The traditional turn-based, Japanese role-playing game is among the oldest video game genres. It’s also one of the most stagnant. After dominating the market during the PlayStation era, JRPGs have fallen out of vogue in recent years. Relegated to smaller releases or pushed onto handheld systems, JRPGs often seem as though they’re kept alive only by the nostalgic hopes of strident fans pining for a game to come along and revitalize interest in genre.
And that’s exactly where YIIK: A Postmodern RPG (It’s pronounced Y-2-K, like the nickname for the turn of the century when everyone thought that computers were going to destroy all of humanity) comes in. Like EarthBound before it, YIIK eschews most of the tropes that have become synonymous with JRPGs in favor of a more contemporary setting. While most JRPGs deal in lo-fi dragons and kingdom-saving heroes, YIIK evokes the surrealist tones of Haruki Murakami and ‘90s cultural zeitgeist.
It might sound a bit weird for a JRPG, but that’s intentional. After speaking with Ackk Studios co-founder Andrew Allanson and experiencing firsthand what YIIK has to offer, it’s safe to say that the upcoming game is destined to turn some heads.
Allanson made it clear that YIIK is as much a love letter to the roleplaying games he grew up with as it is a reaction to their current state of the genre. Citing influences as varied as Shadow Hearts and David Foster Wallace’s seminal novel, Infinite Jest, YIIK is tonally varied and decidedly refreshing. Ostensibly a story about a group of friends trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of a young woman, YIIK doubles down on quirky characters and absurdist locations to make a game that stands defiantly against the JRPG status quo.
The emphasis on creating a JRPG that stands out became apparent as soon as I started playing YIIK. The playable segment had the game’s key characters – Alex, Vella, and Michael – discussing their plans to make contact with a mysterious user from a message board they frequent. The trio were hardly your standard JRPG heroes. Instead of armor-clad warriors, YIIK’s cast looked like the kind of people you might see hanging around any major city’s hippest neighborhood.
“Alex is supposed to look like [Weezer front man] Rivers Cuomo from the Pinkerton era,” Allanson said. “A lot of people would see the game and say ‘Oh, I have to play as some hipster,’ but they don’t realize that it’s really Rivers.”
Bespectacled and bearded, Alex certainly looks the part. Much like his real world counterpart, Alex serves as the trio’s leader and directs the group to a location called Wind Town, where their contact can supposedly be found.
Wind Town made up the crux of YIIK’s demo build. A small town painted in a pallet of pastel oranges, Wind Town is just one of the locations that players will explore throughout YIIK’s twenty-five hour runtime. According to Allanson, YIIK sports a full overworld and eight “Zelda-like dungeons.”
In Wind Town, YIIK’s postmodern literature influences shine. The entirety of the town carries a palpable air of melancholy. Though there weren’t many residents to speak with, those that I pressed for information were hesitant to tell me anything useful. Cigarette smoking Goth kids responded to my questions with non sequiturs from their graveyard perch and a disgruntled convenience store clerk threatened to take her post-shift aggressions out on me. Encountering so many stubborn non-playable characters in a JRPG was puzzling at first, but the nuanced – often sublimely witty – dialogue made every conversation worth its weight in words.
When asked about the dialogue, Allanson cited Infinite Jest as a key point of reference.
“In the book, there’s a really interesting thing where characters sound stupid when they try to explain something,” Allanson explained. “I wanted to challenge myself and try to make characters that talked like real humans. Sometimes they don’t use the right words, or maybe they don’t really understand what they’re saying. Maybe they just don’t have the right information.”
Because of intentionally imperfect nature of YIIK’s dialogue, it’s only natural that confusion can be the end result of a conversation. The same can be said about the player’s experience.
“Sometimes people say ‘I think you meant to use this word,’ and I have to tell them that it was intentional,” Allanson explained. “The character might have meant it, but I didn’t.”
With this in mind, I was able to appreciate the half-truths and misinformation that Wind Town’s residents provided me with. It also helped to contextualize the fact that most of the people I tried to talk to just wanted to fight me.
Take the town drunkard, for example. He served as the demo’s boss fight, and an excellent example of YIIK’s spin on turn-based combat.
Each character in YIIK has a unique minigame associated with their basic attack. Alex’s turntable weapon had me timing button presses as a record spun, with each successful press adding onto an attack combo. The “Wario Ware combat,” as Allanson calls it, did a great job of keeping me in the moment, even when fighting basic enemies.
Similarly, each of the character’s skills have their own minigames to master. Vella’s “Bass Drop” skill transforms the screen into a 2D plane where a pixelated version of the character has to jump on top of an amplifier, pick it up, and try to throw it at her enemy. Simple in theory, I struggled to pull off the Super Mario Bros. 2-inspired skill and instantly lamented its existence.
“I’m usually inspired by games that everyone else hates,” Allanson joked.
In addition to the minigames you use when attacking, YIIK allows players to try and completely negate incoming damage through mastery of a dodge mechanic. As an enemy prepares to attack, players can time an input, which nets a defensive boost or entirely avoid damage for that turn. Allanson mentioned that YIIK has over ten different “dodge sequences,” that are intended to constantly challenge players and keep combat from feeling like a chore.
All told, YIIK’s battle system makes a compelling argument for return to turn-based combat. Each of the battles that I fought kept me invested in the action as I attempted to pull of combos and perfectly timed dodges.
With a handle on the combat, I approached the final segment of the demo keen to see what other secrets YIIK might have in store for me. Thankfully, YIIK’s final reveal was its best.
After gaining access into a manor on the outskirts of Wind Town, Alex and company finally made contact with their message board query. Rory, a somber man whose sister had apparently vanished into thin air, told the trio about the strange circumstances that surrounded her disappearance. Supernatural curses and otherworldly accidents punctuated Rory’s tale, building up to a guided tour of the last place that his sister was seen.
Upon walking out of the manor, Wind Town appeared transformed. The burnt oranges of its landscape gave way to faded blues and neon lights. Towering above Wind Town was a massive creature that I can only describe as a celestial being, something like one of EarthBound’s Starmen on a massive scale.
The celestial being stood stock still as Rory, Alex, and company traversed across Wind Town. It was equal parts unnerving and intriguing. The presence of such a large entity – even if it was essentially just something to look at – alluded to one of Ackk Studios’ internal design philosophies.
“We had an internal rule,” Allanson told me, “were that for every hour of gameplay, there should be something interesting that happens around the forty-five minute mark.”
Allanson expanded on this idea by pointing to The X-Files, commenting that Ackk Studios wanted to make sure that YIIK constantly urge forward by “stringing them along with a mystery before a rewarding payoff.”
The sudden change to Wind Town and the celestial being that towered over it were certainly a payoff, but one that raised more questions than I could ever have hoped to find answers for during a forty minute preview.
I don’t know what other secrets YIIK has in store for players, but I do know that my time with the game left me desperate for more. There really isn’t another game like YIIK: A Postmodern RPG and its blend of old-school sensibilities and tongue-in-cheek pretentiousness. For now, I’ll have to wait until August to sate my appetite for ‘90s role-playing adventures, when YIIK releases on Steam, PlayStation 4, Vita, and Wii U.