Ever since I laid eyes upon it at Camp Fangamer 2015 in my hometown of Twoson…er, Tucson, Arizona, I’ve followed the development of YIIK: A Postmodern RPG with rising interest. My brief hands-on with the game at E3 2017 served only to stoke the fire of my appetite for this deliberately lo-fi, retro-reverent, EarthBound-meets-Murakami surrealist adventure. No doubt after so many years, developer AckkStudios was as eager to release the game as I was to finally play it. The term “labor of love” is often bandied about to describe works that get made in the face of overwhelming odds, but no game in recent memory has earned the epithet quite like YIIK. Its mechanical shortcomings are at times significantly obstructive and at other times completely obfuscated by the richness of its premise. Rife with metaphysical themes, compelling mysteries, and a streak of sincerity masked by sarcasm that urges us to carry onward even when all seems lost, YIIK is an impressive piece of art despite its ludological deficiencies.
YIIK is an impressive piece of art despite its ludological deficiencies.
A turn-based RPG set at the turn of the millennium, YIIK stars Alex, a pretentious hipster who returns home from college with a liberal arts degree and zero aspirations. He is quickly embroiled in a mystery surrounding the disappearance of Sammy Pak, a girl he is briefly acquainted with before she is kidnapped by alien-like Entities from a realm beyond. Alex becomes obsessed with the idea of finding Sammy, as it gives him purpose where he previously had none. Assembling a group of friends united by their own experiences with loss, Alex sets out to reclaim Sammy from the clutches of…well, who knows, really? But Alex is an asshole. He looks down on his friends and assumes a smug air of superiority that makes him difficult to like, even when his internal monologue suggests he’s struggling with his impulses. Does he want to find Sammy because he’s worried about her, or because it will make him feel special? Is he listless because he’s unsure of himself, or because being an emotional and financial leech is the only way of life he’s ever known?
The thing is, we all know someone like Alex. Or maybe we’ve been Alex ourselves at some point in our lives. We tend to overestimate our importance in the lives of others. YIIK knows that and makes clever use of Alex’s personality to drive the story forward. That doesn’t make him any easier to play as, particularly in the game’s early stages, but it does serve an important purpose. Given that Alex is described in the game’s status screen as being “just like you,” his devil-may-care attitude seems intended to give the player an opportunity to reflect upon their own predispositions. Alex’s gradual evolution from selfish brat to an imperfect but increasingly considerate person is at the crux of the game’s plot. Once YIIK barrels headlong into the arcane during its third act — astral projection, transdimensional androids, and parallel selves, oh my! — it’s nearly impossible to put down until the credits roll.
Yet for all its genuine intelligence, YIIK occasionally crumbles under the weight of its amateur (or perhaps it would be more fair to say “not AAA”) production values. I was fascinated by its expositional text and conversations that veered between the metaphysical and the mundane, but many lines of dialogue could have used an editing pass, and voice acting is hit-or-miss. There are text boxes written in ALL CAPS WITH LOTS OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!, occasionally fumbled lines (is it Sammy Pak or Sammy Park?), and conversations between characters who are tonally dissonant to a jarring degree. Alex’s lines are generally delivered well, but when he retreats into Murakami-esque introspection, he has a tendency to come across awkwardly due to the more poetic timbre of his narration. The snarky Vella, by contrast, is a consistently standout performance.
Plot is generally where YIIK excels. Less palatable are its mechanical and technical foibles. The most pervasively bothersome issue I had was with the “slipperiness” of the game’s controls, for lack of a better term. I tested the game on both Switch and PC, with wired and wireless controllers (as well as a keyboard), and the engine consistently had a problem registering button inputs outside of battle. I would often have to press the confirm button two, three, or four times before Alex would actually talk to an NPC, flip a switch, or open a treasure chest. YIIK also uses a tool system in the vein of Wild Arms for solving puzzles — cheekily featuring an exploding bass amp instead of bombs and a mustachioed cat in lieu of a boomerang. I greatly enjoyed this system, but I had similar problems with tools not always deploying immediately. I hesitate to call this issue input lag because when a button press finally did “take,” it was immediate. If this was simply a problem with the build(s) I played, then hopefully it will be addressed going forward.
Battles in YIIK are a struggle on three fronts. First, enemies tend to have quite a bit of health, and I often felt impotent in the face of overpowered foes. Second, the game’s character development system presents a compelling premise that quickly devolves into tedium. Characters don’t level up automatically; instead, EXP is accumulated after every battle, sometimes in excruciatingly small amounts and other times in excess, and it can then be spent in a separate area called the Mind Dungeon. The player can access this space from any save point and speak to an NPC inside to strengthen Alex’s party members one level at a time. To make Alex stronger, the player proceeds through a series of hallways within his mind, one for every level, and each hallway contains four doors that correspond to stat points. Each of these doors must be accessed before Alex can move on to the next level, and every step of the process is accompanied by a number of text boxes to skip through. Even allowing the game to automatically assign stat points still requires more menu navigation than I would deem necessary. With enough EXP banked, navigating the Mind Dungeon becomes incredibly slow and frustrating. Streamlining this process could do much to hasten YIIK’s doddering combat system.
The third and most frustrating element of battle in YIIK relates to its core conceit. Each character has specialized attack and skill commands that play out like a minigame in the vein of the Mario & Luigi series, or in Alex’s case, the Judgment Ring from Shadow Hearts. I love this idea, but I grew to dislike it in extended practice. The trouble here is that there is no vanilla attack option whatsoever; the player must successfully complete each character’s minigame every time they select the attack command or they deal no damage whatsoever. This would be less of a problem if these attacks played out quickly, but many are indulgent in length. Alex, in particular, is one of two characters capable of doing exponentially more damage than other party members, and it is crucial to master his turntable attack to defeat several late-game bosses. Yet the longer the game progresses, the more elaborate his attacks become…until suddenly every turn requires the player to land upwards of sixty to eighty hits on his turntable to make any headway against YIIK’s spongy bosses. My fingers and wrists cry out in pain, guys.
It’s worth noting how wonderfully kind and responsive the devs at AckkStudios were throughout my review process. I reached out to them to inquire about the problems I was having with the game’s difficulty and slow load times on Switch, and they responded to me within minutes. Not only did they help me navigate a section I was struggling with, but they also provided a Steam key for the game so I could resume my playthrough on a platform with better technical performance (PC beats Switch handily in terms of load times, for the record). AckkStudios continued to check in with me at regular intervals to make sure I wasn’t having any other issues, and they even went so far as to edit my save data to bring my characters’ strength in line with what players can expect from a day-one balancing patch. Talk about above and beyond! I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the team for helping my YIIK experience be the best it could be.
YIIK makes a different impression in motion than it does in still images, and generally for the better. Low-frame animations, surreal environments, and a pervasively unsettling atmosphere give the game a visual identity not unlike EarthBound with a more mature, philosophical bent. This eye for design generally outweighed any issues I had with the game’s production values. Its eclectic soundtrack, composed primarily by Andrew Allanson, veers from sunny chiptune melodies to eerie synth soundscapes, melancholy vocal rock, and everything in between. Collaborators on YIIK’s musical side include Secret of Mana composer Hiroki Kikuta, Undertale creator Toby Fox, and more. I was particularly smitten with the game’s main motif, from the moment it hooked me on the title screen all the way until its final permutations made my chest tighten during the game’s solemn finale.
Anything but a rote story of good versus evil, YIIK is successful in its delivery of a genuinely unpredictable story unafraid to ponder the nature of human existence. It’s a rare game that I feel endeared to despite consistent frustration with its slippery controls, laborious battles, and tedious character development system. Sometimes, a game is more than the sum of its parts. YIIK melds snark with a spark of sentimental humanity that invites the player to walk away from the experience a better person than they were twenty hours prior.