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Game Reviews

‘YIIK: A Post-Modern RPG’ Review – A Clunky Work of Art

“YIIK”, for all of its shortcomings, strives towards a uniquely personal vision. It abides by JRPG conventions in order to defy them.

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YIIK: A Postmodern RPG has finally released after an extended development period of nearly six years. This Western JRPG made waves ever since it was first announced, thanks to its eerie aesthetic and unique premise. Beneath all the artistry and surrealism, however, YIIK latches onto a strong set of personal beliefs, to varying degrees of effect. The game unabashedly wears its 1990s-inspired heart on its sleeve.

I’ve talked at great length about the role nostalgia plays in modern game design. It serves as a crutch for developers stuck in the past and as inspiration for those looking towards the future. Ackk Studios, the developers of YIIK, has tried to use it as both.

YIIK is undoubtedly a work of art. However, in trying to tell its story and make a point, it sacrificed much of its gameplay. YIIK both embraces and rejects the role nostalgia has played in its design, to varying degrees of success. It’s a game that’s hard to recommend but will provide a uniquely personal experience for those that take the plunge.

Welcome to the Y2K

Set in the year 1999, the game follows Alex Eggleston, a college graduate who’s returned home and is eager to do nothing of consequence. Sporting flannel, a love for games, thick plastic glasses, and a vast vinyl collection, Alex wears the hipster label proudly. His immediate concerns consist of holding onto that shred of irresponsibility before adulthood can fully rear its ugly head.

An aimless day of meandering leads Alex to a chance encounter in an abandoned factory with a young woman, Sammy Pak. Inexplicably drawn to this strange girl, their meeting gets cut short when extraterrestrial entities drag Samy into a cosmic void.

Alex quickly enlists the help others, all of them bound together by a mutual search for the truth. What follows is a mystery that takes Alex and his friends to the bounds of time, space, and the end of the world.

YIIK’s story cultivates an unsettling aura that allows for the surreal and metaphysical to exist logically within the game’s world. Ghosts and samurai rats exist alongside arcades and pizza, with nobody batting an eye. Cosmic entities from other dimensions, mind dungeons, and astral powers have their place in this world.

These supernatural and mysterious elements play a wonderful role in ONISM1999, an in-game message board. ONISM acts as an online hub for individuals that want to delve deeper into the reality of the world. Users carry out “discussions” in various threads on local supernatural happenings. Not only does it help flesh out YIIK’s unsettling tone, it gives audiences a peek into the early internet age.

The Distancing Effect

That holds true for much of the game. In many ways, YIIK is a faithful parody of the era in which it takes place. It captures unique qualities of the late 90s, particularly where pop culture is concerned.

A clear affinity for the 90s sometimes proves a little too much. The issue lies in the thoroughly unsubtle way the game winks to its audience at times. Meta jokes, self-reference, and direct communication to the player through in-game dialogue happens so often that it nearly becomes frustrating.

Yet, for all of its philosophical posturing, meta-commentary, and surrealism, YIIK tells an incredibly personal story of doubt, determination, and belonging. It digs deep into raw emotions by contrasting its human emotions with its inhuman scenery. The specific life experience of an aimless liberal arts hipster like Alex doesn’t exactly address a wide audience. As the game progresses, however, his story transforms into something that is far more universal.

YIIK ultimately presents itself as a coming-of-age story covering a unique period of life: early adulthood. The road to get there tries to break down the pretension into something raw and personal. Almost imperceptibly, the narrative shifts from an outward struggle to one that focuses inwards.

As the story moves forward, it delves into the melancholia of adulthood and the unwanted burdens it brings. The game does a masterful job of relating its core themes across the main cast. Each of the characters come from different walks of life, but they all face the same existential dread that plagues Alex. Though circumstance brought them together, their friendship sees them through to the end of days.

“But for all of us, time moved at the same rate – calculating days until we found a way to feel important.”

This is Reality

Sure to be the most striking aspect of YIIK is its unique offbeat presentation. Violently vibrant neon tones clash in harmony with an unsettling score amidst a low-poly world not unlike our own. The art style works in tandem with the narrative and music to produce an experience that unnerves the player to attention.

Much like the story does, the visuals place a heavy emphasis on the mundane and surreal inhabiting the same space. For example, YIIK’s setting is distinctly suburban America in the late 90s. All the hallmarks are there: bus stops, gas stations, strip malls and the like.

However, spaced-out character designs, off-color scenery, and surreal geometry place this reality distinctly outside of our own.

Over time the distinction between the mundane and surreal break down. Abstract concepts and ideas take shape, filtering into the world. In these moments of bizarreness, any sign of reality keep us grounded: a telephone, a stop sign, a stuffed panda. They help assure us that the world hasn’t ended yet.

Completing the trifecta of presentation, YIIK’s music brings the same ethereal quality that its story and visuals do. The game’s original soundtrack boasts a trippy, chunky set of songs that have as much character and personality to them as everything else. Tinny synth beats blare alongside dreamy post-rock melodies and gentle, romantic lullabies. Mood and tone dictate the game’s presentation, and it’s all the better for it.

So much of YIIK’s strength lies in its uncompromising artistic vision. This is, however, also one of its greatest shortcomings.

Questionable Combat 

While YIIK’s presentation deserves much praise, its gameplay unfortunately falls short in several places. At times, YIIK feels like a philosophy class that put on an old, ill-fitting JRPG costume. It has a certain retro charm to it, but the awkwardness of its meta-commentary continually gets in the way.

YIIK’s combat stands as the primary culprit behind the game’s clunky feel. The premise seems simple enough: standard turn-based JRPG combat with active minigame components. Much like Paper Mario had, these small bits of gameplay within battle provide a far more engaging experience than simply selecting menu options.

Unfortunately, the combat has the minimum amount of logic and strategy to it. It has all the staples (HP, MP, status effects, turns, etc.) but fails to explore them in any deep or meaningful way. Reduce opponent HP to 0, keep your’s up, use MP to cast spells, and so on. Standard JRPG fare.

The shallow nature of combat becomes evident when you realize that you lack any way to properly strategize. There are certain mechanics that are objectively better than others; not using them puts you at a disadvantage.

Low damage basic attacks further compound the combat slog. It never becomes quite clear how to optimize your builds or strategies in order to fight more effectively. It wasn’t until late in the game that I fully capitalized on an exploitative tactic that allowed me to breeze through most fights. 

Beyond the actual gameplay aspect of combat, it just feels downright slow.  Character animations can stretch on for seconds at a time. While this doesn’t immediately signify a problem, it becomes ore obvious as the number of battle participants grows.

At that point, any method of cheese becomes acceptable. Fights would often take several minutes to complete, thanks in large part to the long animations and low damage numbers, neither of which I had much control over. Something that let me dictate the flow of combat would, naturally, be more desirable.

Dated by Design?

Outside of combat, so many gameplay elements seem like bizarrely uninspired design choices. Chief of these are the game’s dungeons, which exist in a binary of being either ridiculously simple or annoyingly obtuse. Many dungeon puzzles amount to little more than interacting with objects to progress forward. Other times, these puzzles require lateral thinking in ways that are more frustrating than fun to solve.

Curiously enough, these thoughts about the dungeons were part of other similar observations about the game’s design. So many things serve no discernible purpose. For example: an overabundance of save points, terrible inventory management, and excessive loot. Worst of all was the last stretch of the game, which ended with me pressing buttons to literally pass the time.

YIIK’s use of JRPG design functions more as a framework rather than a set of mechanics. Aside from the minigame combat, YIIK really doesn’t expand outside of traditional JRPG convention. The bizarre choices on specific aspects of the game’s design make this feel like a deliberate attempt to make me consider the game from a meta perspective.

On the one hand, it plays perfectly into the notion of a “Post-Modern RPG”. It takes these well-established design conventions and calls their very nature into question. On the other hand, this makes for a gameplay experience that can feel muddy and obtuse.

Perhaps that may be reading far too deeply into things. The curtains might just be blue and this game might just have some poorly designed features. Yet, for all the misgivings with these design choices not once did it ever seem like an oversight. For better or for worse, the game possesses a distinctly deliberate and personal feel.

To the New Millennium

YIIK, for all its style and substance, has more than a few rough edges (game design choices notwithstanding). At several points in the game I nearly softlocked myself out of puzzles due to disappearing objects. Thanks to the (many) save points, that never happened.

Beyond major issues such as that, YIIK felt just shy of well-polished. Too many small things added up to a somewhat bumpy playing experience. This includes things like typos, finicky interactables, and load screens that took just a bit too long.

With all that said and done, where does a game like YIIK stand? It would admittedly be difficult to recommend this to anyone looking for a conventionally fun video game. So much of it feels awkward and clunky to play through.

By no means does it make it a bad game. YIIK, for all of its shortcomings, strives towards a uniquely personal vision. For that, Ackk Studios deserves nothing but respect. Games like this that challenge preconceived notions of what constitutes design come along once in a blue moon. If you can appreciate what it set out out to do, YIIK will give you an experience like no other.

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

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Game Reviews

‘House of Golf’ is No Hole-In-One, But it is Below Par

‘House of Golf’ may feel appropriate for Switch, but a lack of variety and reused content make this course nearly reach above par.

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Perhaps adding the word “mini” to the title would have been far more appropriate regarding the in-game circumstances of Atomicom’s newest family arcade sports styled game House of Golf. In the slew of golf games currently available on the Nintendo Switch, House of Golf may feel the most appropriate for the console’s capabilities due to its key focus on simplicity, portability, and accessibility, but a lack of diversity in individual hole design and reused content nearly makes this humdrum course reaching above par.

Simplicity is a key focus within House of Golf’s core mechanics. Controls, menus, and even gameplay are as simple as video games can get. The left analog stick operates the camera and holding down the A button fires your ball with a distinct power meter located on the right-hand side of the screen. Your goal is to attempt to achieve a hole-in-one or stay below a par number that changes depending on course and difficulty- just like regular golf, mini-golf, or any form of golf you can imagine. It never gets more complicated than that.

House of Golf may claim that its selling point is that it contains over 130 different holes divided into 5 different environments- or rather rooms- and 3 difficulties, but variety becomes bland after less than an hour of playtime. Despite there being five different environments, after completing one course on either the medium or hard difficulty setting, you practically have experienced all there is to do. Courses always remain compact and easy to navigate, but the game never gets challenging or adds some sort of flair that allows each hole to stand out from one another. It is a shame considering that the fluid gameplay foundation the courses are built on might just be the most tightly controlled golf game available on Switch.

As the title of the game implies, every course is designed around the interior aesthetics of a house- a rather small one at that as the game chooses to focus on table-top scenarios- quite literally. Each hole is rapid-fire short and manages to achieve a miniature sense of scale. They are stylized well but the game often reuses assets for each room despite the settings being entirely different. The atmospheres themselves manage to create a comfy aesthetic for each hole that only adds more cheerful feelings to the laid-back easy-going gameplay on top of a soundtrack that is extremely mellow yet quaint, but when you are on a nine-hole course that never completely changes that atmosphere can become tiresome.

What initially seems like House of Golf’s greatest strength though is being able to choose any environment, hole, and difficulty directly from the get-go, but this feature quickly takes the game south rather unintentionally. As soon as you open up the game, players can accommodate to their own personal skill level leaving the vast majority of them to skip more than a third of the levels. With no learning curve or incentive to play the game on its lowest difficulties, House of Golf rapidly begins to dwindle in new content.

When it comes to the ranking system, it is designed exactly like a traditional mini-golf game where your goal is to achieve a set number of strokes that will keep you above par. Stars will be awarded to players based on performance- a hole-in-one obviously being the highest gold star rank a player can achieve and a triple-bogey being the lowest. These stars, however, only unlock one feature: golf ball designs.

Extra unlockable golf ball designs are the only in-game rewards to collect throughout the game- and it is nothing to look forward to or worthwhile to commit to. They are charming to gander at for more then a couple of seconds, but they serve no real purpose in the long run- not even when it comes to the multiplayer. Rather then these rewards being applied to each individual player’s ball, House of Golf does not allow players to choose what golf ball design they wish to use. For some ridiculous reason, whatever player one chooses is applied to every golf ball.

Speaking of, while the singleplayer can be rather tiresome, House of Golf’s one notable addition that might just keep you on the course for longer than a few hours is the inclusion of a local multiplayer ranging from two to six players. Multiplayer presents a higher-stakes challenge for each course, which makes gameplay not only far more satisfying to win at but overall entertaining to play. Due to the compact course designs, often you can mess with your friend’s positions and overthrow the score of each hole. Multiplayer was clearly the go-to way to play as it is the first option that appears on the main menu.

One thing that should be noted is that only one joy-con is required for everyone to play as there is no other option to use multiple controllers- a convenient addition that you have to wonder why more games do not have it on the Nintendo Switch. It is by far the game’s most redeeming quality that absolutely deserves mentioning. For a game where one player controls the field at a time, this streamlines a lot of issues outside even that of the game itself.

It is no hole-in-one to ride home about, but Atomicom has managed to create an arcade-style sports game that is a mix of both simplistically relaxing and mildly infuriating. In its final state, the lackluster courses can make this one turn into a quick bore, but adding a few friends to the multiplayer scene can turn House of Golf into a few delightful hours. At its retail price of ten dollars, any Switch owner planning on picking up House of Golf should wait for it to land in a sale target-hole. It is not bad by any means, but there are better places to look to fill your golf fix, especially those looking for a single-player experience. For a cheap alternative, however, it might just be worth it for the multiplayer alone.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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