Growing up, I enjoyed watching various Slavic tales, particularly Russian movies. These stories possess a sense of wonder beyond description. Stories about a brave hero who goes on an arduous quest against all odds, outsmarts his wrongdoers and marries the beautiful princess in the end. Developed by Breadcrumbs Interactive and inspired by these stories, Yaga tells the tale of the unfortunate blacksmith Ivan.
Unfortunate, for multiple reasons. To begin with, he loses his arm during the game’s introduction battling the One-eyed Likho. Afterwards, the Tzar employs him to seek out Strength Beyond Measure, which bestows its owner with unimaginable strength. And to make matters worse, his grandmother constantly pesters Ivan about finding a suitable bride. This might prove difficult – with that beer belly he’s certainly no Tom Cruise.
Luckily for Ivan, satisfying the Tzar’s request takes precedence over everything else. And so he embarks on a quest to collect gifts for Baba Yaga and ask her for guidance. Finding Strength Beyond Measure, however, involves braving treacherous woods and overcoming monsters lurking therein: including wolves and bears. Presentation is easily the game’s strongest asset, both in terms of the colourful visuals and the narrative itself.
Exploring the town and the surrounding wilds, you’ll come across a plethora of side-quests which often present multiple options for resolving them. A farmer might ask you to locate his brother, who went missing along with a stash of gold. Lo and behold, you soon find the missing brother tied to a tree in the woods. Without the gold, of course. He explains that the bandits took possession of it and begs you to retrieve the stash.
Naturally, you agree to help the poor peasant because you’re a kind soul. And it’s also fun to beat the living daylights out of those bandit scum. But returning to the farmer, you have the option to decide on what to do with the gold. Either hand him the stash and receive a reward or tell him that you found nothing and keep the gold to yourself. I didn’t have a choice but to lie because I spent half of it on my way back!
And the same principle applies to the Tzar’s ridiculous requests. Sure, you’ll go and fetch the Strength Beyond Measure for the greedy bastard. But who said you must give him the real one? It sounds like a powerful relic alright, but it’s really just a golden apple. A really powerful apple that is. And you can just give the Tzar a regular gilded apple. The old fart falls for the fake and you get to increase Ivan’s strength by equipping the real version.
Moving on, he wants some Bottled Youth – a bottle of water that bestows eternal youth upon its owner. Why not give him some muddy water from the swamp then, and keep the youth to yourself? There’s a choice for almost any action. You can even decide to spare a boss, if he or she asks nicely, and summon it in battle later on. But every single action leads to certain consequences and ultimately determines Ivan’s character.
Whether he becomes a valorous hero, an aggressive knucklehead or a selfish capitalist is entirely up to you. And Yaga rewards you (and punishes too) for sticking with a certain character trait. After a while of playing the game and returning to the village, I realised that several residents had died. And for some reason I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t scripted and happened as a result of my selfish actions.
Every decision, particularly if unaligned with his personality, potentially increases Ivan’s bad luck meter. This makes him learn faster (i.e. gain experience) for an opportunity to attain a new perk upon completing a level. If his bad luck reaches a maximum threshold, however, the One-eyed Likho appears once again to destroy any equipped weapon.
Throughout his journey, Ivan will also encounter priests and God shrines. Much like with making decisions, gaining a blessing from any entity increases bad luck. And in exchange they provide Ivan with various stat boosts. But overall, I found the detrimental effect of losing a weapon far more impactful than the humble benefits of a blessing.
It’s a shame that decisions don’t play an equally vital role in combat. Ivan carries a trusty hammer with him at all times, which you can use to hit enemies with. Alternatively, you can throw it and the hammer will also hit the enemy upon returning to Ivan’s hand. His other arm gives room for attaching various tools, such as a grappling hook or a shovel.
But these tools are seldom useful beyond their initial introduction into gameplay. For the most part, I relied on upgrading the basic hammer into something more potent. Yaga isn’t too challenging, so long as you equip a decent weapon at all times. And even upon death, the game will provide you with another chance to fight, restoring Ivan’s Willpower.
Upgrading is done by finding an anvil. Forging a new weapon or tool changes its appearance depending on the ore used and bestows it with properties based on magic items used. Most upgrades result in fairly straightforward improvements, such as an increase in power or speed. But others temporarily stun enemies, deal damage over time or even make the hammer bounce between multiple foes.
Before affecting Ivan’s Willpower, taking damage during combat consumes stamina. But actions like rolling and throwing the hammer don’t. Because of that, I spent most of my time rolling, dodging enemy attacks and throwing the hammer at an opportune time. No matter how many items and weapons I obtained, my approach to combat didn’t change. And that’s because there’s one superior method for dealing with any monster. I found it much more effective to throw my hammer at foes rather than engaging in direct combat.
And with some planned crafting, this method gradually became even more powerful. At one point I stopped using melee attacks altogether and never even once found it necessary to use a shield or any other tool. As a result of this simplistic approach, battles against bosses also weren’t as memorable as I expected – even against the bear with a balalaika. I simply reused the same strategy across all combat encounters.
Beyond that, Yaga does have a few small faults. Environments become repetitive fairly soon and also lack a full-sized map. There’s a mini-map which gives you an idea of Ivan’s current location, but it’s not enough to pinpoint missed paths. This made backtracking a tedious affair, especially considering Ivan’s slow movement speed without any upgrades.
Drawing inspiration from Slavic folklore, Yaga on Xbox One certainly delivers in terms of its narrative and lore. But in terms of combat and environments, it feels underwhelming. Levels get repetitive quickly and the combat system leaves a lot of room for improvement.
In terms of exploration, questing, decision-making and crafting, however, it provides an otherwise highly polished fairytale experience. It’s very well worth it to replay the game and explore Ivan’s development across different scenarios. And if one overlooks the game’s minor shortcomings, then Breadcrumbs passed its first project with flying colours.