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Looking back at ‘Clock Tower’ for the Super Famicom

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Clock Tower

Clock Tower is a series very close to my heart, one of the earlier survival horror games and one to define a side of the genre. It has its own ups and downs, as well as an inconsistent development team across the series, but it still manages to be iconic with its mastery of tension and menacing villains. Up against the other titans of the genre, such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil, Clock Tower isn’t quite as iconic, nor did it have anywhere near the lasting power as a series. But when you look at a lot of modern horror games, mostly from the indie side of things, you see ideas that Clock Tower presented and polished over time. The elements of tension focus, a terrifying presence stalking the protagonist, and a sense of helplessness through the player character having no real way to fight back.

Clock Tower title

Clock Tower’s title screen

It’s an important series to consider, especially looking forward. The thought of a game like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which features a similar focus to Clock Tower, being made with the budget and scope of Resident Evil 7 is an amazing one. And with the renewed efforts to bring survival horror more firmly into horror territory over the past few years, this prospect is becoming more and more plausible. We’ve highlighted Clock Tower before, two Octobers ago, but today we’ll be diving deeper into the cinematic and narrative side of things.

To start at the very beginning would be to start with a completely separate film technically, one none of the developers of Clock Tower had anything to do with. Hifumi Kono, the director of Clock Tower, has stated he took great influence with both the tone and the main character from the 1985 film Phenomena. A Dario Argento masterclass in horror, and a film he considers his personal favorite of his own works. The film itself is a subject for another time, but what can be taken from it to set up Clock Tower is the Argento style and the main character; Jennifer Corvino. Portrayed by Jennifer Connelly, the protagonist of Clock Tower was designed specifically to look like her. She even shares the first name, being referred to as Jennifer Simpson. This cavalcade of Jennifers is a quite direct reference to the work which Hifumi Kono admired.

Jennifer Comparison Clock Tower Phenomena

An Abundance of Jennifers

Moving past the inspiration, we get into the game itself. To set up the story, Jennifer Simpson is an orphaned girl living at the Granite Orphanage. Together with friends and fellow orphans, Lotte, Laura, and Ann, as well as their matron Ms. Mary, the girls set out for the Barrows mansion where they believe they are being adopted. The girls are awed by the size of the mansion they believe they’ll be living in from now on but also unnerved by the aura of the place. And rightly so, there’s some seriously messed up shit going on beneath the surface.

After Ms. Mary claims to be going to find the master of the house, the lights go out, and panic ensues. Jennifer loses all the others, and is left to wander the dark house alone. An interesting point to note is that before you hit any of the 3 activation points for the meat of the game, you can actually turn light switches on and off and they work, unlike the entire rest of the journey. Might not seem like much, but it’s a nice little detail that didn’t need to be there.

The game itself is incredibly simplistic, a point-and-click adventure for the Super Famicom. But this is something important for the series, a simple control scheme. When it comes down to the tense moments the player can more fully focus on action and looking about to see where to go to explore whilst avoiding Scissorman. For a while, Bobby Barrows, or Scissorman as he is more well known, is this oddly terrifying child entity wielding a pair of scissors as big as himself. It’s a ridiculous villain, but the unnaturalness of his bouncing movement, the disfigured mask he wears, and the amazing sound direction, Scissorman is turned into a nightmare. Both the John Carpenter-esque music and the clacking of the scissors adds something important to the whole experience.

Clock Tower - Scissorman chases Jennifer

Scissorman chases Jennifer after she discovers the first body

Something important that developers creating a cinematic horror experience should always keep in mind is that chilling music is quite monumental to the experience, but so is the absence of music. When walking through the halls of the Barrows mansion there’s no sound outside of Jennifer’s footsteps. When Jennifer is hiding and the music dies away as Scissorman leaves the player still feels tense and vulnerable. It also makes for a great way to get some cheap spooks through sudden loud noises, such as a roof panel falling in the music room or Scissorman slamming his way through a box.

Getting on to the story itself, and into major spoiler territory, as Jennifer makes her way around the mansion trying to find clues to help her make sense of the situation and escape, canonically she witnesses both Laura and Ann die. Laura is either found strung up in the bathtub before Scissorman pops out of the water, or dead and stuffed into the suit of armor in the phone room. Ann is either hurled out a second story window to her death in the courtyard below, or she suffers one of the coolest 2D death scenes I’ve seen as she’s slammed through a stain-glass ceiling and down to the floor below by Scissorman.

The method of death is determined by who you see first, which slightly changes the shape of the story as it unfolds. This, combined with the very slightly varying layout of the house, makes repeated playthroughs a little bit more fresh (though the variances are quite small, and after a few endings you’ll have hit most of the possibilities already).

Despite both of them dying being the canonical end, as the next game begins with Jennifer and one mysterious other the only survivors of the incident at the mansion, there’s a secret S ending that allows one or the other to survive. Working everything out, setting everything up, and deliberately avoiding seeing one of the two die, will keep them alive for the ending atop the clock tower and give the player an S.

Clock Tower - S Ending

The S Ending screen with Laura saved, right before the credits roll

As Jennifer stumbles her way around the dark house, she comes across a lot of incredibly revealing information against the Barrows and her guardian Ms. Mary. Descriptions of occult rituals, evidence of more dead, Mary actually being a Barrows herself, and files on demonic children born into the family through unholy practices. Jennifer also discovers, behind a discolored and weak wall, a locked off room with her father’s corpse inside. Walter Simpson had come to the mansion to help with delivering the children, not knowing what he was getting into. His hand was devoured by the children, and he put forward the idea to end the horrible beasts. This gets him sealed away in the room to slowly die of oxygen deprivation.

There’s also a body in the mannequin room, mummified by the sadistic Barrows, that some fans posture belongs to Jennifer’s mother. This has never been confirmed of course, but Hifumi Kono has stated that her mother was a Barrows, and we can see through Simon Barrows exactly how cruel they can be to their own family when they won’t go along with their evil plans. And seeing as Jennifer’s father, Walter Simpson, was locked inside a room to slowly die at the mansion, it’s not too much of a stretch to think her mother could have also ventured there and met a horrible fate as well.

Clock Tower - Jennifer discovers her father

Jennifer discovers her father’s skeleton within the sealed room

Here’s where we dive deep into the occult ritual side of Clock Tower. By searching the mansion you come across one of two artifacts, either some sort of scepter, or a demon statue. The demon statue seems to be the canon artifact, but both work almost the same. Using that, and some clues from her travels, Jennifer finds another secret area beneath the strange ritual room in the back of the mansion.

Down below are some caverns, and the reality of the dark secrets of the mansion. Jennifer finds Lotte down here (or potentially in the shed where she’s shot by Mary, her death again depends on your actions up to that point) at the end of her life. This whole area, the caverns, is an impressive step away from the inside of the mansion that the player has been running through all this time, and the change of scenery sets up the ending that’s closing in quite well.

The finale, depending on ending, all comes together in a dramatic and incredibly tense way. Jennifer discovers Dan Barrows, a mutated and disturbing giant devil baby, and accidentally turns him into a fireball when she knocks kerosene down into a candle on him. This causes a chain reaction in the caverns, and things seem to be about to fall apart as the whole area shakes. Jennifer escapes through an elevator, only to find the Scissorman once again as he chases her to the top of the clock tower. All of the players come back in now, with both Bobby Barrows (Scissorman) and Mary Barrows having their final confrontation with Jennifer atop the titular clock tower, and after the dust settles she remains seemingly the sole survivor.

Clock Tower - Bobby's death

Bobby Barrows falls to his death as the clock tower rings, driving him off the edge

There’s a lot to the story, and most of it is delivered in a subtle way for the player to unpack themselves as Jennifer does as well. It’s something that old school Japanese horror games did, creating often rich and textured backstories to their games where there didn’t really need to be anything along those lines. Clock Tower could have been simply orphan girl goes to the mansion to be adopted out, turns out they want to kill her to sate their demonic urges, she finds a way to survive, and the game would have played out in a similar enough way. But having this detailed backdrop to that story, and many more small and major elements revealed throughout makes the game a much more attractive prospect to dive deep into.

This, combined with the relatively short game length and impressive visuals for the time, definitely makes this game deserve a playthrough this October if you’re in the mood for old-school horror. The game never received an official release outside of Japan, however, there are plenty of fan translations available. Whilst the first game is the most simple of the series, and definitely not the best, it serves well in drawing the player into the story and wanting to find out more. And there’s certainly more, as, despite all of Jennifer’s best efforts, there’s still a surviving Barrows…

Shane Dover is a Melbourne, Australia based freelance writer contributing to Japanese punk news site Punx Save The Earth, punk publication Dying Scene, Diabolique Magazine and Goomba Stomp. Not just a fan of punk music, he's spent most of his life obsessed with the horror genre across all media, Japanese cinema, as well as pop culture in general. He plays music and writes fiction, check out his Twitter (https://twitter.com/Karzid) for updates on those projects. Follow him on Twitter, and check out his work every Wednesday on Dying Scene.

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From ‘dnd’ to ‘Death Stranding’: Good Old Fashioned Boss Fights

If Death Stranding proves anything, and it does, it’s that there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned boss fight.

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Death Stranding Higgs Boss Fights

There’s nothing quite like a good boss fight. With the creation of dnd in 1975– a Dungeons & Dragons inspired RPG for the PLATO system– video games would be introduced to bosses. It’s hard to imagine the medium without bosses, those perpetual protectors of progress. For dnd, an incredibly primitive RPG, a boss allowed the game to feature these miniature climaxes — memorable events independent of the core gameplay loop. Bosses demand players pay attention or die, and beating one is a triumph in and of itself. Looking back, dnd’s concept of what a boss is amounts to little more than the average random battle, but video games could now build towards emotional highs like any other medium. 

A good boss can make or break a game, but they’re almost always a given. dnd essentially set an inherent basic of game design: video games have bosses. As the seventh generation of gaming ushered in more narrative driven and “cinematic” titles, however, boss design fundamentally changed. Where bosses had evolved from dnd to often serve as explicit rewards or a means to thoughtfully challenge a player’s grasp of the core mechanics, developers started to primarily embrace the “spectacle” of fighting a boss. 

Spectacle and boss fights naturally go hand in hand, though. After all, a boss is spectacle in nature. dnd’s spectacle is comparatively primitive, but it’s there and bosses do feel like events. Boss fights have always demanded our attention as an audience, isolating the world of a game into a singular objective. Some of the best bosses in gaming are almost pure spectacle: Baby Bowser in Yoshi’s Island, Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time, and Metal Gear REX in Metal Gear Solid. None of these bosses are particularly hard, but they make up for their lack of challenge with scale, scope, and gravitas. Spectacle. 

At the same time, they engage with the mechanics of the game even if they don’t outright challenge them. Of course, it would be disingenuous to go on without mentioning that all of these bosses appear near the end of their respective games. They’re easier and focus on spectacle as a means of rewarding the audience for coming so far. Anyone who’s played A Link to the Past in full will likely remember Moldorm as vividly as Ganon, but it’s the latter who fans will remember. Ganon is a spectacular duel to the death inside of a pyramid where the environment changes over the course of the fight. The former is just a good old fashioned boss fight. Who wants that?

As it turns out, a good chunk of AAA developers. BioWare director Casey Hudson infamously spoke out about boss fights after the release of Mass Effect 3, criticizing them for being “too video gamey.” While, contextually, Hudson’s comment refers to narratively convenient bosses specifically, it’s a sentiment that clearly rang true with developers throughout the late oughts & teens. This isn’t to say games with amazing bosses didn’t release over the course of the decade -– very far from it -– but boss design has changed, to the point where the Iggy Koopas and Revolver Ocelots of the world seem almost out of place. 

That’s just a consequence of consuming only AAA content, though. The indie scene has been thriving, and Japanese game development is the best it’s been in quite a while. In a generation where gaming is more mature and grounded than it’s ever been, the medium needed to end the decade with a reminder of video games in their purest form. Death Stranding is anything but, but its core philosophies play to the strengths of the medium with an evident passion. Death Stranding demands that audiences slow down and play by the game’s rules. 

In a generation where holding a player’s hand is the norm, this is a welcome breath of fresh air. It’s not only appropriately old-school, it’s a step back in the right direction. Like any facet of game design, bosses need to be thoughtfully considered. Being “too video gamey” can indeed be a bad thing depending on a titles tone, but swinging in the wrong direction and playing it too safe is never a good idea. Especially since Death Stranding proves mature, grounded AAA titles can absolutely still have the same over the top, pattern-based boss fights of yore — and comfortably, at that. 

“No BTs. No Voidouts. No bullshit. Just a good-old fashioned boss fight.”
– Higgs, Death Stranding (2019)

What’s interesting to note about Death Stranding’s boss fights is that they all play up the spectacle. Now, given the context that’s been established, that might seem like a step in the wrong direction, but any medium has to evolve with time. AAA developers haven’t historically used spectacle well, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Not every boss should be Ganon, but they should always be memorable. The problem with modern spectacle is that it doesn’t go beyond the surface level. It often carries little to no weight or context. Players are expected to care for the spectacle of the spectacle, but that’s simply not where the medium shines. Games are inherently about interconnectivity, and nothing demands more interconnection than a boss fight. 

From the moment players formally meet Higgs and he floods Port Knot City, it’s clear that Death Stranding’s boss fights are more Snake Eater than they are Peace Walker. They’re all incredibly meaty with tons of health, typical of a modern Hideo Kojima boss, but they’re not bullet sponges, and Sam’s limited inventory means that players will constantly be cycling through different weapons over the course of a fight. Couple this with bosses having identifiable patterns and Death Stranding’s boss loops end up being real highlights. 

As expected of a first boss, the Squid BT is on the simple side. At this point in the game, Sam really only has hematic grenades to fight back with. Anyone who hasn’t taken the time to learn how to use the grenades are now forced to do so as it becomes the only means of making progress. Since Higgs also ambushes Sam, players won’t be prepared for a fight on their first playthrough, forced to scavenge the flooded environment for gear. Most bosses strip Sam of his gear, but this approach only results in tense, well crafted battles that offer plenty of variety. Should Sam already have grenades on him, players can rush in to fight the Squid. Should they not, however, they’re going to have to search while staying alive. 

Starting with the next boss, the first fight against Cliff, Death Stranding begins allowing players to choose exactly how they approach a fight. Much like in Metal Gear, there’s no right or wrong way to tackle a boss. Where bosses in MGS2 onwards could be tackled lethally or non-lethally, Death Stranding’s bosses are more about action versus stealth. Both approaches are totally viable, and they lead into their own isolated boss loops. As Cliff Unger hunts Sam through World War I era trenches, players can stealth their way around him or just dive in guns blazing. 

It’s an incredibly tense battle, but it doesn’t let the spectacle of the situation outdo the actual fight. Cliff isn’t a set piece even if he looks it. He’s a genuine boss and players have to play well to beat him. Stealthing around to hit him from behind is safer, but it means players will be fighting Cliff for much longer, requiring more mental stamina. On the flip side, cutting to the chase and unloading the moment he rears his head will end the fight sooner, but only for players who know how to get in & out of combat fast. Otherwise, Cliff’s personal army will slaughter Sam. 

Cliff is fought twice more over the course of Death Stranding, and each encounter builds off the last. The World War I trenches provided plenty of cover for players regardless of which approach they chose, so naturally the second fight takes place in a World War II city. There’s still plenty of hiding spots, but Sam is now out in the open. Just as easily as Sam can see Cliff, so can he be seen. Getting to Cliff is harder in general. Stealthing towards him means taking advantage of any and all blind spots, no matter how brief. Starting a gunfight either requires some pre-established course of action or quick reflexes. 

Death Stranding

By the third and final fight, Sam is taking on Cliff in an open Vietnamese jungle. Stealthing through and fighting back are both harder, but players will have built up the proper skills over their past two fights to adequately stand a chance. The fights against Cliff are the most video gamey Death Stranding ever gets, with each one sharing the same definable patterns, but they’re ultimately a net positive for the game. Having to learn a pattern, finding a way to fight back, and reveling in the scope of a great boss fight makes Death Stranding better on a whole. 

Honestly, the final fight against Cliff isn’t going to be a challenge for most players, but it’ll still stand out as a highlight. Each boss fight is a playground in and of itself. If Sam’s not being transported to a secluded battlefield, areas will be flooded with tar so that they can be molded into proper boss arenas. Even Dark Souls, a modern series that rightfully prides itself on its bosses, often won’t give the same level of care toward boss arenas. Good bosses need good level design just as much as they need good patterns. 

Perhaps more important than anything else, Death Stranding’s boss fights are long. Even if players know what they’re doing, they still have to endure an endurance match of sorts. Boss fights aren’t just about overcoming a challenge, they’re about surviving and making progress. Cliff’s not particularly difficult, but one mistake can result in Sam getting torn into. The majority of BT boss fights will try to overwhelm the player in the second half, the final one even featuring a nasty one-hit-kill that can easily sneak up on players wading through tar. Bosses should feel like events, from how players can engage mechanically, to how they’re presented narratively. 

No discussion of Death Stranding’s good old fashioned boss fights would be complete without mentioning the boss fight: Higgs. After serving as the game’s main villain for dozens upon dozens of hours, Sam finally gets his chance to fight back in a three phase boss fight that could have (very) prematurely ended the game on a high. Unlike the fights against Cliff, Sam really does have nothinghere, no matter what. He’s stripped of his gear, his weapons, and even BB. “Stick versus rope. Gun versus strand.” It’s a great way not only to wrap up Higgs’ arc, but it also challenges a player’s mastery of the most basic mechanics. 

Death Stranding

Phase 1 of the fight requires players understand not only Sam’s hand to hand combat capabilities, but his ability to throw packages. Throw a package at Higgs, beat him up, rinse, repeat. All the while he’s hunting Sam in one of the most constricted boss arenas in the game. Popping up too early means taking a few shots courtesy of Higgs. Popping up too late means needing to find him all over again. 

Phase 2 puts Sam on the offensive, and expects players to fight back with his strand. Higgs needs to be countered, hog-tied, and then kicked into oblivion. On-screen button prompts make the ordeal easier than it would otherwise be, but it’s thrilling to fight a boss who requires players to pull off reflex-based inputs that go beyond the typical QTE flare. Players need to set themselves up accordingly to counter Higgs, actively taking him head on. 

By the time fighting game health bars pop up for the third phase, it’s fairly obvious Higgs’ boss fight is a love letter to the very concept of the boss fight. It’s over the top, almost nonsensical, but it has the right narrative and emotional context to stand out as one of the best moments in an already spectacular game. The fight against Higgs is a miniature climax in a massive story that spans half a hundred hours, and is about to keep on keeping on for half a dozen more. 

Death Stranding

When it really comes down to it, there’s no right or wrong way to conceive a boss fight. Those spectacle bosses have their place, and this generation has seen a lot of amazing ones. What’s important is that developers build and contextualize spectacle accordingly. Boss fights aren’t just an inherent part of gaming, they’re a tool that can make a title better. Opportunities to shine light on the core mechanics, or an interesting aspect of game design. Death Stranding’s penultimate mission essentially pits Sam against a boss gauntlet across the entire UCA, a last chance for players to really indulge in everything at their disposal before the grand finale. 

Death Stranding would still be good without its boss fights, but it certainly wouldn’t be great. Each one elevates the game, not only by presenting a visually memorable and mechanically engaging challenge, but by existing as natural consequences of the story. Each boss is contextualized properly with enough weight where each victory has a considerable amount of impact. Boss fights have come a long way since dnd, but they’re recognizable for what they are: a reminder that games are games, and the medium should be embracing those video gamey elements. It’s through this “video gameyness” that the most memorable titles are made. If Death Stranding proves anything, it’s that there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned boss fight.

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‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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