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‘Ys V’: A Traditional Approach to a Non-Traditional Series

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Originally released for the PC-88 in 1987, Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished quickly became a JRPG staple. Combining fast-paced, buttonless gameplay with narrative presentation that far surpassed any other console game from the era, Ys solidified itself as a behemoth amongst its contemporaries. Ys was given yet another layer of welcome complexity with its PC Engine remake in 1989. Now combining both Ancient Ys Vanished and its successor, Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter, into one cohesive package. With crisper visuals, fully voice acted cut scenes, an even stronger musical score, and the same fast paced gameplay, Ys carved a niche of sorts for itself in the RPG stratosphere.

Through the Bump System, combat could happen at an alarmingly fast pace, with players simply needing to move Adol into enemies to slay them. Without needing to press a button to attack, Adol’s movement were faster than, say, Link’s from The Legend of Zelda. Such an approach to action allowed gameplay to constantly be on the move. Boss fights in particular thrived off the Bump System, creating frantic duels where players were expected to have a mastery of movement to succeed. Even when Ys II added button-based combat through magic, the Bump System ensured the action remained satisfyingly fast.  

In terms of presentation, the inclusion of voice acting and cut scenes elevated Ys’ already well thought out narrative. Although the duology’s story might come off cliched in a modern context, it is worth remembering that cliches don’t necessarily damage a story. After all, all plots are inherently built on pre-established cliches, tropes, and ideas. Worth noting is also the fact that Ys was something of a trailblazer at its time. Ys’ plot was deceptively simple, weaving a complicated tale of lineage, destiny, and divinity that put other video game stories from the era to shame. With voice-acted cut scenes now in the mix, Ys not only pushed itself further, but what was capable within the medium.

Like Ys I & II before it, the duo’s successor, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, was also released on the PC-88 before receiving a PC Engine remaster that brought with it an audio and visual update alongside voice-acted cutscenes. Unlike Ys I & II, however, Wanderers from Ys drops the Bump System in favor of a more standard approach to combat. All the same, while a button needs to now be pressed for Adol to swing his sword, battles are designed with speed in mind. Auto-attacking may no longer be possible, but the overall game design keeps the spirit of the originals intact.

It certainly helps that Ys III keeps the duology’s presentation intact even when moving to a 2D, side scrolling plane ala Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. By sheer virtue of adding a standard means of attacking, Ys III should feel more traditional, but its insistence on experimentation while keeping the series’ core concepts in place (exploration, light puzzle solving, fast gameplay) means that Wanderers of Ys feels right at home with the previous two installments even if it forgoes the Bump System.

On the flip side of the spectrum is Ys IV: Mask of the Sun, one of two Ys IV titles released in 1993. In being developed for the Super Famicom, Mask of the Sun could not retain the same presentation style of its predecessors due to technical limitation. Unlike the PC Engine, the Super Famicom simply was not powerful enough to handle voice-acted cut scenes. While this meant that the series’ fourth installment suffered from far worse cut scenes, the Bump System was not only back, but Mask of the Sun in general modeled its design quite heavily after both Ys I & II. If nothing else, Mask of the Sun was a familiar, albeit a bit worse, return to form.

Mask’s sister game, Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys was developed specifically with the PC Engine in mind. As a result, The Dawn of Ys in many respects plays out like the true Ys III. It takes place before Wanderers of Ys meaning that only Ys I and II are referenced; it uses the Bump System exactly as it was in the original duology while also adhering to the duo’s style of level design; and the presentation is by far the most cinematic of the pre-Napishtim Engine titles. While The Dawn of Ys was deemed non-canon in favor of Mask of the Sun for years to come, it was the one sequel that best emphasized what the original Ys represented.

What’s most important to note about the series’ first five major entries is that– while all similar– not a one takes inspiration from another game. At least not to the point of compromising their own identity. Wanderers from Ys comes the closest by seemingly lifting its combat from Zelda II, but it still is very much an Ys game on every other level. Even Mask of the Sun which was released on the Super Famicom makes sure to use a visual style similar to the PC-88 originals so as not to get lost in the homogenized Super Famicom JRPG aesthetic. Which makes Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand all the more perplexing.

Released for the Super Famicom at the very end of 1995, Ys V was the series’ fifth canonical entry and the first to more or less find comfort in playing it safe. Where previous entries were comfortably non-traditional in regards to the RPG genre, Lost Kefin is as bog standard as Super Famicom JRPGs come. Visually, Ys V is nothing special, having abandoned the series’ vibrancy in favor of a more muted color scheme not too dissimilar to Final Fantasy VI which released one year prior. While the series never had a single defined art style, even the sprite work is reminiscent of Square’s titles from the era, robbing Ys’ visual identity even more.

Although the soundtrack does remain rather strong (always one of Ys’ strong suits,) there is a noticeable lack of care in the actual placement of certain tracks. As expected for a game on the Super Famicom, there are distinct town, shop, and home themes. The problem is that Ys V’s tracks are so long that most players will almost never hear the end of any of these tracks unless they deliberately wait them out. Songs shift so often outside of dungeons that the musical composition cannot be appreciated as easily as was once possible on the PC Engine or even PC-88.

In regards to dungeons, Ys V is sorely lacking with the exception of its final dungeon. Said set piece is actually quite well designed, clearly acting as a condensed (and more cohesive version) of Ys II’s gargantuan Shrine of Solomon. Unfortunately, the rest of the dungeons fall either far too short for their own good offering very little in the way of exploration, or are simply too easy.

Above all else, Ys up to this point had always been a franchise that clearly prided itself on its difficulty. Not a single game in the series shied away from brutal boss fights or difficult set pieces with Darm Tower at the end of Ys I actually depriving Adol of his best equipment and offering him a stronger set of gear that would specifically result in Adol being unable to damage Dark Fact, an already fairly challenging final boss. From as early as the first game, and quite frankly the franchise’s very first boss fight, Ys made it clear that challenges were meant to be overcome.

Said philosophy seldom, if ever, applies to Lost Kefin. At its hardest, a puzzle near the end of the game can kill Adol fairly quickly, but most bosses simply don’t do enough damage to be a risk. Even the final boss, which theoretically should be the game’s largest challenge, can be brute forced with little to no effort.

Ys V’s difficulty curve was so low, Nihon Falcom re-released the game less than three months later as Ys V Expert. Although the re-release more or less only buffed enemy stats and toggled a few attack patterns (which disappointingly left bosses virtually intact,) the gameplay benefited considerably from some degree of challenge. The difficulty curve was still quite low when compared to previous entries, but it was no longer brain dead. It is a genuine shame such a problem existed in the first place as Expert shows just how conceptually sound Ys V’s combat actually is.

On a purely surface level, not taking into consideration enemy design or general speed of gameplay, Ys V lays a very solid foundation for combat. Adol’s swords can either slash or stab depending on what he has equipped; the ability to raise his shield means that combat could theoretically work in a back and forth manner; jumping allows Adol to reliably dodge and lunge into enemies; and magic is back through the Fluxstone mechanic, a system that allows for experimentation via magic crafting. Unfortunately, these mechanics just don’t work all that well in practice.

Even with harder enemies to take down in Expert, the combat is simply too slow. Ys went from a series with non-stop action to one that routinely struggled to keep up with A Link to the Past, a game that quite frankly took its time in regards to combat more often than not. Adol had to be positioned properly to attack, movement was now comparatively quite slow, and neither jumping nor blocking were properly integrated into the gameplay loop. As a game, Ys V is clearly trying to present itself as a contemporary JRPG, but, in doing so, it fails to craft an identity of its own.

If nothing else, the story at least reads appropriately Ys with plenty of strong moments in the second half. The presentation is lacking, unfortunately, but Lost Kefin actually does do a better job on than front than Mask of the Sun did, if only because it recognizes its limitations. Of course, this does mean Ys V can come off stilted in a franchise that strived for the cinematic– and most cut scenes read as if they could have taken place in any Super Famicom title from the era– but the plot genuinely is commendable for the most part. The stakes are high, the twists are appropriate, and the finale makes great use of both build up and pay off.

It isn’t as if Ys V is totally devoid of merit in regards to gameplay either. As previously mentioned, Lost Kefin laid a foundation for strong combat which is exactly what happened with Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim. Released a whopping eight years after Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand, The Ark of Napishtim has more in common with its Super Famicom predecessor than it does its PC-88 progenitor when it comes to combat. Adol may not be able to block, but he can jump and has to attack manually. The main difference between V and VI, however, is that the latter honors the moment to moment pacing of Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished.

The Napishtim Engine’s existence doesn’t suddenly validate Ys VI as a better game than it is, but it does shine light on how a traditional approach can be spun well. By all accounts, The Ark of Napishtim should be a standard action RPG, but it ends up so much more than just another RPG thanks to how it prioritizes difficulty, speedy combat, and level design. Lost Kefin does not do that. Instead, it is complacent to follow the leader. Said complacency did lead somewhere good– with the three Napishtim Engine titles arguably serving as the franchise’s peak– but it is disappointing to see such a unique series take such a generic approach to game design if only for a single entry.

With so much of Ys’ history on display, it can be difficult to see Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand as anything other than an enormous misstep. While it very much stumbled on multiple levels, it is a decent action RPG in its own right. It perhaps won’t appease hardcore fans of the series, and rightfully so, but it does offer a fair share of enjoyable content. More importantly, however, Ys V is the basis that the Napishtim Engine is built off of. While The Ark of Napishtim immediately made its structure its own, it cannot separate itself from Ys V, not truly. Lost Kefin is a cautionary tale that put a franchise on a creative freeze for eight years, but– just like a certain kingdom of sand– it is a tale which also demonstrates that one bout of failure doesn’t mean all hope is lost.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Nikki

    March 6, 2019 at 12:36 pm

    I’ve started my adventure with the best Ys game — Origin. Playing through three different stories during a month was a genuine pleasure.

    My latest Ys game is the best in the franchise, too. Celceta is about another kind of adventure — about a trip to different towns, about the unknown traveler and unknown people. When you are nearby a new settlement, Falcom presents it with a gorgeous scenery. I didn’t notice that flavour in the Altago arc, but even Ys Seven is splendid in its own right.

    And this comes after playing YsVIII. Somehow, Dana can’t beat Ys 4, and vice versa.

    Somehow, every Ys game is the best.

    Somehow, Falcom would give us a chance to experience Ys V.

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

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

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Death Stranding Higgs Boss Fights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death Stranding

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

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

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

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

Death Stranding

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

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

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

Death Stranding

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

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

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

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

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Life is Strange 2

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

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

Life is Strange 2

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

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

Life is Strange 2

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

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

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

Yaga Game Review

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

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

Yaga

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

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

Yaga

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

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

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

Yaga Game Review

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

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

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