If you haven’t heard of Ackk Studios’ YIIK: A Postmodern RPG, it’s time to listen. Set in the year 1999, YIIK is an RPG inspired by Japanese innovators of the genre and sends players on a quest to find Sammy Pak, a woman who mysteriously vanished from an elevator on the night of April 4, 1999. In Ackk Studios’ own words, it’s a story “about what happens when you look for someone who can’t be found… and the strange things you invite into your life when you go to forbidden places.” Now, if that sounds like something teeming with things immediately interesting to you (as it was for me), then I have good news. Anyone with access to a Mac OSX or Windows machine can download a free demo of the game titled YIIK Episode Prime here, and hopefully you’ll come away from it as impressed and hungry for more as I was.
YIIK Episode Prime is a self-contained quest that offers players an introductory glimpse of all that makes YIIK interesting. The player controls Alex, a music-loving, flannel-wearing, oft-called hipster and is charged with following up on a lead that could potentially reveal the whereabouts of Sammy Pak. The demo is just a slice–featuring the town of Frankton with shops and NPCs and a miniature dungeon fraught with bizarre monsters and puzzles. However, in this mere slice alone, I found an experience that felt tonally complete and engaging from top to bottom.
Visually, the game’s aesthetic character mirrors the low-poly models and simple textures of games released on the cusp of the turn of the 21st century. Or, at least, it mirrors how we remember these games looking. Personally, I’ve always welcomed YIIK’s visual style for its ability to stand out against the smattering of 2D-sprite indie titles that have proliferated in the past five or so years. What the game achieves in leaning so heavily into this style is a unity of visual form and thematic content, which is not something you find as often as you’d like in video games.
As you’d expect, this also extends to the writing and world-building. The demo is loaded with time-appropriate references and callbacks and also includes a computer running a faux Windows 98 operating system and IRC boards (remember those?). The writing is wonderfully sardonic at times, and the flavor text and references found in the demo straddle the line between too much and just right. Unfortunately, with how short the demo is, there isn’t much to say on the quality of the narrative itself. I will say the premise is interesting, and the writing is good enough to leave me feeling optimistic about the final version.
In terms of gameplay, YIIK Episode Prime offers a mix of what you’d expect given the influences, as well as a few surprises. The demo allows you to walk the streets of Frankton—a small town with shops and houses—and talk to NPCs, purchase equipment, and find hidden treasure chests. I found exploring Frankton to be a rewarding experience. There’s a camera shop, a record store, an arcade (which disappointingly didn’t allow you to play any games, but maybe that’s something that will be in the final version), and a bunch of NPCs that say a lot of strange and hilarious things.
The mini-dungeon allows a glimpse of how puzzles and battles work in YIIK. Alex has access to a few Pokemon HM-esque Tools that allow you to toss a cat to flip far away levers, flip your hair to cut down trees, or use a guitar amp to smash boulders. In terms of combat, the battles are a mix of turn-based fights with action-based Skills. When using a Skill, you’re thrown into a QTE-like instance where you’re responsible for pushing certain buttons or completing actions in the time allotted to increase the damage or effectiveness of the Skill.
Calling them “QTE-like” is probably too reductive, though. While some Skills involved pressing a button at the right time, others were more engaging. Since I found these Skills to be surprising during my playthrough, I don’t want to go into too much detail. Simply put, they were fun and made me feel similar to how I felt about I am Setsuna’s Momentum Mode in that I felt personally responsible for and involved in the outcome of every battle.
As I played through YIIK Episode Prime for the first time, there was this quality—this thing I kept feeling, but couldn’t quite place my finger on. I remember feeling something satisfying, yet off-putting at the same time. It was on my second playthrough that I realized the demo is packed with weird incongruities that would make Greek teacher of rhetoric and literary critic Longinus proud. Things like the soundtrack not quite fitting the absolutely wonderful, modern, quotidian nuance of Frankton or the thematically heavy subject matter that clashes against the silly poop monsters and anthropomorphic stop signs. But these incongruities didn’t feel misplaced or sloppily managed. Instead, they felt like intentional juxtapositions meant to affect the player in a way that mirrors how Alex must feel as a character.
Instantaneous and sometimes subtle, these incongruities alluded to the fascinating potential YIIK has as a video game and as a narrative experience. I came away from the demo feeling optimistic about the final version and the places it would go. All in all, I’m very eager to get my hands on the game when it launches (hopefully soon) on PS4, Vita, Wii U and Steam.