Yaga Review

Yaga, was developed by Breadcrumbs Interactive and published by the prolific indie publisher Versus Evil. It’s a multiple-ending adventure game based on Slavic folklore where the main character is a one-armed blacksmith named Ivan. Being a blacksmith, Ivan can craft different and upgrade appendages to his stump using materials he finds from dropped loot.

The hub of Ivan’s world is his village, which serves as a place to get buffs and heals, and where many of his quests originate. Everyone speaks in rhymes and the interactions between Ivan and the other characters are very charming. After interacting with all of the villagers (who dispense quests), the king (who wants Ivan to fetch him a powerful artifact), and Ivan’s grandmother (who just wants him to find himself a wife), the blacksmith heads out into the world to find the witch Baba Yaga. The witch, Ivan is told by his grandmother, knows the location of the artifact Ivan seeks.

While in the village, there were callouts that happened during Ivan’s conversations. It was frustrating because every single time, the callouts were completely overlaid by the huge dialog bubbles. I don’t even know what the callouts were because they were blocked. Perhaps clues, or maybe unlocks? It was frustrating not knowing what was being said because it looked like important information was being given to me, the player.

After talking to everyone and armed with a basic blacksmith hammer, I headed out of the village hub. There is an intermediary stage before actually starting each quest where Ivan can forge weapons and equipment in this area and pick up a loaf of bread (occasionally two, oftentimes none) which serves as health replenishment in between fights. 

My first stage went fine. Everytime a fight is triggered the fight area is locked down, forcing Ivan to battle close-up. Sometimes there were bushes, trees, or rocks that could be used to kite the mobs around, but fights usually resolved through melee. Ivan didn’t have much of a long-range attack. He gets a retractable grappling hook after the first stage, but it didn’t do the kind of damage the hammer was capable of.  Plus, there were always multiple opponents, so throwing out a hook at one mob meant getting attacked by others if I wasn’t careful.

After surviving the first stage (thanks to the bread) I ended up with some talismans and other materials. I was able to craft a nicer hammer with better stats before heading back out for the next phase of the quest.

Eventually, I met a boss mob. It took awhile to get that far. Due to the close-in nature of the fighting I had already eaten my loaf of bread and was at low health. It wasn’t much of a fight. Without a way to heal, the boss mob one-shotted me and that was it. Not only did I die, but some of my equipment was destroyed.

Resurrected back at the starting area I was dismayed to find that my upgraded hammer was gone, leaving me with only my starting hammer. I didn’t have the materials for a new one. However, I pushed on and tried again. 

I was killed again, and then again, then again. Sometimes I died because there wasn’t a loaf of bread waiting at the starting area, so my health wasn’t enough to get back to the boss and defeat him. Sometimes, I did have bread but my hammer didn’t do enough damage. Eventually, I found enough material to craft a new and more powerful hammer, only to have it get destroyed the time time I died. This death loop continued for a while during my gaming session until I quit in frustration.

The next day I tried again, deciding that I would go back to the village hub to see if I was missing something. If I was missing something critical to get me past the boss mob, I don’t know what it was. I’ll mention here that there is also a game mechanic called luck, specifically bad luck, which Ivan apparently has a lot of. This luck meter will build throughout a level, and without something to counteract it (talismans either equipped or crafted into equipment) this bad luck will eventually kill Ivan. When Ivan dies, it’s pretty much a certainty that some of his equipment will break.

This bad luck/death, lack of bread and equipment breakage loop will eventually become too much to overcome. Why grind levels to get materials to create weapons only to have it break? Why attempt a level without a way to heal? At some point I asked myself: “Why am I playing this (deliberately, I assume) terribly balanced and punishing game that’s no longer fun?”

Despite sounding negative, that’s not how I started Yaga. It looked and sounded fun. Yaga’s tagline reads in part that it’s based on Slavic lore, but beyond the graphics and a few other things (like the existence of a king and witch, and a village and blacksmith I guess) I didn’t learn much about Slavic history, culture or traditions. To me, even if there were some tidbits on loading screens, or lying around in books to find, that would have been great. Even with that part missing, a game can still survive or even be great based on it’s gameplay. As a long-time gamer (read: old person) I have a lot of games under my belt. However, only a few have ever left me devoid of any enticement to keep playing. In fact, there have been so few, I’m still wondering if I did something wrong or played Yaga wrong. Did I just not “get” what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to play?

Conclusion

A few of Yaga’s game mechanics cripple what would otherwise be an enjoyable pre-modern Slavic tale of witches, kings, magic and a one-armed blacksmith hero. Some core aspects of play aren’t explained fully or not at all, and ironically it’s these fundamentals which help drag the experience down. That element, coupled with seemingly arbitrary and crippling punishments tied to character death, robs the overall experience of much of why gamers game – for enjoyment. Yaga will frustrate you, and not in a good way.

This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by the publisher.
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Good
  • Charming graphics look hand-drawn
  • Some interesting gameplay elements like the grappling hook
  • Crafting in the game is done well
  • Multiple endings, if you can get there
Bad
  • The potential exists to get locked into a downward spiral of death and punishment that’s impossible to escape
  • Not much lore in the game to build out the world
5.8
Average
Gameplay - 5
Graphics - 7
Audio - 7
Longevity - 4
Written by
I was gaming way before it was cool or accepted, when games were sold in ziplock bags and gaming clues required a letter and a SASE to the actual developer. I’m not saying that like it’s a credential or an odd badge of honor, but as a statement that video games can be fun and engaging independent of graphics, the number of player choices allowed, or game mechanics. I felt the same sense of joy and exhilaration with text-based games of yore as I do playing the most advanced games of today.

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