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YIIK: A Postmodern RPG Review – A Bit More Hipster

“Postmodern” is both an intriguing and an intimidating word. YIIK, pronounced “Y2K,” comes with the subtitle, “A Postmodern RPG,” but what does that mean? Is it a game centred around the tennis matches of Infinite Jest? Or around Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans? Regardless of the intention behind labeling the game as such, the postmodern tag initially seems a little peculiar.

However, when you boot up YIIK you’re met with a stylish title screen that looks like it was ripped straight out of a retro arcade. The stunning visuals are accompanied by an electro-jazz bass-driven track that immediately asserts the game’s homage to ’90s pop culture. After a short exchange with a crow named Marlene, you’re given control of Alex McHugh, college graduate and spoiled brat. You’re also unemployed and spend your time wandering around your town aimlessly until you meet a cat with a Salvador Dali moustache. Shortly afterwards, an ethereal girl goes missing, triggering a chain of events that threaten the very fabric of reality itself.

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YIIK plays as a turn-based RPG, but instead of a strength/weakness mechanic that’s usually innate to most turn-based systems, YIIK uses a series of minigames to determine how much damage you deal and receive. Alex’s basic attack sees him spin his favorite LP on a portable record player, which is lighthearted and amusing at first. However, as more characters and abilities are introduced to the game, the amount of minigames becomes increasingly more daunting.

Basic attacks become ineffective as the game progresses, leaving you to use special abilities that feature minigames spanning myriad genres. These special abilities are necessary to take down mid-game enemies, but because there are no instructions on how to play the minigames, the game’s learning curve is both unfair and unsatisfying. Make a mistake and you’ll deal no damage, so you’ll likely need to die a few times before you get the hang of a new ability. There’s a voice that narrates the battle dynamics when you dodge an attack or die that sounds like the aliens from The Simpsons, though, which is a small redeeming factor.

The defense mechanics aren’t much better. Sometimes you can dodge if you nail a real-time prompt, whereas other times the most you can do is reduce the amount of damage you receive. One particular kind of attack, for example, targets your entire party of four and hits you like a truck unless you nail three timed prompts in quick succession, which is a lot more difficult to do than it might seem. Since this attack is used more frequently over time, it becomes a frustrating way to engage with combat. The battle pace is slow and the response to your inputs is clunky, making the battles themselves last for an unnecessarily long time. And the further you progress through the game, the more often you have to battle while traversing its many dungeons. Also, the real-time battle prompts are much better suited to a precise mouse-click than a button press, which is an issue on PS4.

The game’s leveling system, meanwhile, is tied to the Mind Dungeon, which sounds a lot more intriguing than it actually is. Again, the Mind Dungeon gets maximum style points, quite literally being a dungeon located in the protagonist’s head that’s accessed by dialing a specific number. In the Mind Dungeon, the camera angle changes to a side-scrolling perspective. In order to level up, you need to select one of four doors on the current floor and choose one of six skills to increase. You then need to enter the room behind that door, which confirms the skill increase. All four doors can be used to increase a skill, meaning that you can increase four skills for every level. After all four doors have been used, you can speak to Marlene the crow at the staircase located on the opposite side to the side you entered on. After confirming the level up, you descend to the next floor, which has another four doors — and so on.

The actual world of YIIK is stunning, though. Each map (apart from the dreary and awkwardly angled Wind Town) is designed with a gorgeous retro art style that screams ’90s Nintendo, and the soundtrack is consistently killer. Hearing that Undertale developer Toby Fox helped with music production wasn’t surprising at all, and the late-game vocal tracks in particular set the mood brilliantly. The art style and music set a ‘90s mood that’s paired with a lighthearted tone, with the game being genuinely funny for the most part. One particular NPC unleashes a barrage of rubbish jokes, the last of which is, “Are you visiting from Seattle? Say hi to Nirvana for me.” It’s very silly, but it works in the game’s favor.

However, YIIK’s attempts at humor can also be very problematic. Characters call each other “spazoids,” derived from the highly-insulting term “spastic,” as a throwaway insult. At one point Alex even says, “That’s our word” about the word “ginger.” On another occasion, a character says, “You guys went into an epileptic fit,” despite the fact that what actually happens doesn’t even remotely resemble that. These jokes don’t land, instead creating an uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s one thing to set your game in 1999 and use otherwise outdated terms in context, but it’s another thing entirely to gratuitously use derogatory terms for comedic effect. The art style and characters already capture the era perfectly; drawing on the negative parts of the ’90s for no reason doesn’t add anything.

YIIK has a number of design and technical performance issues as well. The game doesn’t perform very well on console for a range of reasons. For one thing, the movement mechanics are a real issue on console. With no invisible barriers, traversing narrow bridges from an isometric perspective with a PS4 controller’s analog sticks usually results in falling off the side. Obviously pressing the D key on a keyboard will cause you to move right with precision, but the same can’t be said of analog sticks unless you’re willing to move at a snail’s pace through a game that’s already slow.I also encountered a game-breaking bug that could only be resolved by going back three hours to an old save file.

Although some aspects of the game can be called postmodern, YIIK tries a bit too hard to make itself smart, coming off as pretentious more often than not

In general, puzzles that are not complicated ended up being unnecessarily time-consuming. The puzzles in the early parts of the game are quick logic problems that are enjoyable and fit the style of the game like a glove. The later puzzles, however, are resolved with much more arbitrary solutions and, in my experience, are susceptible to bugs. For example, you are taught early in the game that one tool (Panda) is used to hold down pressure plates, while another tool (Dali) is used to activate inaccessible switches. Late in the game, you need to use Dali to activate a pressure plate while Panda is already in use elsewhere. However, you’ve been explicitly taught that each of the two has a role of its own–it’s a bit cheap, really, and when I figured it out I felt dissatisfied, because it didn’t fall in line with the logic that the game went out of its way to establish earlier. The solution was neither a clever implementation of the game’s established rules nor a smart twist on those same rules.

Although some aspects of the game can be called postmodern–namely the character arcs and the writing–YIIK tries a bit too hard to make itself seem smart, and it instead comes off as pretentious. By self-consciously addressing itself as a game and including lines like, “How can an RPG be postmodern?”, YIIK is postmodern in a basic sense, featuring nods to the critique of Enlightenment ideas of self-realization. However, it doesn’t use this basis to communicate anything important later on. It never builds on its foundations. YIIK’s reliance on the quirkiness of its content–such as Alex attacking enemies with a record player–means that it’s not postmodern so much as it is a take on hipster culture.

YIIK opts for pointless “postmodern” jargon about the nature of objective reality and a person’s soul over meaningful character development and ambitious experimentation with its form. On top of this, postmodern literary phrases are rattled off in contexts that are completely detached from their meaning, which can be perceived as postmodern in an edgy sense but definitely not an intriguing or challenging one.

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YIIK’s characters are intriguing at first, but they don’t really develop until late in the story, so it’s difficult to care about them. At the end of the game, Alex provides a summary of what has happened, and it’s genuinely interesting. It’s unfortunate that the game managed to kill that intrigue with its slow, tedious, and clunky gameplay. There are two endings, both of which are canon. The one I got is the one that most people will get on their first playthrough, and it’s not good. The story doesn’t resolve itself in any meaningful way and the last boss is designed as another arbitrary puzzle that’s a bit much to be considered clever or fair. Also, the route to the end of the game involves a monotonous grind that feels like not enough butter scraped over too much bread.

Despite YIIK’s stunning art direction, kicking soundtrack, and occasionally interesting plot point, it suffers as a result of its clunky combat, tedious grinding, and poor puzzle design. Postmodern texts aren’t always enjoyable–Wallace’s Infinite Jest features walls of text that list every chemical name for prescription drugs under the sun, spanning pages upon pages at a time. However, Infinite Jest has substance. For the most part, YIIK doesn’t.

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Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes Review – Short On Heroics

Relentless absurdity and hyper-stylized action have been core tenets of the No More Heroes series. It never cared for making much sense and instead embraced its own ridiculousness with bold self-awareness, a staple of director Suda51. The slimmed-down hack-n-slash spinoff, Travis Strikes Again, hits many of the same notes, but not as hard and with varying degrees of success. Its combat is frenetic, but well worn toward the end. Its story and style is unique, but thin in crucial moments. Its humor lands in spots, but not quite with a punch. But despite a middling delivery of what past games have done, there’s fun and charm packed into Travis Strikes Again, and if anything, it is a great example of local co-op action on Switch.

Seven years after the events of No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, Travis Touchdown has removed himself from the world of assassination. The series’ too-cool-for-school protagonist now spends his days playing video games in a trailer nestled away in the backwoods of Texas. The father of past enemy Bad Girl, aptly named Bad Man, tracks him down for revenge, but he and Travis get sucked into an alternate dimension within Travis’ possessed Death Drive Mk II video game console. They end up working together to uncover the true nature of the haunted console and its games, and that’s how you get the co-op premise where you can play as either Travis or Bad Man in the six Death Drive games that serve as missions.

Charge attacks are satisfying to pull off, especially when Travis unleashes his inner tiger.
Charge attacks are satisfying to pull off, especially when Travis unleashes his inner tiger.
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Travis Strikes Again primarily plays as a top-down hack-n-slash action game that pits you against hordes of enemies, referred to as “bugs,” that look like they’re from a digitized hellscape. Travis is still equipped with his trusty beam katana, but can now equip four unique abilities mapped to the face buttons, which can be activated when holding down the left bumper and operate on a cooldown. As you acquire more of these skills, called Chips, combat starts to open up and become more varied; finding what works for you and stringing together attacks with a preferred loadout is satisfying, especially when dealing with tougher enemies that require more than button-mashing to defeat. A personal favorite combo is a lightning strike to immobilize an enemy followed by a sticky bomb, then a “force push” to toss them into a crowd before the bomb goes off. Each of these abilities are also quite effective alone since they deal more damage and create openings. Along with heavy attacks that carry a nice, weighty feel and charge attacks that build up to bring out a literal tiger in Travis, you can’t help getting hyped up when powerful enemies like a Sheepman spawn into combat.

Throughout the game, attempts to break up the pace of core combat are half-baked implementations of fun ideas.

There’s more than enough to toy with in terms of combat skills, but basic level layouts that move you from one combat arena to another wear thin. The scenery changes and stronger enemies with different movesets show up, but the formula eventually stagnates. Aside from the tail end of the first mission, “Electric Thunder Tiger II,” and a late mission we won’t spoil, environments tend to be visually bare without much flair to match the over-the-top action. The “Coffee and Doughnuts” mission shifts to a side-scrolling view for a straightforward murder-mystery theme sprinkled with Twin Peaks references, but combat is limited in this perspective and rudimentary platforming doesn’t make up for it.

Missions are occasionally broken up with either a minigame or puzzle, but this isn’t enough to stave off the repetition perpetuated by the simplistic level design. The “Life Is Destroy” mission that tasks you with rotating pieces of a grid-based suburb to make a path forward adds a sweet puzzle element, but gets hampered by an enemy that chases you around and causes instant death on contact. A drag racing minigame in “Golden Dragon GP” brings along a novel twist, though it’s short-lived. Throughout the game, attempts to break up the pace of core combat are half-baked implementations of fun ideas.

There’s more than enough to toy with in terms of combat skills, but basic level layouts that move you from one combat arena to another wear thin. The scenery changes and stronger enemies with different movesets show up, but the formula eventually stagnates.

Battles get real spicy when the “Serious Moonlight” chapter rolls around (at the time of writing this review, we’re not at liberty to divulge its contents), but even then, the combat arena formula begins to overstay its welcome. And the conclusory mission devolves into a series of tedious mazes and Gauntlet-like fights in empty rooms. In boss battles, it’s enjoyable to recognize simple attack patterns and strike when the time’s right. But again, they don’t quite challenge you in interesting ways or make the impact you’d expect from a No More Heroes game.

Thankfully, the option for local cooperative play is streamlined and allows a second player to jump in at any time. Playing in co-op elevates the thrilling aspects in combat and makes the duller moments a bit more exciting, as you’ll coordinate with your partner to pull off skills and efficiently tear down enemies. The already intuitive control scheme also translates effortlessly to a single Joy-Con. Travis and Bad Man don’t differ much in combat capabilities, though there are a few Chips unique to each character, and while you’ll have to decide who gets to use which of the shared Chips in the early game, there’s enough to go around in later missions.

Progression is laid out neatly with each mission concluding in a boss fight followed by a narrative sequence about how Travis acquires the next game. He runs into a cast of quirky characters and bizarre situations in a monochrome screen-style visual novel, and it’s surprisingly intriguing. Creative visual representations of characters and places in the green-black color palette are elevated by catchy MIDI-tuned music (including the original No More Heroes theme) and amusing dialogue. It’s not without a bad joke or two, or a gag that doesn’t land, but the exceptional execution of a seemingly secondary element goes a long way for tying the overarching plot together, as disparate as it may seem.

Here's to hoping we still see No More Heroes 3.
Here’s to hoping we still see No More Heroes 3.
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The overtly crude-but-not-clever humor has been toned down this time around, and it’s for the better. Profanity-laced lines and toilet humor remain intact along with tongue-in-cheek jabs and references to gaming culture, and frequent fourth-wall breaking; even commentary on the struggles of being a game developer finds its way into dialogue. Travis’ brash attitude works most of the time as every other character keeps him in check, including his sassy cat Jeane–who talks and has an anime-inspired portrait in the story chapters–and the game bosses Travis encounters who he expresses reverence for. However, dialogue is rarely spoken, as there’s limited voice acting even in the game’s scant cutscenes.

As expected, the game is packed with references, purposefully ham-fisted, to drive home the overall absurdity of No More Heroes. It works at times, such as the Chips being named after Gundam (Strike Freedom, F91, and Atlas, to name a few) and a story chapter that uses Suda’s own The 25th Ward: The Silver Case as a narrative device. There’s even a Jeff Minter stand-in character who’s crucial to the plot of finding the original Death Drive developer. A late-game reveal proves to be the boldest of them all, especially for those fond of a particular past Suda51 game. And there’s a slew of shirts you can equip with key art from other independent games (like Undertale, Hyper Light Drifter, and many more). As heavy-handed as some references may be, they’re at least consistent with the game’s personality, and if anything, liven up its tone.

This is not the return of No More Heroes you’d hoped for, but it at least shows signs of a series that still has life in it.

Once you’ve sifted through the references and callbacks, you have a competent action game with some great ideas that are only halfway there. Slashing through waves of deformed bugs and hardened brutes has its moments, highlighted by a seamless co-op system that makes jumping into the action a breeze, and the minimalist story presentation will draw you into the journey. However, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes doesn’t quite deliver on its potential, relying too heavily on repetitive encounters. This is not the return of No More Heroes you’d hoped for, but it at least shows signs of a series that still has life in it.

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Double Cross Review – Combat Woes

There is no shortage of indie 2D platform games out there vying for your attention and money. In order to stand out from the crowd, these games have to try to make themselves unique through visuals, sound, and perhaps most importantly, gameplay. 13 A.M.’s Double Cross does this by mixing a physics platformer with a mild dash of beat-’em-up combat and even a mystery-sleuthing story element. It’s an interesting concoction, but sadly, this mix doesn’t go down quite as smoothly as you’d hope.

Double Cross has players assuming the role of Zahra, a spunky young lass who works for RIFT, an interdimensional police force. RIFT is in charge of keeping all the various alternate universes out there in check, and Zahra’s one of their best up-and-coming agents. When RIFT HQ falls victim to a mysterious attacker, however, Zahra is tasked with combing through multiple dimensions and finding clues to the strange being’s identity. This involves some hand-to-hand combat, a bit of evidence collection and investigation, and a lot of swinging about with Zahra’s special Proton Slinger.

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While the game’s tutorial and Zahra’s status as interdimensional law enforcement might have you thinking that Double Cross’s priority is combat with monsters from different universes, it’s actually slanted very heavily towards pure platforming. Zahra makes ample use of her grappling-hook-like Proton Slinger to latch onto objects and propel herself along the game’s various environments, using the swings in tandem with a dodging skill to avoid hazards like spikes, fire pits, and security lasers. You’ll often be tasked with doing multiple, very precise swings in a row, which can be quite challenging–but thankfully, time slows down when Zahra is aiming her Proton Slinger, making it much less of a pain to do the demanding multi-sling sequences. It feels really satisfying to hit a bunch of tricky sling targets all in a row, especially if you’ve managed to suss out a hidden path to collect Upgradium, the game’s token ability-boosting collectible.

Elements like weird, clingy-bouncy goo walls and switch-activated platforms keep stage design interesting and engaging while providing simple puzzles to solve. It’s a good thing most of the stages are fun to bounce around in, because there’s not much to them visually–while Double Cross does offer a pleasant color palette and uses camera zoom wisely in areas where it’s beneficial, the lack of detail and samey-ness in many of the game’s backdrops don’t inspire much excitement to explore. You’re really playing to see what kind of fun platforming challenge will get thrown at you next. There are a few levels that are just plain bad–the arcade stage with numerous timer-based challenges is a real hair-puller–but they’re rare.

However, sometimes those fun platforming challenges are interrupted by combat. While Double Cross tries to make its combat seem meaningful–even offering a nifty custom combat-enhancement loadout system with new skills players can earn and equip–in practice, combat is a boring, mash-heavy slog with little player skill involved. The impact from connecting hits feels weak, enemy variety is nonexistent, and what few enemies there are in each stage are pretty easy to beat: whack the small fries with quick attack chains, stunlock the bigger dudes with heavy attacks, and occasionally use the Proton Slinger to grab and toss a projectile back at a foe.

You can gather energy from felled foes to charge up special attacks like a burst and a projectile, but their use tends to be limited. I got through the game almost never using the burst, instead hoarding my fireballs for when I knew a big annoying enemy wave was coming. Combat-heavy boss encounters, such as the fight at the end of the Reptarria level set, highlight the most glaring flaws of Double Cross’ combat: you’re up against a huge damage sponge that often doesn’t react to your arsenal of primarily short-range strikes in a way that indicates whether what you’re doing is right or wrong. Other bosses, like the battle at the end of the Gootopia stages, focus more on clever gimmicks than combat and are far more fun for it.

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Another element of Double Cross that disappoints is the game’s mystery theming. Zahra’s cross-dimensional adventure has her finding evidence related to the attack on RIFT headquarters, presenting it to her coworkers, and using their observations to build a case and go after various bad guys. This sounds like a pretty exciting gameplay element–I mean, who doesn’t like the sound of Where In the Physics Platformer Multiverse is Carmen Sandiego?–but in practice, it’s simply trial-and-error. You talk and show various items to the characters inhabiting RIFT HQ until one of them reacts. There’s no setback for showing the wrong thing to the wrong person–the only thing an incorrect guess does is prevent you from reaching a boss stage until you do get it right. Much like the combat, the detective aspect feels unnecessary and unsatisfying.

Had Double Cross opted to focus more on its strength–fun physics platforming–and de-emphasized things like combat and the tedious mystery-solving element, the game would have been an easy recommendation. But the weak parts of the package drag down the whole, and Double Cross winds up feeling like it’s a somewhat undercooked mash of ideas.

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