So, this one has taken a little longer to get to than it should have, with the game I'll be reviewing actually having released in mid-November. A few other review projects, along with a little bout of sickness and, to be perfectly honest, the recent release of Jedi- Fallen Order, have all conspired to keep me from finishing this little write up but, now that the distractions are over, it's time to get back into the swing of things and get down to business.
So, apologies for the lateness and let's get back to it, shall we?
Yaga is "an authentic love letter to childhood fables" from Romanian indie developer Breadcrumbs Interactive. Featuring a gorgeous hand drawn artstyle, and a rather catchy soundtrack, the Devs have drawn inspiration from Slavic folklore to help build their world. It also has a heavy focus on replayability with story changing dialogue choices, multiple endings and procedural level generation all being used to change up the game each time you play.
The basic story and set-up are told through the opening scenes and begin with the title character Baba Yaga, a great and powerful witch, appearing before the newly crowned Tzar. After he treats her badly, refusing her food and rest, he orders her from his throne room but before he can, she lays down the following curse upon him.
"Oh, I shall leave but hear this from me
How you treat others, treated you will be
The one who is cursed with dreadful luck
Will be around when your throne turns to muck
But if you kill him, by your own command
All your Tsardom will turn to sand!"
Now obviously the king is terrified by this prophecy and searches everywhere for this unlucky person to have him sent as far away as possible.
And this is where the player comes in. We take the role of Ivan, the local blacksmith, a man that the villagers say has the worst luck in all the kingdom. The nails he makes bend, the wheels he builds break, the axles he creates keep snapping and the tools he crafts all shatter. Worse than this though, while walking in the woods one day, he's attacked by a flesh eating Witch called Likhos, and loses a hand while trying to escape. The Tzar, taking this as evidence that Ivan was the man mentioned in the witches prophecy, comes up with a cunning plan to remedy the situation. Knowing he can't just order Ivan killed, as the prophecy promised ruin, he decides to present him a series of seemingly impossible tasks instead, keeping him away from the castle, and hopefully getting him killed in the process. And this is where the game starts proper, with Ivan asking his grandmother for advice and discovering only one person who could aid him in the completion of these tasks. The powerful Witch Baba Yaga herself.
Now, one of the first things you'll notice about Yaga is it's presentation. The game plays out in a Diablo-esque style with the action being viewed from a top-down perspective. All the stories, enemies and themes are all taken from Eastern European folklore, and I found this to be a welcome addition. I'm very familiar with fantasy settings but had little to no knowledge of Slavic fairytales and found the characters and world an interesting one to experience. All of the old witches, the grubby kids, downtrodden peasant farmers, as well as the dangerous animals and hideous monsters, all look great, ooze character and have a hand drawn style that could have been ripped straight from a collection of Grimm's fairy tales. In keeping with this fairytale theme, all of the main dialogue is told through poem, with the rhyming couplets giving the story a sing song style that feels like a tale from some ancient oral tradition. I found these rather amusing and interesting to listen to, and think they helped with world building, but if that doesn't sound like your thing, don't worry. It's only really used during main story scenes and doesn't outstay it's welcome. You also get a lot of choices to make during these story scenes, or in any conversation really, and these decisions change not only the story but also how difficult Ivan may find his journey. Anyone who has played any recent RPGs will be familiar with this system, it's based on personality traits and will change both Ivan and the story as you play through the game. Choosing to be righteous will cause Ivan to do the right thing morally, and he'll act as a traditional hero. Choosing the greedy options will cause him to act selfishly, only acting if it's in his interest or for a reward. There are 4 types in all, Righteous, greedy, angry or just plain stupid and acting a particular way aligns you with that personality. Deciding to choose an option you're not aligned with will incur a penalty though, as it increases your bad luck.
While searching the village hub, or during missions themselves, you'll regularly come across NPCs and your personality choices will affect the outcome of these conversations too. Playing through these different options is encouraged with the different personalities and outcomes not only increasing the replayability vastly, but also making it feel like you're affecting both the world and it's story.
Now that we've got those parts out of the way, I'm sure you're wondering about the actual minute to minute gameplay cycle. You'll begin your quest in the village, and will return here as you complete each mission. It acts as a hub and functions as you'd imagine. You can head to your anvil and craft new hammers and secondary weapons, buy and sell items at the store and visit the church for blessings. There's also villagers to talk to, many of whom have quests they'd like you to complete for them. These can range from the simple "track down my missing brother" to more wacky stuff like tracking down a zombies missing coffin lid or investigating the slaughter and abduction of a farmer’s prized herd of cows. Once you're done in the village, you can leave through the town gate and will be asked to select one of your available quests to complete. Before you actually arrive in the area though, you'll be asked to make one of many decisions the game uses to mix things up, with your choice having an effect on that particular quest. Will you choose to eat before beginning? Because an empty stomach will mean you have less stamina. Eating your fill on the other hand will make Ivan sluggish and cause him to swing his hammer slower than usual. When do you decide to start your quest? Enemies will be weaker at sundown, but getting an early start will increase your stamina. These decisions can have a positive or negative effect, making the quest easier or more difficult and you'll be asked one question before every mission, with their effects lasting until you're done with the objective. Regardless of the question, or the decision you make, your next step is starting the quest and Ivan will find himself in the randomly generated area created for it. The level layouts aren't the most interesting I've experienced, with them mostly consisting of winding corridors that occasionally spilt off into forks and connect together the various clearings dotted around the map. As you explore the area, looking for whatever macguffin is required at that particular time, you'll regularly find yourself unable to continue as a number of enemies spawn in and will block your way until destroyed. These baddies come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from the usual bandits and raiders but also including wolves, bears, a Slavic type of troll and a good number of other fairytale monsters too, all of which look great when rendered in the games signature style.
The actual combat feels decent, Ivan can swing his hammer (his signature weapon), or throw it Thor style, with the resulting blows feeling meaty and like they have weight behind them. Our blacksmith friend can also roll to avoid damage, and this is executed very well, making dodging strikes and avoiding projectiles feel almost effortless. Unfortunately though, it doesn't really evolve from here, and the same tactics you use for the first enemies will be enough to carry you through most of the game. You do get new secondary weapons as you advance, all of which bolt onto the stump of Ivan's missing hand. These include things like a cartwheel, which functions as a shield, a hookshot style pitchfork and chain, shovels that allow you to hide underground and scythes that can cut down spiky vines. None of these are really game changing or innovative however and, apart from the chainfork, I found myself using them very rarely. It also doesn't help that you can only have one equipped at a time, even though there are unused buttons on the controller, and have to go into your inventory to change them. This screws up the flow of combat, and usually isn't needed anyways as the same old tactics work nearly every time. Basically the combat does its job, and is entertaining enough for what it is, but is really nothing to write home about.
After defeating the enemies that block your progress, you'll eventually come across a point of interest, with each area containing a few of these to discover and each will contain some sort of choice to make or an NPC with a quest. Quests like finding food for a massive chicken, discovering the identity of a goat that claims to be a cursed human, or even more simple ones like burying the bodies of some dead villagers all have different decisions and options to consider. Just like the villagers side-quests, each of these are worth a look, simply for the wacky, strange and interesting stories they contain.
Up until now, most of what I've described has been, more or less, standard fare for the genre but Yaga does include one mechanic that is fairly unique. The bad luck meter. Remember how Ivan is considered the unluckiest man in the kingdom? Well that's something you'll be dealing with for the whole game and, while it makes you consider your choices carefully, it can also be rather annoying and I found myself dreading it's effects almost constantly. Basically it works like this, whenever Ivan has something rather helpful happen, his bad luck bar will fill a little. Use an item to restore your health? The bar increases a little. In fact, use any of your consumables at all? The bar rises. Make a dialogue choice that doesn't match your personality? Yip, you guessed it, the bar will rise. In all these cases, the bar only rises a little and it's a one off increase that does make using items, and choosing certain dialogue choices, something to think about a little more carefully. Where it's much more punishing however, is when blessings get involved. Blessings are basically a passive buff and can have various effects including things like deadlier hits, cash appearing when you take damage or healing bread falling from the sky when you're in need, amongst others. However, unlike the one off increase of using consumables, or choosing an unaligned dialogue choice, a blessing causes the bar to gradually increase until it's completely filled. Which is when the punishment comes in. A full bar will cause the cannibalistic witch Likho, the one who took Ivan's hand, to make an appearance and she'll do something to make life more difficult for you. This might be something simple like stealing all the cash you've collected, or destroying your items, or it might be something worse, like breaking one of the powerful weapons you've crafted. I first discovered this on an early playthrough and it almost ruined the game for me. I had just returned from a quest and used the ores and enhancements I'd collected to craft a powerful hammer to help in the next mission. Before I did that though, I made the mistake of spending the last of my cash on a damage boosting blessing too. As I headed round the village and spoke to each villager, going through their dialogue and accepting any side-quests, my bad luck bar was slowly increasing. I didn't even get to start the next quest before Likho made her appearance and destroyed my newly crafted hammer. I didn't even get the chance to use it before both the weapon, and the resources used to make it, were lost completely. I quickly found myself avoiding the blessings from them on but, as they're sometimes given as quest rewards, so that can be rather difficult to do. Luckily the blessings effect, and therefore its gradual increase of the bad luck bar, ends when Likhos appears. However the crippling loss of resources is something I really disliked. It felt like being punished for getting stronger or using something that benefited my playthrough, and wish the increase had been less harsh. As it stands however, it's an annoying mechanic and although it makes you consider your choices, it also gets a little infuriating.
So, to summarize, I found Yaga to be an interesting game but one that ultimately didn't quite grab me the way I'd hoped. It's beautifully presented, its artstyle and characters are gorgeous and its soundtrack is head-bobbingly excellent. Combat feels satisfying, your hammer strikes feel both meaty and hard hitting but it doesn't really evolve or open up as you progress. New secondary weapons don't seem particularly useful in combat, with only the chainfork feeling effective or helpful. The collection of tool enhancements provide a lot of options in creating new weapons but losing these powerful creations is far too easy because of the bad luck system. Having to manage this bad luck bar became a real chore, and when blessings are factored in, it actually became rather infuriating. An interesting setting, with a lovely artstyle, it's excellent music and poem story telling are let down by repetitive and uninspired combat and a punishing bad luck system that quickly gets annoying. One to think about, especially when replayability is considered, but one that also falls short of its potential.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purposes of the review.
Final Score: 6.5/10
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