I told YIIK: A Postmodern RPG (pronounced like Y2K) to talk to the hand pretty early on. It was when Alex — the game’s detached, 20-something protagonist— remarked for maybe the third time that a woman’s looks were insufficient for a certain job or task.
I loathe Alex. He’s the dirt worst. He’s probably the worst video game protagonist I’ve been asked to like since Grand Theft Auto V pushed three real sorry ding-dongs into my lap. While Alex is offered the shallowest of arcs over the game’s 20-ish hours, I never warmed to him. His development was never thorough nor believable enough for me.
In this Western-produced, Japanese-style role-playing game, you want to like the characters you spend so much time with. I warmed to some early on, because they were outwardly hostile toward Alex. Although, with time, the characters settled into a familiar pattern.
There’s a voice cast at work here doing plenty to serve a head-scratcher of a script. Alex does the thing that Squall did in Final Fantasy VIII — where he offers an aside in the middle of snappy dialogue. It worked all right in Balamb Garden, but a fully-voiced version in YIIK is awkward.
A particularly egregious example occurs early on. It’s during the first meeting between Alex and central figure, Sammy. Sammy, lost in a void she doesn’t understand, is throwing hints about the trouble she’s in. Alex, ideally an active listener, stops to observe aspects of her appearance. Not only did it strike me as tonally inappropriate, it was wildly jarring. It’s a novelist’s mechanic applied clumsily to voiced dialogue without anything to pave the way or lampshade the soliloquies.
YIIK goes on to tell a story about about impending new Willenium doom. This theme (and all the others) are wrapped in a late-90s candy shell. There are spooky forums and struggling record shops and landlines that admittedly had me going “oh hey I remember that!”
I was literally a 90s kid remembering.
Some of this worked, but if the subtitle of the game (A Postmodern RPG) sets your teeth on edge, you won’t be surprised to learn that the game name drops references like a chopped and screwed Big Bang Theory episode. I had this problem with Guacamelee!, too, where the world building did more winking and nodding than actual creative work. Guacamelee! is at least a lot more fun to play.
A good turn-based battle system can make me forget weak writing and weaker characters. Unfortunately, YIIK does not have a good turn-based battle system. In the tradition of the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario series — or more recently Undertale — each attack and defense involves a minigame. These are simple enough, but party member Michael’s camera attack, for instance, is mighty unforgiving, with timing and random button press mechanics. You can defend against enemy attacks via a simpler timing game. Or you can dodge attacks altogether if you’re patient and exact.
In and of themselves, these mechanics are fine. How they work in service of dealing damage to enemies, however, is confounding. Alex’s turntable attack is a little tough to time. Sure, that’s fine! But if you miss the presses you miss the attack completely. Even worse, I’ve strung together six-hit combos that never amplified the damage you deal to even low-level enemies. You just have to mash through it every time.
Possibly the biggest transgression against players, however, is the absolute lack of character progression in the early goings. It seems like you will never level up and be stuck using the same junk attacks forever. Eventually, YIIK reveals a leveling mechanic that’s separate from the normal battles, but for hours at the start I assumed the game was broken.
I was literally in the middle of an email to the developer’s PR firm about these “broken” mechanics when I decided to give the game one more shot. I eventually found that, yes, this is a feature, not a bug. The game simply doesn’t tell you enough, which is difficult when so many things require deep precision.
The out-of-combat puzzles run hot and cold, too. You get “tools” that take the form of a giant stuffed panda or a house cat named Dali. The panda bridges small gaps and triggers pressure plates, but is also a physics object in the world. Using these tools in the field can be charming, but solutions to environmental puzzles start a little too complicated and never get any easier.
Playing on my Switch, I encountered technical hiccups that impacted the timing of battle minigames. Worse still are the loading times. Map-to-map loading provided the longest delays, but going into and out of battle served a lengthy load screen every time. When battles take too long anyway, a side effect of the aforementioned issues combined with generally low-stat character development, these load screens feel like wading through a pool of Nickelodeon Gak.
YIIK‘s fundamentals simply don’t rise to the occasion in the realm of JRPGs. You could be playing so, so many better things on all of its associated platforms.
It’s really a shame, too, because YIIK has a few things going for it. Its visual style is colorful and grants each character plenty of low-poly expression that charmed me even when the writing didn’t. I loved the goofy walk cycles of characters and the disjointed nature of animations throughout the game. All the visuals are in service to an interesting idea wrapped in a mediocre video game.
Some of the cutscene direction is really solid, too. The camera movement is evocative and the visual introductions to some of the narrative’s more disturbing elements are genuinely jarring.
And the music is alphanumeric! Undertale’s Toby Fox produced a track for the game. The rest of the soundtrack is also on par with the kind of quality you’d expect from composers of his caliber. There’s quite a range of styles, too, with some emotional vocal butt rock showing up minutes after a neon jazz overture.
For all of its surface flash, though, YIIK: A Postmodern RPG can’t get the basics of JRPGs right. It might keep you busy for hours, but with clunky writing, unforgiving technical issues, and an absolutely exhausting protagonist, the game makes it an easy decision to be outtie 5000.