[I’m sorry I know it’s a flippant title but it’s staying and I’m not wrong, so there.]
To a Westerner, Falcom’s Ys (say “Geese” without the “G”), released so long ago it pre-dates the original Final Fantasy and is only just a smidge younger than official JRPG kicker-offer Dragon Quest has only relatively recently gone from “Oh, you mean that Master System game Why’s?” to ridiculously expensive PC-only import title to an everyday sort of series that you can play in full, in English, on more formats than we ever thought we’d see an official complete English-language Ys series on, which for a very long time we all thought would be zero. Because of its computer-bound and largely Japan-centered influence the boom in red-haired RPG heroes in adventures spanning the entire action-RPG spectrum that followed the first’s 1987 release has always been see as something of an interesting coincidence or a minor footnote over and above a direct response to Adol’s trailblazing adventures – but that would be a mistake. Ys was – and still is – a huge success – you just don’t remake, port, re-release, re-re-release limited editions of, and port again a game that nobody wants – and an enormously significant title whose initial impact is still rippling out across the entire industry decades after.
As I’m sure you figured out before the end of the first sentence, the Japan/PC only title Frane II (and Frane, and more than likely Frane III if I could be bothered to go and properly check) is very much one of these Ys-fluenced games, to nobody’s surprise taking the form of an overhead action-RPG starring a plucky young person who likes running into things whilst brandishing a sharp object in an irresponsible manner: Go watch an intro with lots of whooshing camera shots and magical floating islands in the sky then bash a bunch of monsters in a winding cave system before heading off to buy upgraded equipment for unreasonable sums of money in a nearby village and repeat until done.
It’s not all half-baked Falcom cribbing though, and it’d be outright dishonest to pretend that Frane II had absolutely no merits of its own that were worth discussing. For starters there’s a clear amount of effort and skill that’s gone into the game – you don’t get pixel art this detailed and pretty by accident (sadly large bosses tend to fall into poorly pre-rendered CG territory – not uncommon for a game from 2001, but still a shame) and the dungeons are mercifully neither especially long or labyrinthine (you do, however, have to trek straight back through some of them once you’ve reached whatever the goal was), which is always a relief. The general setting is an interesting one too – you’re not playing as the first game’s hero off on yet another adventure, or a distant future descendant forced to take up the mantle when evil once more threatens the land, but Rila, the young daughter of the original’s courageous power couple – a cutesy little half-angel (thanks to her mum) warrior with just enough feistiness bubbling away under the surface to keep her from being a squeaky-voiced irritant. Perhaps a little too feisty at times – one of her battle cries, in amongst all the usual “Hyah!” and “Burn!” shouting that goes on, appears to be, um, “F*** you!”, which is… unexpected, shall we say. I did spend a fair while searching through a Japanese dictionary for more sensible and less uncouth alternatives and I have to come to the conclusion that the only reason I think she can’t possibly be saying “F*** you!” is because she’s a small adorable girl and small adorable girls don’t usually have that phrase in their vocabulary. OK well perhaps some of them do. Maybe most. It still sounds wrong coming out of a girl who can count a sparkly fairy as a friend though. Potty-mouth tendencies aside she’s still not a patch on Fortune Summoner‘s up-front scrapper Arche, but even so it’s always comforting to see a girl or woman in an RPG who’s not a soft healer/secretly a gentle ancient being who exists to love the lead guy/90% breast tissue.
Then things start to get a little more iffy: Yes you can save anywhere and even continue in the same room if you die (or in the room just before if you die to a boss – yes, you get back any items you consumed in the fight) – but you’ll need it to survive the endless, tedious, grinding you have to go through even on the standard difficulty setting. The game expects you to at the very least attack every last enemy you see as you run through the constantly respawning monster-filled halls and the solution to any problem you face after all that levelling up is almost certainly “Go level up some more”.
Now we need to take a little moment here because this complaint is just as true for classic Ys as it is for Frane II and everybody always forgives or at least politely tolerates Ys’ faults, so why not Frane’s as well? It’s all about context really: Ys got there first, well over a decade before Exe-Create’s Rila got anywhere near the genre. Classic Ys created this framework. Yes it’s aged, but Ys is for better or worse carrying on a series tradition, whereas Frane is an entirely unrelated series that started in 2000 – these flaws aren’t endearing or even understandable without that clear line through history to back them up, in the same way that only Pokemon can still get away with making games containing Pokemon’s weird ancient hangovers in 2019.
Back to the iffy-ness: The brilliant “AR” System – an Action Roll of player-selected items and skills you can freely switch between during battle – is sadly cancelled out by the story’s “trust” system, which encourages you to spend time away from that potentially exciting monster-thwacking with a crude morality(ish) bar that has your interactions with other characters and responses to certain questions effect what humans and monsters (“monsters” being sweet girls with furry ears in this game) think of you, as well as decide which ending you receive. There’s nothing specifically wrong with Rila’s tale but it’s neither strong enough to be worth the attention the game gives it nor shallow enough to brush to the side either. Combat is yet another “Yes, but” area: In theory giving you the choice between up-close melee and tactical elementally-themed spellcasting but in practise Rila’s extremely easy to pull off dashing sword thrust, effortlessly pinning whole groups of brain-dead enemies to the wall like the cutest death skewer ever made, stunlocks anything that’s not a large boss and makes her nigh-on invincible in the process for exactly 0MP cost and requires no special equipment to do. Some of these enemies are far more vulnerable to magic than they are physical attacks but if you can tell the difference then [sigh] it’s more a sign you’ve not levelled up enough to defeat the inevitable upcoming boss than a real push to get you to play with a little more thought.
To return to that Falcom-shaped elephant in the room (hey, Frane put it there): Ys always has a certain spark to it; whether that’s the breakneck pace of the original, the second’s spine-tingling intro, or Ys III’s timeless soundtrack – those games always feels exciting and taut even within the harsh limitations of those early computer releases and no matter what’s actually happening you can always believe you’re mere seconds away from crashing into a breathtaking showdown with a mighty beast, ancient evil, or both. If Ys is the living embodiment of action RPG’s cranked up to 11, Frane II is the genre turned down to a grandma-pleasing 5 – it’s still all in there, but there’s no real oomph behind it, no energy or spirit. The little flourishes it does have are very mild additions on top of a so-so game that sadly don’t add enough to lift it up in to “Kooky Experimental One That Doesn’t Quite Work But Tries Really Hard” territory.
At the risk of sounding like every cop-out review summary you’ve ever read, if you like Ys, you’ll… actually you’ll be quite annoyed by a lot of Frane II, because if you like Ys then by definition you’ve played at least one of the better versions of this sort of game already and this can only feel a little bit underwhelming after those. And if you’ve not played Ys, then:
- You should.
- It’s so much easier to buy a copy of Ys than it is Frane II so you should play Ys first anyway even if you think Frane II looks amazing.
- Uh… see 1, I guess?
- How do you turn off this indented number list thing again?
- Got it!
In spite of my negativity I still can’t call Frane II a bad game – because it’s not. But the game never quite GETS DANGEROUS and instead happily trundles along for too long for what it is, content with being an OK rehash of a great game you’ve already played; not polished enough to stand up to the game it’s very clearly drawing its inspiration from, and not inventive enough in its own right to be able to ignore its flaws. To see a game that has the chance to cast off those ancient issues instead mindlessly copy all of Ys’ pitfalls and then tack extraneous fluff on top rather than dare to even just have a little stab at fixing Falcom’s baked-in issues is incredibly infuriating to me, and spoils what is otherwise an decent enough action-RPG.