It’s safe to say that Ivan the Blacksmith is having a bad day. He’s just had his arm sliced off and eaten by a particularly cranky – and hungry – creature named the Likho, which would be bad enough if this skinny, black clad, one-eyed embodiment of pure evil also goes and curses Ivan with bad luck. Adding to Ivan’s woes is a particularly pernickety Tzar, who tasks the blacksmith with a series of impossible tasks, the reward for which is another impossible task, while the punishment for failure is a severe case of premature death. How’s Ivan to resolve these problems? By completing a series of quests in an action RPG of course!
Yaga takes place within the world of Slavic mythology. Developer’s Breadcrumbs Interactive have brilliantly merged together disparate myths, fairy tales and ancient pagan beliefs to create a cohesive and wonderfully bonkers world. Overseeing everything is the infamous Baba Yaga – not the John Wick version, but the witch who lives in a chicken-legged house version – who assists Ivan in his quest for her own nefarious purposes.
Played from a top-down perspective, Yaga helps itself to a grab bag of ideas from a plethora of videogames; the DNA of everything from Diablo to Zelda: A Link to the Past can clearly be seen woven into its basic mechanics. Ivan receives quests from the eccentric denizens of his village before heading out into the wider world, exploring lands as generic as woods, swamps and snow covered mountains. Once he arrives in these randomised maps he’ll explore, smash, clobber and bash the enemies he finds and then level-up with some very streamlined RPG elements.
Accompanying his actions is some of the most funky and downright trippy music I’ve ever heard, courtesy of underground folk band Subcarpați. You know a video game soundtrack is great when you find yourself listening to it even when you’re not playing the game, and I’m sure I’ll be hearing those Romanian hip-hop beats in my sleep.
Battling through the enemies put before you, the combat is decent but ultimately a bit dull. Ivan has a basic attack with his trusty hammer, which he can also throw and call back like Thor’s Mjolnir. These two attacks prove sufficient to see off every baddie and boss he finds. The issue is that his awesome hammer makes the rest of his arsenal feel redundant. THat’s a real shame when it includes a cartwheel that acts as a shield, a pitch fork and chain that acts as a grappling hook and a bear claw that acts as a… er… bear claw. You certainly can use these items but why bother when his initial hammer is so much more potent? Every other weapon is simply impotent in comparison.
This issue of impotency plagues Yaga worse than the curse of bad lack plagues Ivan. By this I mean that there are plenty of mechanics included to liven up proceedings, but that have little impact on the gameplay. Take Ivan’s bad luck by way of an example. If Ivan uses magic, blessings or chooses conversational options that don’t match his established personality type, then his bad luck meter will fill up. Once full, Likho will appear, chase Ivan down and punish him by destroying some of his weapons and items. This can prove immensely frustrating, especially when she smashes up a high-level item.
I assume the intention is to create a sense of risk and reward in the player, heightening the tension behind making certain decisions. I found the opposite to be true, if Likho appears regardless, despite my best efforts, to destroy my items, then why bother even pursuing these items? Particularly when Ivan’s basic hammer is so effective. In one fell swoop the bad lack meter makes the acquisition of slightly better weapons and armour – a mainstay of Diablo and every clone since – a waste of time.
However, if you do decide to persist and level-up Ivan’s weapons then you’re sure to be disappointed with the result. Ivan, as a blacksmith, can mix the various magical items he finds on his travels, to create something new at his forge. The idea behind this is to provide the player with a sense of experimentation, that they can literally make hundreds of different and unique weapons. This is true; you can create hundreds of different weapons. But no matter what strange and rare materials you add to your hammer, pitch fork or shield, the overall result is the same. Ivan can have a super-charged lightning mega-hammer of doom, but his basic attack chain is unchanged and the only a few minor visual effects differ.
Only being able to change the appearance of an item and some hidden stats feels like a missed opportunity on the part of the developer to create something that meaningfully changes up the gameplay. All this means that combat never particularly excites. Just keep on smashing and throwing your hammer a few thousand times and you’ll be fine.
Then we have to discuss the speed that Ivan walks. I get it, this guy isn’t a mean and lean warrior, he’s a soft and squidgy blacksmith, but is there any need for his walking speed to be the equivalent of a cat wading through a pond full of hummus? It kills the pace of the exploration and makes proceedings a slog. The weird thing is that even though Ivan walks slower than a pensioner in Primark, he can forward roll like a Ninja on ketamine. The result? I spent the entire game forward rolling everywhere I went.
However, if we put the action elements of this action RPG to one side for the moment, what remains is rather engaging. The characters that Ivan meets on his travels are all splendidly weird, brilliantly voiced and entirely memorable. Also, the approaches available to resolve a quest are nice and varied; not everything has to end in a boss fight, instead different factions can be played off against one another in order for Ivan to get what he wants. There’s some really fun deceptive conversational choices available to Ivan – tricking the Tzar with a fake golden apple and keeping the real one for yourself proves more satisfying than all the combat of Yaga combined.
The game is short, clocking in at around seven hours, and this provides the opportunity to go back and try out different conversational tactics. The unusual results of this, and the delightfully different endings available for Ivan, make this an entirely worthwhile endevour. It’s just a shame that the combat and travel make return visits to Yaga such a slog.