A Charming, Disarming Blacksmith’s Tale
HIGH An unique introduction to Slavic folklore. Ivan’s baabuska.
LOW The linear gameplay loop.
WTF Some of the boss fights.
When I was a child my mom would read folktales to me, and the best ones always contained a valuable life lesson that stayed with me to this day. While technically a 2D action role-playing game inspired by Slavic mythology, Yaga feels more like a playable folktale because it features the essential characteristics of one — the humble hero archetype, the symbolic supernatural villains and helpers, a quest that brings about the transformation of the hero, and a repetitive, predictable story pattern.
Further, Yaga is one of the few titles that delivers on the promise to let players choose their own adventure. Here, decisions can have an impact on the way the narrative unfolds. Like in any great folktale, Yaga’s protagonist, Ivan the one-armed blacksmith, will have to make difficult choices to resolve a conflict. Here it’s done by approaching the main and sidequests through branching dialogue. The choices affect Ivan’s personality, which can range from righteous to aggressive, selfish or foolish, and decisions that are out of character will increase his bad luck.
Yaga begins with a recollection of Ivan’s encounter with the crone Likho. In Slavic folklore, Likho is the embodiment of evil fate and misfortune, and she’s the reason for Ivan’s missing arm. We then fast-forward to the present where Ivan is about to embark on the adventure of his lifetime, “thanks” to the scheming of Baba Yaga, another supernatural being of great power in Slavic folklore.
Before setting out on the adventure, players can talk to NPCs to gather clues or activate sidequests in the starting village. Upon leaving, they must choose their destination, as well as the day or time of day that they want to arrive. There are several maps, including marshlands and snowy mountains, and each has unique properties, enemies, and bosses that Ivan must overcome to reach his goal.
Like any typical ARPG, Yaga features fast-paced combat and environmental obstacles. Losing his arm may have been a blessing in disguise for Ivan. Why? because like the ninja in Sekiro, he can attach tools like a chain fork, sickle, bear claw, makeshift shield, or shovel to his arm’s stump. With a hammer equipped in his right hand and a tool attached to the left, Ivan stands a better chance against some truly gruesome enemies.
Since Ivan is a blacksmith, he can upgrade, imbue, and enhance his basic equipment. Each tool can receive properties like increased damage, a higher gold drop chance from enemies, or stun effects. All of the blacksmithing work can be done from a neat little interface, and players can also equip up to three talismans that offer additional perks. Of special note is Ivan’s ability to throw his hammer — it felt overpowered at first but proved invaluable during boss fights and challenging encounters.
Unfortunately, the gameplay loop in Yaga becomes quite dull after a while. Upon dying, Ivan will lose some of his enhanced equipment and the map will reset, so it’s never the same experience, but Ivan is always tasked with a samey mission — talk to the Tzar, listen to his insane requests, fetch the item he wants, maybe do some side missions along the way, and start all over again.
One thing that adds a unique spin to this combat is the bad luck mechanic mentioned earlier, and it’s significant.
During play, some actions the player makes like decisions that are out of character, using blessings, or certain actions during combat will increase the bad luck meter. The higher it is, the more experience Ivan gets, which is dandy! But, there’s a catch — a high bad luck meter will draw out the horrible Likho, who will steal Ivan’s money or break his equipment and disarm him in the middle of combat. There’s no quick menu for equipping a new weapon, so players must pause and disrupt the flow of combat to remedy the issue. This mechanic is also extra frustrating when using weapons or tools that have been imbued with the best materials.
Also, I have to mention that the final boss encounter with Likho left me foaming at the mouth, not because it was difficult, but because I lost almost every hammer and piece of equipment that I’d been saving up for “the right moment.” Imagine the bad luck meter I described on steroids, and then multiply it by ten. If there were any hidden tricks to winning this awful fight, I didn’t find them.
In terms of production, Breadcrumbs Interactive paid a lot of attention to details. Every environment has a unique aesthetic, and the snowy and swamp areas create gorgeous backdrops that invite players to explore beyond the main quest. Sidequests are interesting and give players more context for the story. Each weapon upgrade will change the way the equipment looks, and every icon, even the tiniest ones, feel like labors of love.
The menus have a clean and striking aesthetic, and I loved the way crones gathered around a shattered mirror to look down on Ivan during loading scenes. Breadcrumbs Interactive also nailed the voicework. Last but not least, the head-bobbing soundtrack from Romanian underground band Subcarpati, with its trippy hip-hop and folk influences, feels like the perfect choice. It’s the kind of music people will want to listen to even when not playing.
Despite some of the issues I had with it, playing Yaga felt like reading my favorite folktale but better, because this time I got to star in it. Let’s just hope the next time I spin a yarn I get better luck and find Ivan a wife to make his babushka proud.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Breadcrumbs Interactive and published by Versus Evil. It is currently available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC. This copy of the game was obtained from the developers and reviewed on the PC, using a keyboard and mouse. Approximately 15 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: This game has not been rated by the ESRB, but I believe a T (Teen) rating would be appropriate because the game features moderate amounts of violence (including animated blood) and alcohol references. The blood can be turned off in the settings. One character in the game shares his suicide intentions with the protagonist. Several instances in the game, players will encounter a character with which they can drink until passing out. Furthermore, some of the stories within the game are dark and reference ghosts and murder.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind options available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I have played the game without sound and found it fully accessible. All dialogue has subtitles. Items have text descriptions. The subtitles cannot be resized.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.