Imagine this hypothetical situation as best you can… You are listening to an overly whimsical song like “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles. You’re listening to this song in a very colorful outdoor garden complete with chirping birds and happy bees buzzing around that wouldn’t dare sting you because they’re just perfect along with everything else. Sounds good so far, right? Well look in your hand, and there’s a Rubik’s Cube for you to solve. Most average people are aware that a Rubik’s Cube is a damned hard puzzle to solve. However, when performing this task in a bright and colorful garden and to a jaunty little tune that kids would happily sing along to, perhaps the process won’t be so painful? At its heart, this seems to be the key concept behind Southend Interactive’s XBLA puzzle game ilomilo. The end result is an experience that is remarkable in its ability to be both incredibly charming and bedeviling at the same time.
If you strip away everything, ilomilo is a three-dimensional puzzle game. The core idea is to get two characters, ilo and milo, next to each other and at the same orientation. By orientation meaning, basically, that they’re both standing on the same ground. Ground is a relative term in their world because with the use of various tools, you will have them completely defy gravity treating what was once ceiling or wall as ground with a simple corner that has a red arrow allowing you to ignore the very laws of physics.
In worlds made entirely of blocks, you will find some you can carry all your own that do everything from simply fill a gap so you can cross to another spot, to self-propel into otherwise unreachable areas where a necessary switch can be struck. Those switches will likely move other blocks that can completely alter your approach to the environment. Other deployable blocks serve as trap doors that will drop you onto the opposite side of the block you were just on, and ones that will fly up and down relative to where you dropped it. So up and down to ilo could be left to right for milo if she/he’s standing on a wall nearby. Honestly, the possible scenarios are difficult to describe in words, and a good general gist can be had from the game’s trailer.
On top of the main goal of getting the two protagonists to meet and be cheery (more on this in a bit), there are also side goals of collecting every item in the level, which includes little mini creatures known as safkas. There are three in almost every level, and if you collect all of them in a given world, they will unlock a bonus crazy-hard stage. In a game of four worlds, that means there are twelve bonus levels that will likely be spent staring blankly in utter bewilderment and confusion more than in motion and showing progress to onlookers.
That’s all part of puzzle gaming, though. The mechanics on the whole are solid, barring two things. First, with a game based around 3D puzzle solving, you’ll inevitably hit points where you simply can’t see the solutions due to the limitations of the camera. It’s one thing to be stumped by a tricky corner, but a whole other when you just can’t peek around when there’s no reason not to. Second, the controls are a little stiff. While it is a tile-based game, it would have been nice if the movement felt a little smoother and quicker. It’s most felt when fighting the controls leads to missing an elevating block.
This may sound overwhelming, and possibly off-putting, and there’s no getting around the fact that it has that potential. But at the same time, if you have that itch to really rack your brain as the camera twists and turns and pans and every other possible thing, then this game really does provide hours of fun… not unlike that Rubik’s Cube mentioned earlier.
Now about “Yellow Submarine,” just as important to this game’s brutal puzzles is the presentation. It’s clear that Southend put a lot of time into trying to set this game apart visually and aurally. Their blog even boasts fanmade safkas and a featurette on the composer of the game’s music. But more than just set the game apart superficially, it’s clear that they wanted this game to have a real heart and soul with the best of timeless children’s fantasy. Think Roald Dahl if he were to invent Kirby and you get a loose sense of where this game’s trying to go. Right from the title menu, as you scroll through your options of Single Player, Multiplayer, Options, etc., it won’t take long to realize that you’re playing the melody to the song playing in the background just from pressing up or down. Indeed, you even get an achievement if you can “scroll” to the beat of the music correctly.
Within the game itself, you get a narration about how the two protagonists are best friends who love playing in the park, but that the park keeps rearranging itself! Oh no! So every day starts with them finding each other. Oh dear! Once in the game and playing, there’s a big talking midget guy on a flying… thing… who is both your tutorial and your source of general whimsy-fantasy snootyness. It’s all here, and honestly it’s pretty cute on the first go. Some of the writing is overwrought even for this kind of thing, but it’s forgivable given everything else.
The visuals as a whole also come together wonderfully. For a downloadable puzzle game, it’s just gorgeous. The textures have a lot of pop and it all truly comes across as a well-realized fantasy world. It’s comes mighty close to rivaling LittleBigPlanet in terms of style.
It also sounds pretty great. The blog is right to feature the composer because the music works with the visuals, let alone its distinctness in gaming as a whole. It’s of that floaty, psychadelic 60’s variety, complete with lots of recorders and xylophones to that kick the cuteness and whimsy up to eleven. Again, it works really well with the visuals. The sound is equally appropriate, with everything sounding appropriately goofy, and my personal favorite of messy horn sections as a cheap form of fanfare. Again, it’s great.
But it’s also not. See, if you go back to the scenario above, solving a Rubik’s Cube in a happy setting with happy music can make your mounting frustration a thing of black hatred. After a while, that cute presentation of a fun fantasy world you’d love to see a whole lot of becomes the back drop for aggravation and frustration. The cute creatures become facades for the very roots of all evil, the music becomes a shrill, dissonant form of Chinese water torture, and the stupid dog thing and its “Yom” sound repeated over and over is like a vice just clenching your head tighter and tighter and even now I still.. hear.. everything. It’s not unreasonable to think there is a QA team somewhere in Sweden that still has these songs and sounds drilled into their minds with images of topsy turvy cameras and cubes. Going back to the analogy, songs like “Yellow Submarine” and “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” have their place and are fun, but hearing them on repeat for long bouts of time is just not that place. Topped with being thoroughly stumped by mad scientist levels of tricky puzzles, and it just becomes a weapon against you. If this is what Southend intended, they nailed it with flying colors. Literally. The only problem is it made me not want to play the game after a while.
Eventually, muting all audio was the only way to carry on. Pretty pictures alone don’t push one to the brink of madness, so it was bearable after that. When I did that, though, it made it abundantly clear just how significant the presentation as a whole is to the game. Without that audio, you just have a nice looking 3D puzzle game. The experience does lose something that, with moderation, is worth experiencing.
I found myself thinking of Braid, which was also a tricky puzzler at times, about equal in difficulty. The presentation there was also very fantastic and whimsical, but had a more mellow tone. The music was meant more to relax and calm then make one want to have a ridiculously big smile on their face. That seemed to mesh better with the idea of a puzzle game, encouraging patience while still “working” with the whole experience.
Given all that, it’s hard to flat out not recommend ilomilo. There’s a lot to like; the puzzles are undeniably challenging and fun, and it does have its charm. For $10, you can do a lot worse. But as an overall gaming experience, it is a much more gray area. Said charm can turn on the player with a force. You ultimately have to decide whether you think this clashing aesthetic will really bother you or not.
+ Great puzzle design and difficulty ramps up very reasonably
+ Sights and sounds come together wonderfully
+ Quite a few hours of game time for a $10 game here
– Camera can be an obstacle at times when it really shouldn’t be
– Stiff controls might screw you over from time to time, leading to trying of patience
– Overall presentation can literally pain you as you stand stumped. Something about happy fun music and brutal puzzles…