This week, I got a chance to sit down and talk to legendary strategy game developer Soren Johnson, best known for his work at Firaxis as the AI programmer of Civilization III and as the lead designer on Civilization IV. He’s since moved on to start his own indie development studio, and their first game is Offworld Trading Company. Read GoombaStomp’s review here.
MJR: To start with, you were obviously at Firaxis for Civilization IV, then moved to EA, and then to Zynga. What was it that inspired you to set off on your own to create Mohawk Games?
Soren Johnson: Mostly to be able to control my own destiny. Being at other places, especially places like EA and Zynga, you’re very much kind of at the whim of what comes down from corporate, so it would be extremely difficult to make a game like Offworld at one of those companies, and—actually, it probably wouldn’t be all that difficult to start a project like that, but it’d be extremely difficult to get it actually shipped in a form you’d be comfortable with. So I was really excited about having my own company so that we could make an unusual game and do it in a way that I think also respected the consumer.
I also imagine there’s a world of difference between working on a huge franchise like Civilization and on your own startup with a niche title like Offworld. Did you find this to be more liberating, or was it a little bit scary as well?
It was pretty liberating, I’d say. (laughs) We were pretty pumped to be working on a new title. I think if anything, the scary part was just that we were making a game where we didn’t really have a good model to follow, you know? People talk about how much they’d like to make games that are different, but when you actually have a chance to make one, you realize how difficult it is because you don’t want to have to be reinventing everything, right? And there was a lot we had to reinvent for Offworld, because there really aren’t a lot of other economic RTS games to follow. And if you look at the development process you’d actually see that early on, our game was actually much more like a conventional RTS. We actually did have units that you controlled and you moved around the map to reveal the blackness, and there were even ships that kind of moved around and fought with each other. There was a lot of more conventional RTS stuff in there, so it took a while for us to strip the stuff out that we had just kind of adopted by default.
Very cool. That’s actually one of the things that fascinates me about Offworld, just the numbers game end of it; so you really didn’t initially set out to make a wholly economically-driven game? It had some other elements in there? Which I find interesting.
Yeah, I mean the economic side was the important part, but it was still kind of in the vein of a game like an Age of Empires, perhaps; an RTS that has a heavy economic side to it. And we certainly wanted the economic side to be the dominant factor, but it was still hard to break out of the old mode. So, for example, when you were placing buildings, you’d have little worker units that you would move around that would have to actually travel to a tile to put a building down on it. And as we developed the game more and more, it was like, well, that part of the game is not really what we care about. We care about—what building do you want to make and where do you want to put it? That’s all that really matters, right?
So when I first heard about Offworld, the first thing that came to mind was the Ozark Softscape classic M.U.L.E. Was that a heavy inspiration for you? Were there any other games that inspired you in Offworld’s design?
Yeah, M.U.L.E. was definitely a big influence. In fact, our art director, he brought a Commodore 128 over and got us all down playing M.U.L.E., and a lot of elements of the game came from that. The claim system, for example. Our auctions work differently, but we have auctions because of M.U.L.E. The fact that buildings get bonuses for being next to each other, stuff like that. So yeah, there were a lot of things that we brought on from M.U.L.E.
Age of Empires was a big influence, as I mentioned earlier. That game had a market building that if you clicked on it, actually is a lot like Offworld in that you could buy and sell all the resources, and the prices go up and down for the whole world. It was just a tiny part of a much bigger game and we really zoomed in on that one thing.
I haven’t played that in a long time, but that’s true.
So one of the other things that I was fascinated by with Offworld was the pace of it, despite it being a numbers race. I even caught some of the release tournament and was amazed to see what a genuinely interesting competitive spectacle it turned out to be. Especially with the commentary, given that it’s such a dense game. How did you stumble on a formula that managed to put so much life and energy into what, mechanically, boils down to rapidly changing numbers?
So initially, early on, I think the games were a little bit longer since we had all those extra elements I mentioned before. And as we pulled stuff out, we kind of boiled the game into a shorter and shorter timespan. And now I think the game is as short as it should be, but no shorter. I think it would be harder to make a game with as many interesting decisions as Offworld has in a shorter time frame, so it’s in a nice sweet spot. We could have made it a lot longer, but I would say that at a high level, we wanted the game to be no longer than 30 minutes if possible, because we felt like if you go longer than that, you’re no longer a mainstream synchronous multiplayer game. There are some RTS games that go way longer, like Sins of a Solar Empire or something like that, but those aren’t really games where you’d be comfortable saying, “Okay, I’m just gonna sit down and play a few games tonight with random people I come across on the Internet.” You need your game to be relatively short to work in that format, so that was just kind of a constraint that we set for ourselves if we wanted to really work as a multiplayer game.
Yeah, I imagine that’s especially helpful for a game that’s a little bit further out of the mainstream, just to keep the player base up and make sure that there are always people in the queue there.
Were there any lessons from your past development experience that helped you to balance the economics of Offworld so finely, or were there a lot of new concepts that you had to learn to pull this off?
The big lesson from my experience in Civilization was the thing that pushed me toward Early Access, which is that you have to get your game in front of real people as early as possible to actually figure out what kind of game you’ve made. Because we were playing the game internally from very early on in the project, and it was a lot of fun. So we made a lot of good progress in those days, but really weren’t able to figure out exactly how people responded until we were able to get it in front of average users who didn’t know us. Get some real opinions on how the game worked.
As for the economic side, that part actually … it kind of just works naturally. I mean, one of the big reasons I wanted to make a strategy game built around a free market is that if you have the basics in place—every time you buy a resource the price goes up, every time you sell a resource the price goes down—the game just sort of balances itself, right? Because it’s not like there’s any one best resource. Everything depends upon its price. Even if electronics is the most expensive resource in the game, it still might not be the best one at that moment because maybe carbon and silicon and aluminum are also really expensive, so making electronics is actually going to lose you money even if it’s worth a lot.
So just to wrap up on the Offworld portion here, do you guys have any specific plans in expanding the game with more DLC as things go forward?
Yeah, we’ve got plans for what we’d like to do with the series. A lot of it just depends upon how the fans react to it, and seeing what they want. But then also, the more popular it is, the bigger it is, the more grand we can be with our ambitions. So we’re hoping that it keeps selling well.
And just to get back to your company itself, for a minute, what can you tell us about the Stardock Strategic Investment Fund and how that helped you guys actually get the game off the ground?
Yeah, that’s been a big help. Stardock’s our publisher, but beyond that, they give us a lot of extra assistance in running a company. They handle stuff like HR and finance and a bunch of other stuff that takes up a lot of time if you’re running an independent company. So if you talk to people who start a studio, they’ll often tell you that half their time is spent doing stuff they’d rather not be doing in just sort of managing the company. And really, for the most part, most of my time day to day is just programming. Just playing the game, seeing what needs to be changed, and then making that change, and moving forward. That puts us I think in the best position to succeed.
I imagine as a developer that’s always kind of the sweet spot where you want to be.
Yep. You want to be working.
So how did Brad Wardell end up signing on to be Mohawk’s president? Your website lists him as a co-founder?
Yeah, so when we signed our first policy deal with them, as part of that deal they made, basically, an investment in the company. And so Brad came on board then to become, uh—is he president? Is that the official title? (laughs) We don’t really think about the titles, but he’s officially involved in the company in that capacity.
Right. How many total employees do you guys actually have?
I think we have 8 full-time employees. We’ve got a few contractors who also contributed to Offworld in significant fashion.
So what does the post-Offworld landscape look like for you guys? I mean obviously you’re going to be supporting that game for some time and seeing how things go, but do you have anything in particular you’re interested in exploring once Offworld is kind of on its way out?
Well, we have plenty more work to do on Offworld, potentially for years. But as for myself, I mean, strategy games are my thing, so I have a big stack of ideas for other strategy games I’d like to work on, and we just have to figure out what’s the best one in terms of what we want to make and what the audience probably wants.
Right. Is there any particular type of strategy that you’re most interested in moving toward at some point?
(laughs) Yeah, well unfortunately that’s the type of thing you can’t really talk about until you work your way through your marketing plan. I mean I definitely have ideas, but I just can’t talk about them now.
That about does it for me. But lastly, I’d just like to ask: what are you playing these days?
Mostly Offworld. (laughs) Mostly Offworld, still. I mean it’s fun, and it’s also important that I see how the game’s working out in the community. I was playing some ranked play in the matchmaking system earlier today.
But now that I’m out, I kind of want to jump back into a lot of the 4X games that have been made in the last few years. I haven’t actually ever gotten around to playing the last Civ V expansion, I want to try that out. I want to play some Stellaris, I want to play some Crusader Kings, some EUIV, stuff like that.
Absolutely. I’m working on a Stellaris review myself right now, it’s a fantastic game. Well, thank you so much for your time. I and our readers really appreciate it.
Cool! Thanks for talking.
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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