Review: Irritum (PC)

Genre: Puzzle/Platformer
Developer: Nick Padgett
Publisher: Nick Padgett/Beefjack
Release Date: 9/6/13
Get it Here: IRRITUM

Indie games are obviously an intensely personal experience for a lot of their creators. When you’re working with a small crew of people, it can be incredibly uplifting when your game does well, and devastating when your game does poorly, so you clearly want to make the best game you possibly can. If you have the tools to make an amazing game technically, that’s not a big deal, but for those who don’t, relying on artistry and a novel idea can make up for a lot of technical polish. Terraria isn’t the most technically complex game on the market, but it’s such a massive experience that it far and away makes up for that. Braid was a standard platformer, but made up for its otherwise conventional roots with an attempt at a complex story and novel play mechanics. Sometimes that’s a lot easier than others, as ideas can outstrip the means to implement them, and no matter how creative one is, one can only take that idea so far. Such is the case with Irritum, a game largely developed by Nick Padgett, which came our way via the gaming site Beefjack. Beefjack is a European gaming site that deals in game culture, reviews, and even maintains a studio for game development, which is no mean feat, to be certain. Whether Irritum is a part of their development house or something they’re backing for Mr. Padgett (which I believe is the case), Beefjack essentially asked us (and, I assume, other sites) to review the game, and as I found the concept interesting, I accepted.

The reason I’m qualifying all of this up front is because I want it known, I understand the plight of Mr. Padgett and, to a lesser extent, Beefjack as a company, and it’s my hope that what I have to say here comes across respectfully and constructively. I understand the pain and suffering that goes into the development process, and while I’ve certainly been less respectful in the past towards games, I have every intention of being respectful here, in hopes it will encourage Mr. Padgett to continue developing. This is largely because the idea of Irritum is very interesting, but the game itself, unfortunately, is not.

The concept behind Irritum is simple: you play as the spiritual form of yourself, as you’ve recently committed suicide, and the game chronicles your efforts to return to life via a sort of artistic representation of forcing yourself back to life through jumping puzzles. Guiding you along the way are two guardian angels, of sorts: Sollus, who is more logical and encourages you to only reactivate your physical functions, and Cassus, who is more emotional (and negative) and encourages you to recover your memories while returning to life. The idea is actually rather interesting, at its core; Sollus and Cassus are both presented as being somewhat untrustworthy in their own ways, but both convey an argument that’s just convincing enough to make you debate if it’s worth listening to one over the other. The idea of returning to life from your coma state by way of navigating jumping puzzles has a novel feel to it, giving the idea of navigating your own head a disconnected feel, like a mental labyrinth of disconnected concepts, and with more work and a more Escher feel to it could be very interesting. The game doesn’t do enough with the concepts to allow them to carry the experience, sadly, which is honestly due more to the limitations of the tools than anything else it seems, but the idea’s solid and, with more tools and effort, could be worth revisiting.

The visuals and audio in Irritum, unfortunately, are very much problematic, and don’t do much to aid the artistic feel the game is going for. The game uses a wireframe visual style, similar to something like Rez, featuring wireframe environments, solid color characters and an environment that is blank, featuring little more than rain into an endless ocean (the sea of the soul perhaps). The backdrop is interesting, but the environment proper is blocks in various shapes and sizes, and it’s hard to really find anything interesting in a world of multicolored blocks no matter how complex they are laid out. Further, the two angels are meant to look like, well, wireframe angels, but look like spider-people based on the design of their character models, and it’s disconcerting in design. Finally, the visuals don’t convey a good sense of scope, which is critical in this sort of game, and it makes jumps difficult to complete, especially on thin ledges when your shadow is so miniscule that making one jump can take the better part of ten attempts. It’s interesting from an artistic perspective, but it makes the mechanics borderline psychosis inducing, and that’s never helpful. Aurally, the game has little to offer; there’s an extremely limited soundtrack, and while what’s here is haunting enough, there’s so little to it that’s basically nonexistent. The voice work, such as it is, only pops up when you collect memories, as the angels speak only in text, and the voices are muddy and drowned out when played; while this is by design, and it’s creepy the first couple times it happens, it doesn’t lend well to the experience overall. Finally, there are only a smattering of effects here, and most sound functional over anything; the dull click of the menu selections, the ethereal sounds of the memories you collect and so on are minimal and are functional, but little more than that.

As has been mentioned, the gameplay of Irritum is that of a 3D puzzle platformer. You control a small silver being who has to jump through various 3D environments to make it to a goal that’s readily visible somewhere off in the environment, and this concept is explained fairly well in the early going of the game. How the game makes things challenging is partly in the stage designs, which feature moving platforms and difficult jumps as the game progresses, but also in a dimensional shifting mechanic that pops up early on in the game. Basically, there are four colors of blocks: white, which are always accessible, and red, blue and yellow, which you have to turn on via a button press as needed. Only one can be on at any time, and you’ll often have to swap between them mid-jump as the game progresses to complete jumps and move forward, which can make for some tense jumping puzzles in the later goings of the game. You’ll also find various memory clusters and checkpoints throughout the stages as you move forward. Memory clusters can be collected to regain your lost memories, and generally seem to be either memories of your life prior to your suicide attempt or memories of the hospital immediately following the attempt, based on the text logs. These clusters are almost always in out of the way places, making them harder to collect and giving you more challenge beyond simply completing the level. Checkpoints, on the other hand, simply pop up in the course of normal stage completion, and give you simple goals to move toward if you want to complete the game.

As the game progresses forward, more mechanics are introduced that expand both the tools available to you and the challenge of navigating the stages. Teleporters pop up that allow you to transport from place to place, allowing you to bypass sections of the stage or move to new puzzle sequences. Breakable blocks appear that can make jumping fraught with timers, or allow progress if your movements are timed right. You earn the ability to make a ghost clone of yourself that isn’t capable of shifting blocks but can pass through laser barriers to reach new areas. You find switches of sorts that can turn off the otherwise always on white blocks, allowing you to move to new locations as needed. Further, every few stages you’ll have to reactivate part of your mental functions by moving barriers and such to allow a cloud to the part of the brain you wish to activate, all of which is slowly meant to bring you back to life as you progress. Now, you don’t need to complete every stage if you simply wish to make forward progress; you can honestly complete the “important” stages, IE the ones that start up brain functions, and see the “bad” ending easily enough. However, seeing the alternate ending requires collecting all of your existing memories across the game’s nearly forty stages, which can add hours to the game due to their complex placement and the challenge of the stages in general. The game also offers a “one life” mode to play with for those who want a challenge, as instead of returning to a checkpoint when you die, you’re given one life to complete the game in one sitting, which is no easy task, so for those who love a challenge, that’s certainly something to bring them back.

The issue, then, is that, for all of the novel concepts to Irritum, neither the medium nor the construction of the product work well in its favor.

3D platformers have a somewhat adversarial relationship with PC gamers, largely because the keyboard is, in the best of times, not the ideal medium for playing one. Irritum makes a valiant attempt to get around this by mapping the user’s camera to the mouse and the block shifting to the three primary mouse buttons, but this only goes so far into resolving the issue. There are still two additional mechanics the game requires the player to use the keyboard for (jumping and ghost generation), which borders on being a bit much to expect the player to comfortably work with when using the keyboard for this sort of game. This is doubly problematic when considering the fact that the game is a very challenging platformer; landing platforms can be very narrow, your shadow is miniscule, and there are some physics issues that can make landing awkward if you don’t stick it exactly, which, combined with the controls, can make the game frustrating. This is further increased when going for memories, which can require some expertly timed jumps, which can turn the game into an exercise in profanity. It also didn’t help that the game seemed to be completely unable to recognize my scroll wheel mouse button and would not change to the color type mapped to the button no matter what I did. The mouse is a generic Microsoft brand mouse, using generic mouse drivers, so compatibility shouldn’t have been a concern there, but in the end I had to remap the action to another key on the keyboard, which, aside from adding to the frustration of the experience overall, caused a number of additional deaths due to key confusion.

The game also doesn’t support native gamepad usage, which, given the nature of the game, is confusing, but far from uncommon given that games like The Binding of Isaac and Terraria don’t either. Testing the game with Joy2Key, however, caused additional technical issues I’ve not seen when using the program with other games. Specifically, at times, for no rhyme or reason, the down directional input becomes “stuck” causing your character to go careening off the platform they’re standing on into the abyss until you hold the opposite direction enough to “reset” the key input. This happened with multiple controllers, whether using the D-Pad or analog stick on each, and no other game tested with J2K has ever shown this issue before. Regardless of what’s causing this, it makes playing the game with the keyboard and a joystick an undesirable proposition. The game also doesn’t seem to recognize multi-monitor displays and lock the mouse into the primary display, as when looking around, if the mouse pointer ventured off-screen, clicking minimized the game instead of performing the desired action, leading to more deaths. At minimum, the game needs patching to lock the mouse to the game’s active screen and to allow for more mouse recognition options, and adding in native controller support would probably be a good idea. As it stands now, however, the game is frustrating no matter how one chooses to play it.

Irritum is a good idea for a game attached to an engine that doesn’t quite do it justice, and while you can see where the idea could be sound, between the limitations of the tools and the technical flaws that are ingrained at launch, the end result isn’t easy to recommend. The idea of clawing your way back to life post suicide attempt is an interesting one, and the game shows flashes of inspiration when attempting to make the most of the concept in the conflicting goals of the angels and the bits of your former life you can find. Further, the idea of the mind being a puzzle platformer isn’t a bad one on its own, as an Escher-like environment could be used to great effect, and the ideas here, with dimension shifting, splitting your personality and so on to accomplish goals have some meat to them. However, the aesthetics of the game are low quality, between the bland wireframe environments, the repetitive backdrop and the angels that look like were-spiders, and the audio combines minimalist, repetitive music with garbled speech and minimal audio effects to uninspiring effect. Further, the gameplay asks too much of the player when played with a keyboard and mouse on its own, and it has technical issues recognizing the scroll wheel button and locking the mouse to the game window that can lead to unnecessary trial and error and death. It also lacks native gamepad support and demonstrates frustrating issues when used with Joy2Key that further lead to unnecessary deaths, leaving the game frustrating to play no matter how one chooses to do so. With some patching and functional redesign, Irritum would be a game with some excellent ideas that simply lacks a technically sound engine to express them effectively, but as it stands now, it’s simply too frustrating to enjoy on any level, and is almost impossible to recommend as a result.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Irritum showcases a novel idea, taking concepts hinted at in games like Sanitarium and Juggernaut and applying them to a game based around suicide, but it transitions them into a game that’s technically unsatisfactory at best and mechanically flawed at worst. The basic concept is a fairly unique one, and the ideas at play here, between the angels with conflicting motivations and memories of your former life that you can collect, are interesting enough that you can see where an interesting game could have come from them. A puzzle-based plaformer isn’t a bad way to carry the concept, either; with the right aesthetics the idea has meat to it, and the concepts in play, with dimensional shifting, splitting your soul/personality and such to advance are good on their own merits. Unfortunately, the visuals and audio are low quality and lacking in personality, between bland wireframe visuals against a repetitive backdrop, angelic NPC’s that look like spider-men, minimalist and repetitive music, muddy speech and bland audio effects, and the aesthetics of the game work against it from the start. Also, the gameplay is unfriendly, between asking too much of the player through the keyboard and mouse controls, difficulties recognizing the scroll wheel button and locking the mouse to the game window, a lack of gamepad support and compatibility issues with Joy2Key, all of which lead to frustrating gameplay and far more deaths than are acceptable. If patches are released that make the game more device and input friendly, Irritum might be an interesting game if one can accept its minimalist aesthetics, but as it is now, it’s frustrating at the best of times and can only be recommended to those with an unending well of patience.



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