Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is Falcom's first foray into the realm of portable gaming. The long running series of action-RPGs has remained fairly niche on this side of the world, which is why you've probably never heard of it before. That said, this probably isn't the best way to introduce yourself to Ys (pronounced like the letter E). It's episodic, which probably explains why Napishtim seems like a chapter in a larger story. It's short, riddled with loading times, and fairly unsatisfying on the whole.
Thus, it feels like a footnote in the life of rusty-coiffed adventurer Adol (the hero of the series) when he finds himself shipwrecked on the Canaan Island chain, a small archipelago smack-dab in the middle of a gigantic vortex. The native Rehdan live on the southern island Quatera, a spiritual and wise species with long ears and tails. Unfortunately, they've recently found trouble in the form of Erisians (read: Eurasians/humans; Ys is filled with names which are a play on real-world terms), who have formed a small city on the coast of the northern island. They plead innocence when the bridge between the two islands is burnt down and a priceless artifact has been stolen from the Rehdan. See, though the Rehdan have lived on Canaan for their entire lives, any outsider who gets sucked into the vortex can't get back out. Hence the makeshift village and the tensions between the two races brought about by an uncomfortable and forced juxtaposition.
Adol, though initially lambasted by the Rehdan chief, Ord, eventually earns their respect by saving one of their young priestesses, Isha, who helped rescue you from the beach. From there on, you'll be spending a lot of your time traipsing back and forth between the two towns and their surrounding areas unraveling the mystery of the vortex and defeating evil. That's it. The world map really is that small and it makes the story less compelling since there is nothing bigger to connect it to. You can even count the number of dungeons on one hand (hint: there's 5, though, honestly, one of them can hardly be called a dungeon).
Frankly, this isn't all that bad, though. Certainly, a portable RPG could benefit from shorter length so that it can be played in bursts and it never takes much to get back into the story or figure out where you're supposed to go. That's ideal, anyway. Remember, though, that Napishtim isn't so brief due to its platform – it's appeared on both the PC and PS2 previously and it's shorter than most of the other Ys games. To make matters worse, it feels like most of this time is taken up by the incessant and belaboring load times. Ys seems like it has to load, quite literally, everything! Expect a 10-15 second minimum for transitioning between areas depending on their size and noticeable pausing when trying to select things from a menu or leveling up. The former is made ten times worse by certain sections of the game where you have to make jumps or risk dropping to lower levels from which you'll have to climb back up.
The iffy controls don't make this any better: Run. Jump. Fall. 10-15 seconds later. Climb back up. 10-15 seconds later. Attempt Jump Again. Fall Again. 10-15 seconds later…you get the idea. It's incredibly tedious and frustrating. If the intention of putting Ys on a portable was, in fact, to provide a fun, on-the-go RPG experience, then why didn't they get more competent programmers? PSP games are known for their horrible loading times, but The Ark of Napishtim is easily one of the worst offenders. The individual transitions may not be the worst, but they add up quickly.
Back to the iffy controls. Maybe it just has something to do with the PC roots of the game, but the PSP setup offers a no-win situation. I'd err on the side of the unit itself here and once again cite development problems. The digital pad is too unresponsive (makes moving/jumping diagonally a chore) and the analog pad is a little oversensitive (it's the better option of the two, but the lack of character weight means you'll be sliding all over the place, usually into pits, which brings about the problem I explained a paragraph above). Other than character movement, it's not too bad. You have a button for attacking, a button for jumping, a button for casting magic, a button for using an equipped item, and a button for brining up the menu. It's the usual action-RPG fare and everything you'll need is at your fingertips. You can easily access all three of the swords you acquire during the game by hitting L or R to toggle between them. Each one is based on a different element (wind, fire, and lightning) and determines what magic you can use. They also have custom attacks, though the timing can be odd. For instance, when using the wind sword, you have to execute your standard 4-hit combo, wait a split second, and then hammer the attack button to create a multi-hit tornado. This takes some time to get used to. Your basic techniques can be performed with any weapon and are easy enough to pull off even if they're a bit unconventional. You can attack while ascending from a jump, which makes Adol do a spinning slash, or descending from it, causing him to jab his sword into the ground hitting nearby enemies several times. There are also slightly trickier moves like a dashing strike where you have to run in one direction, return your control stick to a neutral position and then quickly tap the attack button. Like the individual weapon techniques, this takes a little time to get used to and I have the feeling it could've been made easier.
You won't have all of the weapons and magic from the beginning, though. Adol starts out with a generic sword which breaks after your first boss encounter. After that, Chief Ord provides you with a blade made of Emelus, a sort of mineral which is strong enough to pierce the hides of gigantic creatures that once plagued the islands and which you'll now face as boss characters. In the human town of Port Rimorge, you'll find someone who can improve your weaponry if you bring her enough Emelus, dropped by monsters in the field. Upgrading the swords gives them higher attack power, access to more damaging magic, and coaxes out their special techniques. The mineral isn't necessarily hard to come by, but upgrade costs can become quite exorbitant. The best way to get around this is to access the Sealed Cavern in the Rehdan village using a special item you find along your way. There you can compete in several trials whereupon completion rewards you with a lot of Emelus, gold, or an extra character level. These mini-games aren't required and are either frustrating or too simple, but the payoff is worth it if you want to advance.
Of course, the question of whether or not you want to advance comes up. I've talked unfavorably about the game so far, but is it really worth a play-through? Well, despite all of the different logistical issues I have with the game, that remains fairly undecided. I'm always up for a good action-RPG and though there are sadly no puzzles to speak of, dungeon design is alright. You'll have to think a little bit when attacking certain enemies and they can be arranged in certain ways which make them difficult to get past without some planning. Also, bosses are usually quite a bit of fun to fight and there are a number of optional or hidden ones.
On the flip side, the graphics are repetitive and uninspired. There are a couple of decent-looking areas, but you won't be blown away. Expect to see lots of repeated and oddly-tiled textures. It's really noticeable! On top of that, the sprites used in the game are fairly low-res and don't animate very well, but the character artwork isn't bad. If there is one area in which Napishtim shines, though, it's in the music. Often upbeat and well-produced, it'd do the job of getting you into the game if the rest of it wasn't so tedious. Some tracks, like the one that plays in Quatera Forest, are soothing and memorable.
The PSP is really hurting for good RPGs, and as much as it pains me to say so, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim isn't that great of a game. The scope of the game is too small (it can be finished in less than 10 hours), the mechanics are really basic and/or sloppy, and the graphics are nothing to get excited about. Still, there was something that got me through the game, and that might be the sheer gumption of the action-RPG genre. Sometimes it's just fun to run around and smack loads of enemies. I have the feeling that if the horrible loading times didn't exist, it'd be a fun game to do a speed run, through, especially since it offers multiple levels of difficulty. As it stands, there is a time trial for bosses accessed from the main screen. On top of that, there are a few side-quests you can seek out, such as collecting material to complete a media collection (a sound test/movie viewer of sorts) or finding Pikkards (pig-like animals), but it's hard to be encouraged to seek these items out unless you just happen to run across them while playing through the main game.
So, if you are really, desperately itching for a Japanese-style action-RPG (not a hack-and-slash like Untold Legends), Ys may do something for you, but the experience isn't long enough to normally justify and those moments of sweet bliss where you're plowing through enemies or taking down a boss are too often interrupted by the flaws of the game. The PSP could use some great role-players, but this just isn't good enough to fill in the gap.