Smartphones weren’t a thing yet, the internet was a wild tangle of message boards with all kinds of opinions and conspiracy theories. Talking to your friends face to face daily was still a thing and the most popular movie, The Matrix challenged our view of the reality around us. Oh yeah, and we all thought we were going to die when the clock rolled over to 2000, and computers programmed with just two digits for years would think it was 1900 and plunge us into darkness and chaos.
It was also 5 years after the release of a remarkably quirky game called Earthbound in the United States. Although it featured fairly standard JRPG systems like XP , combat systems, and party members, Earthbound was unique at the time for being set in a “normal” suburb, and starring a little kid with a cute hat who battled crazy aliens and other bizarre characters.
YIIK: A Postmodern RPG is definitely a love letter to the cult classic, Earthbound. But is it strong enough to stand on its own?
This and a few other modern references did draw me out of the experience of being in 1999.
If you haven’t guessed by the title, YIIK is set in 1999, starring a young liberal arts major named Alex who has returned to his home town. Alex receives a grocery list from his mom and gets sidetracked chasing a cat into a strange abandoned building.
There he meets a mysterious woman named Sammy Pak, but before Alex can get to know her too well he witnesses her being ripped away to another dimension by supernatural beings. These beings are later explained to be Soul Survivors, entities who left their physical bodies behind due to depression or trauma, and wander in the Soul Space, sometimes crossing over into other worlds and even sometimes possessing the empty body of someone with the same soul. It’s honestly a bit confusing and only really explained once, but it gives the game a reason for the game to have glowing enemies that can’t be harmed by normal methods making normal suburbia feel like The Twilight Zone.
Alex looks for clues to find and rescue Sammy, and collects a group of fellow adventurers along the way. One character in particular, Vella has quite an interesting backstory, in fact I frankly wish she was the main character. Let’s talk about that.
My biggest problem with the game is Alex. Frankly he’s annoying. I guess that makes him memorable, but I have never been happier a game had a skip dialogue button than when Alex would go into a long-winded exposition about what he just saw. He also is prone to quick anger, and treats his friends like crap early in the game. There is a character arc, and he does make some redeeming choices, but the bearded man-boy who wouldn’t help out his mom around the house and obsessed over a girl he just met really grated on me.
This next gripe is a personal taste choice. I’m not going to champion political correctness here, but these things bothered ME, and it might bother some of you, and I want you to make an informed decision with your gaming time. There is some cringe-inducing dialog in the game that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1999 sadly. For example, one character refers to an NPC as “an attractive female”. Just…no. There’s a Monica Lewinsky joke. These type of comments are especially frequent on the fake message board in the game, things like saying all Asians look the same, or using a derogatory term for those suffering mental development issues. Although it accurately reflects the dialogue on the web, I could have done without it.
Although the insensitive non-PC language might offend the delicate sensibilities of yours truly, the game’s supernatural/occult mystery blog, ONISM1999 does accomplish two important things. First, it is the community space that draws the adventurers together. Alex finds and enlists his party members from ONISM1999. It also sets the tone of the web that was, where truly bizarre mysteries were shared and believed. Although this continues to this day, back in the wild west of the web, blurry videos and urban legends were shared and speculated on as if fact. In fact, the entire main conflict of the story centers on a creepy real-life true urban legend.
The abduction of Sammy in YIIK bears striking similarities to the tragic death of Elisa Lam. Her final moments in elevator footage have been the subject of online speculation.
Let’s talk about what I unreservedly loved about the game. YIIK uses a very bright color palette, and each dungeon and town looked unique. The game has a very bright surreal look that fits its fantastic themes well. There are several themed towns like a mountain town and a beach town, and the flat overworld between them is charming in an old school JRPG fashion. I especially appreciate that there aren’t a ton of random monster encounters, and that leveling up happens naturally thanks to generous XP drops and a consistent 100 XP level jump.
Leveling up is handled in an appropriately metaphysical fashion, where you literally enter into Alex’s head in “The Mind Dungeon” and go down floors that represent experience levels. Every level has several doors, which when entered give boost to stats like luck or defense, or unlock a new combat skill. There is a fair amount of customization possible since different doors have different point values. I appreciated that the Mind Dungeon made levelling up a gameplay experience instead of just pointing and clicking through menus.
I have mixed feeling about the combat in YIIK. Each character has a special “weapon” like Alex, who wields a record player. Attacks are not successful unless timed button presses are achieved, and defense similarly relies on one of three timing based mini-games. This makes the game challenging for someone like me with poor rhythm skills (seriously, I’d love to finish Elite Beat Agent), but fortunately, there is a boost you can activate that slows time for people like me. The bar for this power usually fills up slowly, but if you go into a settings menu, you can make it always full. The minigames are mostly fun, especially for running away. Your character has to dodge obstacles while running off screen away from a monster in a short side-scrolling sequence. Enemies are a highpoint of combat thanks to humor and nostalgia. There are giant piles of poo, traffic signs, and pop cultural references like adolescent samurai turtles (no, NOT teenage mutant ninja, of course not).
My main issue with combat is that each battle lasts almost 10 minutes. Because of a wide variety of minigame animations, and a relatively low amount of damage scored by basic attacks, battles seem to drag on forever. Thankfully, there aren’t an excessive amount of random encounters, which helps mitigate this concern a lot. The other issue I experienced in combat was frustration with the defense mechanic. There are several different types of minigames that pop up when you’re trying to defend, and one in particular that involved tapping within three separate bars I could never get. Part of the problem seems to be that the hitbox area is only several pixels thick on handheld for Switch, and it is incredibly precise. Several times it looked like I was on the edge of the red safety area, and I still took the big hit.
I did enjoy the dungeons of YIIK. The dungeons have many logic puzzles involving switches, made more interesting by the tools you can use to trigger them. You can use a guitar and amp like a bomb and blow up rocks, send a cat to grab stuff for you or flip a switch, drop a giant panda to activate a switch or cross a gap, and even whip your hair to clear a path. The cat and the panda were both used to solve puzzles in ways I didn’t think of at first, and I liked the level of challenge in the dungeons.
YIIK’s soundtrack is a very strong feature of the game. Snappy, catchy, quirky and sometimes otherworldly tracks perfectly capture and enhance the mood of the game’s metaphysical themes. My favorite track has to be The Mind Dungeon Theme, but the entire soundtrack featuring Andrew Allanson(Two Brothers), Calum Bowen(Lovely Planet), Toby Fox(Undertale), Hiroki Kikuta(Secret of Mana), and many more is truly excellent.
YIIK shoots for the moon. Whether it’s combat, dungeon puzzles, or RPG mechanics, YIIK takes the familiar and remixes it with bright bold strokes. Interesting side characters, wonderful music, and fun combat minigames almost balance the shortcomings of battle pacing and the main character’s dialog. Just a little tweaking of the pace of combat, and frankly a lot of editing of dialogue, and this could have been a modern classic like Earthbound. I enjoyed my time with YIIK, and if you are seeking a quirky, nostalgic Western remix of the classic JRPG, you should check out YIIK: A Postmodern RPG.
A copy of YIIK: A Postmodern RPG for Nintendo Switch was provided by the publisher Ysbryd Games for the purpose of this review.
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