A note before I begin: I’m not familiar with the Ys series, so there were likely references, in-jokes and whatnot that I missed. On the other hand, Ys Origin—being chronologically very first title and prequel to all subsequent Ys titles—spared me from having to catch up to all the previous games’ context.
There was once an ancient city named "Ys", watched over by two Goddesses and their Six Priests. By virtue of one of the Goddesses’ treasures called the Black Pearl, people of Ys prospered in the miracles it brings in the form of "Magic". One day, the city came under siege by a sudden swarm of demons that overwhelmed the land. Unable to push back the hordes, the Goddesses gathered the citizens to Solomon Shrine, where they reside, and raised the entire area high into the sky with the Black Pearl’s power.
The people were safe, but not for long; demons started constructing a large tower high into the sky in order to reach the Shrine. Around the same crucial time, the two Goddesses disappeared from their residence without anybody’s notice. In their desperation, the Priests assembled a search party from the most talented knights and mages they could find, and sent them to the surface to retrieve the Goddesses. Among them are the two protagonists, Yunica Tovah and Hugo Fact, who joined the search party for different motivations—Yunica because she shared a strong personal bond with the Goddesses, and Hugo because he was assigned a personal mission by his father.
In terms of game mechanics, Ys Origin is a very basic and down-to-earth dungeon adventure. Imagine The Legend Of Zelda viewed from a 45-degree angle instead of full top-down, get rid of the shield, make things faster, and you should have a rough idea of how the game plays. In classic dungeon crawler formula, you take control of Yunica or Hugo, ascending the tower through its demonic hordes, obstacles and secrets.
There are four actions your character can perform: Attack, Jump, Magic and Boost. Attacks can be chained to high combo counts rather easily; used in conjunction with jumps, you can knock airborne enemies down to the ground, or slam enemies on the ground for a heavy hit that may stun them. Boost is a temporary power-up mode where damage output is increased and received damage is halved; the gauge fills up by itself slowly, but it can be filled up faster by attacking enemies.
Magic is enabled by obtaining various artifacts you can come across throughout the tower, and come in the form of Wind, Lightning and Fire. Each element manifests into a different type of Skill, which also varies across different characters. (For example, Yunica’s wind skill manifests as a spinning attack while Hugo’s raises a barrier that can take a hit for him.) Each type of enemy, including bosses, has strength and weaknesses towards certain elements that you can exploit for efficiency; but Skills have secondary properties which also assist in exploration of the tower. Plus, they can be charged for greater effect by holding down the Magic button, and can be strengthened further through gems you can find in treasure chests.
One major way that the game differs from the standard top-down action-RPG formula is the mobility factor: Since there are no ways to actively defend yourself, you have to run and jump around to evade instead. I reckon this is an element brought over from the older Ys titles where movement was not only a tool for evasion, but also for attacking—since you had to physically ram into the enemy to connect a hit back then. This is more apparent in boss fights, as being stationary for even a few seconds is a sure-fire guarantee to invite hefty amounts of damage—not quite helped by the fact that you have a very short invincibility period after each hit.
Another feature is the temporary augment pickups from enemies, which come in three varieties: Red (Strength), Blue (Defense) and Yellow (MP restoration). These last only for a limited time, but additional pickups of the same type can stack and extend the duration for greater effects. The exception to this rule is the EXP bonus, which depends on your current combo chain; for each hit, the multiplier rises by 1% and stacks all the way to 99% bonus, which you can maintain further with more hits.
Defeated enemies also drop small purple SP crystals, a currency you can use to exchange for various "Blessings" at Goddess statues scattered across the tower, such as fortifying your equipment or increasing MP recovery rate. With a Crystal given to you virtually as soon as you get full control for the first time, you can purify (and, in terms of game mechanics, activate) them, as they were initially warped into a demonic form. In addition to upgrades, purified statues also serve as healing spots, save points and warp points. You can warp to any active statue anytime from anywhere, so feel free to retreat when you’re in a bind; it also helps that floors aren’t very long to get through once you got used to their layouts.
One thing I started to notice as I play through the game is how completely different Yunica and Hugo are, from the perspectives of both story and mechanics—almost to the point of being completely analogous to each other.
Yunica is a melee fighter with quick footwork, with a weapon that strikes fast and covers a nice arc in front of her. Her skills also focus on dealing multiple hits of ample amounts of damage, like the quintessential spin-attack or a heavy single-target blow. Basically, she’s the beginner character.
Hugo is more complicated: He’s a projectile user who isn’t quite as fast or sturdy as Yunica; imagine a twin-stick shoot-’em-up, but without a second analog to aim and shoot in a direction different from your movements. He’s all about getting weak shots in while keeping away from harm, and his skills serve to further reinforce this play-style, such as protecting him or pushing enemies back. Between the need to move around almost constantly and the weak hits, this makes Hugo a particularly difficult character to work with, and not quite recommendable for newcomers.
In terms of story, Yunica is an apprentice knight who begged her way into the search party purely through her sincere concern for the Goddesses, despite her inexperience. Hugo, as a young genius in magic, was intentionally recruited and secretly harbors a personal agenda. Consequently, the way each of their sides of a story differ in tones and character development. These differences make replaying the game with another character recommendable, especially for those who want to see the complete scope of the story.
Food for thought:
1. After clearing the game once with any character, a third character is unlocked, complete with its own moveset and story perspective, particularly a side of the story neither Yunica nor Hugo can provide.
2. If you’re not in a hurry to spend your SP, save up for the "Increase SP Gain" Blessing. It’s a bit too high to aim for early in the game, but it really pays off once you unlock it.
3. One thing I noticed about the soundtrack in retrospect is that in earlier floors, tracks are rather standard in rhythm, but as the plot accelerates, the tracks in later floors become more and more "rousing", adding a sense of "progression" of its own as well as reinforcing the story’s.