Nowadays, it's increasingly rare to see words like “cute” and “adorable” in a game review. With each new game seemingly trying to one-up the last with bigger explosions and more action, it would seem we have little need for such innocent adjectives. But don't start ripping pages from your dictionary yet, because developer SouthEnd Interactive's independent XBLA puzzler ilomilo has come along, and it is without doubt one of the cutest games ever made. And with those so-adorable-it-makes-you-sick little creatures comes an excellent puzzle game, that I couldn't help but fall in love with.
You might not think a game like ilomilo would have much of a story, but as it turns out, there are actually three! The main adventure follows the titular creatures, ilo and milo, who are the best of friends. But for some reason, after each time they are forced to part, they can never quite manage to find their way back to one another. The story is told through short stills at the start and end of the game's four chapters, and while it may not be complicated or full of twists and turns, it's a very sweet tale that provides just enough of a push to keep playing.
The block puzzles are complimented with a large focus on changing your point of gravity using ramps, which reminded me a great deal of a similar mechanic in Super Mario Galaxy. When you start using flying blocks, switches, and runaway cages, it is easy to see how things could have gotten very challenging, very quickly. But somehow it never feels that way. Ilomilo is challenging to be sure, and the puzzles are very cleverly designed, but it never becomes overwhelming, or to much to handle. It is just hard enough to make you feel smart, without crossing the line so many puzzle games do, and becoming more like a test than a game.
The other two stories are tied into the games collectibles, which creates a lot of motivation to take things slow, and try to find them all. One is the almost parable-like Huntsman and the Fox, which uses 8-bit graphics to tell a serious and rather heartbreaking story, while the second partly mirrors the main adventure, as one of a love torn apart. I felt very connected to both of these, and it really made it hard to stop playing and do anything else. This is the only real replay value the game has, because once you complete a stage and have found everything, you already know how to do it and thus have no reason to continue to play. There are a good number of levels though, and it ends very satisfyingly.
The presentation is really what sets ilomilo apart though. Everything has an almost cloth like look to it, from the blocks to the characters themselves seeming like stuffed animals. It's very creative and charming, and there is a youthful, childlike nature in everything you see. Ilo and Milo are full of personality, and despite any dialog whatsoever, really grow on you. The environments are also full of life, changing it up regularly with new scenery and random things happening in the background, as well as some always welcome nods to fellow indie games like World of Goo and Super Meat Boy.
The music is absolutely fantastic, with a varied score that hovers somewhere between Professor Layton and Animal Crossing, with ample use of xylophones and accordions, and a folk influence. They are infectious, and will find their way into your head at the oddest of times. And finally, the sound effects all play wonderfully into the rest of the game, creating yet another thing that will make you feel warn and happy inside.
I love ilomilo, but there are definitely some problems to be found. The biggest one for me, was that the multiplayer feels very tacked on and underdeveloped. It is little more than just passing the controller back and forth, with no simultaneous play to speak of. This means that one player will usually spend the majority of the level waiting for his or her turn to do something. You could do the exact same thing in single player with a friend sitting next to you on the couch, so it's really not so much a multiplayer mode as it is two controller mode.
This was a big disappointment to me, because it seemed like such a perfect game to play with a friend. If they had taken the time to implement split screen, or online play, so that both players could play at once, it could have been exponentially more enjoyable. As it stands, it's hardly worth trying, and you are much better off playing it solo.
Another more minor problem I had, was that there were a few times when I got completely stuck, and had to restart the level from scratch. This wasn't a very common occurrence, and really made me appreciate the fact that collectibles are saved as soon as you grab them, but a simple undo button or similar function would have greatly helped in some parts.
And although this last one is very much a personal problem, I feel it should be noted as others may be affected. All the switching between floors and different sides of blocks, actually started to make me feel slightly nauseous. It wasn't to bad most of the time, but anyone particularly prone to motion sickness might find themselves having a rather unpleasant time playing through the game.
Quality, original puzzle games are in short supply, and I have yet to find one more charming than ilomilo. The puzzle mechanics are unlike most anything else I've played, and the puzzles themselves are the perfect level of difficulty, always making you think without making you frustrated. The lack of a real multiplayer mode is definitely disappointing, and it could have benefited from a way to get out of the times you find yourself completely stuck, but overall I can find little not to like about it.
With an outstanding presentation, ilomilo really stands above the rest, and is something every puzzle fan should at the very least try. Here's hoping developers take note, and see that cute games can still be awesome!
Final Opinion: 4/5 Great!
Note, this review is of the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, and does not cover any differences in the Windows Phone version.