Yaga, I swear on my beard, nine out of ten points your game gets for being weird!
- Developers: Breadcrumbs Interactive
- Publisher: Versus Evil
- Release date: Steam – November 12th, 2019,
Nintendo Switch – November 12th, 2019,
PlayStation 4 – November 12th, 2019,
Xbox One – November 12th, 2019
- Genre: Action RPG
- Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Steam (Windows/Mac/Linux)
- Reviewed on: Playstation 4
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
I’ll be entirely honest, it’s difficult to know where to start with Yaga, even within the set parameters of first impressions. I’ll confess to feeling somewhat underwhelmed when first firing up the ol’ PS4 to play Yaga, though I must say, the game, right from the very beginning, was weird and outlandish enough to hold my interest.
Bizarre though the back-story and general narrative may be, points simply must be awarded for originality. Yaga is anything but contrived, without a single formulaic character in its coding! It opens with some truly nutty characters plagued by some genuinely insane ambitions and motivations, with the ruler of the protagonist’s lands, the utterly barmy Tzar, hell bent on achieving strength beyond measure, perpetual youth, and any number of equally fantastical whims.
This is where the main protagonist, Ivan, a shockingly unlucky blacksmith, comes in. Following a bout of genuinely perplexing dialogue with the barmy Tzar — which ultimately concludes in Ivan’s ultimatum of carrying out the Tzar’s wishes or being murdered on the spot — the player is cast into Yaga’s gameplay. As is traditional, this commences with a brief overview of controls and gaming fundamentals, though for my part, this essentially involved rolling around the screen and swiping at anything with pixels, until I eventually got my bearings!
On the face of it, Yaga’s gameplay appears limited and rudimentary; absent the intricacies of so many of today’s leading gaming titles. When first taking control of the unwitting blacksmith, the player is limited to basic locomotion and blunt-force attacks, which, at its core, boils down to some rather clunky and unpolished mechanics, with Ivan’s movements somewhat disjointed from the landscape and the NPCs — particularly enemies — with which he comes into contact.
Making the best of these mechanics, with Ivan as their avatar, players must navigate the linear forest landscape and battle a few beasties, before the game runs with the back-story of how poor old Ivan lost his hand and became infamous for his misfortune. He then recounts his tragic life to the unmoved Tzar in a desperate bid to save his own skin. Sadly, the Tzar does not take pity on the rotund, handicapped, middle-aged blacksmith, and instead sends him off to do his bidding.
As Ivan ventures through 14th Century Romania, he encounters numerous allied NPCs along the way, and this affords him opportunities to barter for magic, charms, talismans and other useful items, all of which can be utilised in a variety of ways to bolster Ivan’s arsenal, and better equip him to dispense with the unclean creatures besieging Yaga’s landscape. Of particular assistance is the game’s main witch and namesake, Baba Yaga, who provides Ivan with information and guidance throughout the game. That is, of course, once Ivan has appeased her with certain luxury gifts, including but by no means limited to a white cow’s tail and a bag of spoiled, rotting wheat… Another guiding voice is provided by Ivan’s grandmother, who advises Ivan in terms of the gifts that might go down well with Baba Yaga. Ultimately, as players will quickly come to learn, Ivan’s grandmother really just wants her sweet boy to find a wife!
This guidance and plethora of enhancements enhances Ivan’s initial repertoire, allowing him to press onward with bolstered durability, increased strength and speed, more powerful attacks, better luck, and any number of other buffs, which translate into a more deadly Ivan. This is a welcome feature, and not only prevents the game from becoming stale, but also allows Ivan to rise to the challenge of increasingly formidable foes, as the game progresses.
Complementing these enhancements is the ability to craft and mine / extract. At set times and stages throughout the game, Ivan is able to make use of his anvil and hammer to craft enhancements to his arsenal of hammers, carriage wheels (shield), bear-paw glove (much cooler than it sounds) and sickle, to name just a few! Again, this adds variety and depth to the gameplay, and more than that, the crafting process itself is really rather fun; combining offensive items such as nails with various ores and magical artifacts, resulting in imaginatively conceived melee enhancements such as slowing enemies, causing them to bleed (take additional damage), and recovering Ivan’s willpower or stamina commensurate with damage dealt.
Ideally with the assistance of the aforementioned enhancements, players will need to keep a close eye on several status bars that together represent Ivan’s health and wellbeing: being his Willpower Meter, his Endurance Meter, his Luck Meter and his Experience Meter. Of utmost importance is Ivan’s Willpower, full depletion of which will see Ivan collapse from exhaustion and a lack of motivation to press on with his most resented quest.
Fortunately, the first to be eroded, and acting as something of a buffer, is Ivan’s Endurance Meter, which thankfully replenishes itself during periods of calm, such as when standing still or walking. Only once this has reached zero will his Willpower Meter begin to deplete, though the player is nevertheless compelled to watch carefully.
The difficulty here is that the Endurance Bar is depleted not only by physical exertion; fast-rolling, melee attacks and the use of special items, it is also depleted by enemy attacks. Worse still, a depleted Endurance Bar precludes certain actions and types of attack, and so it is not uncommon for Ivan to find himself besieged by enemies, his Willpower in jeopardy, and a dearth of special attacks with which to neutralise the threat. This is by no means a criticism of the game’s ‘health’ system. On the contrary, it is a clever and original approach to character maintenance and one which will keep players well and truly on their toes.
The originality of the gameplay mechanics notwithstanding, Yaga does suffer somewhat from combat limitations, insofar as each stage of the game essentially involves heading off into the woods on a particular quest and venturing into a particular area and clearing it of enemies that appear each time Ivan crosses the border into a new zone. Admittedly, to the game’s credit, the player can expect to encounter a respectable variety of mythical beasts and wild animals with which to do battle, and most, if not all of these fearsome enemies have their own unique traits, durability levels, weapons and attack types. That said; however, the crux of each and every encounter is a formulaic dodging of close-quarter and ranged attacks, and retaliation in kind in the hope of emerging victorious, with Ivan’s Willpower Meter intact.
A separate issue with the combat sequences is the repetitive music, which never varies. This is of course not uncommon in the gaming world, with set pieces of music frequently used to distinguish high-threat gameplay from more mundane NPC interactions and conflict-free exploration. That said, as alluded to earlier, each new area entered in Yaga brings with it an additional battle sequence, and so with such a high incidence rate, the music can become somewhat annoying. This is all the more frustrating as the wider audio offering of Yaga is actually quite good, with a unique soundtrack that fits well with Yaga’s genre and settings, featuring underground folklore band Subcarpați.
As for the allied NPC interactions, these – are – weird. Just… so weird, and the same can be said for the minority of enemies that actually engage in dialogue before it comes to fisticuffs. Initially, the bizarre character artwork, peculiar voice acting and ostensibly contrived dialogue had me wondering if this was a game I wanted to venture much further into; however, once I had settled into the game and come to terms with its unique style and characters, its weirdness quickly grew on me. In fact, I actually came to love it, and to enjoy it for its undeniable originality and freakishness.
Not only are the in-game interactions wildly unconventional, it is also here that the game’s variety and player-lead narrative really comes into its own. For each NPC interaction, Ivan has a number of possible responses and reactions, each of which, as a general rule of thumb, fits into one of four categories, being: aggressive, wise, ignorant and commercial. By way of example, if given a task or ultimatum, the player can choose to have Ivan respond in an aggressive manner, such as, “You expect me to do that?”, which as a general rule seems to make combat more likely than had a more passive response been offered. The game’s weirdness is, in fact, its strength, and a veritable USP. Yaga’s unconventional nature, coupled with the highly enjoyable crafting mechanics and player-driven gameplay make for an outlandish gaming triumph, and despite myself, has fast become a firm favourite that I will undoubtedly play through numerous times, just to see how many different consequences and endings I can squeeze out of it!
In addition to Ivan’s responses dictating the flow and outcome of interactions, they also shape the wider direction of the game overall. So too do other multiple-choice scenarios, such as the day on which Ivan sets out on his various quests, with each day having its own prevailing conditions that shape Ivan’s abilities and fortunes. Choice even shapes the direction of the game, beyond the grave, with Ivan being able to learn a choice lesson each time he dies, resulting in further enhancements to his abilities.
Graphically, Yaga is somewhat lacking. Evidently, this is not an area of the game that has received a great deal of investment, though this is in all likelihood at least somewhat deliberate.
Yaga has clearly not endeavoured to contend with the graphical behemoths in the games market, and instead focuses on unique gameplay and the player-choice driven narrative that distinguishes Yaga from its competitors.
Yaga’s landscapes, whilst certainly not offensive to look at, are simplistic and of limited graphical detail. Admittedly, there is a certain charm to the crude art-style of both the terrain and the characters, though I had hoped for slightly more impressive visuals, which would have been particularly welcome for the game’s boss fights.
The same can be said for the graphics involved with Ivan’s interactions with enemies and NPCs alike, not to mention his movement throughout Yaga’s Slavic lands. What little animation is present during interactions is twitchy and unpolished, with Yaga a long way from the grade of games in which players are treated to characters’ micro-expressions and lip-syncing. Again, this is somewhat charming in ways, but perhaps a better job could have been done here.
Particularly jarring is Ivan’s incongruous traversing of the landscape, with his strides and roles entirely at odds with the speeds at which he moves. This fades into obscurity as the game progresses, though Yaga must nevertheless be taken to task for this graphical incompatibility between character and landscape.
Ultimately, the graphics are of a somewhat low quality, but not so low as to detract from the enjoyment to be had in playing through the game.
Overall, Yaga is a truly unique and charming game, brimming with imaginatively conceived characters and a plethora of crafting and magical enhancements. Yaga’s bespoke health system in particular is a real innovation, and a thoroughly enjoyable element of what is in and of itself a very decent RPG title.
Graphically, Yaga leaves much to be desired, though it is fair to say that even the most polished graphics can only carry a game so far, and it is the love and energy poured into Yaga’s gameplay element that truly sets it apart, making it a worthy contender for a place on the shelf of RPG veterans and newbies alike.