The '90s. It was a wonderful time to be alive. An era before TOWIE, before PewDiePie, and before Ed Sheeran. Sheffield United were in the Premier League (briefly). We had it all. Pulp Fiction at the cinema, Oasis and Blur being horrible to each other every day, Curly Wurly's were like twice the size. It was glorious. Of course, no sooner than we'd gotten used to Cool Britannia and Nicholas Cage blockbusters, ol' Father Time was sticking his oar in, dragging us kicking and screaming into the year 2000. Goodbye Britpop, hello nu-metal. Quite literally, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Anyway, there's a point to all this sad nostalgia. It's not just about how everything was much better back in our day and that you kids don't know you're born. No, it's also because the brand spanking new video game YIIK: A Postmodern RPG – that's why-two-kay, if you're struggling – is an unabashedly old school RPG set in '99 and it wants you to know it. The game desperately wants to appeal to those who like looking back on the past with rose-tinted spectacles, and to pay homage to a bygone era in game design. How successful all of this is for you will depend largely upon whether you think that occasional references to 56k modems and VHS stores can balance out some serious gameplay issues.
It's the late '90s and Alex returns home from university to find that something sinister is afoot in his home town, and the only way to get to the bottom of it is by banding together with a rag-tag bunch of misfits and going on a quest for... You know how it all goes. The set-up is quintessential JRPG fluff and that's absolutely perfect for a game like this. We're quickly introduced to a couple of characters, we have a mission, and we're shown what appears to be a fairly rudimentary JRPG battle system with one or two neat little twists. Honestly, the opening hour or two are pretty radical, and that's why the rest of the game being such a slog is more disappointing than when Slowdive broke up. Slowdive. They were a shoegaze band back in 199–you know what, it doesn't matter.
By far the biggest issue with the game is the battle system, which at first seems novel, but then quickly proves to be an unmitigated chore. Think of it as a standard, turn-based JRPG. You and your mates stand at one end of the arena and the baddies stand at the other. You've got a menu, and everyone waits patiently to have their turn to attack, or heal, or use an item. The difference here is that every attack comes with a little mini-game you have to complete to boost the damage you'll do, or to see whether you'll be able to dodge an incoming enemy attack. At first, it's fun.
But quickly, enemy health bars start increasing dramatically, and their attacks become much more powerful. While that's absolutely standard fare for the genre, the issue here is how long everything takes because of the mini-games. Battles against random enemies can last for well over ten minutes and it derails the pacing of the game. Think about it: every single time you attack, you'll have to complete a mini-game, and then if you successfully pull it off, you'll remove a slither of the enemy's health. Then your next party member attacks and you have to do the same. Then the next. Then the next. Then the enemy attacks you, and you have to complete a mini-game to dodge or defend. Sometimes the enemy will attack multiple allies, and so you have to complete the same mini-game for each ally targeted in turn. Then the next enemy goes. Then the next.
That's round one over with and the first enemy is down to half health, so do it all again to finish him off, and then it's just three bad guys left to go. If you've got four people in your party and you're going up against four enemies, then that's eight mini-games – at least – per round, and spoilers: the mini-games don't really change. It's super tedious. JRPGs aren't exactly known for their riveting gameplay, and so it's easy to see why spicing it up and making it more involved seemed like a good idea, but something has gone badly wrong here. You can't skip the mini-games or power through by bashing X as fast as you can because failing them means your attacks will automatically miss, so the only way through is to sit and studiously take part, over and over again, forever, until somebody, anybody, just dies.
Mercifully, the random enemy encounters in YIIK are fairly infrequent, and that's the only thing that stops the game being an absolute write-off. Because of their relative scarcity, you can enjoy the other parts of the game, and sure, your heart will probably sink the next time you get thrown into a battle, but at least it's not a constant concern. Graphically, the game is quite charming, the script is amusing enough, and references to the late '90s can be a hoot if you've got affinity for the era.
We're going to give a special shout out to the music, too. YIIK has the smarts to mix up battle themes – something most JRPGs still haven't figured out in 2019 – so you don't get sick of listening to the same ones over and over. It's a fairly eclectic mix, and it's genuinely pretty good. Some of it doesn't quite fit the '90s theme, but we'll let it slide. We love disco as much as the next guy, but the '90s wasn't exactly known for it. Similarly, there's a bit of dub-step in there, too, but we didn't stand in that metaphorical dog-turd of a genre until long after the '90s ended.
YIIK: A Postmodern RPG, sadly, never shines as brightly as it does during its opening hours. There's enjoyment to be had here, sure, especially for anyone with love for the '90s – but all of the references to Chrono Trigger and Pogs in the world can't balance out the pleasure-less battle system and overly complicated levelling up mechanics.