If you're an adult, you most likely remember the 1990's and a lot of the stuff that happened. Bill Clinton having an affair with Monica Lewinski. The Gulf War, or Operation Desert Storm, depending on which one sounds better to you. The first steps of the modern Internet. One of those events, which got a lot of talk at the year's end, was concerns over our computers messing up because of how we wrote the dates in their code. In YIIK: A Postmodern RPG, screwed up computers are the least of the world's problems.
YIIK: A Postmodern RPG is available on PC (via Steam or itch.io,) PlayStation 4, or the Nintendo Switch. A 2016 demo, titled 'YIIK: Episode Prime – The MixTape Phantom and the Haunting of the Southern Cave' can be found on itch.io. It covers some of the areas in the full game and is primarily centered around a side quest in the full game.
Content warning: Suicide and bullying.
On April 4, 1999, a twentysomething by the name of Alex Eggleston arrives back home to Frankton after graduating college with a Liberal Arts degree. On the way to buy groceries, a cat steals his grocery list and Alex follows it to an abandoned factory, where he meets a strange woman named Sammy Pack. When he witnesses her getting kidnapped by strange, interdimensional entities, Alex becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her and trying to rescue her.
If you've followed the game's development over the past several years, you likely know that the game's inciting incident (Sammy's kidnapping) is based off of a real-life death. In 2013, a woman known as Elisa Lam (or Lam Ho Yi) was found dead, having drowned in a water tank on top of the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. The last recorded footage of her featured her in an elevator where she exhibited strange behavior, including exiting and re-entering the elevator, hiding in it, and talking and gesturing in the hallway outside. I mention this as a caveat to the game's story, as I know there are people out there who consider referencing such an incident in the game (including making Sammy the same ethnicity as Elisa) insensitive.
As for the game's other party members, we have:
- Michael K.: A recent high school graduate and co-creator of ONISM1999, a conspiracy theory / paranormal message board. He fights enemies with his camera.
- Vella Wilde: A musical prodigy with strange powers. When she's not working at the Frankton arcade, she battles foes with her Keytar.
- Rory Mancer: A loner from the Internet who lives in Windtown. He hates violence and doesn't attack enemies. Instead, he can block attacks meant for other party members.
- Claudio Unkrich: One of the game's two African American party members. He's an avid otaku and runs a record store in Flagtown. He battles enemies with a combination of wooden sword and sweet hackey sack skills.
- Chondra Unkrich: Claudio's brother. She helps him run the Flagtown record store and fights with a hula hoop.
If I had to choose one aspect of YIIK: A Postmodern RPG to criticize, it would easily be the writing. The game's writing is definitely a hit-or-miss thing. One one hand, you got some legitimately good moments, like Claudio going into a big filibuster over a magical girl anime. On the other hand, there are some notable problems with it. The biggest issue with the writing has to do with the guy we're required to follow around throughout the whole game: Alex.
Our man Alex
Have you ever heard of the stereotype of the college graduate who took a single course in philosophy and now considers themselves the smartest person in existence? Who believes they have the answers to all of life's big questions? Alex fits that bill pretty well. He can also be a real jerk.
One of the best examples of this comes at the end of Chapter II. Rory asks Alex, Vella, and Michael to check out something in the Windtown sewers involving his supposedly missing sister. After fighting their way through sentient poop, obligatory Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knockoffs, and an inexplicable Golden Alpaca boss, they get out of the sewers. Rory, who revealed that his 12-year-old sister committed suicide because she was bullied at school, starts to talk about her being gone for good. Alex interjects:
It's hard to write a character that strikes the balance of being a jerk and someone players will want to follow, and Alex is not one of those characters.
As part of a narrative twist I have yet to encounter (I'm about six hours into the 30-hour story,) Alex frequently gets into narrative bits (marked via blue text and Alex looking straight at the player) where he speak directly to the player and becomes our narrator. There are so many points in the game where his narrative monologues could be cut, and the monologues give him a chance to show off how pretentious he can be.
Another good tip about writing is that if you don't feel comfortable having your writing engage in social commentary, don't. YIIK makes several jokes/references in the game that try to joke about or touch upon race and stereotypes/tropes, but they always feel unfortunate and uncomfortable. When Sammy jokes that she trusts Alex because she has a thing for gingers, he makes a "lame joke" which basically equates "ginger" for the n-word, complete with that being "our word." Later, on a bus ride to Windtown, Alex gets into an awkward bit with Vella when he assumes she's foreign because she checked some Korean newspapers for info on Sammy (she got the newspapers from her boss, who is Korean.)
Most of the awkward social commentary comes from the brother-sister pair of Claudio and Chondra. At one point, Claudio jokes about how it'd be a racist trope if he was the only party member who could pick locks (he is.) Meanwhile, Chondra is pretty vocal about these sorts of issues. She mentions the second brother in their family, who went missing years ago, and how no one cared because it was a black kid. Unlike Sammy or Rory's sister, the missing Unkrich sibling isn't plot-relevant and quickly forgotten about. She also asks Alex if his quest to save Sammy is a white savior mission since he's a white guy chasing after an Asian woman he barely knew. Pointing out tropes like these don't make things better. In fact, the fact that the game draws attention to them and doesn't deconstruct them makes them more awkward.
Out of all the ways the gameplay could be described, I'd liken it to the Paper Mario games. More specifically, the iterations on the Nintendo 64 and GameCube. You move around dungeons and towns, chat to people, and occasionally use various tools to clear obstacles, such as using Panda, Alex's best (imaginary) friend, to cross gaps. It works, and there aren't many bugs to report on this part. Just a few, like the entrance ladder inside Windtown's sewer bringing you on top of the background wall instead of leaving the sewer. Or how Tab, for some inexplicable reason, causes text boxes and menus to become invisible. The first few times I accidentally caused this, I thought it was an actual bug, and it made saving the game or getting through Panda's tutorial on Tools much more frustrating. Nothing like having a snarky giant panda repeat his tutorial a few times because you can't see the "would you like me to repeat that?" confirmation. Instead, it turned out to be an inexplicable design decision.
There is one big thing I'll complain about gameplay-wise, though. The game tends to not explain certain things enough. I went through six hours of gameplay without realizing (via an FAQ on the game's Steam Discussions) that you can press I to sort your inventory, which normally doesn't have any kind of sorting. Some other useful tips:
- Banishing Entities via Vella's Banish skill helps Alex gain more stat points when leveling up.
- You can find all of the game's side quests via the ONISM1999 board. If you read a topic and it has a flame next to it when you back out, it represents a side quest you can perform.
- The luck stat just affects crit chance.
It'd probably be more useful to have more legitimate tips on loading screens instead of jokey ones like "Consider getting your micronutrients tested to ensure you're getting all your vitamins." Thanks, game. I'm sure that'll help me save the world or whatever I need to do.
As for combat, it also works similarly to Paper Mario, albeit with a more traditional four party members plus reserves setup instead of Mario and a partner. Your party members attack, defend, and use skills to fight off a bizarre variety of enemies. There are also mini-games for defending against enemy attacks, using skills, and attacking, with each party member (except poor Rory) having a unique mini-game for basic attacks. With Alex, for instance, you'll be timing button presses to colored sections on a LP record as it spins. Claudio, meanwhile, has players holding down a button and releasing it at the right time, and the attack hits all enemies if you time it perfectly. Some of these are definitely trickier than others. I personally found Alex's the toughest, which is a bit of a problem given that he's the character who'll always be in the party.
This is one of those games where certain party members are much more useful compared to other ones. Vella is a personal favorite of mine, boasting an easy mini-game for her basic attack, strong attacks, and the game's first healing move (not counting Sammy's brief time with you in the first dungeon.) On the other end of the scale, you've got Rory. Instead of being able to attack, he can choose a party member to protect, taking a single instance of damage for them. This means in a full party, each enemy attack (assuming it targets only one party member) has a chance of hitting someone else. Which means they could easily be wrecking another party member while Rory defends a different one. His skills are pretty lame, as well. He can swap someone's HP/PP (a highly situational heal,) sacrifice himself to revive someone else (you get plenty of smelling salts for revives,) or try to reduce enemy luck (which just affects crit chance) or make them flee (given how instant kills in games tend to deny you experience, I'm leery about this skill.) Once I had more than four party members in my group, I put Rory in reserve and never looked back.
Overall, combat works decently, but I have a few complaints. First, there seems to be a delay when it comes to pressing buttons in some of the combat mini-games. It seems most noticeable when trying to dodge attacks. Second, battles tend to take a good while to complete. Even normal random encounters (or dungeon encounters that disappear permanently when killed) can take a couple of minutes when you account for the mini-games, animations, and bits of text. I think a big part of this is the mini-games. I remember Claudio's Bushido ability can take up to 20 seconds, assuming you don't end it early by messing up an input. An experimental branch I tried during the review fixed the problem a bit by speeding up the text, but it makes it too fast, so I can't read certain messages, like "enemy has died" ones or ones telling what I got for winning a fight.
As for getting stronger, that's also something worth mentioning. Going back to my Paper Mario reference one more time, you always need 100 experience to gain a level. Actually gaining that level is the tricky part. You see, you don't start the game with the ability to level up. A bit into Chapter II, you gain the ability to enter the Mind Dungeon. Go to any phone save point, choose to enter the Mind Dungeon, and…
In the door to the north-east, you can enter a series of hallways stacked on top of each other where you can enter rooms to choose what stats to boost for each level. You then talk to the crow at the end of the floor to spend 100 experience and have Alex gain a level. Meanwhile, the other party members gain levels automatically as you go deeper into the Mind Dungeon or by speaking to the blue robot in the picture above to try and have the other party members level up once. Unlike Alex, the other party members get their points automatically distributed, which is a bit sad when you see Rory getting strength points. I'd personally turn him into an impenetrable wall of defense and HP with the attack power of wet spaghetti. The Mind Dungeon is cool at first, but it can get obnoxious when the novelty wears off.
Graphics and audio
The graphics and music of YIIK: A Postmodern RPG are definitely the game's strong suit. The game's world has a very sharp art style that makes it stand out along with a wide variety of environments, both natural and surreal. The game's usage of fixed camera angles, while sometimes a bit annoying, really help capture the scale of certain areas, like the low-income town of Windtown. The design of the characters looks like something out of a late 90's animated show. There's also some 16-bit art that looked nice to me.
As for music, there are a wide variety of songs (some made by Toby Fox of Undertale fame) from different genres. The various battle themes, chosen randomly for each battle, all manage to be pretty catchy and unique. There're also a few vocal tracks in the game for certain pivotal moments. The one I've heard during my time playing is a grungy, wail-singing song when Alex and Michael face off against their first Entity. They can't all be winners, I suppose.
While I don't consider YIIK: A Postmodern RPG a terrible game, I do find it somewhat disappointing. Seeing an ambitious five-year project end with a good deal of untapped potential and things that could be fixed/improved is a frustrating sight. What could have been a crazy story about twentysomethings facing the end of the world in the late '90s is hampered by hit-or-miss writing and awkward gameplay mechanics. YIIK: A Postmodern RPG is an okay game, but it could have been a lot more.
|+ Strong visual desgin||– Hard-to-like protagonist|
|+ Varied and unique soundtrack||– Hit-or-miss writing|
|+ Servicable gameplay/combat mechanics||– Battles can drag on|