YIIK: A Postmodern RPG Review – DearthBound (PS4)

Every time I was reminded of YIIK: A Postmodern RPG, I was reminded of how excited I was. This is a game that evokes, primarily, EarthBound, in style. YIIK has long been presented as an old school RPG full of bright colors, otherworldly mischief, dissonant sounds and images, and self-confidence in its weirdness. Certainly, all of these things are true, and as I booted up the game I was eager to get to know the characters and world, have fun grinding some EXP, and hopefully be touched in some way by some existential storytelling. However, as time passed, I came to realize YIIK is, frankly, a mess. There is no joy or wonder in this game. It dashes back and forth between excruciatingly slow and cruel gameplay and frustratingly banal storytelling comprising of “only 90s kids will understand” Facebook meme-y referencing, overwritten sci-fi, and one of the most unlikable casts of characters in the genre.

Post-Post-Post Modernism, Also Super Nintendo

YIIK starts with Alex, a flannel-wearing, SNES-loving, and beard-having college graduate who returns home in 1999, just before the turn of the century. As he struggles with figuring out what to do with his life, weird stuff starts happening. After following a cat to an abandoned factory, things get even weirder as Alex comes face to face with the rules of reality he thought he understood being shattered to bits. What ensues is a journey to understand that new normal, which of course runs parallel to a large dose of self-discovery and introspection.

YIIK’s story is delivered in a few ways that really hurt it, even when it’s teetering on the edge of being intriguing. First of all, the way it is literally written is frustrating. YIIK is an EarthBound-inspired RPG, and part of that is how text- and especially dialogue-heavy it is. To that end, YIIK bounces around between a sort of irreverent quirkiness, expository word vomit, and internal narration from protagonist Alex. Much of the dialogue is either super robotic or novel-like, neither of which are styles that translate to well to the spoken word. And there’s plenty of voice acting here.

It’s awkward and clumsy, causes the pace to drag, and ultimately drains YIIK of the personality it sells itself on. Alex is especially frustrating, as his internal dialogue is over and underwritten at the same time, full of clichés, simple but elaborate similes and metaphors, and reeks of a self-importance the story can’t decide is a problem or not. The voice acting itself is all over the place, and often gets really trying to listen to when the characters are explaining metaphysical concepts as if they’re reading excerpts from a self-published textbook written by someone studying, well, postmodernism.

The cast of supporting characters also feels like they exist specifically to either fill gameplay roles, or to eventually be devices for Alex to learn to be a better person. None of them feel like actual characters save for the occasional convoluted (or comically tragic) backstory. Sometimes things get especially awkward when YIIK tries to tackle themes like social commentary, such as when the characters start talking about the economy out of nowhere. There’s also that time Alex gets lectured on racism in a way that feels more like performative wokeness than something substantive (and is also adjacent to a scene of lazy humor about spiritual Asian tourism that goes on way too long). The story constantly meanders, struggles to establish connective tissue between the characters and the sci-fi, and overall was difficult to find the patience for.

Paper Mario, But It Hates You

And that feeling of trying patience is only exacerbated by pretty much the entirely of YIIK’s gameplay experience. YIIK feels like a byproduct of that weird time when the industry was convinced everyone hated turn-based RPG combat. You know, back when Square Enix and Nintendo tried to make RPGs look and play like anything but, and before joints like Fire Emblem and Bravely Default managed to right the ship. YIIK borrows from the likes of Paper Mario, with little minigames accompanying every attack. But YIIK also aspired to be difficult and challenging, in a way that mirrors games like Final Fantasy X, when not being over-leveled means having to be more precise and thoughtful about your choices in a fight. How this has been accomplished here is by making the player scratch and claw for every point of damage, every survived hit, and making the little minigames feel like life or death endeavors. On top of the challenge, the actual pacing of combat is a slog, making even the easy battles take multiple minutes to get through, on top of loading times. This is a huge problem in a space that generally needs to be quick and punchy to be effective.

It isn’t just that YIIK is too hard or too slow. It’s also difficult to feel like you’re making progress as a player making their way through what otherwise feels like a traditional RPG. To set the stage for how muddled the concept of progress in YIIK is, the game doesn’t even introduce how to level up for the first hour or so, despite the player still dealing with combat and earning EXP. Then when you do uncover how to level up, the cool set piece for doling out stat points eventually turns into a confusing chore as it seldom feels like you’re actually getting stronger.

Perpetually, enemies are damage sponges, and you never feel like you’re dealing enough damage to keep up. It takes Alex, for example, several hours before he can deal over ten damage. It doesn’t matter how perfect you are at his little record-spinning game, you’ll never see an enemy’s health bar go down more than a sliver after an attack. Meanwhile, an enemy can slap you for sometimes up to half your health if you mess up a defense minigame. You’re often at the mercy of items, but those items are percentage-based, and it takes a long time for any character to even break 20 health. So using a health item only for it to be negated instantly feels like a waste of a turn. For so long, YIIK is caught in a loop of fighting the game for not enough damage, every battle being a war of attrition, and rewards never feeling like enough. What’s the point of finding new equipment if the numbers don’t change the whole time you’re in a dungeon?

Despite this uphill battle, YIIK won’t even let you grind in a way that makes sense. There appears to be a set number of enemies in the game, with the dungeon environments offering a couple enemies that don’t respawn, and the outside world offering random battles up to a point, until they turn off without warning. There are little miniature dungeon-like areas on the map as well, but YIIK does a poor job introducing them. The whole experience feels like the game is afraid of the perceived mundanity of turn-based, random battles, but still wants to use the genre’s other trappings, but scrambles and fails at the end when it comes to progress and balance. Playing YIIK is a challenge, one that is not fun, is a slog to get through, and doesn’t pay off. You just drag from one draining fight to the next, and even when a boss battle shows up and has some droll gimmick or affectation to it, it’s hard to appreciate it because you know you’re going to be staring at the joke for however long it takes to whittle its massive health bar down.

YIIK: A Postmodern RPG is plenty ambitious, with designs to be both as quirky as the charm-filled RPGs of the 90s, and serious with substantive, heady sci-fi concepts. It calls itself “postmodern” after all, evoking the likes of Vonnegut, Pynchon, or Burroughs. While I was on board at the title screen, it didn’t take long for the disappointment to set in. There’s an unearned self-confidence in the writing that is hampered by stilted dialogue and shallow characters, and the exact opposite in the gameplay, where YIIK feels afraid to actually be a 90s-style RPG. It’s obtuse and poorly balanced, making each encounter a frustrating exercise in attrition. YIIK has big ideas but they rest on top of a shoddy foundation, one that crumbles the more you try to stay on top of it. I’d rather just play EarthBound again.


YIIK: A Postmodern RPG review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.

4.0
  • Cool, dissonant soundtrack with contributions from creators like Toby Fox
  • Neat visual style that uses color to bend the rules of reality
  • Combat and progression balance is totally out of whack
  • Battles are slooooow, damage numbers don't scale up with levels well
  • Weird problems with grinding
  • Clumsy, wooden writing, especially in dialogue/voice acting
  • Unlikeable protagonist and underdeveloped supporting cast
  • Attack minigames are too finicky, with tiny pass/fail windows and lack of reward for doing well
  • Some systems or mechanics aren't introduced clearly or at all, adding to fumbling