A great tale of misfortune.
A people’s folklore serves several important functions, from passing oral history to younger generations to constructing a system of morality to warning against the dangers of the wilderness beyond the safety of home. Yaga, an action RPG from Romanian studio Breadcrumbs Interactive, evokes all of these interpretations through gameplay and setting. Equal parts fable and choose-your-own-adventure, it succeeds thanks to a satisfying approach to combat and a confident portrayal of Slavic folklore.
You play as Ivan, a blacksmith literally stalked by bad luck. The crone Likho severed your hand in an attempt on your life, and while you managed to escape she refuses to let her meal get away for long. The tzar is not happy with the effect your curse seems to be wreaking on his village and sends you out on an impossible mission. Your babushka intercedes and counsels you to seek Baba Yaga’s aid, but not before preparing a gift.
Finding that gift requires traveling beyond the safety of your village’s walls. Throughout the game, you will embark from the crossroads towards the location of a quest. Sometimes that means confronting a major foe, while other times you might instead run small errands for your fellow villagers. In either case, Ivan appears at the beginning of a randomly generated map full of deadly fights, traps and special encounters.
No map is ever repeated, though specific regions boast a particular aesthetic — the sunflower fields stretching across the farmlands create a gorgeous backdrop. Your goal lies somewhere along the path, but it is always worth taking a detour to explore all the other nooks and crevices.
Often, a gang of beasts or marauders will drop in. During these fights, the room is cordoned off until Ivan dispatches his foes. The hammer you carry can be hefted at melee range or thrown in a straight line. Opt for the latter, and the deadly implement will boomerang back to wherever you are, hopefully caroming off the heads of some goons along the way. Enemy packs widely vary, so you have to think carefully about the best approach.
Once you progress far enough, Ivan can craft prosthetic tools that provide new abilities in and out of combat. Your anvil at the crossroads camp can also create new weapons from the ore and enhancements collected in the wilderness. Experimentation really allows you to make the most of combat — I ended up relying on a hammer enhanced to fly further, slow my enemies and make them bleed, giving me control of the fight from afar.
That said, Ivan shouldn’t lean too hard on any one weapon. His cursed luck is actually mechanized as a bar that slowly fills from a number of factors. Using magic consumables, certain enemy attacks and accruing more curses from wronged parties will gradually fill the bar.
Once it’s full, Likho exerts her influence by either breaking your hammer, stealing your money or stripping away talismans Ivan has equipped for extra benefits. This can and often happens in the thick of combat, sending you scrambling to equip a new weapon. You will always have access to your basic hammer, but compared to what you can forge it still leaves you at a distinct disadvantage.
Ivan might also happen across someone who doesn’t want to immediately cut him down. These encounters appear as stars on the minimap, and you should seek them out whenever possible. They are little vignettes that showcase a bit of Eastern European folklore brought to life, like the magical pike fish who will grant you wish as long as you agree to free him from your net.
Or, a farmer might entreat you to find and rescue his magic sheep. Doing so means answering their riddles, but the reward is substantial. Moments like these help break the tension of constant fighting while letting the team lean on one of their strengths: storytelling.
Players have the option of characterizing Ivan through his responses. Perhaps you will decide Ivan being forced on these silly goose chases has piqued his anger, or maybe his greed runs roughshod over any good sense. After a while, responding in any fashion accrues bad luck but also more experience, which translates to bonuses. There is a risk/reward equation in much of Yaga’s systems that kept me balancing my resources against the danger ahead of me.
The player’s active role in shaping the story goes much further. Yaga is actually framed as the titular Baba Yaga recounting a recent exploit to three other crones: the Weaver, The Reader and the Spinner. They help her successfully reach the end by suggesting small adaptations that translate to buffs and boons for Ivan.
For his part, the blacksmith can approach major encounters with force or compromise. Choosing to either eliminate the threat or coerce them into allies shifts the game down a different path. Though my Ivan was a righteous fellow who never fought when he could instead talk, Yaga encourages replay and experimentation with decisions.
It’s a dangerous ploy that assumes your systems warrant revisiting. But given the charm of the world, the dark humor dripping off adapted folklore, and a combat system that only frustrated me into quitting once, I’m confident Yaga will prove just as enjoyable when I decide to spin my next tale.
[Reviewed on PC]