YIIK: A Postmodern RPG Review
My life is a series of flannel shirts, record shops and video game references. I’m in my mid-20s, have a bachelor's degree and have felt the crushing blow of reality at the end of my carefree uni days. In a lot of ways I am Alex — the unlikely hero of YIIK: A Postmodern RPG. However, that’s about where our similarities end. After all, I’ve not been tasked with saving the world yet.
YIIK (that’s ‘why-two-kay’, by the way) is a Japanese-influenced role-playing game, inspired by the roaring 90s. Set in America, with the millenium fast approaching, the game is bright, colourful and PSOne-chic. It makes a wonderful first impression. Instantly relatable character aside (seriously, it was like seeing a digital version of myself with red hair and glasses) the game is flooded with nostalgia: message boards, 16-bit video game systems, hope — everything we all remember from this glorious decade.
After years at college working on a Liberal Arts degree, Alex Eggleston returns home to Frankton. However, both he and I would soon realise that this would not be the suburban college dream we’d imagined when he stepped off the bus: YIIK is a dark, supernatural wolf in millennial clothing. Soon, Mind Dungeons, huge shadowy figures known as Entities and the mysterious disappearance of Sammy Pak become Alex’s day to day. Turning to an internet message board — ONISM 1999 — and a gang of misfit friends, our unlikely hero embarks on a quest to find out what happened to the disappeared girl. Of course, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.
In fact, nothing in YIIK is straightforward. Throughout my time with the game I questioned everything. The enemies are bonkers, ranging from cartoon poops and stop signs to goth mallrats (complete with tails) and aliens; my weapons were a hipster arsenal of vinyl records, keytars, cameras and more, and the story just kept getting weirder. Reminiscent of games like Earthbound and Persona (particularly Persona 4), with the outsider comedy feel of movies like Scott Pilgrim vs the World, surprises can be found around every corner, from the funny and nerdy, to the ludicrous and beyond.
I fell hard for this game in the early going. YIIK’s commitment to classic JRPG tropes combined with commentary on 90s life made for some genuinely funny moments. However, these elements and the game’s otherworldly core story often felt at odds with one another. There was a tendency for the tone to shift erratically with sideways comedy and saturday morning cartoon references butting heads with some of the game’s darker, more melancholy themes. One minute Alex and his crew are fighting “cowabunga”-spouting Samurai Tortoises and seconds later I’m being told about the tragic suicide of somebody’s sister. And then our wacky adventure continued.
Moments like this were peppered throughout the game. Detrimental to both sides of YIIK’s story, they made what could have been fun, fan-servicey moments feel regretful and, in hindsight, meant that serious character beats lacked the nuance and tact to feel properly impactful. Dialogue suffers in this regard too. For every throwaway line that made me smile or carefully constructed Clerks-esque monologue that helped to ground and develop characters, there would be equal (if not more) instances of a character suddenly sounding robotic, using swear words as punctuation, or blurting out something boorish or downright offensive. The voice acting injects a lot of personality into the cast of characters, but that too can miss the mark with conversations often feeling disjointed. Thankfully, Chris Niosi’s portrayal of Alex feels genuine, occasionally in spite of some clunky writing.
This kind of inconsistency can be found throughout each of the game’s core tenets. The turn-based, combo-driven combat is entertaining to start, but I quickly felt held back due to an unreliable combo system. Steady levelling and an increase in skills helped to keep things fresh for a while, but I was soon dispatching enemies in the same way each time. This led battles — particularly random ones — to feel like a chore as I approached the game’s final acts. And, as simple as combat is, a lack of a proper tutorial doesn’t help matters either.
Similarly YIIK’s dungeons all feel unique, often providing elements of visual storytelling that kept me engaged even during particularly elongated sections. Alongside the standard turn-based battles you’d expect in any RPG dungeon, these areas also offer a varying degree of perplexing puzzles. The simplest of these made me utilise Alex’s array of off-the-wall tools to overcome obstacles, but the worst had me feeling like I was banging my head against a brick wall — sometimes for an hour or more — only for the solution to go against everything the game had taught me so far, or to be so weird and nonsensical that I figured it out by accident.
The love that Ackk Studios has for old-school RPGs and point-and-click adventures is clear — and admirable — but their desire for nostalgia, to recreate those games, comes at a cost. YIIK’s biggest flaw that it is often so obtuse that it stopped feeling fun and sucked any enjoyment I’d had out of playing particular sections. Its one rule appears to be that there are no rules, and that’s fine until the game’s design purposely feels like it’s working against you. This is also true when it comes to the game’s pacing. For a generally linear game it loves random tangents, with some sections, particularly as I approached the exposition-heavy ending, dragging down the momentum.
As frustrating as moments like that were, it was the story and the characters that pulled me through. However convoluted it got and however lacking the writing felt at times, I always wanted to see what happened next, and it went places I never would have imagined. Starting as an underdog story of mystery and intrigue, YIIK morphs into an entirely different beast: a thought-provoking, cerebral, mind-bending game that, in the end, was an incredibly satisfying journey. One that, belatedly, finds the balance of wacky and profound that it often struggled to achieve throughout its 30+ hours.
YIIK succeeds in its weird and wonderful concept, striking visual style, excellent soundtrack and flawed, relatable characters. Wonderful at its best, it is unfortunately let down by a plague of poor design choices, the burden of some awkward, heavy-handed writing and, ultimately, an inability to refine what is a rough diamond of a game.
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