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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Ys (OVA): "Whys"? "Y's"? "Yees"? Damn French...

While Dragon Slayer & Xanadu gave Nihon Falcom notoriety & fame, respectively, there is one series that best encapsulates what the company is best at when it comes to Action RPG: Ys. Pronounced like the word "ease", the original game, fully titled Ancient Ys Vanished: Omen, came out on the PC-88 back in 1987 & was the creation of Masaya Hashimoto (designer) & Tomoyoshi Miyazaki (writer), who would both go on the found developer Quintet (ActRaiser, Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma). The series follows the many journeys of red-haired adventurer Adol Christin, and while the series isn't exactly known for gripping narratives, though they generally aren't poor by any means, that's easily made up for by having fast-paced & engaging gameplay. Taking inspiration from T&E Soft's Hydlide series, Ys started off utilizing the game mechanic of bumping into your enemies to deal damage, but improved upon the mechanic & made it addictive to play with due to the speed of the action; later entries would make attacking a button press, but would be just as fun to play with. When the series started off it was a mega-hit for Falcom, being ported to all manner of PCs & even consoles, and eventually it would become the second product of Falcom's to be turned into an anime.

Is that "Ys" logo beautiful as I think it is? Yes, yes it is.

A few months after the original PC-88 release of Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, Falcom would team up with Starchild Records & animation studio Tokyo Kids to produce an OVA adaptation of the original Ys. From 1989-1991, seven episodes were made, retelling the story of Adol's very first adventure in a new, non-interactive fashion. In 2002, Media Blasters would release this OVA series in North America, via both dubbed VHS & dual-audio DVD. With Ys now being more popular than it was over a decade ago, let's see how the anime adaptation of the original game worked out.

Adol Christin has always wanted to live a life of adventure. When he hears of a continent called Esteria that is suddenly filled with monsters, Adol ignores the warnings of the locals of port town Promarock & heads out. Turns out Esteria is surrounded by a dark vortex that is nigh-impossible to get through. Little does Adol know that his journey to Esteria is the beginning of his own legend, which will have him try to acquire the six Books of Ys & take on the mysterious priest Dark Fact in order to fulfill the legend of a hero who will save Esteria & the lost land of Ys from the forces of darkness.

The biggest thing point out about the Ys OVA is how long it is in comparison to the original game itself. The game is a relatively short RPG, with the average playtime running about 10 hours, & that's on the high side. While the OVA is (obviously) shorter on the whole, I bring this up mainly because if there's one thing that the first Ys is shortest on, it's an overarching story. The game really comes off as Adol going from one location to another, constantly fighting enemies & gathering new items and equipment as he goes. While there is a cast of important characters, they don't get anything of note when it comes to development, and here is where the OVA differs the most in comparison to the game. While the game was very streamlined & focused on Adol, the OVA greatly expands on the secondary cast of characters, giving them more to work with & even establishing some new relationships. For example, fortune teller Sarah Tovah & her cousin, the thief Goban, are showcased as more of a family than what was given in the games, & their elder Jevah comes off like a cool old woman who likely was much more of a rough & tough lady in her earlier years. Main villain Dark Fact (yes, his first name is indeed "Dark") is showcased early on, coming off more as a real scheming force of evil rather than someone you simply hear others talk about but don't see until the final battle. There's simply a lot of expansion in this OVA, and it's very welcome.

Still, when the OVA adapts from the game, it's very accurate. In fact, it's actually kind of cool how accurate it is in some moments. Little details, like Adol having to figure out which statue can transport him into the halls of the Shrine of Solomon or even the various sets of armor/sword/shield he dons, are showcased very similarly to how the game handled them, and it turns the first boss, the teleporting Jenokris, into a cohort of Fact's wizard Dalles who helps him attack the town of Minea in episode 3. Overall, this is the biggest benefit to the story of the original game in this adaptation. It stays very accurate to everything, even a lot of the little things, while taking the time to make the secondary cast more than simply people who give Adol a quick bit of advice or an important item. In fact, the first half of the first episode is completely original to the story, as it shows Adol arriving in Promarock, which was merely referenced in some ports, & being given help by a fisherman named Norton, who gives Adol the boat he needs in order to even reach Esteria. The game simply begins with Adol in Esteria, but the OVA takes the time to establish things & make you enjoy Adol as a character; there's even a short scene with him as a kid talking with his father, which is neat.

While I will admit that seven episodes may be a little on the long side, as it could still be told in six or even five, the pace never feels slow or plodding. While it may seem a bit odd to give each location in the game its own dedicated episode (two for Darm Tower at the end), the story makes it work by giving those secondary characters plenty of moments to shine. Alongside Adol's dedication & sense of honor you have (future partner in adventure) Dogi's silly nature & absolute trust to his friends, Goban's battle experience & general leadership, and even Minea's Slaf (or Slaghf, the subs can't seem to decide) is made into the head of the town's personal army who will stay true to protecting his home, even when there's a false sense of peace that the townsfolk fall for. While the game is meant to be Adol's journey & his alone, the OVA has Dogi accompany Adol into the mines, while Goban joins the two for the trek into Darm Tower. Adol is still given the most to work with, but it's a welcome addition to see the rest of the cast be given something to do. Admittedly, the OVA kind of tones down the sense of speed & action that made the game such a hit, but I will admit that this is more of an alternate take that puts the focus on story. If you want nonstop action, then play the game; it's easy to find now & isn't all too long.

Interestingly enough, two people directed this OVA series, and you can tell the difference between them. The first four episodes were headed by Jun Kamiya (Blue Seed, Neo Ranga), and his part of the production feels a good bit more traditional, with each episode slowly building up to a climactic action scene. Everything works, but it is nothing particularly noteworthy. The last three episodes were directed by Takashi Watanabe (Boogiepop Phantom, Slayers, Shakugan no Shana, Space Pirate Mito), and it's easy to see that they were lead by someone who would be much more prolific. The animation has more notably impressive scenes & there's a good bit more action in general. To be fair, though, Watanabe's episodes were likely also given more time & money as well, since they were the end of the production, and they had to look good. Overall, though, the Ys OVA has aged somewhat nicely for its time. It's not one of the hallmarks of the OVA boom visually, but everything looks good (outside of one or two odd faces during Kamiya's episodes), and the characters designs by Tetsuya Ishikawa (the Battle Spirits series, Shin Kyuseishu Densetsu Hokuto no Ken: Yuria-den) work well in their relative simplicity. The script by Tadashi Hayakawa (Koutetsushin Jeeg, Mazinkaiser SKL) tells the story very succinctly while giving the non-Adol cast a lot to say, and there's even the occasional bit of comedy here & there.

What's really cool, however, is that the production didn't simply bring a regular music composer. Instead, Falcom had its very own Sound Team jdk do the music for the OVA, which may be the first time a video game studio itself did the music for an anime adaptation of one of its works. Now while jdk's arrangements here aren't exactly the best versions of the iconic original Yuzo Koshiro & Mieko Ishikawa soundtrack, though Ishikawa did oversee them for the OVA (Koshiro by then had left Falcom), they do fit the general style of this production. There are a lot of orchestral pieces to be found here, though jdk's trademark guitars are used often enough, and even when some songs like "Feena" & the amazing "First Step Towards Wars" are used very often throughout all seven episodes, there are at least four or five different arrangements for both songs, keeping them from sounding too repetitive. Finally, there's the ending theme, "Endless History" by Shoko Minami. A vocal arrangement of ending theme "The Morning Grow" composed by Yuzo Koshiro, this is easily the best arrangement jdk did for the OVA, and it doesn't even appear until the end of episode 3; the first two episodes use an (excellent) orchestral arrangement. The mix of orchestra & rock instruments, combined with Minami's amazing vocals, simply makes this song the true gem of the OVAs soundtrack. There's absolutely no better way for each episode to end than with this song, & I even included it in my list of anime EDs that deserve more love. The fact that jdk made the music means that it does belong to Falcom, though, as XSEED's Ys Silver Anniversary Edition -Music From the History of Ys- music set, which originally came with the special edition of Ys: Memories of Celceta for the PS Vita, includes both this ending & one of the arrangements of "First Step Towards Wars".

An interesting bit of trivia is that the music & effects/M&E track was lost by the time Media Blasters licensed everything, so Bang Zoom! had to recreate it for the dub. While the effects were recreated just fine, and it's obvious that they were at least given the OST to work with, the dub does mix up the music. In some scenes the same song is used between both audio tracks, but in other moments the dub will start the song earlier, creating an obvious difference in timing when comparing the two. That's not all, though, as in other moments the dub simply uses a different arrangement of the same song, & in other scenes just outright uses a completely different song. In fact, there are a few scenes where the dub uses music from Ys II, which to a fan of the series just comes off as very odd. To its credit, though, there is the occasional moment where the dub's choice of song is the better fit, like in an action scene or two. Luckily, "Endless History" is kept in all of its glory for the dub.

Speaking of the dub, directed by Tom Wyner (Zillion, Megazone 23 Part II International), both it & the original Japanese audio are good, solid ways to enjoy the OVA. Adol is voiced by Takeshi Kusao (who would be the de facto "voice" of Adol until Yuki Kaji took over recently) & David Lelyveld (a.k.a. Wittenberg; Kakashi in Naruto), and both are great picks. Kusao gives the lead a lot of passion & hot-bloodedness when needed, while Lelyveld/Wittenberg makes him sound more relatable on a personal level. Future best pal Dogi is performed by Tessho Genda & Michael Sorich (Gamabunta in Naruto), and both actors deliver a nice mix of tough & strong as well as silly comic relief, with Sorich having the edge when it comes to comedy. Dark Fact is voiced by Katsuji Mori (Ken the Eagle in Gatchaman, Polnareff in the JoJo OVAs) & Lex Lang (Bunji in Gungrave, Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star), both of which deliver good performances, but Fact in general can only really do so much, with his best scenes being right at the very end. The Japanese cast is rounded out with the likes of Chieko Honda (Reah), Minami Takayama (Feena), Kei Tomiyama (Luta Genma), Nobu Tanaka (Goban) & Sho Hayami (Slaf), while the dub features Wendee Lee (Sarah), Michael McConnohie (Slaf), Robert Axelrod (Jenokris), Midge Mayes (a.k.a. Dorothy Elias-Fahn; Reah), & Tina Dixon (a.k.a. Melissa Fahn; Feena), among others. Interestingly enough, the English dub feels like an older dub, even though it was produced in the early-00s, and that's likely because Wyner (an old-school director) was in charge; it does work to the dub's benefit. There is also an enjoyable outtake track for the dub, but only on the first DVD, oddly enough.

While it doesn't exactly uphold the fast action that the original game is known for, the OVA adaptation of Ys is still worth watching. While the action here is fine & is done nicely, the real attraction is how much it expands on the absolutely barebones story that Falcom had originally. The original Ys was essentially all about Adol & how everything relates to him, but the OVA adds in so much more, giving the secondary cast much more depth & likability. At the same time, this isn't simply something made to appeal to fans of the game, as the tale works well as an introduction to the franchise's beginnings, showcasing how Adol Christin went from nobody to the world-renowned adventurer that he becomes with time. It's even indicated that the games' stories themselves are really just based on Adol's own personal notes of what happened, hence why he's at the forefront all the time. Therefore, the OVA could be the story from the perspective of Esteria's people, like Slaf, Sarah, Goban, etc. There are some odd nitpicks with Media Blasters' DVD release, though, like how the sub & dub can't seem to agree on certain names or how the dub calls Dark Fact "Dark Factor" on occasion, but they don't detract much from the overall product. The DVD menus are especially cool, as they imitate how the original PC-88 game looked, though the faux-loading screens are a bit much. Still, much like the original game, this OVA only tells the first portion of Adol's very first adventure, so I'll return next week with the last bit of Ys anime there is, one that (oddly enough) compresses more than expands.

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