Looking at SouthEnd Interactive's game catalog, Ilomilo may seem out of place. Aside from a recent LodeRunner remake, Ilomilo is SouthEnd's lone puzzle game amongst a series of action-adventure titles and shoot-em-ups. It seems to be the video game equivalent of a filmmaker putting in time doing studio pictures to earn the freedom of making a heartfelt indie flick.
Heartfelt is a good word to describe Ilomilo. It is the story of two friends, Ilo and Milo, and their daily struggles to meet in a park that continually shifts its layout. It's unclear as to whether the shifting layout is due to the landscape itself or if the two protagonists simply have atrocious memories. The in-game narrative poses both possibilities, and all of the writing and storytelling has a whimsical, quirky sensibility. Regardless of the cause of their troubles, your role is to control both Ilo and Milo individually in an attempt to reconvene the two.
Each stage is a new day in the lives of our protagonists and a new puzzle to be solved. This is accomplished by traversing the many blocks that make up each stage. Every stage is filled with obstacles, such as gaps between blocks and impassable vertical walls. Navigating levels often results in mind-bending violations of the laws of gravity. Red carpets placed on certain blocks allow Ilo and Milo to walk sideways and upside-down, while special blocks can be picked up and used to fill gaps, fly across open space, and create bridges. Some even transport your character to the opposite side of a block, flipping the level on its head.
The initial levels are relatively simple, but things quickly escalate. As the complexity grows, keeping a grasp on your actual location in a level can become difficult, but that’s all a part of the carefully developed portion of the puzzles. It is as mind-numbingly complex as strolling through an M.C. Escher painting. Further complicating the matter is the fact that Ilo and Milo can only carry one special block at a time. This creates the need to carefully utilize both characters to maneuver blocks and obstacles about the level. Sometimes keeping track of your movements and the location of special blocks can become extremely confusing, but this is not a fault in design. It is merely a result of the labyrinthine nature of each stage.
Each level also contains a series of collectibles. Usually these consist of a piece of artwork, a musical track, and three smaller version of Ilo and Milo – otherwise known as Safkas. Each Safka is a different color, and accumulating each colored Safka in a series of levels unlocks an even harder special puzzle. There are also flowers located on almost every block of levels, and gathering these fills up a meter which unlocks “memories”. These memories tell another story, one very similar to Ilo and Milo's, however it is slightly more morose. All of these collectibles add an extra layer of difficulty to the proceedings, as sometimes a level's solution is relatively simple, but completionists be warned: collecting each and every item is maddeningly tough.
Controlling Ilo and Milo is relatively simple. You move each character with the thumbpad, press “A” to pick up special blocks, and press “X” to switch between each character. The controls are simple, but sometimes the characters' momentum can cause you to move one block too far, resulting in some frustration navigating the levels.
Ilomilo is lauded for offering multiplayer puzzle-solving, but it is a slight misnomer. Yes, two players can each locally control one of the characters, but you must switch between them like you would normally in single player. Essentially, the only difference between single and multiplayer is that you don't have to hand the controller back and forth. There are also special multiplayer “eggs” to be collected in each level, but these do not unlock anything in-game beyond an achievement. It would have been nice if they at least unlocked a new game mode. Having a second person around to help complete puzzles is nice, ultimately, and an enjoyable experience. The game’s charm makes up for any shallowness in the multiplayer.
The quirkiness pervades the entire presentation, from the visual style, to the writing and the music. The game has the visual, hand-crafted charm of LittleBigPlanet with the storytelling of say, Roald Dahl or Lewis Carroll. It's all very whimsical and stuffed with non-sequiturs, like a Napolean Boneapart-esque character named Sebastian who rides on a flying Barcalounger and is allergic to garlic. Sure, it sounds like quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness, but it all feels very genuine.
The graphics are quite nice for a XBL title. The textures are nice and detailed, and the blocks and characters looks as if they could jump off the screen. It actually feels like your are inside of a tangible universe when you rotate the camera around your character and the level. The music is a plus too, with whimsical little tunes played on what sound like toy instruments. It fits perfectly with the current lo-fi production sound that is so trendy right now.
Ilomilo is an enjoyable puzzle game from a developer not well-known for slow, thoughtful titles. Judging from the attention and obvious care for the world they have crafted, SouthEnd seems to be a much quirkier, nuanced company than their catalog displays. While multiplayer is a disappointment, the underlying puzzle game is one that is both challenging and entertaining. It's also pretty difficult not to fall in love with the adorable cast of characters. It will be very interesting to see what new avenues SouthEnd can take this budding franchise in the near future.