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Ys: The Ark of Napishtim
Score: 70%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Falcom
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG/ Adventure/ Action

Graphics & Sound:
The first word - maybe the last word for some players - on Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is "LOADING." For all the good things one can say about the game, the constant loading is incredibly annoying, a central piece of the game that may make The Ark of Napishtim unplayable for some.

With that caveat out of the way, let's focus on the positive. One of the reasons The Ark of Napishtim probably requires a lot of loading between screens is that each screen is deeply detailed and interactive. I could have personally done with less detail in-screen if it would have taken away those load times, but The Ark of Napishtim comes as close as any game yet on PSP to recreating the look and feel of a classic RPG. Backgrounds, NPCs, monsters and items are all depicted with lots of color and nice little touches. Smoke bubbling out of pots on stoves, light streaming through trees and flowing water in streams contribute to immersive settings that actually begin to make waiting for every screen to load less painful.

The music is very strong, better than any RPG I've played yet for PSP. The variety of music is especially nice and the setting of each location to different theme music reminds me of the traditional "big console" titles, where you'd buy a CD soundtrack because you loved the music. There aren't voice actors or cut-scene movies, but the interface is nicely designed, and when you interact with key characters, you are treated to a nice, full-screen character illustration that is drawn from strong anime roots.

The Ark of Napishtim plays out a storyline familiar to most dedicated RPG-ers. Picture a stranger in a strange land, a world broken apart by sectarian conflict, an ancient civilization that may hold keys to resolving some mysteries of the present. A lone warrior embarks on an epic quest, surrounded by a cast of characters you will recognize. The busty, tomboy pirate-girl makes an appearance. The strong, surly warrior with a secret agenda is also here. The beautiful, mystic girl who seems to have spent her whole life sequestered in a remote village protected by her vitriolic father shows up. And it wouldn't be a complete story without some family strife and a clash between two towns. For RPG veterans, this stuff is like settling into an old, comfortable recliner, but more casual onlookers may just see a tatty old chair getting a little frayed at the seams.

What is interesting and different about the style of play in The Ark of Napishtim is the lack of a turn-based battle system. Instead, players take a hack-n-slash approach, a la Onimusha. The comparison here is appropriate, because swordplay and sword upgrades play a major role in The Ark of Napishtim. After the initial shock of waiting for every single screen to load for several seconds, the substance of the game comes through as very strong. Basically, there are several types of sword, each with different special attacks that can be activated during battle. Special attacks are magical in nature, so your character maintains a MP counter in addition to a health (HP) counter. Many monsters will drop a rare material that can be stored and used to enhance a sword's power at special studios throughout the game world. Upgrading your weapon is completely separate from upgrading your character, and there are also various equipment upgrades that can be purchased in towns.

Players willing to push through the load times will definitely have a good RPG experience, but won't find much beyond the battle and weapon-upgrade system that is novel here. Konami was thinking of replay value, since there are mini-games that can be earned and played separately from the main game. There is also a time-attack mode that allows you to replay boss battles, which is a cool idea.

There is a fairly steep curve in The Ark of Napishtim for battling monsters and crawling dungeons. In the early stages of the game, it’s easy to die often, but monsters also frequently drop health items and conveniently drop items that reduce status effects. The trickiest thing to get used to is battling real-time, in terms of controls. There are a few simple combinations, and learning to use them on the appropriate monster is the quickest way to win fights. Save points are not terribly close together, but a Quicksave feature allows you to save anywhere and continue later from the main menu.

Game Mechanics:
The burning question for a game like this tends to be how well executed the real-time controls are for battle, since battles are frequent and necessary. Unlike the loading disappointment, The Ark of Napishtim delivers handsomely on the control front. Keeping it simple, the square button does the lion’s share of work in battles, and combinations gained through jumps or taps on the D-pad allow you to trigger special attacks. Once you get a powered-up sword, the circle button triggers major attacks that also deplete magic. The analog stick is good for moving around in the world, and although it takes some getting used to in battles, it controls smoothly. The action button is also keyed to square, and the game adjusts between battle and non-battle modes depending on where you are in the world.

There are some quirky things in the menu systems, including the fact that the menus for controlling inventory and options are unadorned and sometimes awkward to navigate. One nice idea is a quick access spot in inventory that is “hot-keyed” to triangle. Where this comes in handy is during boss battles, when you can’t pause and fiddle with your inventory. Otherwise, in normal battles, you can stop at any time and take a health or status item. This “inventory hot-key” is a good feature, but one strange omission from the game is a functional buy/sell system for items. You can buy and equip items, but stores won’t buy inventory that you’ve unequipped. I also think that the spell/sword system is not deep enough to make up for the lack of a robust magic system or party control. What comes out of the feature set provided in The Ark of Napishtim is a solid enough action/real-time fighting RPG, but it will take some very patient folks to wade through screen after screen of “Now Loading” to enjoy the story and action. Without incessant loading, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim would be a winner. If it were a deeper RPG, or if it strayed from the story groove so many others have carved before, we might even not notice the loading as much.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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