“Postmodern” is both an intriguing and an intimidating word. YIIK, pronounced “Y2K,” comes with the subtitle, “A Postmodern RPG,” but what does that mean? Is it a game centred around the tennis matches of Infinite Jest? Or around Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans? Regardless of the intention behind labeling the game as such, the postmodern tag initially seems a little peculiar at first.
However, when you boot up YIIK you’re met with a stylish title screen that looks like it was ripped straight out of a retro arcade. The stunning visuals are accompanied by an electro-jazz bass-driven track that immediately asserts the game’s homage to ’90s culture. After a short exchange with a crow named Marlene, you’re given control of Alex McHugh, college graduate and spoiled brat. You’re also unemployed, so you just wander around your town aimlessly until you meet a cat with a Salvador Dali moustache. Shortly afterwards, an ethereal girl goes missing, triggering a chain of events that threaten the very fabric of reality itself.
YIIK plays as a turn-based RPG, but while the early-game battles are a lot of fun, combat becomes tedious before you even get halfway through the main story. Instead of a strength/weakness mechanic that’s usually innate to most turn-based systems, YIIK uses a series of minigames in order to determine how much damage you deal and receive. Alex’s basic attack sees him spin his favourite LP on a portable record player, which is lighthearted and amusing at first. However, as more characters and abilities get introduced to the game, the amount of minigames becomes increasingly daunting.
As the game progresses, basic attacks begin to do barely any damage, but special abilities feature minigames that span myriad genres and have no tutorials. These special abilities are necessary to take down mid-game enemies, but because there are no instructions on how to use them, the game’s learning curve is both unfair and unsatisfying. Make a mistake and you’ll deal no damage, so you’ll likely need to die a few times before you get the hang of a new ability. There’s a voice that narrates the battle dynamics when you dodge an attack or die that sounds like the aliens from The Simpsons, though, which is a small redeeming factor.
The defense mechanics aren’t much better. Sometimes you can dodge if you nail a real-time prompt, whereas other times the most you can do is reduce the amount of damage you receive. One particular kind of attack, for example, targets your entire party of four and hits you like a truck unless you nail three timed prompts in quick succession, which is a lot more difficult to do than it might seem. And since this attack is used more frequently over time, it becomes a frustrating, lethargic way to engage with combat. The battle pace is slow and the response to your inputs is clunky, making the battles themselves last for an unnecessarily long time. The further you progress through the game, the more often you have to battle while traversing its many dungeons, which means you need to spend even more time battling. Also, the real-time battle prompts are much better suited to a precise mouse-click than a button press, which is an issue on PS4. During one boss fight, I actively walked away from the game and went on Twitter for about five minutes to recharge. That’s how draining it was.
In a sense, it seems that YIIK tries to implement a combat system that’s a lot like Undertale’s. However, Undertale gives you the choice to talk to the enemy on top of providing you with a fight option, and different dialogue works on different enemies — in a sense, it has a kind of pseudo-type effectiveness structure in place that makes the game a lot more engaging overall. The fact that YIIK’s postmodernism relies on the quirkiness of its content — such as the fact that Alex attacks his enemies using a record player — means that it’s not postmodern so much as it is a take on hipster culture. By comparison, Undertale’s talk option genuinely is postmodern, as it challenges the fact that combat systems necessitate violence. Undertale was also much quicker in terms of battle pace and its enemies were a lot more interesting, both in terms of dialogue and design. Overall, YIIK’s combat pales in comparison.
The actual world of YIIK is stunning, though. Each map (apart from the dreary and awkwardly-angled Wind Town) is designed with a gorgeous retro art style that screams ’90s Nintendo, and the soundtrack is consistently killer. Hearing that Undertale developer Toby Fox helped with music production wasn’t surprising at all, and the late-game vocal tracks in particular set the mood brilliantly. The art style and music set a ‘90s mood that’s juxtaposed with an overall tone that’s much more lighthearted, though, as the game is genuinely funny for the most part, which offers some levity. One particular NPC unleashes a barrage of rubbish jokes, the last of which is “Are you visiting from Seattle? Say hi to Nirvana for me.” It’s very silly, but silliness often makes for great comedy.
However, YIIK’s attempts at humour can also be very problematic at times. Characters call each other “spazoids,” derived from the highly-insulting term “spastic,” and at one point Alex even says, “That’s our word” about the word “ginger.” On another occasion, a character says, “You guys went into an epileptic fit.” These jokes really don’t land, instead creating an uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s one thing to set your game in 1999 and use otherwise outdated terms in context, but it’s another thing entirely to gratuitously use derogatory terms for comedic effect. The art style and characters already capture the era perfectly; drawing on the negative parts of the ’90s for no reason doesn’t really add anything.
And YIIK has a number of other issues too, in both design and technical performance. The game doesn’t perform very well on console for a range of reasons. For one thing, the movement mechanics are a real issue on console. With no invisible barriers, traversing narrow bridges from an isometric perspective with a PS4 controller’s analog sticks usually results in falling off the side. With a brief cutscene playing every single time you climb a ladder to an elevated bridge, and puzzles that often need to be undone in order to be redone, it can take a long time to simply cross that bridge. Obviously pressing the D key on a keyboard will cause you to move right with precision, but the same can’t be said of analogs unless you’re willing to move at a snail’s pace through a game that’s already slow.
I also encountered a game-breaking bug that could only be resolved by going back three hours to an old save file. In one dungeon, you’re tasked with finding two doors that need to be attached to a pair of frames. The second door didn’t spawn for me. After spending two and a half fruitless hours trying to solve a puzzle for which I didn’t have all the pieces, I tried my luck at giving the room a chance to load again. I went on my way through the dungeon as I had before and lo and behold, the door was there. This puzzle, like many of the puzzles, was not complicated but ended up being unnecessarily time-consuming. The puzzles in the early parts of the game are quick logic problems that are enjoyable and fit the style of the game like a glove. The later puzzles, however, are resolved with much more arbitrary solutions and, in my experience, are susceptible to bugs. For example, you are taught early in the game that one tool (Panda) is used to hold down pressure plates, while another tool (Dali) is used to activate inaccessible switches. Late in the game, you need to use Dali to activate a pressure plate while Panda is already in use elsewhere. However, you’ve been explicitly taught that each of the two has a role of its own — it’s a bit cheap, really, and when I figured it out I felt dissatisfied, because it didn’t fall in line with the logic that the game went out of its way to establish earlier.
Although some aspects of the game can be called postmodern, YIIK tries a bit too hard to make itself smart, coming off as pretentious more often than not
The game’s leveling system, meanwhile, is tied to the Mind Dungeon, which sounds a lot more intriguing than it actually is. Again, the Mind Dungeon gets maximum style points, quite literally being a dungeon located in the protagonist’s head that’s accessed by dialing a specific number. In the Mind Dungeon, the camera angle changes to a side-scrolling perspective. In order to level up, you need to select one of four doors on the current floor and choose one of six skills to increase. You then need to enter the room behind that door, which confirms the skill increase. All four doors can be used to increase a skill, meaning that you can increase four skills for every level. After all four doors have been used, you can speak to Marlene the crow at the staircase located on the opposite side to the side you entered on. After confirming the level up, you can descend to the next floor, which has another four doors.
However, leveling up takes a long time and, like the slow and clunky battle mechanics, becomes tedious before long. If you grind–which you need to do in YIIK–and save up enough EXP to gain a few levels at a time, you could easily spend up to 10 minutes just side-scrolling nonchalantly through the Mind Dungeon with little more to do than occasionally pressing the interact button on the doors. It’s not interesting or fun. If it was a much faster process, sure, that would be fine. It’s slow, though. And it’s boring.
Although some aspects of the game can be called postmodern–namely the character arcs and the writing–YIIK tries a bit too hard to make itself smart, coming off as pretentious more often than not. By self-consciously addressing itself as a game and including lines like “How can an RPG be postmodern?” YIIK is postmodern in a basic sense, featuring nods to the critique of Enlightenment ideas of self-realization. However, it doesn’t use this basis to communicate anything important later on. It never builds on the foundations it lays.
Literary criticism from the likes of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida in the latter half of the 20th Century introduced the idea of questioning truth, reality, and objectivity. It was people like Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and Samuel Beckett who really experimented with the movement, though. YIIK opts for pointless “postmodern” jargon about the nature of objective reality and a person’s soul over meaningful character development and ambitious experimentation with its form, so while its characters are intriguing at first, they never really go anywhere. And the story doesn’t go anywhere either. The potential of characters isn’t developed until very late, and it becomes difficult to care about them just hours before the game wraps up. On top of this, phrases from the likes of Nietzsche and Murakami are rattled off in contexts that are completely detached from their meaning, which can be perceived as postmodern in an edgy sense but definitely not an intriguing or challenging one.
This conflict with postmodernism wouldn’t be a big deal if the game was simply called “YIIK” instead of “YIIK: A Postmodern RPG.” As the game spirals towards its end, you begin to encounter major boss fights against people you’re meeting for the first time. 20 hours in, it’s hard to care about a brand new character that takes a half hour of the same minigames you’ve been playing for the entire game to beat.
YIIK has glimpses of greatness that sporadically appear throughout its messy composition. Some parts are excellent — such as the art direction and the music production — and they highlight that the game had a lot of potential. However, these factors of YIIK fail to compensate for the fact that it’s disappointing overall. At the end of the game, Alex provides a summary of what has happened and it’s genuinely interesting. It’s strange that the game managed to kill that intrigue with its slow, tedious, and clunky gameplay. There are two endings, both of which are canon. The one I got is the one that most people will get on their first playthrough. It’s not good. The story doesn’t resolve itself in any meaningful way and the last boss is designed as another arbitrary puzzle that’s a bit much to be considered clever or fair. Also, the route to the end of the game involves a monotonous grind that feels like not enough butter scraped over too much bread.
It’s fair to say that YIIK was never going to be a JRPG comparable to some of the stellar titles we’ve seen in recent years. However, it fails to reach its potential overall. Despite stunning art direction, a kicking soundtrack, and some interesting story points, it’s not an enjoyable game for the most part, thanks to its clunky combat, tedious grinding, and poor puzzle design. Postmodern texts aren’t always enjoyable–Wallace’s Infinite Jest features walls of text that list every chemical name for prescription drugs under the sun, spanning pages upon pages at a time. However, Infinite Jest has substance. For the most part, YIIK doesn’t.