People have been waiting years for YIIK: A Postmodern RPG’s release. The game’s been in development since 2014, and you can go read interviews floating around from 2015 onward for more background on its journey. Finally, the big day is here... but can it live up to nearly a half-decade of anticipation? Before we begin, rest assured, this will be a minimal-spoiler review.
YIIK (that’s pronounced “why two kay,” as in Y2K), at its base, is a 3D indie RPG. There are turn-based battles, an overworld with random encounters, dungeons with puzzles to solve, and plenty of memorable NPCs. Beneath these simple genre trappings, however, is a game that defies summary.
Meet Alex, the primary player-protagonist, who comes home to the town of Frankton from an unnamed American college one summer day. Alex is the beating heart of the narrative drive. He also wears a red plaid shirt, big dark-framed glasses, a fuzzy beard and a full salvo of orange hair.
Yes, Alex is a hipster. He listens to vinyl records by obscure artists and speaks fondly of classic video games. He has also grown accustomed to a somewhat upper-class lifestyle. Alex’s status as a privileged (but otherwise unexceptional) white boy forms the plot’s subtext; or, at least, receives some story treatment. The point is, this “Postmodern RPG” is nothing if not self-aware.
YIIK is wagering on something here: there’s probably a ton of people out there who can relate to Alex in varying degrees. He is intelligent but lacks ambition. After earning a degree, he's struggling to achieve the measure of success his parents have attained. He enjoys hanging out with friends but falls short when it comes to forming meaningful relationships. He is lonely. He would rather stay in bed today.
The plot takes place in the year 1999, and at times Alex can be found browsing a weird internet forum. How many of us were doing the same at one time, discovering the World Wide Web and poking around in its strange corners? YIIK places a bet on this nostalgia, and at times it really lands well. For those who ever felt ‘adrift’ at this point in their life, and perhaps found a little solace in odd BBS forums, the whole journey will land even more poignantly.
And, oh boy, what a journey it is. Once Alex is back in town, he renews contact with Michael, an old neighbourhood friend who had moved away years prior. Then, you eventually see a loose cat, and pursue it into the woods, and then to an old factory. There, Alex meets a young woman named Sammy, who is suddenly torn out of reality by interdimensional beings of unknown origin. Alex is powerless to prevent this, and his anguish over the event begins turning the wheels of the entire storyline.
It’s a lot to take in, and only the beginning of a breathtaking spiral of strangeness. This is a game where Weird Stuff Happens, and much of its appeal is going to hinge on whether you have an appetite for a continual serving of more Weird Stuff at every turn. YIIK is absolutely gunning for the Weird Stuff throne, full tilt, and truly swings for the fences in that regard. You want surreal visuals and utterly unconventional quest chapters? Search no more, for you have found your huckleberry.
Oh, right: beneath its splashes of stylish colouring and deep dives into the bizarre, there’s a video game! Alex really wants to save this girl, even if figuring out how to do so will get pretty tricky. He, along with a growing and rotating cast of support characters, will embark all over the landscape to visit different towns and caves and dungeons to find his way.
Combat is a highlight. Enemies present a healthy challenge, along with designs ranging from insipid (a piece of poo) to inspired (Sheep Man is a woolly wonder, he’s the best). Your characters can use healing items, attempt to run and so on, but the attacks are the real hook here, of course.
Each character has their own standard attack that relies on button-press timing. You may be holding down your analog stick and trying to release it at a certain time, or pressing different face buttons to match the swings of a hula hoop. Records will spin and obey your commands to drop the needle, swords might lash out at all enemies rather than just one – it’s a turn-based party, and you’re invited.
Each character also has their own skills. These vary wildly, with each character serving a very distinctive niche, from healing to adopting “stances” to change their fighting style to the one-of-a-kind ability to “banish” certain enemy types. Like fellow indie RPG darling Undertale, YIIK dares to ask, “How does a pacifist character work in battle?” Some of the skill attacks are performed by mastering 16-bit pixel microgames, which are just adorable. Much like the regular attacks, these will be a test of reaction timing and focus.
But nimble fingers won’t win the day by themselves. The dungeons in this game pose some real lateral-thinking challenges. As Alex and friends embark to locales spanning from a mountainside cave to… like, spaces within the mind-consciousness or whatever, players will quickly realize that conventional tactics may not suffice. There is definitely in-game logic going on, as it’s all never truly random or unfair, but this is the kind of game where, once or twice, you may turn your Switch off in frustration and have to sleep on it before you realise what you need to do in order to progress. At least, that was our experience.
You probably won’t mind too much, though, because the ride is a thrill. The increasing surreality of the story, along with the steady level-up progression, on top of the eye-kissing artwork, all blend together in a pleasant dish for gamers and compel you to keep moving forward. You can have a lot of fun just spotting different gaming references and detecting classic influences. Beyond that, without saying too much, just trust us when we say that this game really takes some imaginative leaps.
The music is a ride all of its own, sporting different collaborations on the soundtrack that lend to an eclectic flavour. Peppy horns will give way to eerie keyboards, only to be supplanted by an orchestral arrangement, only to be overtaken by a wave of sudden vocals and electric guitar. It’s all a little odd but the quality itself is never in question.
If you were looking for a concern, let’s have a word about pacing. How do you feel about dialogue? YIIK has loads of it. Trainloads and boatloads and bathtubs full of the stuff. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s great; which is the kind of statement that sounds obvious but still bears mentioning.
The characters that form your adventuring party are going to have lots of conversations, some of them lengthy and many of them without any bearing on the plot. They are going to tackle topics ranging from the existence of God to the death of a family member, but also favourite anime and SNES RPGs. At its core, YIIK operates on the same frequency as a cross-country road trip with a few close friends. If that sort of tone resonates with you, you’re in for a treat of characterisations. Otherwise, you may feel stuck waiting for something to happen as the cast launches into another pseudo-philosophical conversation on the nature of the soul.
The level-up system, however, might be the low point. Levelling in YIIK does not happen naturally as characters gain EXP. In order to advance their stats, you have to enter Alex’s Mind Dungeon (ahem). There, Alex will walk into various doorways and stairwells in order to make his manual selections as to which of his stats to increase. It’s as tedious as it sounds, and although there is some more Weird Stuff that pops up in these sections, it’s ultimately not worth the added tedium, especially since some other game elements like certain attacks have already taken a slower approach. It’s hard to imagine why simply selecting stat increases from a menu would not have been an improvement.
Other than these hiccups, the game flows like a dream – quite literally, in some moments. YIIK captures a certain slice of Americana, when end-of-the-world hysteria was peaking but before everyone had a Twitter account. Not every beat works perfectly (the NPC kid who says they hope their mother marries her new boyfriend because he “doesn’t hit me as hard” as their dad is rather uncomfortable, to say the least), but if you’re willing to “buy in” on the experience a bit and let yourself be swept into the motif of late-night internet sleuths ignoring real-world woes by diving headlong into the paranormal, you might be in for something special.
YIIK: A Postmodern RPG is a dazzling explosion of stylistic presentation and compelling strangeness. This might go down as “EarthBound for a new generation,” and much like EarthBound, the quality is difficult to score, since it is based less on the precision of design and more on an intangible, heartfelt payoff. While some gamers may not see anything special going on here, YIIK will likely really resonate with some players. If a Weird Stuff RPG appeals to you, strap in and prepare for a wild ride. Surreal themes aside, if you’re simply looking for an RPG experience on the Switch with far-out visuals, YIIK should satisfy your turn-based desires.