Typically when one thinks of 2D platformers, common subjects include the Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, or Donkey Kong franchises. The forefathers, if you will. With today’s technology and the increased accessibility of game-making capabilities, others have been provided more access to work upon and even expand upon the humble genre. While the general consensus is that casual, accessible games are what will attract the biggest audience, the opposite end has proved an attractive, populated instance, as well. iota is a game that takes it upon itself to harness the 2D platformer mechanisms and twist it into a hardcore, dreamy state of evisceration. Maybe a bit too much.
I see similarities between this and other hardcore games I’ve played in the past, such as Deadfall Tropics. A determination to have difficulty as the forefront of a game’s worth, with all else being rather straightforward. In iota‘s case, it’s a bouncy, mobile-structured obstacle course of hazards and stimulating environmental visuals with limited mobility. No context or backstory to speak of; enter the game and survive within its ruleset. For the “purists” in the community, it’s a solid offer of tight, precise coordination.
Gameplay – The Hardest Platform to Platform
As stated in the introductory paragraphs, there is no story to speak of in iota. You boot up the game, you select “new game,” and you play the game. No names, no context, no motivation other than to conquer the challenge of towering difficulty. You play the game to play the game.
A Thread of Pain
I’ve brought this up with a few games I’ve reviewed, but this title is another example that just can’t have this analogy ignored: each final boss to the Donkey Kong Country series. This seems rather random, but allow me to explain. These boss fights are a journey in themselves, where one must memorize the patterns and execute each opening perfectly so as to not die prior to the final blow, lest they start all over again. Generally long and arduous, it challenges the player to master the rules of the game for a certain period with limited error. This is another aspect that makes it similar to the aforementioned Deadfall Tropics. Stages are often long and contain many challenges (with checkpoints, thankfully). It’s easy to categorize the stages into steps, with each bringing new challenges to the table. Yet there are distinct differences between the Donkey Kong Country series, Deadfall Tropics, and iota:
DKC typically only does this as a final boss; Deadfall Tropics is more expansive in its stage layout and allows more player input; iota is a bouncehouse in a saw mill.
Also similar to the restrictions set in Radio Squid, iota does not allow free control over the organism in play. Instead, it bounces from surface to surface, and what you control is its vertical/horizontal progression and speed. This immediately makes the concept much harder in theory, and with the amount of hazards present even near the beginning, one has to clench their teeth almost immediately. There is no hyperbole in saying that this is among the hardest games I’ve ever played; the restrictions with movement and number of hazards ensure it.
The most noteworthy feature comes with the speed at which the organism travels. Using button inputs, the player can either dramatically reduce or quicken the pace at which the organism bounces. For most intents and purposes (from my experience), the slow option is the one that will see most traction, with the faster alternative reserved for when one knows they’re in the clear. Perhaps it is just how careful I try to be in games that make this so, as experimentation was admittedly limited.
With 36 total levels, one would likely spend multiple hours trying to navigate through the meticulous trials. Honestly, I bowed out a little over an hour in, simply because the difficulty curve made it less enjoyable to play overall without any sort of enticing motivation. For those looking for a test of their platforming skills and an overall challenging foray into gaming, this is a great option. But the consequence of only focusing on difficulty is that it tends to limit the capability of an idea. Speaking from personal preference, I prefer why something is difficult over how it can be made so.
Graphics & Audio – A Dream of Moody Moments
With how difficult iota is, many would think that the purples and pinks flashing onscreen would be highlighted red. Jokes aside, there is a nice simplicity to the game that makes it easy to be appealed by. Darkened silhouettes that evoke danger, structures glowing upon impact, and mechanical movement make for one of the more dazzling interpretations of Hell out there. Immediately intriguing, the only drawback is that it seems only surface level, like a coating for the sake of it. Of course, this is a challenge of difficulty in a unique platformer first released on mobile, so the expectations for much more are likely unfounded. Regardless, the outlook is certainly interesting, with a lot of focus placed on the more calming, soothing colors humans can comprehend. Does that have an effect on how willing people are to face the challenge? It’s possible.
From what I could gather, there are two tracks total in this game. One that plays when you first boot up the game, and another that plays when actually playing. However, they might actually be the same—the style tends to blend together. A “bop” as the developers put it, the tone is reminiscent of the visual style that it also employs: smooth, dream-like, and moody. There are portions that remind me way too much of Willy Wonka, but that’s a small aside to note. Thankfully as long as the stages themselves, it ebbs and flows like caramel on a winding treadmill. Relaxing is one term, but I think “smooth” is the better adjective. Even now I can feel it embracing my brain as a last remnant of my time with the game. How it purrs.
iota was reviewed on PC via Steam. A review key was provided by Ronald DeStefano.