A little look at… Xak: The Art of Visual Stage

From my position of ignorance I’ve always considered Xak to be the series to turn to when you’ve finally exhausted all 236471 versions of Ys I and II, and although Adol’s shadow looms large over MicroCabin’s 1989 action-adventure game their output over the years has consistently proved they’ve always been far more than mere Falcom wannabes, and Xak is no exception to this rule.

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Lead character Latok’s first outing contains all the usual 80’s adventure trappings – only you, young man with a destiny and one or more missing parents, can save the world from the previously sealed evil that’s threatening to consume the land. Kings, elders, and various others who are probably capable of fixing things for themselves are quick to beg for your aid but as ever remarkably reticent to offer any help themselves in the form of pointy swords, armour, or even plain old cash, leaving Plucky Eighties Hero to walk around in circles smacking every last slime and skeleton he encounters to build up the gold and XP needed to continue in his dramatic quest.

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Which brings me to something I really wanted to talk about here – the amount of grinding in Xak (referring specifically to the PC-98 version, as I haven’t yet played any other release). It’s a curious thing because on the one hand there’s an awful lot of grinding for grinding’s sake (bad) with the difficulty going up in distinct steep ‘steps’ rather than anything like a curve (very bad) and… I didn’t actually mind all that much (what?!). What’s nice about these steps is that when considered in conjunction with the simple ‘This sword is better than that sword’ equipment system and also knowing that items are completely inaccessible in boss battles is that there was always a clear goal to aim for, so even if the XP-earning itself was nothing more than a case of brainless running into the side/rear of whatever happened to be nearby I could at least be certain that when I finally hit level XX I’d definitely be strong enough to mow down the boss – no ifs or buts, no concerns about trekking out to a distant cave for optional equipment or saving up gold for a powerful spell scroll. Is this an 80’s attempt to create acceptable RPG grinding, me trying to justify the time I spent slaughtering countless skeletons, or a bit of both? It’s probably the latter if I’m honest, but that still means it’s notably better than a lot of other RPGs from the same era.

While the grind may be of questionable tolerance the general level design definitely goes to great lengths to alleviate the usual tedium associated with these epic fantasy quests – the game carves Latok’s journey up into neat hub town/your latest dungeon and surrounding region chunks, with an endless supply of teleportation scrolls available to purchase at a reasonable price from every magic shop in the game. There’s very little backtracking asked of you, and when quests do require it it’s rarely anything more strenuous than speaking to someone back in the current hub-town, which as I mentioned above is never more than a teleport scroll away anyway.

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So how come Xak, with its attempts at refining the early ARPG formula and music by none other than Ryuji Sasai doesn’t hold the same place in gamer’s hearts as Ys? Surely it deserves similar praise and respect for being Ys-with-knobs-on?

The problem here isn’t Xak, it’s Ys. Ys has the benefit of nostalgic memories from numerous revisions stretching back decades that are all either more impressive or far easier to access than any of Xak’s limited ports, with recollections of fabulous arranged soundtracks, beautiful manuals, and fancy CD-based cutscenes all coming together to create an experience that MicroCabin’s game can’t hope to match, because strictly speaking the behemoth it’s up against doesn’t actually exist as any one single title.

But even with Xak losing the invisible 80’s ARPG war there’s still a lot to praise here no matter what angle you look at the game from, including dungeons that are navigable by people without a photographic memory, characters on all sides with some depth and spark to them, a sudden dragon-riding shmup section (not great, but it makes for a nice change of pace), and a fun optional ‘bad end’ where you can choose to side with a village-bothering monster instead of cutting it to ribbons. Xak was a confident and competent first adventure for Latok, a game that used Ys as a springboard for its own ideas rather than a blueprint to be copied as closely as copyright law would let MicroCabin get away with, and I’m glad I finally got to experience the game for myself.

(By the way, the bed you need to search for the ring - you’ll know what I’m talking about when you come to it - is this bed)

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