Yakata: Nightmare Project — Staff Retroview  

House of Horrors
by Michael Baker

40-60 Hours
+ Has incredibly creepy ambience at times.
+ Flanking system keeps combat interesting.
+ Story is well written with good pacing.
- Event progression can be a pain to trigger.
- Murky colors can be hard to see on screen.
- There are issues with the camera.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   During its tenure as the king of RPG consoles, the PlayStation was host to an amazing number and variety of titles, many of which have since fallen into obscurity. Yakata: Nightmare Project is one such title, though it is certainly deserving of more attention than it got. An odd blend of mystery and horror, adventure and RPG, it was well worth the five bucks I spent on it. In truth, it would have been a good buy at a considerably higher price.

   As the story begins, four strangers have been summoned to Kakushima, a lonely island off the coast of Kyushu. Mizuki is a brash teenager from Kansai. Miruko is a young editor at a publishing company in Yokohama. Souichi is an aspiring actor. The fourth guest, Yukiya, misses the boat to the island, and his attempts to catch up result in a shipwreck and some plot-induced amnesia. Their hostess for the evening is Chiori Nakamura, daughter of the famed architect Seiji Nakamura.

   Over dinner, Chiori lays out the basics of Yakata's plot for her guests. It seems that her late father had, over the years, built six special mansions. The first, the Blue Manor, is where they are now. The second, called the Decagon, is nearby. The other four are located across Japan, and each serves a nefarious purpose. Built into their foundations are devices that accumulate and store the negative energies of tragedy, despair, and nightmares. These forces are then channeled into the construction of her father's final project, the Last House. If it is completed, this unholy edifice will bring doom to the world. Chiori has invited the four of them because they each have a connection to one of the four distant houses. Using the strange geometry of the Decagon, they can travel to the different mansions and cleanse them of nightmares.

   The overall reaction to this is "Um, yeeeeeah, right." While everyone appreciates a good ghost story, no one really believes Chiori until she shows up dead in her bedchambers the next morning with the door locked and the key next to her outstretched hand. The odd-numbered chapters of the game are focused on unraveling this mystery while the even-numbered chapters see the four heroes and various allies explore the strange goings-on at the other four mansions.

Caption Killer shrubbery? Someone's been reading The Shining.

   The different buildings each have their own distinct atmosphere, with interesting and generally believable floorplans (though with an abundance of bathrooms). NPCs who are currently trapped in the mansions — tenant, servant, or sightseer — all have something to say even if it isn't always directly relevant to the plot. It can be difficult keeping track of important spots, but thankfully maps are provided at regular points. Some areas, like the Dollhouse, are pretty straightforward, but most are not. The aptly named Labyrinth House is a very good example of level designers trying to mess with the player's brain. When exploring dungeons, the heroes must rely on the Baku Map for help. This magic artifact won't show where someone is currently, so the player has to make use of landmarks and special color-changing crystals to orient properly.

   The biggest issue with exploration is the game's camera. It tends to orient itself according to the direction the character's sprite is facing, and while it's fairly controllable with careful use of the X button the player is still going to get turned around often. The camera also doesn't do overhead shots that well, so in narrow confines it can be difficult to see the characters at all.

   Mizuki, Miruko, Souichi, and Yukiya have all been chosen in part because they can harness the nightmare energies for their own use. The four other playable characters they meet can do the same. This allows them to fight those nightmares that have successfully crossed over into the real world, either as isolated instances in the mansions or within the bizarre dungeons that manifest themselves through important objects. While in a nightmare world the characters find themselves costumed like something out of a Dragon Quest game, much to their surprise and consternation. Yukiya's faithful dog, party member #7, actually turns into a dragon. The player can only have four people in battle at a time, but the intricacies of the plot rarely leave that many characters together for very long. The only time all eight characters are available is in the final level, when the player must direct two separate groups through a complicated maze.

Caption Yakata, where the architecture is the most interesting thing of all.

   Battle takes place on a giant hexagonal plane. Monsters can control any of the seven inner points around the center of the field while the player can move along the outer edge in order to flank the enemy. Flanking is very important as enemies take a lot more damage from behind and may have trouble targeting the player if the field is too crowded. Likewise, the position of monsters can hamper the player's ability to move. There are a handful of combo attacks that also depend on positioning, though this is an area in which the game could be improved. Each turn, a character gets two action points that can be used to attack, use magic or items, defend, or move around. Action points can be boosted with critical hits or lost with fumbles or certain status problems. It all has something of a tactical feel to it at times, especially with the boss battles. Many bosses have definite targeting habits that can be exploited to deflect attention from more fragile comrades, and some also have innovative (and aggravating) conditional healing tactics that must be understood in order to defeat them. The cast is well balanced in terms of abilities, especially one character who suffers from anime-onset multiple personality disorder (and is thus five very different characters in one).

   Yakata is a mid-period PSX title, and unfortunately it looks the part. It manages to pull off some impressive feats for its time, not to mention its numerous anime cut-scenes, but overall the game is full of blocky, pixelated polygons. The game sprites all belong to the same school of design as SaGa Frontier, resembling plastic figurines or claymation puppets. Yakata also has issues when it has to deal with wide spaces and dark colors, as the game's effect of fading away backgrounds depending on distance can make it very hard to see where one is going in certain levels.

Caption There are a lot of strange sights in the realm of nightmares.

   The game's soundtrack is pretty good, especially if one likes jazz synthesizer. The environmental theme music is generally low-key with the occasional turn for the creepy while the battle music, and especially the boss music, is good for pumping the spirit. The plot-important scenes are usually voiced, but the usual issues with vocals-versus-soundtrack exist. Depending on who is speaking, even native Japanese speakers may have problems catching some details.

   With a bit of trial and error, it's possible to learn the ins and outs of combat even without any Japanese ability. The same cannot be said of the adventure side of things. Very often the player will have to jump through metaphorical hoops in order to solve puzzles or trigger events, all of which require a decent command of the language — or access to the walkthrough videos on Niko-Niko Dougu, at the least. Understanding the various references sprinkled throughout the game requires a broader knowledge of a range of topics, such as the developmental periods of Picasso, mystery and sci-fi pulp literature of early 20th century Japan, Greek mythology, British detective novels, paleobiology, and French avant-garde cinema. Five of the game's mansions — the Decagon, the Water-Wheel House, the Labyrinth, the Dollhouse, and the Clock Tower — are references to a series of novels by Yukito Ayatsuji, who is listed in the credits in a supervisory position. The game also acknowledges the contributions of Messrs. Hiroi and Kobayashi of Red Company, which may explain a lot about why this game is so odd.

   In spite of (or perhaps because of) its unique composition, Yakata succeeds in delivering a memorable gaming experience. The combat is involving, the characterizations are spot-on, the level designs are interesting, and the plot twists are brain-wrecking. This game is a true example of a lost PSX classic.

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