Yaga is an action RPG steeped in Slavic folklore that tells the story of Ivan, an unlucky one-armed blacksmith who becomes accidentally embroiled in a supernatural beef and ends up on the adventure of his lifetime. You see the Baba Yaga, that mysterious old woman who dwells deep in the forest in a house built on chicken legs, has placed a curse on the evil Tzar, convincing him he must rid his land of Ivan – he can’t kill him, lest his empire turns to sand – and so the Tzar sends the blacksmith on a series of seemingly impossible missions in order to be rid of him. Unfortunately for the Tzar, Ivan’s mother – who really just wants to see him settle down and find a wife – has an answer for everything and helps her son achieve the impossible time after time.
It’s an entertaining set up, backed up by some excellent voice-acting, and Yaga’s roots in Slavic mythology, its wonderfully curious cast of human characters, menagerie of twisted creatures and thumping Romanian folk/dance soundtrack give the game a distinctive personality that manages to lift proceedings in the face of some pretty average combat, pedestrian level design and a handful of mechanics based around the choices you make during your playthrough that don’t work as well as they should do.
Choice, you see, is Yaga’s central hook. The choices you make as Ivan at every point in your journey affect the outcome of his story and define his personality. There are four personalities to assume here: righteous, aggressive, selfish and foolish. Once you’ve defined yourself in one of these rigid categories, any responses you give in conversation with NPCs – or actions you take as you make your way through the world – which don’t happen to fit your designated character will raise your bad luck. Bad luck is visualised as a purple bar at the top of the screen which can also be raised by equipping a talisman, accepting blessings from priests or benefiting from the magic of local sorcerers. Once your bad luck tops out you’ll be set upon by an evil spirit who’ll rob you of some items and, usually, whatever weapon you’ve currently got equipped.
In theory, this mechanic is sound; however, in practice, it’s confusing, impossible to avoid and doesn’t even really have that much of an actual impact, as it turns out. No matter how hard we tried to avoid raising our bad luck by making choices that conformed to our personality, refusing to wear charms and avoiding priests, we still found the game would make decisions that would force our bad luck gauge to rise. Perhaps some priest or other NPC we’d helped would automatically bestow a blessing or miracle upon us, or we’d eat some magic bread to heal our wounds after battle and that would kick it up a bit. In the end, it didn’t matter, as simply unequipping weapons we didn’t want to lose when our bad luck maxed out stopped them from being lost to us, so the negative impact was negligible. It’s a shame that this interesting idea wasn’t explored and implemented properly, as it could have added real weight to decisions you make on your journey.
Alongside this badly-designed mechanic, other negative aspects begin to accumulate in the form of some pretty old-fashioned and basic core gameplay and exploration. Combat in Yaga is unspectacular in the extreme. You have a hammer for smashing enemies which you can also throw – without any real accuracy – and you can roll around and hook-shot out of the way, but and that’s really about it. Ivan’s blacksmith abilities allow you to make various versions of your hammer to mix things up a bit – you might craft one covered in fire or spikes, or one that slows down time when it connects with creatures – but overall, the combat remains the same from start to finish. A talisman or charm may also enable you to roll further or dish out (or absorb) more damage, but the flow of things remains disappointingly samey and enemies will either be fired at you in easy-to-beat groups or insurmountable hordes; there’s no real rhythm, flair or tactical thought behind how engagements play out.
This element of the game is further hampered by very simplistic level design. Once you’re outside of the small hub village area, you’re funnelled along procedurally-generated branching paths which wind through forests, fields and other generic locations, occasionally finding yourself locked down as gangs of enemies materialise; beat them up and the barriers are removed and you continue on your merry way. It’s all very pedestrian and is only saved by the entertaining conversations you have with the various kooky NPCs you’ll meet on your travels. Indeed, the writing and fully voice-acted script are a real saving grace here.
A single playthrough of Yaga will take you in the region of around six hours, which is pretty short, but this is a game which is designed specifically to be played through several times in order to see the various outcomes to Ivan’s tale that result from making different choices as you play. It’s totally to the credit of the writing and voice-acting that, in the face of the pretty underwhelming gameplay, we did find ourselves keen to finish the story and go back for a second helping to see how much changed when we took a different approach.
There’s a great sense of humour to proceedings here too, which, when combined with the delightfully stylised graphics and that borderline creepy, Brothers Grimm-lite folktale atmosphere, make this a game that’s just fun to sit through, regardless of its various shortcomings. The cast of yokels you meet as you constantly defy the wishes of the evil Tzar will charge you with all manner of ridiculous tasks, whether it be finding some corn for a giant chicken so it moves out of your way, doing errands for a farmer so he’ll give you his sweaty headband or rescuing a talking goat – who’s actually a priest – from his captor. There’s a refreshingly original vibe to Yaga that’s well worth the price of admission, so long as you’re willing to forgive its gameplay shortcomings.
Yaga has bags of personality and benefits greatly from being steeped in superbly atmospheric Slavic folklore. It’s well-written, features lots of excellently-delivered dialogue and has a fantastically kooky sense of humour, all of which helps to carry it along in spite of its bland level design and run-of-the-mill combat. The choices you make as you play through Ivan’s adventure do actually affect proceedings enough that the whole thing warrants more than one playthrough and, if you can make peace with that pretty nonsensical bad luck mechanic and uninspiring gameplay, you’ll find a fun little adventure here featuring a cast of characters who are well worth spending some time with.