Ivan the blacksmith didn’t believe in bad luck. He was happy with his simple life as the village craftsman. He was content. But that all changed when a sudden encounter with Likho, a monstrous embodiment of pure misfortune, chopped off Ivan’s arm and cursed him to a life of ill fortune. Meanwhile, the selfish tzar has his own stroke of luck when the infamous witch Baba Yaga warns him that the actions of an unlucky man will cost him his kingdom. It’s meant to be a warning and a chance for the tzar to prove he’s a decent person, but his self-interest lets him see only one option: find a way to get Ivan the Unlucky Blacksmith as far, far away from him as possible.
So he comes up with a series of impossible tasks, setting up the adventure at the heart of Yaga. With Baba Yaga watching over him (so long as he can stay on her good side), Ivan ventures out across the land in search of unmatched strength, eternal youth, and a wife more beautiful than the sun itself.
Drawing heavily upon Slavic folklore and with its own dark sense of humour, Yaga builds a fascinating world to explore. It’s full of strange monsters and unscrupulous people, petty gods and fickle witches. It’s a bleak world, but one that finds plenty of humour in the misfortune of people who mostly deserve. To seal the folkloric theme, it’s all framed through the perspective of a group of witches recounting an old fairytale.
That sense of humour is most apparent in the dialogue choices that let you shape Ivan’s character. Such things are a staple of RPGs, but Yaga‘s tone and setting pave the way for a particularly playful approach, especially when it comes to less heroic personalities. Playing an overly selfish or idiotic Ivan can lead to some hilarious situations and conversations, and feels more fitting to the context than playing a do-gooder hero. The script even goes as far as offering rhyming dialogue options in scenes where the Yaga really leans into its folklore inspiration with rhyming verse.
At the same time, Yaga can sometimes struggle to live up to the potential of its premise. The central plot, while being a decent catalyst for getting an adventure underway, doesn’t really build upon that in any meaningful or interesting ways. Other than Baba Yaga, and sometimes Ivan depending on what sort of choices you make, characters lack any real depth. They’re momentarily entertaining while they’re present, but easily forgotten soon after.
The majority of time in Yaga will be spent exploring semi-randomised maps, fighting various monsters and hunting for treasure—typical action RPG stuff. While Yaga doesn’t mess around too much with the core of that formula, it brings a few interesting ideas into play. Chief among these is “Bad Luck”, a system that sees Ivan growing progressively unluckier whenever he does something like use a magical healing item. At low to medium levels, the specific effects of bad luck vary depending on what sort of perks you pick up (it can even be a helpful thing!). But let Ivan’s luck get too bad, and Likho will start hunting him, adding a very dangerous threat to any outing beyond the village gates.
Yaga also takes a slightly unusual approach to levelling up. Ivan earns experience points as normal, but rather than simply levelling up and getting stronger, a full XP bar instead earns a new blessing (or perk) from the witches recounting his tale—but only at the end of the current outing. If you full up your bar too quickly, any further experience you earn will be wasted; if you finish the level before filling your bar, you’ll carry whatever you earned into the next one, making it easier to earn your “level up” but also limiting you to only one new blessing when you could have had two. It’s an odd system, and while I appreciate this out-of-the-box thinking, it doesn’t really make a substantial difference in practice. It feels like it’s different for the sake of being different, and once you figure out the ebbs and flows of experience gains, you can pretty much just treat it like a regular levelling system.
Blessings, at least, ensure a wide range of different ways to build your character. Each “level up” gives you three randomly-selected blessings to choose from, ranging from simple stat upgrades to weapon enhancements to new Bad Luck effects. Yaga isn’t a roguelike per se, but it takes a similar approach to character builds: you take what you’re given and do with it what you can. Being a blacksmith, crafting new weapons with various effects also plays a role in how you build your character, and there’s an assortment of magical talismans and additional blessings to buy from village merchants.
Combat is simple but effective, built around hard-hitting hammer attacks and a variety of different gadgets that Ivan can graft onto his dismembered arm. Enemy variety is limited, but there are enough to encourage at least alittle bit of experimentation with different tactics instead of just mindlessly hammering away at the attack button. Weapon durability is a the thing, though—which fits, given Ivan’s profession, but weapons break quickly enough to make the constant need to repair them or forge new ones tiresome.
It’s all dressed up in gorgeous hand-drawn art style that does a fine job of capturing Yaga‘s folkloric inspiration. A slavic hip-hop soundtrack might sound a bit out of left field, but it fits surprisingly well, tying together the folk tale theme and comedic tone in an unconventional by effective way.
While Yaga doesn’t always deliver on the potential that comes with its unique premise there’s still some good fun to be found. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in style and humour, wrapped around a decent, if uneven, action RPG.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.