Friday, 22 November 2019

Switch Review - Yaga


This ‘Rogue’ like RPG may include a randomly generated world and intense combat, but the malleable story is the real draw.   

Developed by Breadcrumb Games
Released in 2019


“How was your day?” a loved one may ask. You’ll tell them about it, they’ll smile. You get interrupted by a phone call, it’s your parent.

 “What have you been up to?” They may ask. You’ll tell them about your day. But, knowing they worry about you walking home late at night, you’ll gloss over that and instead focusing on the guy you saw on the train that looked a bit like Patrick Stewart.

 The next day you’ll get lunch with a friend. “Did you do much yesterday?” They’ll wonder. You recount the story of your day for a third time. However, on this occasion the Patrick Stewart lookalike isn’t mentioned and instead you rant about how your phone battery ran out and you couldn’t book an Uber.


The way we share stories differs with each telling. It always starts in the same place and the general narrative is constant, but the details change with each iteration. No two re-tellings are identical and this fact is the foundations on which ‘Yaga’ has been built. “This game carries the spirit of oral storytelling - the story arc is the same, but the details change every time you experience the story” the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, claims. 

While ‘Yaga’ is a short game at just 5 hours, it’s designed for repeated play. Although it always begins the same, the way you approach the game and the choices you make Change the outcome. It’s intended to be like an overhead action RPG that’s fused with a choose-your-own adventure book. As the developer notes “you can't see everything in one play through because of the random encounters within the procedurally generated maps.” the world is different every time, as are the specifics of your objectives. Rather like “new game +” in a favourite RPG, the placement of items and NPCs are randomised, so you’ll never really know the nature of the world you’re about to venture into. “[With] different mission outcomes, game endings, conversation paths, and secrets, ‘Yaga’ is really really different each time you play if you let it” Breadcrumbs Interactive boasts.


The games tutorial introduces us to our protagonist Ivan. He’s a blacksmith known for both his exceptionally bad luck and one arm; the result of a battle with evil witch Likho.  To make things worse, a tsar seems to believe the ill-fortune blighting his town is caused by its unluckiest resident.  So to save his neighbours, Ivan is sent on an   impossible mission: find the supernatural Earth Mother Baba Yaga and earn her blessings by presenting outlandish gifts. 

While some of these gifts can be found by performing menial tasks for town folk, to find others you’ll have to travel beyond the safety of your homeland and battle major foes across the game’s map. At the mercy of fate, the randomly generated world could make Ivan’s journey close to impossible or ridiculously easy. But as you explore, you’ll encounter gangs of beasts and fearsome marauders. Once an encounter has started it’s impossible to escape, as the current section of map you’re in is blocked off. So During fights you can only pray that your character is suitably equipped to deal with the enemy. As a blacksmith your main offence is unsurprisingly your hammer, which can be thrown or swung to deal damage.  The best battle approach will depend on the type of Enemy packs you’ve met, but your hammer isn’t your only form of attack. In his blacksmith shop Ivan can craft new limbs that offer abilities in and out of combat. Some like a hook shot allow him to quickly zip across the screen, others like a shield attachment are purely defensive.  
To create these (and to enhance his hammer) Ivan has to amass the ore that’s scattered across the world map and dropped by enemies after battle. More crucially he also has to manage his luck. Actions in the game such as using healing magic and being uncaring to others raise his misfortune. Behave too badly and fate takes revenge, stealing your money or more worryingly, breaking your newly forged hammer in the middle of combat. as a player, you had to decide if it’s worth doing despicable things to create a new weapon, if doing so also builds up so much bad luck that subsequent combat is risky. 

To restore his luck Ivan will have to help and befriend random town folk. The side quests they give you are actually based on Eastern European folklore. For example Ivan may have to persuade a herder that a talking goat is actually a cursed prince. Maybe you’ll meet a farmer desperate to find his magic sheep, or a depressed talking tree that longs to flourish. Doing these side quests are typically time consuming and require the solving of riddles, but the reward is often significant. They do also provide Moments that helps break the tension and repetition of constant fighting. Like an early 90s JRPG, the enemy encounter rate is high and as good as the combat mechanics are you’ll largely be doing the same thing a lot. “Smash, clobber and bash the murderous legends of Slavic mythology” says the game’s digital listing. Sadly though this is all you do for the majority of the time. You’ll quickly learn an effective attack strategy; weaken the foes with hammer throws or a projectile arm attachment, then finish them off with close up charged melee attacks. The enemies may look nice but there isn’t enough variety. Often exploring new areas feels like a chore as you’ll have to fight dozens of identical foes without really knowing what lies at the end of this new path. As with all procedurally generated games, it’s often the case that the struggle isn’t worth it and you’ll frequently regret the amount of bad luck you’ve built up to get so little ore. 

But through all the repetition and a seemingly non-stop hoard of enemies, at least ‘Yaga’ looks nice.  The art is hand-drawn, taking inspiration from Eastern Europe, and the world feels Alive and vibrant. A talented collection of voice artists bring life to the characters, speaking partly in rhyme adding to the children’s story book aesthetic created by the visuals. Also worthy of praise is the Romanian influenced soundtrack which features underground folklore band Subcarpați. it’s Charming and unobtrusive yet still manages to create a sense of place and grandiosity to the proceedings. 

But in many ways the draw of the game is the story telling, and tailoring your protagonist around your whims. “Your actions change Ivan’s story, his reputation, and the upgrades he can choose” claim the developer.  Like ‘mass effect’ or ‘infamous’, Ivan can become a very different protagonist and it’s really up to you if you want to be the hero or villain.  True to life though, being honest and virtuous is much harder work and most of the time it’s good to be bad. Undoubtedly your first play through will see righteous Ivan happily married at the end because he never fought when he could instead talk. But if ‘Yaga’ is intended to be played more than once this rather assumes you’ll want to play the game again. 

To be honest I felt obligated to play multiple times and that was only to satisfy my curiosity. The promise of a different experience was hard to resist, but subsequent a play through only added to the monotony that I was already feeling towards the end of my first run. The limited combat variety sustains the short 5 hour running time but isn’t that enjoyable beyond this. Having to start from scratch, find ore and level up wasn’t exactly engaging. Of course the map was different, the people met changed and I made Ivan behaved in a different way but the combat was the same and I was already bored of it. David Cage once infamously said players should never replay his seminal work ‘Heavy Rain’. The creator felt that because his game encourages you to make choices based on your own morals, any subsequent play-through wouldn’t be as authentic and honest. “The right way to enjoy ‘heavy Rain’ is really to Play once because it's going to be your story. It's going to be unique to you. It's really the story you decided to write…I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it."

‘Yaga’ lacks the epic branching story of ‘Heavy Rain’, so arguably the need to replay several times just to see all possible narrative beats is also lessened. Once you’ve made a good Ivan and a bad one, there really isn’t that much more to see. Ironically despite being a passion project of Breadcrumbs Interactive it’s an experience that becomes less magical the longer you spend with it. The problem here is of course the asking price, as at £22.49 ‘Yaga’ isn’t cheap. For much less you can get many more diverse RPGs on the eShop, and many games have better stories. For a third of the price, ‘Yaga’ would be easy to recommend. However, when the price seems to be based on the notion you’ll get value for money by playing it multiple times, you’ll have to decide if it’s still worth the premium price should you only play through once.

After your first play, wonder gets replaced with monotony. Despite the game being intended to be played multiple times, the more you do this, the less fond of ‘Yaga’ you’ll likely become. As a game, it’s rather like a funny story you tell friends at a dinner party. The problem is that you’ve already told it on the last two occasions you met. It was a funny story the first time, familiar the second and boring the third time. Some stories we want to share again and again, others you should experience, enjoy and then move on from.


A copy of the game was provided by the distributor. They have not seen or had any influence on the content of this post before publication.


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