Every now and again an independent game comes along that totally reshapes your perceptions of what video games are capable of. Unlike AAA titles that take advantage of high powered budgets to create an excellent game, these independent gems combine overwhelming personality, one of a kind art style, and mind warping gameplay mechanics to push the boundaries of what is possible with interactive entertainment. Southend Interactive’s ilomilo is just one of these indie gems, and it could not be a more fitting end to a superb holiday promotion from Microsoft.
Like all great puzzle games, the premise of ilomilo is beautiful in its simplicity. You take control of Ilo and Milo, two adorable thumb puppets who can’ always end up separated when they meet-up. Your goal is to bring them together so they can enjoy beautifully cute playtime together. Per usual, there’s a catch; although they are separated in three dimensional space, neither ilo nor milo can jump or fall; thus, the two friends will have to make judicious use of some interesting resources in order to meet up with each other.
The typical tools are all there: as you’ll start off with small blocks and stretchable blocks, but what makes the game really special is the way that it manipulates space as a tool for puzzle solving. You see, there isn’t any real sense of gravity in the world of ilomilo, meaning that so long as your little puppet feet are planted on one face of a cube you can walk on it. Should you want to switch faces, that can also be done by walking over one of the strategically red placed pads. Every time you switch sides, the camera rotates with you, meaning that although you always seem upright, the whole world appears to rotate around you, creating some incredibly trippy graphical effects.
Your perception of the world only scratches the surface of how South End plays around with you though. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the idea that is no gravity you will be forced to take advantage of that fact in all sorts of clever ways thanks to some of the most amazing level design you’ll find on a console today. You will likely not go five stages at once without finding the solution to a puzzle and being simply astounded with the way that the developers took advantage of the space allotted to them.
Best of all, ilomilo curves out the difficulty exquisitely well by adding different types of cubes throughout the game. So, while you will initially likely only encounter a stretching cube and single cube, you’ll eventually be dealing with ones that can spin, fly, and even drop you clear through to the opposite side of the stage. By introducing these throughout the game as opposed to all at once, two goals are accomplished. For one, you get to become acclimated with the world in a stationary context, thereby gaining a level of comfort before cubes start flying and rotating all over the place. Secondly, it ensures that gameplay never gets stale because you are always discovering that there are new ways to manipulate the world.
Besides the level design and the difficulty curve, the other impressive aspect of South Bend’s game for the holidays is the art direction and graphics of the game. Each of the four areas has its own very unique look ranging from the blue hues of an under the sea area to a bright sunny day and even ending in a dark and gloomy night. No matter what the area though, your puzzle solving area will be suspended in space and set against a whimsical background. The combination of these two elements creates a surrealist effect that would make Salvador Dali green with envy. The art direction isn’t all for show though; it works hand-in-hand with the character design to truly give ilomilo a sense the sense of place that many games attempt to achieve in vain.
The final game in Microsoft’s promotion doesn’t just get the big picture parts right, it also does a lot of little things extremely well. For one, the missions structure isn’t linear, it Is grid based and completing each mission opens up the ones that it is adjacent to. Because accessing one puzzle doesn’t directly rely on having completed an earlier one, it is possible to completely avoid a stage that gives you trouble and advance without ever completing it. Nonetheless, you’ll still likely want to play through all of the stages in order to unlock the twelve bonus levels the game offers.
Unfortunately nothing is perfect and even the most exceptional games have their flaws, although in the case of Ilomilo they are admittedly minor. For one, the camera feels exceptionally loose and swingy, resulting in some difficulty when you’re trying to focus on a pinpoint location. Luckily precise camera control isn’t needed in many puzzles, minimizing the effects of this problem. Similarly, the multiplayer offerings are rather lackluster. The only thing that the ability to play with a friend offers you is the same puzzles but with one person controlling Ilo and the other taking Milo. What follows is an experience that feels tacked on and poorly thought out, as if the developers felt the need to fulfill some arbitrary requirement to have a multiplayer component.
A lackluster multiplayer offering and a finicky camera can’t keep an excellent game down. ilomilo is practically a how-to in creating an indie game that will be loved by gamers of all stripes. It combines thoughtful puzzling with an art style which is only matched by Limbo for sheer ambiance and creates sure magic. In a three week long promotion that already contained two solid titles, South Bend has truly put the jewel in the crown with their entry. Unless you are opposed to the puzzle platform genre as a whole pick yourself up a copy of ilomilo, I can assure you that it will be some of the best 800 MSP that you will ever spend.