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Monday, August 3, 2015

Ys II: Castle in the Heavens: Who Really Needs a Fire Level, Anyway?

Nihon Falcom's 1987 PC action RPG Ys was a natural success, so it's only natural that the company would go straight into making a sequel. So almost exactly a year later, Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished - The Final Chapter debuted on the PC-88. It played almost exactly like the original game, but added in a small magic system where Adol could equip different rings that let him do things like shoot fireballs (now essential for fighting bosses), teleport, & even turn into a small, cuddly monster called a roo. There was also a larger focus on storytelling, though the overall game was roughly the same length as the first, if only a couple of hours longer. During the time between Ys III & the Super Famicom version of Ys IV, Mask of the Sun, which would be ever so different from the slightly later PC-Engine CD version, The Dawn of Ys, Falcom teamed with Starchild Records & Tokyo Kids once again for another OVA adaptation, this time for Ys II. Subtitled Tenkuu no Shinden - Adol Christin no Bouken/Castle in the Heavens - Adol Christin's Adventure, this OVA series would last only four episodes compared to the prior series' seven, and Media Blasters would release this only via dual-audio DVD in 2003. Does this OVA manage to follow up on what the original series did for the first game, or is this something different?

Yep, that Ys logo is still as beautiful as ever.

With the help of the people of Esteria, Adol Christin managed to climb to the top of Darm Tower & fight the evil priest Dark Fact. Upon defeating him, Adol gathered all six Books of Ys & was suddenly bathed in a bright light that carried him up into the sky with the twin goddesses, Feena & Rhea. Though Adol managed to save Esteria from darkness, his duty as the legendary hero is only half way done. Found in a field by the young Lilia, Adol now must save the floating land of Ys from the darkness that originally forced the six priests to send the land into the sky in the first place. While having to learn how to handle the power of Ys' magic, Adol will have to take on the forces of the demonic Darm himself, saving Ys from the danger of the mysterious Black Pearl that the goddesses gave humans all those centuries ago.

While the original game could get away with having next to no real story behind it, allowing the OVA to expand on it greatly, Ys II was an actual tale, with every new environment Adol heading to having some sort of importance to it. Therefore, it's odd that the OVA adaptation of this sequel is shorter than what came before it, because that now means that the story here is truncated in comparison to the expansion the first game received. Admittedly, there was still plenty of filler in the second game's story, especially when it came to the Shrine of Solomon that takes up the entire last third or so of the game, but it still means that this OVA has to be judged inversely when compared to the first OVA, i.e. is what story is told here still accurate to the game, and was anything of importance removed?


Taking that into consideration, it's a giant mixed bag. When it comes to "adapting" the story of Ys II, the OVA definitely has a lot of removals, and not just from the plot. Entire sections of the game, like the entirety of the Ruins of Moondoria, most of the Sanctuary of Toal, & nearly all of the Moat of Burnedbless, are completely excised from the OVA's version of the story, and in the case of the first two areas, it changes how the beginning of the story plays out. In the game, Adol has to first find a special herb that can cure Lilia of a sickness she gets, followed by checking out someone's basement that becomes flooded with monsters. Instead, the OVA has Lilia be taken as a sacrifice, with Adol having to rescue her. In fact, there is a strong feeling that this entire production was cut short, because the end of the second episode talks up how Burnedbless is a fiery, volcanic area of Ys. When episode 3 begins, however, Adol looks to have gone through the entire section already, because not once is a lava-filled land seen. Also, episode 3 in particular feels like it's rushing a bit, covering what was originally planned to be two or even three episodes. There are even a couple of villains who are outright never showcased, though they were somewhat important at points in the game. Since OVA production generally meant that once the first episode came out the second was near completion, if the first episode wasn't selling to expectations, then everything after episode 2 would be changed, if not canceled outright. There's a good chance that this happened to Ys II's OVA adaptation to some extent, because it does show signs of unwanted alterations.

That being said, there's still more than enough to really get into & enjoy here. The altered story makes it feel more like a "re-imagining", and the OVA takes advantage of that to add in some interesting changes. After rescuing Lilia from scarification, Adol tries to explain to the people of Rance Village that Ys is nothing more than a small floating island above the larger Earth. Naturally, the villagers look at Adol like he's a crazed being of evil & lock him up, resulting in Lilia having to break him free before heading to Noltia Glacier to prove his claim to some others. In the game everyone seemed to be more than happy helping this complete stranger out, so the untrusting attitude of the people of Ys is a cool touch. Much like the first OVA series, this one also gives the secondary cast more focus & has them join Adol during most of his journey. Sada, Gorto, & Astal from Rance travel alongside Adol & Lilia to Noltia, for example, while good-guy monster Keith is given a much larger involvement in the story that what he had in the game. And while I do say that episode 3 feels like it's rushing through more than what was likely planned for it, it still paces everything out well enough that it doesn't feel awkward; it's still rushing, but the staff was able to alter things enough to make it work.


The story also adds in a neat twist in that Adol being given the power of magic, which sadly is just the fireball spell here, also means that he can be at the very mercy of emotion that wound up resulting in the priests sending Ys up into the heavens centuries ago. Admittedly, while it was fun to go around killing monsters mercilessly & sometimes even frying them via fireballs, it's really cool to see the OVA add a bit of storyline depth to the magic, especially when Adol is at his most angered in the last episode. One addition I didn't really care for, however, was in regards to Lilia. While I won't state exactly what the OVA does to her backstory for this change, though it's not exactly hard to guess after the first episode, it does a bit feel unneeded in the grand scheme of things. Admittedly, it's still executed very well overall, but it just comes off as padding & an attempt to make Lilia feel even more important in the end, even though she's already being given way more screentime than she does in the game. Hell, it even makes it seem like Lilia is more important in the final battle with Darm than Adol is!

Really, the main thing I'm getting at is that it feels like the episode counts for both Ys OVAs should have been swapped. The first game's OVA series was able to give every location in the game its own focus, though it may have been a bit slow at times, while the second game's series has a great pace to it, but features a ton of alterations (if not complete removals). There's no doubt that Ys I's story could have been told in four episodes, though differently from what we actually got, while Ys II's story would have benefited greatly if it was seven episodes. While some of the bits of story that were removed from the sequel OVA aren't anything major in the long run, they do help give Adol's time in Ys more importance & relevance. Moments like being in Burnedbless or even the time where Dalles turns Adol into a roo, which he has to figure out how to undo, just make the adventure feel more grand & expanded compared to the journey in Esteria. While what's told in this OVA series works fine for the way it's being told, and makes (like the first OVA) for a cool intro to the franchise for newcomers, the many removals may just irritate fans of the series. It doesn't kill the experience personally, but I would guess that it may rub other Ys fans the wrong way.


Still, if there's one thing that is an undeniable improvement, it's the animation itself & what the OVA does visually. Takashi Watanabe, who handled the second half of the first OVA series, came back for this production, and while he may have been stifled slightly for the first story, because he was going off of someone else's pre-existing work, there's no doubt that he let loose here. The animation in this OVA series is heads & tails much better than what was in the first series, with a lot of subtle movements & a greater use of color to effectively give scenes much more impact. Another easily seen change is in the characters themselves, as character designer Tetsuya Ishikawa was replaced by Hiroyuki Nishimura (Kurokami the Animation, Deltora Quest). Nishimura is known more as a key animator, & occasional animation director, and while Watanabe is important from an overall perspective, it's Nishimura's style that makes this OVA so visually appealing. His designs are much more striking than Ishikawa's simpler style, helping give every character a more individual & memorable look. Admittedly, though, there are some crazy alterations between designers. Feena & Reah may require a second glance to really identify which goddess is which, while Luta Gemma not only loses his mustache but also seems to have found a youth elixir in the short time between Adol going to Ys & him being called upon again; seriously, Luta looks at least ten years younger here.

Even though the story is condensed & likely cut compared to what was originally planned, script writer Katsuhiko Chiba (Baby Steps, Onmyou Taisenki) still manages to keep the writing tight & even incorporating the occasional reference to the game, though these instances are more quick winks than outright incorporations. While the visuals & writing were done by new people for this OVA, though, the music was once again arranged by Falcom's sound team jdk, and it's just as fitting. In fact, jdk's arrangements here are generally much better than they were in the previous OVA, focusing slightly more on the iconic guitars than the orchestral, though the latter is still utilized. The dub once again changes which songs are used, but it's much rarer here. Also returning is the excellent ending theme "Endless History" by Shoko Minami, though it's only re-utilized in its original form for the first two episodes. Episode 3 uses an instrumental arrangement, as a good few scenes are played over the credits (another sign that a lot of story had to be crunched into the episode), while episode 4 uses a slightly different arrangement of the Minami version. While the execution of the story might falter at times, there's no doubt that Ys II is superior from a production standpoint.


Both voice casts utilize most of the same actors for returning characters, so Takeshi Kusao & Dave Wittenberg voice Adol, Chieko Honda & Dorothy Fahn are Reah, & Tessho Genda & Michael Sorich play Dogi, for example. That being said, there is some recasting on both sides. While Minami Takayama still plays Feena in the Japanese version, in the dub she's now voiced by Karen Strassman (Kallen in Code Geass, Kazuko in Madoka Magica), who delivers a fittingly dignified performance. Luta is recast with Yasunori Matsumoto, likely to match his (magically) younger character design, while Kirk Thornton (Black Jack in the BJ OVAs, Gabumon in Digimon) reprises him in the dub. Thornton also voices Darm admirably, but he sadly has to be compared to his Japanese counterpart for the role, Norio Wakamoto. Oddly enough, Wakamoto doesn't ham up the role as much as he's normally known for here, but that kind of helps makes the final villain sound all the more evil. The dub also reuses some of the first OVAs cast in new roles, so Michael McConnohie (Slaf) now voices Sada, while Wendee Lee (Sarah) returns as Sada's fianceƩ Maria as well as the young boy Tarf who befriends Keith. Beau Billingslea (Norton) also is back, but this time he plays Keith, while Hideyuki Tanaka does the Japanese voice, both of which deliver fittingly monstrous-sounding performances. Finally, while Shigezou Sasaoka does a good job as Dalles, I do greatly prefer ADR director Tom Wyner's take on the character; Wyner (a.k.a. "Abe Lasser") does have a cool villain voice. The only real flaw with the dub as a whole across all 11 episodes is some odd name changes (the occasional use of "Dark Factor", "Lilian", "Keys", etc.), because there really are some very well done performance to be found here, & the original Japanese audio matches up with it excellently.


I really am torn on how to feel about Ys II: Castle in the Heavens. I first saw this a few years back after playing through Ys Book I & II on the Turbo-Grafx CD, via the Wii Virtual Console, and while I greatly enjoyed how the first OVA expanded on the original game's story, I felt disappointed by how truncated the sequel's story was in its OVA adaptation; I didn't dislike it, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I was hoping. Upon re-watching it now, I kind of feel the same way. I have a greater appreciation for it on a technical standpoint, and thinking of it as a re-imagining instead a direct adaptation makes me not feel as annoyed with the removals, but it still feels like it could have been better. Episode 3 all on its own really makes a strong point that this OVA series was cut back, likely due to low sales. The near-complete removal of Burnedbless, especially after giving a short hint of what it's like at the end of episode 2, combined with the way it either glances over parts of the story at the Shrine of Solomon or simply ignores them really makes me feel like the series was originally planned to be five or six episodes but got cut down to only four. As it is, I still recommend the entire 11 episodes of the Ys OVA for either fans of the series, if only to see different takes on Adol Christin's original adventure, or complete newcomers, as it still works just fine as a fun fantasy story, but I will admit that I'd love to see a complete redo of Ys in anime form. Each of the game's stories are short enough that they could be adapted into individual seasons (or cours, if you prefer), though I & II could be done in 13 episodes just fine, complete with breaks in between each story. Sadly, though, Ys hasn't had any real luck since these OVAs.


One of the extras on this DVD, alongside another dub outtake video, is a ~4 minute promo for an anime adaptation of Ys IV, specifically one for The Dawn of Ys. There's no voice work, the music is from the first two games, and sadly it was all that was ever made, as it was nothing more than a promo produced by Falcom to see if any studio would be interested in actually making an adaptation; obviously it never happened. Even more disappointing is the second aborted attempt at doing another Ys anime. In 2006, Falcom announced that Marvelous Entertainment would be producing a new 4-episode OVA series, but after the announcement absolutely nothing came to fruition; not even a single image was produced. The most that has come about in terms of Falcom anime within the past decade has been a 2-episode Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky OVA, which did come over here via Sentai Filmworks (though I've heard nothing but bad about it), and two seasons of short TV anime Minna Atsumare! Falcom Gakuen, a gag series where Dark Fact tries to teach various Falcom heroes to be heroic. Will there ever be another Ys anime in any form, let alone my wish of a multi-season adaptation of each game? Who knows, but considering how Falcom managed to return the series from its near-death in the 90s, I wouldn't bet against it.

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