Developed by Ackk Studios
Published by Ysbryd Games
Reviewed on Switch (also available on PlayStation 4 and PC)
After several years of delays, Ackk Studio’s sophomore title has finally made its anticipated debut. The aptly title YIIK: A Postmodern RPG is a trippy homage to classic JRPGs. YIIK takes place during the late 90s and aims to replicate the aesthetics and gameplay mechanics from JRPGs of that era. The game’s most obvious inspiration is Earthbound, but its design is also influenced by many other games and the magical realism found in Haruki Murakami novels. The developers have also been inspired by the bizarre story of Elisa Lam, a Canadian student who went missing and was found deceased under mysterious circumstances in a Los Angeles hotel. Unsettling CC footage of Lam prior to her disappearance has lead some to speculate her disappearance was anything but ordinary. The latter statement aptly describes playing YIIK.
The game’s protagonist Alex is an unemployed liberal arts graduate who just moved back home. On his first day home he follows a cat into an abandoned factory where he meets an unusual girl named Semi Pak. Not long after she gets abducted by mysterious entities known as Soul Survivors. What exactly are Soul Survivors and why they exist becomes a central mystery on top of finding Semi. Her disappearance is also somehow recorded and uploaded to an online forum, leading Alex to others who have encountered supernatural events.
YIIK’s graphics are reminiscent of low poly, cel shaded games like Mega Man Legends. Characters have limited expressions and movement intentionally restricted to a small number of animation frames. This makes the game feel a little choppy. The character designs are mostly grounded in reality, with Alex and his party consisting of adolescents and young adults. In contrast, the dungeons are often psychedelic trips filled with imaginative designs and striking colors. These areas are a delight to behold, compelling players to see press forward. The variety of bizarre enemies is impressive and very reminiscent of Earthbound. The Switch version has some performance issues, notably long load times prior to the start of battles.
YIIK is filled with classic JRPG elements like talking to NPCs in town, a traversable overworld world map, and dungeons filled with puzzles. Enemies are visible in dungeons but there are random enemy encounters while on the overworld map. The dungeon’s Wild Arms inspired puzzles can be a bit esoteric but not mind bending; puzzles are solved with weird abilities like using a cat to trigger switches or having Alex do a hair flip to clear out obstructive vegetation. The initial dungeons are brisk affairs, but towards the end they wear out their welcome by splitting your party up in arbitrary ways. The inventory system is also a mess where everything is placed in one long, scrolling list with no sorting options. The Mind Dungeon is YIIK’s unique, but ultimately unintuitive leveling up system. You manually assign Alex’s stats by entering doors in metaphysical representation of his mind; it’s a novel concept, but becomes tedious after the initial trip.
The game’s standard turned based combat benefits from the fast forward button since a standard battle can go on for several minutes. This is due to characters having Paper Mario inspired mini games for attacks, specials, defense, and even running away. For example, Alex fights with vinyl records, so players have to tap colored sections of a spinning vinyl to land attacks. The timing can be a bit tricky to land for certain rhythm based attacks, but players will unlock an ability to slow down time. These mini games become repetitive after several hours, especially since missing a prompt might result in characters missing their attacks altogether. Even more annoying is that later enemies have more HP, further extending standard battles.
The soundtrack is the strongest aspect of the game with diverse contributions from a team of notable composers such as Toby Fox (Undertale), Michael Kelly (VA-11 HALL-A), and Hiroki Kikuta (Secret of Mana). The soundtrack accentuates each scene, ranging from off kilter synths to beautiful acoustic pieces. There’s an excellent variety of battle music scored primarily by one of the game’s developers, Andrew Allanson. The aforementioned Mind Dungeon features one of the catchiest tracks in the game. The game features an impressive amount of well delivered voice acting, although a good majority of it will be from Alex. The latter is a make it or break it point for players on the fence about this game.
The most controversial aspect of the game is the writing. YIIK’s plot touches on some heavy topics like depression and suicide, tying them into the game’s mysteries. Some of the game’s attempts at humor and social commentary falls flat. The game is a little unclear on what the characters consider “normal” (Alex’s stuffed panda that talks and aids him in combat) and “supernatural” (Semi’s disappearance). The abundance of flavor text slows the game down. The dialogue tends to a bit long winded and occasionally makes the mistake of telling rather than showing.
It’s understandable due to the game’s limited production value, but reading through Alex’s frequent inner monologues can be a chore and even off putting. As result Alex is an initially an unlikeable, self-centered protagonist. His diverse party members are more appealing, each having distinct, relatable traits that make them stand out from usual JRPG character archetypes. Vella, a spunky girl who initially comes off as a Mary Sue type character, becomes one of the more compelling characters in the game. YIIK is a 25-30 hour experience with outcomes that vary depending on the player’s choices towards the end.
For better or for worse, YIIK is unlike any other RPG out there. It blends conventional JRPG tropes in unconventional settings. The strong audio-visual presentation is hampered by tedious gameplay mechanics and occasionally unappealing writing. The central mystery is unique, but having to experience it alongside Alex, despite his inevitable character growth, might not appeal to many. The game is surreal, bizarre, and oddly compelling due to the unpredictable nature of it all. It’s definitely not for everyone and the writing will be a point of contention for many, but overall YIIK is a trip worth experiencing at least once.