Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: Iji

The amount of alien shooters available in today's market is undeniably huge.  In Halo, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Dead Space and countless other blockbuster franchises, shooting space grunts in the face seems to be a recurring theme.  Now, I love games like Mass Effect that try to put a new spin on a weary formula, but those type of titles are few and far between.  The main problem with the "space marine action game" genre isn't so much that it's overdone, but rather that no one's willing to take any risks in it.  But if the mainstream media isn't up to the task of mixing it up a little, who is?  I'm sure that was the question consistently going through independent developer Daniel Remar's mind when he created Iji, which does everything and a half to stand out amongst the crowd.

From the moment you start playing, Iji's influences are easy to spot.  The character graphics are very reminiscent of games like Another World or Flashback, and the atmosphere gives off a huge Super Metroid vibe.  The art is simple yet effective, and I was surprised at how well Remar utilized his resources to create an immersive, memorable atmosphere that gives a unique flavor to each level.  Each aesthetic element complements each other, and the blending together of all of them makes for some wonderful eye-candy.  Add to that some amazing attention to detail (such as  the ship fights happening in the background of some levels), and you have yourself one great-looking game.

Of course, graphics alone don't carry Iji.  Far from it.  The gameplay system Remar has put in place works wonderfully, and you'll never feel like anything less than a nanoteched-out badass.  The basics are actually incredibly simple: Arrow keys for movement, 'Z' to kick, 'X' to shoot, and 'C' to interact.  But the core gameplay goes far deeper than that.  You begin the game with your standard shotgun, which deals reasonable damage, has infinite ammo, and a relatively short reload rate.  As you progress further and kill more enemies, though, you'll begin to acquire a substance called "Nano."  There's a little bar in the lower right hand corner of your screen that tracks the amount of nano you have left until the next level.  Level up, and you'll be given a point to spend at any of a series of modules for upgrading various stats.  Want to get better weapons?  Upgrade your "Tasen" or "Komato" stats.  Can't break down that door?  Upgrade your strength.  Want your weapons to deal more damage?  Getting some more attack power should solve that problem.  If you could level up as much as you want, this could make for one pretty overpowered character, but there's a limit of 5 levels per sector, so you'll have to distribute your stats sparingly.  This type of upgrade system really allows for a lot of experimenting, and encourages you to play through a certain sector multiple times to try out all sorts of different combinations.

One of the stats you'll want to focus on in particular, though, is the "Crack" stat.  This particular upgrade improves your ability to hack, something you'll be doing a lot of.  Hacking is done by interacting with hackable objects.  Once you begin the hack, you'll start a hacking minigame where you have to navigate a white square to a red one, while avoiding all of the black squares.  Lower level hacks are typically simpler, but the higher level ones tend to have much more difficult and complex puzzles to figure out.  You can use hacking to open doors and chests and sabotage enemies, but its most important purpose is in the fusion of weapons.  Each and every weapon you find in the game can be combined with another to form a new, more powerful one.  For instance, the machine gun can be combined with the shotgun to create the Buster Gun, a rapid fire variation of the shotgun.  This weapon creation aspect really adds an entirely new element of strategy and experimentation to Iji, and definitely stands out as one of the bigger highlights in the game.

But the thing that kept me going, the thing that drove me to complete every sector, was the story.  Now, that might sound a bit weird at first.  An alien shooting game with a compelling story does sound like a bit of a stretch, but this is far from it.  The game starts out relatively simple.  You and your family are taking a walk through your father's lab, and you look out a window to admire the view, when a couple of oddly glowing clouds suddenly fire massive laser beams from their interiors and completely fry most life on earth.  Luckily, you make it out alive, but you find out from your brother Dan (via a disembodied voice on an intercom) that everyone you know has been killed by an alien race known as the Tasen.  And it is at this point that you are given a gun and reluctantly make your way to the first sector.  There are two potential paths you can take from here: Do you blast apart these invaders who have wiped out your planet, or do you spare them out of mercy?

The little choices you make in the game have a large bearing on the way the story unfolds.  During your first kills, Iji seems apprehensive about shooting down the Tasen.  You'll hear her apologize, sniff and whimper when she delivers the killing blow.  Little details like these bring a sense of humanity to Iji's personality, making every shot a difficult decision.  Start to kill more, however, and Iji loses that initial sympathy, with phrases like "Sorry!" being replaced by cries of "DIE!"  Iji's emotions aren't the only thing affected by her actions, though.  Throughout the sectors, logbooks of the Tasen and Komato (the alien force fighting the Tasen) are scattered about.  At the beginning of the game, the content of them is pretty much set in stone, but as you are presented with more and more choices, the text within the logbooks changes to conform with the outcomes of those choices.  There are many intriguing elements to be found in these little electronic diaries, ranging from historical facts about the Tasen and Komato to first-hand accounts of war from each side.  They really do a great job of adding on to a game already strong on story.

As you begin to unwrap this mystery of the outside world, you are constantly reminded of the fact that nearly every living thing on the planet has been eliminated, which leads you to question what you're doing.  Is there really much of an Earth left to save?  If you do manage to kill every alien on the planet, what is there left to do?  In many other "space marine" games, the whole point is to stop aliens from destroying Earth.  In Iji, they already have.  It's an interest twist that I can honestly say was very welcome during my time playing.  It makes you focus less on the well-being of humans, and more on the beings that destroyed them.  While Iji's methods of advancing its narrative aren't necessarily completely original, they're done with an air of finesse that few games I've played can match.

Before I wrap this review up, I'd like to talk a little bit about the sheer level of content this game provides.  The lab is split up into 10 different sectors, each an adventure in of its own.  It should take you somewhere in the range of 20 minutes to complete each level, and that's not counting any of the boss fights in between.  A straightforward playthrough should be around 2-3 hours long, which is still an amazing feat for a free game, but chances are, you won't just play through it once.  There are secrets - loads upon loads of them - to be had.  Each sector has a poster and a ribbon in it.  Ribbons will advance a side story about Iji's little sister, while the posters serve a greater purpose.  Collecting all ten of them will unlock something.  Something incredibly, incredibly secret.  I'm not going to tell you what, but it's certainly worth the effort it takes to get there.

Of course, as with every great game, there are bound to be a couple flaws.  The limiting of shooting to only when you're standing makes killing enemies harder than it needs to be, and the knockback you get from some of your enemies' weapons tends to send you flying back further than necessary.  Also, if you want to go for a Pacifist run, you'll have to deal with hardly firing a single shot, which can be rather difficult when you're taking fire from everyone around you.  And the ability to save more frequently - instead of having to start the whole sector over when you die - would be nice.

But, all gripes aside, Iji is an utterly amazing game.  The amount of content and absurd level of polish will have you dropping your jaw every minute.  Between the excellent level design, inventive leveling-up system, challenging enemies and bosses, intriguing story and stellar soundtrack, this is a title that won't soon be forgotten.  So take a look at your calender, save a date, and download Iji.  I assure you, you won't be doing anything else that day.

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