STAFF REVIEW of iO (Xbox One)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

iO Box art While not everyone is a fan of smaller indie titles, there’s something great about having small and simple games that you can play for minutes at a time when you simply need a break from the norm. If they say that “less is more”, then developers Gamious took this saying to heart, as iO may fool you with its barebones visual appearance, but don’t let that deceive you, as there’s a really interesting platform puzzler contained within.

Don’t come to iO looking for some in-depth mechanics, flashy visuals, orchestral score, or even a story, as it has none of those, yet it isn’t really considered a detriment here, as iO is trying to be a simple yet challenging game, which it excels at wonderfully. Better yet, iO feels different and unique amongst the slew of platformers flooding the market right now. So what makes this one stand out amongst the crowd?

iO’s premise is simple; get your ball (or I guess puck since it’s played in sidescrolling 2D style) to the goal. That’s it. To earn the gold, silver, or bronze medals you’ll need to be on point and very quick. Getting your puck to the goal won’t be easy after the first 25 or so levels though, as you're taught early on that you need to use physics, albeit not completely realistic, to reach each stage’s end point.

You need to utilize momentum, move obstacles, and come up with creative solutions. The main catch about iO is that you can shrink and grow your puck at will, which in turn changes the physics and its momentum. For example, you can scale a completely vertical wall if you start small and slowly grow your puck larger as you make your way up it. The same goes for gaining momentum, as you can launch yourself very quickly if you shrink suddenly when about to take off from a ramp. It does take a lot of getting used to, but this unique mechanic is your primary focus on how to solve each stage.

Getting to the wormhole exit on each stage won’t be easy and each level essentially gets harder as you go. There are well over 200 levels to challenge you, and you should be impressed if you can finish many of these levels, not even taking into account the brutally challenging par times for medal earnings. Each level feels unique and has some sort of catch to figure out to reach the exit. Most levels only last a few seconds to 30 seconds or so maximum, but expect to spend a large amount of time on some of them just trying to figure the level out.

Sometimes solutions are quite simple and you’ll solve them at first glance, while other times you’ll be completely baffled on how to progress. In the later stages you’ll need to deal with blue platforms that move in a set pattern, yellow objects that can be moved and are usually required to be manipulated, and deadly red areas that will instantly kill you if touched. Since the gameplay is physics based, you need to figure out ways to use your momentum and shrink/grow abilities to get past the blockades hampering your progress.

One of the earliest tricks you’ll be taught is how to gain speed and utilize your momentum to reach new heights. The bigger your puck the faster it will roll downhill, but slower uphill. Shrink your puck as you reach the end of a line and you’ll launch yourself in said direction with great velocity. Much of your success will be in learning how the physics work, grasping how to utilize specific maneuvers, and simple experimentation.

The mechanics of growing and shrinking your puck is fluid and works well, and when pulling off well-timed launches and moves it feels fantastic, but everything isn’t perfect though. The main issue I have with this mechanic is that when you grow, the camera zooms out, and when shrinking it zooms in. With some stages this won’t affect the gameplay too much; however, the latter stages require you to know exactly where you’re at, especially when launching your puck into the air, leaving you unsure where you are in relation to the level’s ramps as you’re completely zoomed in on your small puck. Having an overview of the stage is absolutely critical in many spots, and when you lose sight of that it feels as though many levels require perfect memorization, and a bit of luck, rather than skill. This is where trial and error comes in, many many trials, but even more errors.

Once the levels start to utilize moving sections and movable objects, the difficulty ramps up dramatically. Some levels are elaborately created with a specific solution in mind, though because of the ‘odd’ physics there was a level or two I completed because of some weird glitch, launching my puck when it shouldn’t have. For example, my puck somehow reacted to a hinge on a rotating object, but it luckily flew me right into the goal area, making for a 5 second finish when the gold par time was 20 seconds.

Even on the hardest stages, they may look menacing, but none are ever built too intricately and simply require the ‘proper’ way to complete them. Levels progressively become more challenging, but it’s not always a constant uphill battle, as you may be unable to complete a handful of stages in a row, then all of a sudden you are able to complete the next set without any issues, though that may simply be due to being better at some of the skills needed than others. I found that I can scale upright walls no problem, but the shrinking to gain momentum is what I struggle with, even hours into the game.

If you manage to be an aficionado of momentum and skill, the crazy difficult sets of stages range from Impeccaball, Incrediball, and Impossiball. These levels are no joke and will require all the skills you’ve learned up to this point and they are incredibly unforgiving. You’ll need to be a complete master of each maneuver and need absolutely precision to complete these challenging levels.

Visually iO is nothing to really look at, as it’s incredibly basic and simplistic in style, but this minimalistic approach allows you to focus on the level and gameplay. It may just be a bunch of lines and a puck, but the gameplay makes up for its rudimentary style. As for the audio, it’s fitting for the tonality of the game and never crosses the border of annoying.

Your average player will have no hopes of obtaining the bulk of the medals, especially gold, but luckily you’re able to choose any level at any time, never becoming frustrated and being forced into playing a single level until you complete it. The biggest miss for iO though is the complete lack of leaderboards. I would have really enjoyed seeing the best players’ times and of course, to brag against my friends.

iO is a great example of relying on a simple premise and fun gameplay over lavish visuals and an engaging narrative. Obviously there’s a niche market for platforming games like this, especially for those that love to challenge themselves, but given the number of rushed titles and influx of mediocre indie games on the market, iO really surprised me and taught me once again to not judge a game by its looks, but by its interesting mechanics and gameplay instead.

Overall: 7.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 5.5 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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