There’s something special about Eastern European folktales. Most fairytales and mythology that has become so engrained within Western cultures have become somewhat…consumerist. Which isn’t a bad thing, mind you. Lord knows I’ve spent many happy hours of my life singing songs from Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid. It’s certainly the case that if many of these fairy tales retained their original Brother’s Grimm aesthetic they would be far less appropriate for children, at least by today’s standards.
I struggle to see Disney every releasing the Snyder-cut of Cinderella where her evil stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. Yet while I can appreciate these “cleaner” versions that have become so dominant, I must confess that the dark originals are what really get me hot and flustered on a cold day and nothing comes close to presenting whimsy and magic with twisted surrealism quite like the folklore of Eastern Europe. You’ve seen it before, most notably, in The Witcher 3 where it provided the world with a little more magic between the political conflicts. In contrast to that Yaga grounds itself within those classic stories, attempting to tell one of its very own and just succeeds despite some pitfalls along the way.
Going through the narrative of Yaga, you’re dropped into the boots of Ivan, a blacksmith who’s lost an arm, been cursed with egregious bad luck and been given several impossible tasks to complete by the Tsar. Failure to complete the impossible tasks will see Ivan put to death, so he sets out to find the Baba Yaga, a witch who can help him complete his goals. Perhaps where Yaga most succeeds is within the game’s presentation; a bright and colourful world populated by host of colourful characters all jostling for your attention. Every piece of dialogue is lovingly voiced and written with a simple rhyme scheme that I thought would be grating (I’m not one for copious amounts of poetry) only helped make the world all the more charming. There’s a dedication to crafting that very genuine yet darkly magical world of undead warriors and sisters of fate. It’s a fresh setting for a game and one that lends itself to a role-playing game that shifts depending on how you treat the world.
That’s the other large draw of Yaga, the ability to pick a personality type and stick to it. It’s a simple system, letting you decided how to handle conversations through a quick little selection menu. Yaga wants you to role-play, choosing what sort of character Ivan is and then sticking with it. If you stray from what your Ivan would do to take an easier or more lucrative decision, you’ll be punished with bad luck, a meter that fills every time you try to make the game easier for yourself. It sounds like a system that would only provoke ire but in truth I found it to be a really enjoyable means of keeping myself on track. At no point are you blocked from going outside of Ivan’s personality, you can still reap the benefits of different choices, but it always comes at the price of a broken weapon or a lost bag of coins. It’s an interesting system of weighing up what’s worth more: Some bad luck for a few extra kopeks or would you rather not risk that freshly crafted hammer?
Speaking of crafting, Yaga presents players with a mechanic for building all kinds of variations on your trusty smithing hammer. Picking up random items and joining them up into combinations allows for some really creative inventions, especially factoring in the mechanic applies to all of Ivan’s secondary weapons, ranging from a grappling hook to pull yourself closer to enemies to a scythe that can stun even the mightiest of foes. It’s satisfying to build a weapon that you enjoy using and heartbreaking to see it shatter when the bad luck demons come a callin’. That being said, while the crafting system is great for experimenting with different hammer builds, I found that secondary weapons…well, they weren’t that useful. Most encounters could be solved by smashing away with a spikey mallet, but I can’t recall ever being in a combat situation where a shovel ever came in handy, excuse the pun.
Which is a sentiment I could carry over to most of Yaga, unfortunately. Don’t misunderstand me now, it’s a game I certainly had fun playing but it becomes clear fairly quickly that after two hours it’s played its hand and doesn’t really keep the experience interesting. New environments are all traversed the same, combat plays out almost identically no matter what enemies you encounter and aside from some interesting and challenging boss fights, the gameplay loop becomes noticeably obvious fairly early on. It’s not a long game, mind you, so it never felt like it was overstaying its welcome, but Yaga struggles to maintain that initial wave of exploration and charm throughout the runtime. The few random NPC encounters sprinkled some excitement into the mix but after a while I couldn’t help but feel I was playing the same level over and over again, just with a hammer that obliterated anything that stood in front of me.
Those gripes aside, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Yaga. It’s a passion project, that much is clear to see from the onset, and I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for a product that’s clearly had a great deal of love and effort poured into it. If anything, Yaga acts as a perfect “first try” game. The sort of game that shows off what the developers can do, what the can do well, and how they can improve in later games. It’s a solid foundation that certainly provides a good time for those willing to overcome some repetitive combat and exploration to discover the real charm and effort placed into telling a fresh and unique fairy tale about hubris, hard work and self-belief.
Last Updated: November 15, 2019