-paced feel of the Ys games, with combat involving pulling off combos by tapping the attack button in quick succession, carefully reading enemies, and dodging away from their telegraphed attacks. Nayuta still has a unique feel though — this is no Ys clone — with smaller areas than Ys, but more platforming and branching paths. The level design is especially well done with different routes to take. I liked how Noi enabled special powers to traverse levels such as turning Nayuta into a spinning gear to climb ladders or providing a protective bubble to avoid damage and walk across water and lava. These skills combined with different routes to the end of each level made traversal a more intersting experience. Levels are chosen from an overworld map, with each having individual challenges and hidden items to find, encouraging replay.
What really shines though are the boss encounters. The bosses have impressive scale and pose an appropriately impressive challenge. They change their attack patterns multiple times as fights progress. There were several occasions when I had to replay a boss fight multiple times to figure out the best strategy for beating it. Despite some struggles, the game always managed to stay on the side of fun rather than frustration. There are some amazing setpieces, like fighting a boss while falling down a giant waterfall, that are unforgettable.
The boss battles are really fantastic.
Nayuta no Kiseki was a blast, even with a spotty fan translation. Considering my propensity for preferring strong stories, the fact that Nayuta overcomes such a mediocre narrative is a testament to how great the combat is. If you aren’t dissuaded by the difficulty of importing a game, I highly recommend it. It’s truly a hidden gem of the system and that combat system is so much fun that I hope Falcom revisits it in the future. It’s nice to know that, although Zwei has never been a hit, Falcom is still trying to find a way to experiment with those ideas. As for my PSP Backlog Quest, the battery troubles may limit me going forward, but I’m going to try to get one more in before the end of the year. Then you can look forward to some big backlog plans I’ve got for next year that I’ll likely fail to accomplish… again.