A Case Study in Dissonance
Dissonance, as you may already know, is two or more inharmonious themes or ideas meeting and resultantly creating tension and harshness. When used correctly, this can create odd feelings of mystery, discomfort, creepiness, or even other-worldliness. When creating a game about the abstract, dissonance is something that can be a powerful tool to make a player feel unsettled about what they are seeing or doing. By using contrasting visual design, musical themes and sounds, or even writing styles, a game can create odd moments or sections in the overall experience. What happens, however, when an entire game feels dissonant? What happens when the game feels like it is fighting with itself, unable to find any semblance of harmony? YIIK: A Postmodern RPG (pronounced “why-two-kay”) is one such game.
I have no idea what Acck Studios means by calling it a “Postmodern RPG” – but YIIK is an RPG in the style of older games like Earthbound and Paper Mario that attempts to bring the quirky weirdness of modern hits like Undertale. Set in the year 1999, you play as Alex, a new College grad (who also is dressed like a Millennial from the 2010’s- not like anyone from the 90’s) with a degree in Liberal Arts who just got back home and is starting to look for a job. Simply tasked with going grocery shopping by his hard working mother, Alex gets quickly sidelined when a cat steals his grocery list and runs off to an abandoned building. One thing leads to another, and Alex find a girl named Sammy, who suddenly is abducted by strange alien-looking creatures. Quickly changing his focus from grocery shopping to finding a missing person, Alex starts his journey to find Sammy and discovers more odd occurrences and even odder characters and friends along the way!
This basic story had me hooked for quite a while, but got more abstract as it went, losing my attention more and more. The fundamental issue of the story is, simply, Alex is annoying and unlikable. The developer has defended Alex on Twitter (a very common theme, just wait), saying that he is not supposed to be a necessarily likable character and his character development is redeeming. However, the issue isn’t him being a character than needs to grow; it’s that he is a character that needs to shut up. I felt like every 5 minutes there was a 4th wall breaking scene of Alex talking and using way more “philosophical” words than I ever wanted to read.
I felt like I was playing a visual novel instead of an RPG, and a poorly written one at that.
Besides Alex, none of the other characters are particularly interesting either. Michael is a generic photographer friend, Vella is the weird girl who knows a lot about weird stuff, Rory is a depressing punk kid, Claudio is a record store owning guy obsessed with anime, and Chondra is that guy’s sister.The only character I ever felt slightly emotionally attached was Vella, if at all. To make it even worse, a large portion of the dialogue in the game is voiced (and no offense to the voice actors and actresses), but I didn’t want to hear any of it, let alone read it. (Unfortunately I HIGHLY recommend turning voice acting off as it will cut probably down the game length by at least a couple hours and makes the dialogue just slightly more bearable…) What could have been smart, witty, and funny dialogue is actually a slog that sounds like it was written by Alex himself. So many times I felt like I was playing a visual novel instead of an RPG, and a poorly written one at that.
Next I’d like to focus on world itself, arguably one of the most important aspects in an RPG. YIIK does a decent job of re-creating something out of Earthbound, going as far as having trash cans with money and food in them. One thing that really bugged me about this concept occurred in Windyville, a established poor and broken town; why on earth would I find $40 in multiple trash cans? (One other thing that really bothered me was putting a grave to Satoru Iwata, former president of Nintendo who passed away in 2015, in this poor town. Why, of all places to put an homage to a legend, does it have to be in the poor run down town?)
The inconsistency between real and parody constantly took me out of the world created.
Another really odd thing is the inconsistent use of parody in the world itself. For example, Alex attacks with miscellaneous LP’s such as “He Wants It This Way – Single” or “Sgt. Salty” which are both fun little nods to the real world. Or, my personal favorite, the Samurai Turtle enemies in the sewers that yell “I said no anchovies!” when they get hit in combat. But, later in the dialogue, characters name drop real world things like Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Sailor Moon. This kind of inconsistency between real and parody constantly took me out of the world created and left me rolling my eyes at the lack of subtlety.
One of the other most important parts of an RPG is the combat. I, being a huge fan of Paper Mario on the N64 and Gamecube (we don’t talk about the others), was very excited to see a game with the mini-game based attacks! In combat, rather than just pressing “attack” and the character does a designated number damage, you have to do a certain mini game of buttons and timing for a character that determine how much damage they do. All the party characters (except Rory because he is a waste of space whose purpose is only to take damage and to literally sacrifice himself to resurrect a dead character) have fun little three-or-so second mechanics of holding a joystick down and releasing or pressing a designated button at the right time to get a small x3 combo and deal some serious damage.
Alex, on the other hand, has an under-explained, tedious, unfun, and long attack in order to do comparable damage to the the rest of the party. It involves pressing a button in the yellow zone to build up a combo, then pressing it in a red zone to allow another full rotation of the LP and try to hit it in the yellow zones again. This is actually really difficult to successfully do, and even if you get a x6 combo, it does minimal damage compared to everyone else. Not only is his attack unbalanced, it is just not fun to do hundreds of times in the 25+ hour game. To make matters even worse, each time combat loads on the Nintendo Switch version, there is an 18 second wait before it actually begins, making me groan each time I had to fight something.
Here’s where the heart of my issue with YIIK lies: it feels like it was not play-tested at all; and if it was, it was by people who were either too afraid to say that it wasn’t fun or that the developers just thought “they didn’t understand what they were going for.” When the main character of combat is not fun and has to be patched to be changed just days after launch, something went wrong in the testing. Also missed in this testing was the idea that you need to teach the player how to actually successfully do the combat. 6 hours in, on a random billboard, the game told me I could build up a combo by pressing the attack button more than once in the yellow zone. Never in the game did it explain to me that I can actually slow down time during attacks and defense, it was something I discovered by accident about 10 hours in my play-through. The developer had to reply to a nearly endless barrage of tweets about people not understanding how to do damage with Alex – well I wonder why, when they never bothered to tell them somewhere other than Twitter.
YIIK…feels like it was not play-tested at all.
The most frustrating thing about this is that there is actually a “tip” section that displays text during load screens, but rather than bothering to use this to actually give helpful tips on how to play the game, we are given unfunny messages like “video games are not a waste of time.” Playing the game after release, I was fortunate enough to play with the feature that allows you to fast forward in combat after complaints that it was tedious and slow; but I wish I could have played it about a month from now when all of the issues are actually ironed out from real play-testers. The real shame about all of this is there is so much potential for YIIK in terms of its combat. What could be a fun and interesting combat system bored me to death and was as tedious as could be. This applies to just about every other aspect of its gameplay as well.
The worst offender, however, is the absolutely atrocious leveling system.
The game breaks its established rules about running from enemies and unbeatable bosses; some you have to run from, then immediately after, you have to lose to them. How are you supposed to know what you are supposed to do in each case? Die and try again? The worst offender, however, is the absolutely atrocious leveling system. Each time you want to level up, you have to go to a phone, go to your “mind room” talk to the little blue guy to encourage your friends to level up (again not explained). Then you have to go the the Mind Dungeon and go through 4 doors, pick each individual stat you want to level up in each door, enter each of the 4 doors individually after you’ve confirmed that you want that stat, and sit through some dialogue about Alex entering the room and finding an item that gives you that stat. What is usually a 10 second process in other RPG’s is a insanely frustrating 5 minutes or so in YIIK. I had countless times where I just questioned who this game was made for? Who wants to play a game that doesn’t respect your time and makes you do archaic gameplay conventions that were removed 20 years ago for a reason? Not me.
Sadly, the inconsistencies in game design and lack of polish flow over to the visuals as well. In some instances, particularly the 2D drawings of the characters, the art is actually quite good and really pleasant to look at. When you look at the 3D character model it represents, however, there is a severe drop in quality. Animations of these characters are often stiff, robotic, and unpolished. Characters have creepy, dead eyes that match the ugly, blocky bodies that they exist on. Enemies have a similar inconsistency in quality, with some being creative Samurai Turtles and others being literally “poo.” The same goes for environmental design too; with some areas being beautiful and colorful images, while others just look like plain, unfinished textures. Again, I get what the developer is going for here with the sharp contrast in certain areas for story purposes, but the duality of good and bad art is seen in both the real world and the abstract one and really made the game seem simply unfinished.
There is a wide spectrum in YIIK with its music quality, ranging from outstanding to absolutely horrendous.
I’m really beating a dead horse here, but I have to say that this dissonance is just as prevalent in the music design as everything else. There is a wide spectrum in YIIK with its music quality, ranging from outstanding to absolutely horrendous, with most of them falling smack dab in the middle of complete mediocrity. The music for Frankton is actually pretty darn good, and sets the tone of a weird and quirky hometown quite well. Even better than this is the song guest-written by Undertale creator and composer Toby Fox, “Into the Mind,” that plays during certain battles. I knew immediately once it started playing that it was Toby Fox’s because it had his certain flair and (sadly) sounded better than any other battle theme in the game. On the other end of the spectrum, during the boss fight with a Golden Alpaca (yeah, you read that right) a song plays that is without a doubt the worst piece of music I have ever heard in a video game. After a couple minutes of this painful song looping, I felt immense relief upon muting the TV and waiting until the fight was over to turn the sound back on.
I know that everything I have said sounds incredibly harsh, and it is, but I feel as though it is completely warranted. So many bad choices were put into YIIK that hold it back from being the quirky, weird, and lovable game that it is trying so hard to be. There are the components and features there for a solid game, but they are all at odds with each other and can’t decide what kind of game it wants to be. Resultantly, almost every aspect of the game feels untested and unfinished, or at least properly tested by a wide audience. There have been multiple patches pumped out in order to iron out these issues; but no matter what they do, they will not ever fix fundamentally flawed game design. With bad characters and writing, poor world design, unbalanced and unfun combat, inconsistent music and graphics, and a general lack of polish, YIIK: A Postmodern RPG is just an unfortunate mess of a game. I am glad that the developers at Acck Studios made a game that they wanted to make, but I hope that they are able to learn from this misstep and will go on to make a game that more people will want to play as well.
Yes, if you:
- Are sick of playing Earthbound, Paper Mario, and Undertale and need something new
- Really enjoy weird games and metaphysical storylines
- Like games that don’t hold your hand and require experimentation to figure out how to play
No, if you:
- Are looking for well written characters and dialogue in an RPG
- Don’t like weird, inconsistent art styles and music
- Want a balanced combat system that is fun to play
- Would prefer if a game tells you how to actually play it
YIIK: A Postmodern RPG Released on January 17, 2019 on PC, PS4, and Nintendo Switch (Reviewed). A Playstation Vita version is due for release as well.
Note: Cannonicity received a review key of YIIK in exchange for a fair and honest review