The fourth fourth time's a charm.
Take a look at Ys' twenty-five year history and you'll find a torrent of iterations, ports, and remakes of varying degrees. This renders Ys: Memories of Celceta a difficult proposition; what's attractive about a game on its fourth time out the door? Falcom finally taking a commanding role in Ys IV's production will surely get players in the room, but an aggressive combat system and an exploration-focused narrative aim to lock them in and throw away the key. Memories of Celceta also maintains a complicated relationship with genre conventions, but, for a series that's routinely re-imagined, it's surprising how well most of its content fares in 2013.
Memories of Celceta's opening sequence is one of its weaker aspects. It's not that Adol Christin, Ys protagonist extraordinaire, has amnesia, but rather the awful animation that narrates his stumbling decent into a local bar. Watching Adol's limbs swing around in an effort to relate the sentiment of a recent neural blackout looks like something out of early PlayStation 2 era character animation. While Memories of Celceta rarely wastes its time on motioning its cast through awkward cinematics, it's not exactly the best foot to put forward before undertaking a grand adventure.
Adol's call to adventure arrives as a two-headed series of constant objectives. Adol and his apparent buddy Duren (essentially substituting for the M.I.A. Dogi) are charged with the task of mapping the giant forest encompassing Celceta. Recovering Adol's memories, locked away in various corners of the forest, are intended to happen naturally along the way.
Memories of Celceta's overt story means well, but it runs out of decent ideas after the first act. Adol and Duren stumble onto an escalating series of uncharted towns revealing an intricately aligned back story that specializes in like-minded warrior types joining their rapidly shifting cause. The plan comes to a halt as objectives rematerialize before the gang comes together to topple a handful of antagonists with deliberately unclear motivations. This could be almost any Japanese role-playing game. Memories of Celceta contains a couple of surprises along the way, but generally the sequences of discovering one of Adol's latent memories and plugging it into the grand narrative is far more interesting than the objective plotline.
While the plot flatlines early on, Memories of Celceta maintains an interesting cast of characters. Ozma's melancholic relationship with culture-bending beasts comes full circle in a surprising manner, as does Karna's relationship with her estranged brother. Wondering what in the hell Duren's got up his sleeve for half the game is also an object of constant curiosity. Frieda and Calilica kind of played the same role with little to distinguish either of the two, as often is the fate of characters added relatively late in the game. In the end the characters are better defined by the combat prowess, which is also true of Memories of Celceta as a whole.
Like recent entries Ys Seven and Ys: The Oath in Felghana (also known as the only other Ys games I've played to completion), Memories of Celceta specializes in busting up hordes of wild beasts roaming its lands. More of an action game than its assigned genre might indicate, Memories of Celceta absolutely nails the Pavlovian satisfaction behind busting up enemies and watching them explode into perfect batches of loot. After which you can usually explode their husk into even more loot. It's all of variable quality, and unless you're playing on harder difficulties or prefer more intense customization, functionally meaningless - but three games down the pipe and I'm still beating the living shit out of everything in sight just because of the energetic feedback loop powering Ys' combat.
Memories of Celceta offers a few flourishes to Ys' brand of combat. Most notable are Flash Move and Flash Guard. Either dodging or guarding just before an enemy attacks results in a direct advantage for the player. Flash Guarding merely reduces the player's recovery time from the otherwise overpowered guard option, but executing a perfect Flash Move slows down time Bayonetta style, allowing for a few extra swipes to take place. Neither of these are essential to enjoying Memories of Celceta, you can mash right through on easier difficulties, but it adds an incentive for players looking for a more skilled approach to combat.
An inventive skill system also helps power Memories of Celceta. A basic attack composes most of combat in the interest of damage-per-second, but unlocked skills can be unlocked and added, four per character. Skills specialize in varying degrees of power, range, area-of-effect, and stun-potential, and generally can be adapted for whatever sort of role you want your characters to fill. The neat thing about modern Ys is it allows dynamic shifting between each of your three characters at practically any time. This is especially helpful when your particular character's means of attack, be it Karna's distance-friendly knives, Duren's bruising punches, or Frieda's ranged spear, starts proving ineffective (generously indicated by a change in color of the numbers spilling out of bad guys). Memories of Celceta is a challenging game with some gargantuan, multi-layered boss fights, but the consistency behind its rules allows for an experience that's as variable as it is fair.
Memories of Celceta also has a penchant for rewarding the player all the time. You're always getting money and someone always seems to either be leveling up, learning a new skill, or upgrading an existing skill. Unique abilities tied to each party member are also essential to progressing through both the dungeon and the world map, which, while not demanding you play as each character, encourages constant variation. That last bit was particularly important given that, when I reached the end of Ys Seven I was drastically penalized for not using certain characters; Memories of Celceta opts not to handicap its players in that regard. I do wish CPU controller characters, however temporary that control may be, were more consistent in their action (particularly on the next-to-last boss, where they seemed content to literally do nothing), but they're generally inoffensive otherwise.
The lure of exploration as an objective was enough to satisfy my needs. The world map was a constant companion as it usually told me where I had missed treasure or where one of Adol's latent memories was located. Revealing all of it and increasing the percentage in the top right corner of the map became my all-consuming goal, and every time I would earn an "artifact," I'd instantly know where to use it and progress further. I do wish artifacts, which let the party do things like swim under water, shrink to a smaller size, and run up certain walls, were more easily accessible because going to the menu every few seconds quickly becomes a chore. In the end I finished Memories of Celceta with 97% of the map uncovered, and you can bet I'm going to go nuts finding that last 3% after this review is posted.
There were a handful of aspects of the game I couldn’t connect with. Memories of Celceta boasts an intense item crafting system structured around the myriad of loot items you'll undoubtedly acquire on the field. The trouble is I never felt motivated to do much of anything with it. Playing on normal difficulty, save a few boss fights, wasn't exceptionally challenging, and simply buying new equipment whenever it was available was enough to get by. Those playing on harder difficulty or looking for more intense customization may get more out of this system, but it did nothing for me. Likewise, the optional quests posted at town bulletin-board felt more like busywork than actual content, and after completing the first round in each town I was never motivated to go back for more.
Visually, Memories of Celceta paints with an effective, if not blunt, brush. It doesn't look too different from Ys Seven on PlayStation Portable. Characters and environments aren't elaborately constructed and definitely don't push the hardware, but they are detailed to the point of being easily distinguishable and the imagination behind Celceta's vast landscapes remain impressive. It's almost as if Falcom's grand ideas behind their art couldn't have been supported by whatever budget they had to work with. In any case Memories of Celceta is visually defined by the glossy aura accompanying all of its characters, which usually serves to reinforce the dream-like nature of its amnesiac protagonist, but also kind of looks like cheap way to define a particular style. At the very least, it works in setting Memories of Celceta apart from its peers. The music is also fantastic, but you already knew that, right?
A series as ritually re-imagined as Ys should have exhausted its creative energy several iterations ago, but Memories of Celceta corrects any suspicion of dilution or degradation. Falcom's commanding role in its production has lead to an aggressive and intuitive combat system and, along with an exploration-focused narrative, an adventure that simultaneously embraces and improves its namesake's legacy.