Yaga is an action RPG that takes you into the world of Slavic folktales and culture during the 14th century. You play as the blacksmith, Ivan, that has lost an arm and must travel far and wide, all because of a paranoid Tzar, lusting after power. Ivan is ordered to complete an impossible task or face exile or death. Luckily for him an ancient witch, Baba Yaga is there to help guide him on his adventure. The whole world is filled with “unclean” creatures, superstitions, blessings, and, of course, magic.
It feels a lot like a childhood fairy tale but in a distinctly old-world tone. It’s filled with tragedy, deceit, witchcraft, and a touch of horror. These stories are not the modern-day Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. They are dark like the original Hans Christian Andersen tales. As soon as you enter the world of Yaga, you get a distinct feeling for old world Eastern Europe. Everything is brown and muddy with run down towns and people being ordered around by a power hungry Tzar. Everyone's tools are worn. The only “fun” to be had in the town is getting drunk at the one bar. It’s exactly how you would generally picture life during the 14th century, lots of serfdom. Once you set off on your first adventure you get to see the beautiful forests that surround the city. From there, you will travel through fields, swamps, over mountain passes, and more. Each setting has its own danger and not only of the human variety. There are evil unclean things, aggressive wildlife, and massive supernatural beings.
Each area feels distinct with its own set of enemies to face. The forests are mostly filled with wolves, bears, and bandits, as you would expect. But in every area, you have a few unique enemies, from werewolves to giant spiders to goo spitting frogs. The enemies also vary in how you handle them in a fight. Some you will just be able to bash to death with your hammer while with others you have to find weaknesses to exploit. Some dodge your attack unless you allow them to attack, so you have to time it just right to dodge out of the way.
In some areas, this can become overwhelming and you will die. It’s a bit rogue-like, when you die you can either be punished and return to your camp to restart the level (which is randomly generated) or you can lose some gear and continue on. Each of the maps is a lot like Metroid, in that you can either push towards your objective or do a little exploring and possibly unlock new things. For reasons that I will discuss later, exploring can be a gamble. So, if you are close to the beginning you can cut your losses but when you are near the end it might cost losing a crafted or magical item. Which leads me into one of the more interesting, fun, and irritating parts of the game.
Crafting is a major part of Yaga. As a blacksmith you will craft your adventuring tools using enemy pieces and discovered charms and since you have only one arm you can attach items to it. Yes, just like Ash from the Evil Dead series. The tools that you craft will have different strengths and abilities. For example, you can use a chain and pitchfork to launch yourself out of the attack paths or into hidden areas. This combo also works as a way to remove enemy weapons and shields. The best attachment, in my opinion, is the bear paw. It reminded me of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. You kill a massive bear and afterward fashion the claw into an attachment to knock back enemies or lift heavy things.
The only “weapon” you can craft (that I have found) is a hammer. I loved combining some of the wackier items into the crafting process to see how it worked. I made a hammer with nails and poop crafted into it. When an enemy is hit, they have a chance to flee because they are grossed out by the poop. It is amazing. However a problem arises when your hammer becomes damaged. If you don't swap it out quickly, it will break and you will lose parts. You can add runes to it when crafting that causes things like weapons or gold to fall around you when your weapon breaks. But I still hate, hate, hate when this happens. You lose the metal that was used to craft it and sometimes you lose the enhancements. Everything that you need to craft and buy things are hard to come by. Managing your food and magical items is difficult and they are not only expensive but rare. So, talk to everyone and search everything because bread loaves might fall out of things or people might be nice enough to fork something over.
Luck plays heavily into the story. You are chosen because of your famously bad luck and the Tzar’s fear that it will bring an end to his rule. While on your travels you might just be struck by this bad luck and it can destroy your weapon, create enemies at the end of the level, or you can lose goods. To manage this, you have to weigh when to use your magic items because almost all of them make your bad luck go up. You can also raise your bad luck by hitting enemies (yeah, I know it’s a pain) so you also have to manage how much you are willing to explore. When the bad luck meter is filled, you become cursed. This generally will make bad things happen to you but you can mitigate this by using certain runes (from crafted weapons or tools). Don’t fret too much though because some magical items reduce or eliminate your bad luck such as the clover leaf. Or if you are really lucky you might run into someone on your adventure that can bless you or give you a magical item to reduce your bad luck. Just like everything else in Yaga it has to be balanced you have to weigh when to use something because a lot of these items are rare while on a mission. If you make it back to town you can get your bad luck removed by the priest or witch. I have, on many occasions, forgotten where my meter was and didn’t return to town to get it removed and got immediately struck with bad luck as soon as I got into the next mission.
Just for a little more flavor the developers decided to add branching dialogue that effects who you are and what perks you can add to your character when finishing different quests. There are lots of side quests that allow for you to be nice, greedy, pious, or stupid. I ended up mostly going nice and pious but sometimes had wished I had chosen greedy because it’s hard to find cash and that helps upgrade your weapons, your crafting station, and buying goods and services around the world. The dialogue trees and where you align yourself lets you choose bonuses after each mission. They say that you, Ivan, have made many choices and you get to choose from a few things what those choices taught you. This allows you a little more customization. You can get more currency, or add stamina, or reduce your bad luck. It all depends on how you choose. And if you chose something that is not on your path, it offers diminished returns. So, choosing greed when you are pious doesn’t offer as much gold or whatever the reward may be.
The music might be one of the best soundtracks I have heard in a long time. It mashes the old world and the new world together so well. There is a lot of beautiful 14th century orchestral music and they take that and blend in techno. It makes for some really pumped-up music when you are in combat, it gives you a rush and your excited throughout the fight. When you are walking around the tempo and techno slow down letting you relax. It’s an interesting thing when a developer can somehow make the music stand out while not overshadowing everything. A lot of times in games similar to Yaga, the music becomes grating because it is always at the forefront. I loved how they found a really good balance.
From top to bottom, I really can’t find too much to pick on. The only thing that I can think of is the lack of ability to change key binds. I played it on both mouse and keyboard and the controller and neither of them felt natural. It took me awhile to get the combat down. Using your tools was very difficult in the beginning. Even now a lot of the time I find myself thinking about what key it is. It’s too bad because I could easily adjust this to make it feel more natural for me. It’s odd that this was overlooked with how much customization there is in Yaga as a whole.
I almost forgot the fairy tale stuff because there is so much to talk about in Yaga. Ivan runs into many crazy things on his adventures aside from just enemies. There are flying ovens that act as a sort of fast travel. If you don’t repair the ovens when you find them it limits your ability to fast travel. There is also the choice to be nice or mean to the ovens. It acts in a very similar way to BioShock where you can choose to harvest or save the little sisters. By being mean you get an immediate bonus but in the long run you will gain less. After fixing an oven and being nice, you can put in anything and get at least a loaf of bread back. Sometimes you will get really lucky and a second loaf or some other item will pop out. There are shrines throughout and if you choose properly you can receive an item or blessing of some sort. Just make sure to read what type of god it is. Cleaning the statues will generally get you something but it’s generally not as good and it’s the greedy choice. Then there are, of course, things like Poleviks, monster like beings that run around destroying crops and kidnapping people in the fields. They are gathering up people and goods as tribute to a different mythical being. Of course, there is Baba Yaga and her three witch “sisters.” Some stories say she is one person and sometimes three witches so they just combined the two and you end up with four witches. You can run into them on your travels and they will have different tests for you. If you pass you will generally get a blessing or magic item. If you get it wrong, they just send you on your way. Then there are magical items of great power like golden apples, giant chicken eggs, and youth preserving water. It’s really interesting and fun to dig around and find all of the mythical stuff during each adventure.
I hope by now you can see my love for Yaga. I have written so much and there is still so much more I could write about but I don’t want to bore anyone to death or give away too much of the actual story. I will just say that nearly every aspect of Yaga is perfect. From the graphics, to the music, to the crafting, it all works well and you can clearly see the developer’s passion for the project. They put as much time and love into it as they possibly could. It paid off in spades for them. It is a top-notch game that I hope gets more attention now that it is finally available on Steam and all of the consoles. I whole heartedly believe that anyone who enjoys video games will love Yaga and should go out and pick it up for their preferred platform.