Review: Yomi

By Kelsey Rinella 18 Apr 2014 0
I'm not proud of liking Argagarg. He's the sort of annoying character who always blocks, except exactly when you try to throw him. In my head, K.O. always occurs in the voice of the announcer from Tekken, which is badly synced to Bruce Lee's lips.

Yomi is a mobile game which simulates a card game which simulates a (non-existent) fighting game from designer Dave Sirlin's Fantasy Strike universe. With the dexterity element stripped away, fighting games generally come down to snap predictions about the choices your opponent will make; it's always possible to counter their choices if you guess correctly (which is why they're often compared to rock-paper-scissors). Sirlin has popularized the term "yomi" among English-speaking audiences as a way of describing the reading of the opponent necessary to play such games well. This same skill is at the heart of games with simultaneous action selection, recently seen in Frozen Synapse, so the card game involves choosing your card at the same time as your opponent. There's a fair amount of bookkeeping involved in the many ways the game embroiders this simple mechanic, though, and having the computer take care of all of that is one of the two great blessings of this version, the other being the availability of opponents, even on other platforms.

Sirlin is a polarizing designer. Like Keith Burgun, he has unusually strong and well-articulated views about the qualities of games he enjoys. Some regard his games as borrowing overly heavily from others, while others see him as possessing an ability to fix the serious problems with existing games and produce a far more refined, more rigorously playtested experience with a dramatically different character. While not dismissing any of these as irrelevant, our focus here will remain Yomi.

I don't watch Big Bang Theory, though, so I couldn't say what Spock does. Attacks and Throws set up combos, while Block lets you draw cards and Dodge lets you hit back once. Jokers beat Attacks and Throws, but lose to Batman.

Maybe you've played some collectible card games. Perhaps, like my, uh, friend, you played them enough that you were able to sell off most of your collection to buy your fianceé's engagement ring. If so, you've probably noticed that the official rules tend to be excessively complicated (the pdf of Magic's comprehensive rules is 199 pages) and, at any given time, the variety of viable decks in high-level play is pretty limited--play variety largely comes through the introduction of new cards several times a year, rather than being inherent to a particular set. Even those who've never played are often quite aware of the fiscal hazards such games pose. Yomi aims to provide 20 characters with distinctive playing styles which will all remain competitively viable over the course of years of learning. You'd think that would be an excellent pitch for a game releasing on the same day a major digital CCG reaches wide circulation, but it's hard not to imagine a picture of Kirk's screaming face captioned "Blizzaaaaaard!".

The basic mechanic is a cycle, with throws beating blocks/dodges, blocks/dodges beating attacks, and attacks beating throws. Each of these has different effects when you win, though, so it's not a purely symmetrical guessing game even without the addition of unique character abilities and decks with different mixes of abilities. With them, context and player behavior can make inferring how the opponent will play quite skill-dependent. The two levels of AI are sufficient to hone one's abilities enough to make the synchronous online play appealing, but it is there that the game has the potential to keep one's attention for years. It's a surprisingly emotional game for me; with matches lasting less than fifteen minutes, I did not expect to be so invested that I would feel like such a worthless shlub after a few bad turns, or so triumphantly all-powerful when I do something right. I probably shouldn't run for elected office, or otherwise occupy a position of any power whatever.

While $20 for the full 20 characters is steep by iOS standards, the physical game runs $100 for only 10. It all depends on how you define your BATNA. Grave. Sounds a cheery chap.

The characters do play very differently--enough that ten original characters, with ten more unlockable through a $9.99 in-app purchase, offer a great deal of variability. If you've been spending time practicing a particular character, you should expect switching to someone new to end painfully for a couple matches as you break the now-counterproductive habits you'd been learning. Even switching to a different opponent after practicing a specific matchup generally requires a strikingly altered strategy. With all 20 characters available as opponents even with the IAP, it feels almost like 200 smaller games, rather than one large one.

That's not purely good. The reason bloated rulesets are a problem is that games cursed with them tend to be difficult to learn. If you can't really feel like you're making decisions in a well-informed way until you've memorized all of the cards in both decks of your current matchup and have seen their special abilities interacting in numerous ways, that may well take as long to acquire as mastery of a much more difficult ruleset. What it does accomplish, though, is to get you playing quicker, learning more of the relevant information from playing the game rather than a tutorial or rulebook. It also means you can control how broad your understanding is--if you want to approach the game like a tourist and see a little of everything, you can quickly develop an awareness of the general trends and universal tensions of the game, but if you play a single matchup for hours, you'll be playing at a much higher level earlier.

I owe Matthew Modine my knowledge of both horology and lupus. I set up this screenshot with Geiger the watchmaker specifically to make a "horologist" pun, but I don't actually disapprove of women choosing to dress and behave however they like. Also, it was a pretty awful pun.

There are a variety of minor issues with Yomi. I encountered a couple different crashes. There's no accommodation for the aggressive memory reclamation of iOS, so if you multitask much, you just lose the game in progress. The conversion from the card game is relatively literal, with static art assets. These, while by no means the creepiest around, follow the usual fighting game aesthetic with respect to female forms and modesty of dress, which means I'm a tad uncomfortable playing with my daughter watching. Some of the abilities seem to have lost their elegance on the way to balance.

None of these prevent Yomi from leaving a sterling impression overall. While the habits of a game reviewer aren't ideally suited to the appreciation of a game intended to reward consistent play over years, I have great respect for aiming at that goal, and Yomi seems well designed to achieve it. It feels an awful lot more like playing a fighting game than a card game ought to, though without the ignominy of failing to properly execute a quarter-turn forward repeatedly.

Review: Yomi

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