Gaming on low volume is a celebration of positivity, low key games, experiences that value quiet moments and character stories that make profound statements. It’s a love letter for the experiences that help make gaming a unique storytelling medium. We take a real world and personal stance on experiences and create original pixel art to accompany our thoughts. Grab a coffee, needle a slow record and remind yourself why we continue to invest in a ever maturing industry. [Contains open spoilers for all of Life Is Strange]
t’s an idyllic scene; the sun bleaching out all the cares of the day, birds chirp as the smell of cut grass wafts through the heavy air, guitar strings are inelegantly strung to the soundtrack of summers. It’s a scene of youth, It’s a memory of human nostalgia, it’s everything that Life Is Strange represents. Life is Strange is a hard game to talk about; it’s an experience that means a lot for a diverse range of people for different reasons. Dontnod are risk takers, as their name suggests they don’t follow trends, they mark their own path and tell unexpected stories. Risks come with a high chance of failure, their previous effort: Remember Me, didn’t set the world alight. Life Is Strange however hit a chord with an audience who rarely find experiences that speak to them, enduring games filled with heroic bald men wielding muscles the size of battleships, usually driven by a big stick… and a weapon to boot.
Life Is Strange dared to say something, sure it didn’t always get it right but it spoke of depression, of suicide and of finding ones self. In turn it spoke to an audience that looked back on their teenage years as a wistful eyed lesson of maturity, to an audience still struggling in their youth and to people who haven’t found a place in the world. To talk about a game in such terms was unheard of, IS unheard of; the lesson of maturity had started to show on the industry. Life is Strange is unique in its ability as an interactive form of fiction, perhaps films and shows have done it a dozen times over but you were never THERE, to be placed in the feet of a character and not just be a spectator on a journey, but go on it with them. It’s the quietest moments that mark LIS as a profound experience, there’s something undeniably real about the games mundaneness that evokes emotions akin to traveling back to the years of a teenager, to the years spent finding who we are.
Defining ‘quiet’ is a subjective task, to some it just means the lack of noise but it can also encompass a tone, a feeling of contentment. Relative to the plethora of games dedicated to simplifying human interactions to a bullet to the head, Life Is Strange is a whisper; a breath of fresh air in a market over-saturated with needless chest-puffing and oneupmanship. The game has its loud moments that punctuate the narrative, but they always have character motivations behind them, between them the game flirts with the very literal definition of ‘the calm before the storm’. A storm may be coming but it’s easy to forget when Max and Chloe dance awkwardly to punk music in a smoke filled dark room, in real life metaphorical storms exist around every corner, anxiety that our lives could fall apart at any moment. The thing about storms is that they often leave behind a dawn, a new beginning, change; as do the ones that bookend Life is Strange. The game begins and ends at its loudest, a hurricane that threatens to rip apart the lives of Acadia Bay, more than that they represent monumental changes to Max’s life.
Dontnod show an intense understanding of how important downtime and intimate character moments are to creating powerful human stories, a reason for investment. It’s a trap so many games fall into, the idea that people should care because you tell them to, in lieu of dedicating the necessary running time building those moments, those relationships. It’s a tough sell but the result when done right is one where your ensemble cast exude personality, where each of them can captivate your attention and can evoke emotions in you through an inflection of a word. It’s a trait TV shows excel at but it’s rarely found in interactive forms of entertainment. Life is Strange features a range of eclectic personalities that stand out because they feel real — they’re flawed characters, every one of them. Throughout media history the most popular cult icons have always been the renegades, the no nonsense rogues, the flawed; they mirror humanity and ourselves.
There are no heroes in Life Is Strange, there’s nothing quite so black and white. What could be considered the game’s icon: Chloe, is so far removed from hero status: at times she’s resentful, bitter and often selfish but there’s something undeniably lovable about her resilience and attitude to life. Max and Chloe are opposites of the same coin, they represent how events transform and govern who we grow up to be. The game centers around their relationship, formed over innocent, impulse kisses and a playful sexual tension that is reminiscent of every high school crush. Max is the introverted shyness mirrored within ourselves. Many will identify with her the minute she places headphones in her ears to block out the world outside – I know I did. Chloe echoes the inner desire to rebel, to express oneself without care for the consequences, yet there’s a quiet beauty in her eyes. I find myself drifting from the traits of Max and closer to Chloe as I get older – though I still refuse beanies as a fashion item. The rest of the cast are equally affable, even when they are initially presented as insufferable: Victoria is a bully we all knew in school but is quickly humanized, making her one of the strongest cast members. The evilly-portrayed Nathan turns out to be a tragic figure, being taken advantage by everyone around him, the heel turn after his revealed death shows the compassion he was capable of, an amazingly heartbreaking show of guilt for a character who clearly suffered from multiple mental disabilities. Who, given help, could have been a talented photographer.
The question of lost youth is one that is synonymous with people of a certain age, the idea that we wasted our youth or we didn’t make the most of the time are common concerns. It leads to the often cited ‘these are the best years of your life, make the most of it now’ remarks adults throw at teenagers. It’s nonsense of course, as most people in their twenties will corroborate. Teenage years are often filled with uncertainty, depression, sexual frustration and isolation, yet we so easily assign a nostalgic sun kissed value to our time in school, there’s no ‘lost youth’ there’s only a gain from coming out the other side.
Thematically Life Is Strange is all about youth and goes about representing everything that means, including those nostalgic memories we cherry pick; there’s value in them. One of the game’s best design decisions is the inclusion of scenes where Max sits down somewhere, introspectively evaluating where she emotionally is. The game lets you linger in these fleeting moments as long as you wish, wallow in the serenity of the moment around you before having to move on, just like a memory. These are snapshots of life, the washed out visuals bringing bittersweet hope to the dark themes the game stuggles with. Sitting under a tree as the sun drowns behind the horizon, taking stock of an empty room, of a life that was never lived, these quiet interpersonal interactions drip with provocative imagery.
An idea that LIS returns to again and again like a well worn record is one of time, more specifically of the past. It’s a fascination shared amongst society, the concept of going back and rectifying a mistake, the guilt over something we said or something we failed to do. Life Is Strange gives Max the power to do just that, but it’s a word of warning, it delivers a message of why lingering on the past is an obsession that can consume a life. With the power to change the past, should we? In turn changing who we are, the experiences that brought us to where we are? A love of the past lies underneath the modern culture of LIS; the Polaroid photos, the stream of pop culture references and the ’80s influences, the past and present collide like two freight trains on the same track. The message the game delivers is clear, mistakes are a part of growth, Max’s power is a curse, not a blessing; we just have to accept that everything isn’t going to go right. Scribbled on Chloe’s wall; ‘let her go’, foreshadowing the culmination of relationship that we wanted to do anything but let go of, but we did. We had to.
A good soundtrack has the power to create memories, tied so distinctly to events of an experience that a mere plucking of a few strings can conjure up a flood of emotions, can take you right back to the scene that bore them. Similarly in real life, how certain songs stain a period of your life, can capture a time so perfectly that listening to that piece takes you back to those emotions; it’s what makes music a personal medium –even with how vacuous the industry has gotten. Good music in gaming shares this connection, how many tunes can you hum from your gaming childhood? Life is Strange however doesn’t need 10 years to gestate its musical nostalgia; its use of licensed songs and the original score is so imperative to the emotions it evokes. We start up the game’s soundtrack and experience the events of the game like an album set to someone’s life; the guitar strings of ‘to all of you’ start up and remind us of being introduced to the introverted Max, ‘Mt. Washington’s’ haunting melody waters our eyes thinking of Kate and when ‘Spanish Sahara’ builds to a crescendo we remember the pain of letting go. It’s just about one of the best soundtracks in its ability to encapsulate everything the game stands for. The soundtrack ends on the most beautiful track; simply titled Max And Chloe.
The soundtrack is important in a more personal way too. We’ve been talking in somewhat broad terms about what makes LIS an experience worth celebrating, but personal attachment is part of what drives our motives when talking about anything. Games like Life Is Strange matter an inordinate amount more to some people than others, this applies to us, to me. I recently started playing Persona 5, a game people might agree shares several themes with Life Is Strange. Several hours in I came across a scene that sent a flash of LIS through my head. I found myself in tears, not because of Persona 5 and not even because of LIS to an extent. The scene in Persona was one of suicide, and the flash was of Kate’s suicide attempt.
Life Is Strange came at a time when I was – for lack of any better words – depressed. Safe to say the events of Kate’s depression had a deep affect on me. Now I’m not gonna sit here and hyperbolically claim that Life Is Strange helped change my life or enrich it. Depression is a much more complicated issue, and I’m not squatting on a pile of money – after all I’m here writing about video games – but it did speak to me, probably in a way no other game has. It made me glad this experience existed, that this existed for other people, that there was a game out there handling these topics. I remember when the games credits rolled, while being intensely sad, I was gripped with appreciation, appreciation of life. I walked away glad to be alive. When I spoke of ‘finding oneself’, well, maybe we’re all still on that journey to find our identity, in that regard, life, life surely is strange.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale
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.
“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’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.
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.
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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