There was a strange golden age for JRPGs in the ‘90s. Titles like Final Fantasy, Wild Arms and Earthbound warped the minds of my generation into optimistic weirdos with strong opinions on turn-based combat. Now that we’re all grown up, the time has come to put our twist on old classics and inject a piece of ourselves into the media we love. YIIK is an ode to that glorious decade where Cheez TV reigned, but it’s not 1998 anymore. While the game presents a lovingly crafted aesthetic with some nifty ideas, YIIK fails to capture that nostalgic charm it’s so clearly inspired by.
At its core, YIIK is an old-school JRPG made by and for old-school JRPG fans. The game wears its influences on its sleeve, and I don’t think I could list all the references it makes in one review. The typical tropes of JRPGs, like having mountains of text to read through or stereotypes who aren’t so stereotypical, play out in ways that are terribly familiar. Combat is turn-based but puts its swing on things, and even the aesthetic of the game channels old pixel art without resorting to a 2D engine. Those looking for a classic experience will find it here, but the nostalgia trip may not be enough to overlook that it’s not a particularly compelling game.
One of the core selling points of YIIK is its mini-game infused take on turn-based combat. Rather than solely interacting with menus, the game has you play mini-games for almost every action you take. If you attack with Alex, you can do more damage by hitting A on the coloured sections of a spinning vinyl record, but Michael’s attack has you time button presses on a camera reel. Skills follow this same pattern, and each character’s personality comes through in the games you play. It’s a novel idea for a format older than myself, but after playing the same mini-games for 10 hours, I’m sick of them.
While a great idea on paper, the combat was too simplistic to be engaging for me. In games like Persona, Final Fantasy or Pokémon, turn-based combat isn’t just a matter of who can do more damage with simple attacks. There are systems like elements, placements of characters, limits, all kinds of techniques that make you think, “But should I do X?” both in and out of combat. YIIK’s combat doesn’t have anything beyond inflicting, blocking or dodging damage, and even though grinding is kept to a minimum, the shallow combat is unavoidable. There’s nothing to strategise about, no system to decipher and exploit, so the fights quickly become repetitive and tiresome. Of course, you may still be able to overlook the combat given the strengths in the narrative.
The story is a classic JRPG set up through the lens of postmodernity. Alex Eggleston, a recent BLA graduate from college, returns to his home town of Frankton. After crossing paths with a strange looking cat, he follows it to a warehouse, meets Semi “Sammy” Pak and watches her get kidnapped by inter-dimensional beings. Alex takes it upon himself to find her, and this leads to a whole bunch of storytelling revolving around “loss.” We meet Rory, a recluse dude whose sister committed suicide, Vella, a girl who has lost something of her self, and many other loss-afflicted mid-20-somethings. While it’s a necessity for the game to continue, the fundamental desire to rescue Sammy didn’t hook me, and the rest of the story is very hit or miss.
The story was interesting enough, but the pacing was either way too fast or horrifically stunted. The main reason I didn’t connect with Sammy before her disappearance was due to how quickly everything occurred. It’s not all bad, though, and going around to random hotspots looking for a van while chatting about urban legends and getting flashed was an enjoyable romp. That was fun because nothing dragged on, but any time Alex pretentiously monologued his inner thoughts, I wanted him to get lost. The narrative gets the balance right between bonkers existentialist dread and sentimental moments between characters, but its awkward execution leaves much to be desired. These pacing issues are present in the combat too, but nowhere are they more prevalent than the Mind Dungeon.
YIIK takes an interesting approach to progression and levelling, in the sense that it has one of the worst systems I’ve ever seen. As you fight bad guys and accrue experience points, you can level up Alex and customise his stats in the Mind Dungeon. Each floor has four doors with some numbers above them, corresponding to the gains you’ll get in a chosen stat. Each time you want to level up, you enter the Mind Dungeon, approach one of four doors, pick an attribute to improve, enter the room and repeat for the other three doors. Once all the doors have been entered and locked in, you may then descend to the next floor, gain the stat boosts and repeat for the next level. If you haven’t already gathered, it’s a mind-numbing process.
Levelling up is so tedious and cumbersome that it’ll be enough to turn you off the game entirely. The game never tells you that you’ve gained enough XP to level up again, so you’ll end up hoarding those points like health potions for most of the game. I know I did, so when it came time to level up nine times in a row, I spent pretty close to 20 minutes trying not to rip out my eyeballs. There is a mechanic where you can banish certain enemies into the Mind Dungeon to get better numbers above the doors, but I think I’ve encountered them twice my time playing. It’s almost a dealbreaker, and it’s easily the weakest part of the game, but the UI is what cemented my distaste for the game.
YIIK often feels like it prioritises form over function, and the UI epitomises that mentality. On the face of it (or maybe not, given the above screenshot), it gets the job done pretty well, but it’s an absolute nightmare to use efficiently. Items are not sorted in any way that humans would label “intuitive,” so you’ll have to scroll until you find what you want. Reading combat is fine if the enemy’s attacking you, but good luck knowing how much health the enemy has or how the floating numbers add up to the damage done. The game is just too fixated on staying true to its chosen aesthetic, which admittedly is rad as hell.
The game isn’t fun to play or easy to navigate, but it 100% achieves the look and feel of an old-school JRPG. The voxel art is a beautiful modern take on old graphics without sacrificing contemporary 3D elements. The usage of tools outside combat to unlock areas of the world took me back to Wild Arms, and the surreal dungeon landscapes look too damn wicked to criticise. All of these things are here to draw you in and make you go, “Aw, I remember this thing from years ago”. Unfortunately, the game isn’t that endearing to me.
I’m leaving this point until last because I think it’s the most contentious, but the critical element that’s missing from YIIK is the charm of the ‘90s. The label of ‘A Postmodern RPG’ isn’t wrong, revelling in existentialist monologues and depressing realities in a godless world, and therein lies the problem. The naive optimism of old games isn’t present here, and while it does get more chipper the further into the story you go, it’s hardly a delightful time. The writers wanted to get the feel of an old-school RPG, and I think they almost achieved that, but they can’t capture the childlike wonder that we experienced all those years ago.
Trying to bring the feel of a different era into the modern limelight is quite the task, and YIIK almost pulls it off. While it sports great old-school visuals, it just can’t overcome its other flaws. The shallow combat gets old quickly, the characters aren’t all that endearing, and the pacing doesn’t do the game any favours. You’d be better off playing one of the games that YIIK imitates. Those who want to go back in time may very well find a game they love, but I didn’t.