Nintendo announced early yesterday morning that the Nintendo Switch has become the fastest-selling home video game system in U.S. history. According to Nintendo’s internal sales figures, the system which launched March 3, 2017, has sold more than 4.8 million units in the United States in less than a year. That’s the highest total for the first 10 months of any home video game system in U.S. history, surpassing Nintendo’s own Wii system, which was the previous record holder with more than 4 million units sold during the same timeframe.
“Fans across the country have experienced the joy of playing their favorite games at home or on the go,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s President and COO. “Now that many more people have received Nintendo Switch systems for the holidays, we look forward to bringing them fun new surprises in 2018 and beyond.”
Last week, Famitsu reported that Nintendo sold about 3.3 million Switch in Japan. Last month, Nintendo also reported that it sold more than 10 million Switch consoles worldwide as of December 10th. While we haven’t yet received an official update on the Switch’s total global sales, they’re likely to be released at the end of the month, but by the looks of it, the Switch is on pace to sell a whopping 20 million units before the end of this year. So the question is, how and why is the Nintendo Switch doing so well? As someone who works as a marketing manager by day, I thought it would be fun to sit down and write about why I think the Switch is such a huge success.
The Mystery Box
Way back in April 2015, Nintendo announced they were releasing a new video game console codenamed the “NX.” It was buried on page three of its quarterly financial report, with an announcement about a new Kirby game and a statement about how well amiibo were selling. The company promised the NX would be a “brand-new concept” and would launch the NX globally in March 2017, and that’s pretty much all Nintendo was saying about the NX. It was a strange way to announce their next piece of hardware and worse, fans had to wait months in anticipation before Nintendo finally revealed the Switch into the wild. But what perhaps nobody, including Nintendo expected, is that during that time, there were probably more articles written about the console than there has been since its release. Just think about it. Nintendo didn’t need to advertise the Switch throughout 2015 because the internet did the job for them and in the best way possible. In today’s ad-saturated world, some of the most successful campaigns don’t look like advertising at all. Mystery marketing is a great way to grab the target audience’s attention and encourage people to seek more information about a company’s products or services. The fewer people know about a product the more anxious they get, and this especially applies to gamers.
Marketers view Millennials as an evasive generation to market to because of how Internet-savvy these consumers have become. And in an era where social media dominates our lives, the nature of the game has completely changed. Consumers are able to easily post reviews, spread rumours, educate themselves about products and even interact with companies more easily than ever before. There’s no better way to market your product than to stay in the conversation, but with so much information being fed to us by the minute, it’s hard to stay in the headlines before eventually being pushed down by everything else happening around the world. So how do you keep the conversation ongoing, especially when you’re trying to promote a product? Simple, you create a mystery and keep people wanting more. And that’s exactly what Nintendo did.
When looking to promote its new game Titanfall, Microsoft released a serious of commercials that ended with binary code. The first person to notice was a Reddit user which started a conversation online as fans attempted to solve this mysterious ad. With the Switch, Nintendo didn’t tell us anything at all about the system apart from a release date. There were no photos, no binary code, no commercials – we had nothing to work with but our imagination, hopes, fears and countless rumors circulating the world wide web. Chances are, if you’re reading this you most likely read dozens and dozens of articles in 2015 speculating about what exactly the Switch would offer. If you browsed any gaming, tech or business website, regardless of the size, chances are you saw a new article every week breaking down the latest rumor or rumors about the system. That was the beauty of Nintendo’s decision to not reveal any information whatsoever about the console until they were ready. Of course, we will never know if this was intentional or not, and chances are it wasn’t. Perhaps the company kept things under wraps because they weren’t ready to market the console and/or feared an early negative reception. Whatever the case, keeping the system a mystery for so long paid off in spades. By the time the hour-long event in Tokyo rolled out, Nintendo was very much in the limelight and just about every gamer was curious to know what exactly the NX was.
The Big Game
As a part of Nintendo’s effort to ensure that the Switch would be a success, the company aired its first-ever Super Bowl ad during Super Bowl 51 to promote the new console. The $5 million Nintendo spent for the commercial slot is a little pricey, but the investment paid off in spades. As reported by Nintendo Life, a video advertising analysis company called Ace Metrix determined that the Nintendo Switch Super Bowl 51 commercial was the fourth most popular ad that aired during the big game and the buzz surrounding the Nintendo Switch didn’t slow down, with the extended trailer on YouTube amassing 3.6 million views in a couple of days. And while $5 million is a lot of money, when compared to regular television spots, Super Bowl ads are actually a bargain. A normal add on television still runs a company anywhere between $200,000 to $500,000 per 30-second spot and not only does it reach fewer viewers, but chances are, half of the audience isn’t even paying attention when the ad is running whereas everyone watching the Super Bowl watches every ad that airs. Super Bowl ads also generate discussion for days afterward and can draw millions of additional viewers online. Purchasing ad space for the Switch was a no-brainer for Nintendo since the March 3rd launch date made the timing just so damn right. Over 111 million people reportedly watched Super Bowl 51, and I’m betting most of those people had no idea that Nintendo was releasing a new video game console.
Of course, it also helps that Nintendo managed to make a great commercial chock-full of easter-eggs, starring adults and underscored to the tune of ‘Believer’ by Imagine Dragons, one of the music industry’s most popular bands in 2017. It’s a commercial that despite receiving some criticism and ridicule, managed the grab the attention of gamers and non-gamers alike. The bottom line is that while Nintendo didn’t overload us with ads for the Switch, they still managed to keep the conversation surrounding the Switch ongoing right up until the day it was released by strategically timing when and how they would divulge more and more information. There wasn’t a day that went by that the internet wasn’t buzzing about the system and chances are, even if you don’t consider yourself a gamer, you most likely heard some rumbling about the Switch before it ever hit the market. The fact of the matter is, I have more friends who don’t consider themselves “gamers” that bought the Switch than friends who are gamers. Somehow, Nintendo found a way to reach a wide audience much like they did back with the Wii.
An Amazing Lineup of Games
Of course, even with great marketing you still need a great product and the Nintendo Switch is just that – it’s fucken great. A strong library of games continues to fuel momentum for Nintendo Switch and it helps that the Switch is blessed with two of the best games of 2017. Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are not only system-sellers, but they’re also two of the highest-rated games in history. Talk about hitting it out of the park. Nintendo wasn’t looking for a home run, they were gunning for a grand slam. Nintendo Switch also had the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and given that the Mario Kart series is one of the company’s biggest sellers, it only added fuel to the fire. Meanwhile, fans of the first Splatoon had no choice but to buy the Switch if they wanted to play the sequel. But it’s not just about the first party triple A titles; more than 300 games created by third-party developers have already launched for Nintendo Switch including big-name brands like FIFA 18 from Electronic Arts, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and Just Dance 2018 from Ubisoft, Minecraft: Nintendo Switch Edition from Mojang, L.A. Noire from Rockstar Games, NBA 2K18 from 2K Games, Sonic Mania from SEGA, Rocket League from Psyonix and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and DOOM from Bethesda.
And that’s not all…
Historically, Nintendo has been plagued with delays for major franchises and suffering through long droughts in between some of their biggest releases. With the Switch, Nintendo has set a more regular release schedule of big games and surprisingly they’ve exceeded my expectations when it came to releasing DLC content throughout the year on some of their biggest hits including ARMS, Splatoon 2, and Breath of the Wild. Even months after these games were released, fans still had reason to go back and play them. I myself was playing BOTW right up until January 1st thanks to “The Champions Ballad”.
Who Needs Steam When You Have A Switch?
Nintendo Switch has also received strong support from indie developers, with a steady stream of favorites like SteamWorld Dig 2 from Image & Form, Golf Story from Sidebar Games, Overcooked from Team17 Digital Ltd and Stardew Valley from Chucklefish LTD. Not only are there hundreds of indie games available to play on the Switch but several indie developers have reported that the Switch versions of their games have sold more than all other versions combined. With Switch, Nintendo was early in offering support for popular engines like Unity and Unreal and they seem to have also been delivering dev kits quite rapidly. Incredible success stories continue to be shared since Nintendo has been reportedly supportive of indie developers. Nintendo knows that their console is a natural fit for indies, and we are bound to see hundreds of more indie games on the platform in 2018, many with exclusive features or timed exclusivity, as well.
Take It On The Go
Nintendo obviously has a dedicated fanbase so no matter what sort of console they release, they are most likely guaranteed to sell a few million units in a year. But unlike the Wii U, the Nintendo Switch won back many fans who didn’t invest in that system and one of the big reasons is because of the system’s portability. The Switch is a console that caters both to gamers who prefer playing on their couch and those who prefer their games on the go, and launching a hybrid machine that runs one of the greatest games ever made is something most gamers can’t resist. I mean who doesn’t want the option to take the system on the road? As someone who works in front of a computer all day, playing games on my computer at night doesn’t really interest me. Sure Steam has an enormous library and yes the platform is known for their incredible sales, but I much prefer to play an indie game on my couch, or on the go, or even in bed. And I’m sure many people feel the same way. In fact, I’ve found myself playing the Switch in just about every scenario as seen in the famous Super Bowl commercial including on a plane, at a party, on a rooftop and even at the basketball court.
Technically speaking, the only real competition the Switch has is Nintendo’s own dedicated handhelds, the 2DS and 3DS, but as our Nintendo Editor pointed out, reliance on the 3DS cannot last forever, as its sales naturally show a steady decline. Yes, Nintendo seems keen to keep the 3DS alive for as long as possible but for those of us who’ve already bought a Switch, the 3DS is sitting in the corner of our rooms collecting dust. Sooner or later, Nintendo’s going to pull the plug and when they do, the Switch won’t have any competition whatsoever since neither Sony nor Microsoft has expressed interest in portable gaming devices. As it stands, most people are already making the transition or at least planning on it.
The System Advertises Itself
Speaking of the portability of the Switch, the system practically advertises itself when you take it on the go. No matter where you take it, be it on planes, trains, a coffee shop, or even a bar, wherever you go, people will invariably see you playing on the device and ask you what it is. It also helps that it has some of the best multiplayer games so if you do take it out on the road, you always have the option of breaking off a Joy-Con and handing it over to a friend, colleague or family member who hasn’t yet had a chance to try out the console.
Last but not least, Nintendo created artificial demand. Of course, we can never prove that they did this intentionally but Nintendo managed to release just enough hardware throughout the year to get it in the hands of millions of people but still sell out within minutes so those who didn’t have a Switch would feel the need to buy one immediately before it was too late. By creating artificial demand, marketers play with the psychology of a customer. It’s a human tendency that if we get any product very easily or is readily available than we don’t value it much but if it sells out, we value it more. It’s controversial sure, but it is also proven to work when you have a dedicated fanbase. An Artificial Demand for a product will leverage the popularity of the product.
So why is the Nintendo Switch such a success? I’m guessing it has everything to do with what was mentioned above and more.
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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