Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana review – Sweet, subtle evolution

Credit: NIS America
Credit: NIS America /

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is a JRPG about dinosaurs and adventure. It’s also one of the most refreshing takes on the genre I’ve played in years.

Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PS4 (Version reviewed), PS Vita, PC
Release Date: September 12, 2017

For all their fanciful, open worlds, epic soundtracks, or heavily costumed anime casts, the JRPG genre too frequently clings to a set list of tropes that can leave even the latest and greatest 3D action entries feeling a bit stale. But despite the initial introductions of a silent protagonist, an easily-agitated love interest, reliable best friend, and grizzled veteran mentor in the opening of Ys VIII, this is not your store brand anime adventure. Instead, one of the oldest still-running RPG franchises pulled off a new entry that’s both grounded in familiar ideas and completely refreshing to play, whether you’re brand new to Ys (as I was) or still enthralled with Adol after over 20 years.

Much of Ys VIII’s brilliance comes from its setting on the Isle of Seiren, an enormous island which our protagonist, Adol, and the passenger roster of the ship Lombardia wash up on. In the opening hours, you are immediately introduced to almost the entire cast (who will gradually rejoin you as you explore the island) and the game’s setting. This seemingly limited scope allows for a degree of intimacy both of place and character throughout that isn’t present in most RPGs where you trek from town to town, greeting new problems, people, and plots along the way.

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Credit: NIS America /

Adol’s adventure remains grounded in the passengers and crew of the Lombardia, who cobble together a home base and begin the difficult work of survival and eventual escape. Your job is to chart the island and find the lost passengers through a healthily balanced mix of main and story quests. More passengers found means more hands to help you remove obstacles around the island and explore further, and completing their short quests and arcs unlocks new weapons, armor, and items. Your growth is tightly bound to those you find and assist, allowing both character progression and story to interweave in satisfying ways, and Falcom keeps the pacing and quantity of sidequests balanced, so the player never feels overwhelmed.

The one exception to this lies in the Suppression and Interception missions that the player is regularly called in for. These “minigames” of sorts involve either defending the village from waves of attacking monsters or traveling to a previously-explored point to rout out monster nests with help from your villagers. Despite providing glorious piles of useful crafting materials, these missions proved exasperating breaks in the flow of the story, often coming around crucial story beats or in interesting dungeons. No, I don’t want to drop everything I’m doing to run back to base mid-dungeon and save my village, thanks.

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Credit: NIS America /

Gloriously, the Isle of Seiren borrows a familiar, if underused, idea in allowing the player to see almost the entirety of the rest of the island from any given point. In the first act of the game, your vision of the northern side is blocked by a towering mountain at the island’s center, which makes the plot reveal of what lies beyond the cliffs of Gendarme that much harder a hit when you arrive at its summit. Even the “dungeons” are a part of the greater open world, and everything is dotted with fast travel save points to keep exploration enjoyable, never tedious. This ease and enjoyment of traveling helped alleviate the fact that much of Seiren’s scenery looks rather same-ish, and occasionally outright bad in terms of visuals. I get the work that goes into tree, grass, and ground textures, but many of the game’s shots and angles do not flatter the terrain.

But fortunately, the company you keep as you traverse the island not only looks good but avoids those JRPG tropes I feared when they were first introduced. Once you overcome some early eye-rollers, your party of six provides a gentle mix of humorous, topical banter as you explore and subtle development over time. Don’t expect grand changes for any of the party’s members, save for Dana herself. The second act of the game shifts the focus from survival to the mystery surrounding the game’s secondary protagonist, who keeps appearing in Adol’s dreams. Her gradual reveal hooked me early on, and inspired me to complete as many sidequests as possible to learn her entire story to its bittersweet end.

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Credit: NIS America /

Seiren provides the remaining five steady, distinct personalities the chance to intermingle and open up to one another about believable problems with family, friendship, and future. And despite some rather questionable costuming choices and a few sexist throwaway lines from one of the men, the party’s three women (Laxia, Ricotta, and Dana) steal the show with strong dialogue and development. Even if I wish Laxia wouldn’t loftily pretend she’s not a huge nerd about Seiren’s literal dinosaurs–sorry, “Ancient Species.”

Even on Normal difficulty, the enemies are far from pushovers, and you can turn the dial all the way up to Nightmare…

Their personalities shine in battle, as well, with all six (even quiet Adol!) bringing the banter as they slash, stab, and smash their way through enemies in the open world. I relished Ys VIII’s combat, particularly its reliance on using every member of the party for different situations. Each of the six characters uses one of three different types of weapons: slashing, stabbing or smashing, and certain enemies are weak to certain types. Even within those three schools, the two characters using it have their own strengths and weaknesses, encouraging players to swap which one they use frequently. For example, both Sahad and Ricotta use “smashing” weapons, but Sahad hits slower and with more power, while Ricotta moves quickly and covers a wider area.

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Credit: NIS America /

Swapping is as easy as the push of a button, so you’ll make liberal use of it alongside each character’s pool of special attacks to target monster weaknesses. Even on Normal difficulty, the enemies are far from pushovers, and you can turn the dial all the way up to Nightmare if you like. Use of the timed dodge and guard systems is critical, as is figuring out how to activate each character’s special abilities…and aim them properly. The occasional quirks of targeting and aiming and their resultant bad camera angles, along with the sheer quantity of monsters in any given area, were my only hang-ups with the battle system.

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Field and battle are tied together in an epic way with another fabulous soundtrack from the jdk Band. Powerful guitar riffs, fast-moving strings, and heavy percussive sections set an energetic beat that left me feeling bright-eyed and ready for adventure with each new area I entered. Their penchant for intense, up-tempo sound contrasts well with the gentler sections of their tracks and gave Dana the musical heft and drama she deserved during her sections of the game.

Above all, I felt Ys VIII struck a truly enjoyable balance. It was lengthy (about 30 hours for the story, pushing 40 when you add in side quests) without being agonizing. Its side quests were meaningful without being tedious. Its cast was the perfect size to get to know them well with little reliance on tired tropes or needless drama. Its combat was challenging, but fair and fun throughout. Despite its age, I had never played Ys before now–it has experienced a more niche popularity in North America than bigger franchises like Tales or Xenoblade. But if you’re a fan of the stylings of either, Ys VIII manages to suggest a similar style while remaining true to its franchise’s unique personality.

8.5. Ys VIII abandons the sprawling, dramatic settings of other JRPGs for a restrained world and cast, then gives us every reason to fall in love with both. From combat to story to exploration to sound, Ys VIII offers subtle, but refreshing distinctions from the usual genre fare. Aside from a handful of mechanical frustrations and the occasional enemy fatigue, there’s nothing on the Isle of Seiren to inhibit the joy found in Adol’s latest and greatest adventure.. Nihon Falcom. . Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.