As the winning game of the 2012 World Game Jam and a finalist in the 2014 Indiecade festival competition, iO has quite the underground reputation. Of course, ‘underground’ there is likely to be the operative term as it’s unlikely you would have heard of this inventive little puzzle game from indie devs Gamious (props for the name, by the way). Unsurprisingly, few indie games win awards for impressive visuals or realistic simulation, it’s the strength of a title’s gameplay that draws the attention of groups like Indiecade; the more interesting and unusual the better. On this front, it’s not difficult to see why iO has gained a cult following, and now that the game is available on Steam, it’s more accessible than ever.
The premise is difficult to explain, despite its practical simplicity. Just guide a ball through a series of specially constructed mazes to reach a portal at the other end. Of course, those mazes provide increasingly complex obstructions for the ball and the only way you can bypass them is by physically shrinking and enlarging the game world/ball (you can choose which you think is true, the game never specifies). By changing the size of the ball (I’ll stick with that for now) you can open up more options and use momentum to your advantage. As I said, it’s difficult to understand without seeing the game in action, but rest assured that it feels pretty intuitive once you’re a few puzzles in.
iO strikes a really great balance that many puzzle games fail to attain: it can be both challenging and spontaneous. Some levels require an immense amount of thinking, forcing the player to try different paths, assess angles and play around with the mechanics in an effort to find new solutions. Yet other levels just let the player roll with it (sorry), getting to the end goal in just a few swift movements. Indeed, this fast-paced style is the ultimate aim of the game as players are rewarded with bronze, silver and gold medals depending on how quickly they can finish a puzzle. Yet that kind of speed can only be implemented on certain levels with a great deal of practice. iO then, becomes not only an interesting puzzle game, but also an intense test of skill.
Solving the levels is unsurprisingly satisfying, and using the changing of weight-momentum to great effect is a pleasing experience in and of itself. The developers, and those who helped design the levels, did a great job of squeezing out 150 different puzzles from the simple, but effective, mechanics. There are a few objects to be found across those levels to spice things up a bit, but on the whole the game relies heavily on the central growing and shrinking system, along with the increase and decrease in momentum that accompanies it. It’s quite startling to see how two seemingly similar levels can actually be very different to complete. That’s a testament to the original concept, one that was undoubtedly a eureka moment upon inception.
The game isn’t without the typical puzzle game issues, however. It can indeed be horrendously frustrating to encounter a level that doesn’t seem possible to complete. Thankfully you’re able to skip levels and return later if you get too annoyed, but the sense of failure is anything but enjoyable. That implementation of skill can also lead to frustration, as you’ll often find yourself trying to complete a level that you worked out mentally minutes ago. Plus, the somewhat unpredictable nature of the ball and the surrounding world means the controls can be a tad fiddly. There are no ‘fixed zoom points’, instead it’s up to the player to perfectly judge the necessary size of their ball. It’s good to have the freedom to work out puzzles in different ways because of this, but it does lead to some prickly levels.
Audio and visual design is also lacking, failing to properly stimulate the senses like most of the best puzzle titles. It doesn’t hinder the clever gameplay, but it does damage the overall package. I doubt iO will attract many wandering eyes on Steam; it just looks a little too samey. For those that do decide to give it a go, it doesn’t exactly cost a lot after all, iO is a fun challenge that should captivate even the most wily of puzzle gamers. If you’re not too fond of the genre, then this certainly isn’t going to win you over, but if you’re a fan of physics puzzle games then iO is something different enough to be worth checking out. It can be frustrating, but the moments of elation make it enjoyable on the whole - at least before you get to the horrendously difficult later levels!
iO (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
For those that do decide to give it a go, it doesn’t exactly cost a lot after all, iO is a fun challenge that should captivate even the most wily of puzzle gamers. If you’re not too fond of the genre, then this certainly isn’t going to win you over, but if you’re a fan of physics puzzle games then iO is something different enough to be worth checking out.