Reading Between Gaming Reviews: Iji

Remember when Undertale came out, and the existence of Pacifist, Genocide, and Neutral routes blew EVERYONE’S mind?  A game where morality is not only encouraged, but is implemented into the unique gameplay, implemented into the story?  Well damn, whaddya know.

However, there was a game that existed for a while before Undertale was ever known at all, that implemented these sorts of dynamics in a very, very effective way: Iji.

Created by one Daniel Remar in 2008, Iji is a freeware, platforming, shooting, metroidvania game that didn’t receive too much attention upon release.  Many people praised it for its replay value, and it was noted for the ability to guide the player character, Iji, along different paths.  It was undoubtedly a good game, but how good exactly?  Well.  That’s what I’d like to reflect on today.

1. Story: (9.6/10)- Exceptional

The story of Iji is the game’s greatest strength: it is flexible in how it’s told, and tackles tough, complex topics in a very, very creative and thematically fulfilling way.

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Iji Kataiser is a young, 20 year old woman, who is visiting her father at his scientific facility.  However, with a bright flash, beams of light crash to Earth, and Iji finds herself waking up months later, to find that the facility has been invaded by an alien race called the Tasen.  Through her brother, Dan, she then learns that she has been modified by a team of researchers while she was asleep, equipped with unique nanotechnology, in the hopes that she would be able to survive, or fight off the alien invaders. Alone, scared, but determined, Iji resolves herself to do everything she can to stop this threat- and in trying to, learns that there is a lot more to this invasion than meets the eye.

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From this premise, we are introduced to a story with huge amounts of depth and complexity.  Iji’s perspective is only one of many, as we learn that although the Tasen are not blameless, they do have their reasons for their actions.  War becomes a method of survival, violence becomes a necessity, and genocide is painted as a necessary, if unsavory, evil.  The three way conflict between Iji or the “Human Anomaly”, the Tasen, and a third race known as the Komato, speaks to these specific themes, and acknowledges the amount of depth that these issues have.  Being a pacifist is not so simple as just not fighting, and killing for survival becomes something that just makes sense.

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Beyond this thematic strength, Iji’s story is also benefited by the immense amount of miscellaneous lore present in the story.  Through logbooks, scattered around the scientific facility, you learn about the intents and actions of every party involved, and you begin to piece together a far larger story than the one initially presented.  Through this miscellaneous dialogue, the individual Tasen and Komato aliens gain huge amounts of personality, that really emphasizes a lesson of the game, that no one party can be all in the right.

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Overall, I’d have to say that Iji presents a very complete story, both from a thematic, and gaming perspective.  If there’s a question the player has, it’s very likely that, somewhere in the game, there’s an answer.  Why did the Tasen invade Earth?  What are the effects of your actions towards the aliens?  Why do the characters do what they do?  There is a LOT of thought that went into the lore of Iji, and it shows.

2. Characters: (8.5/10)- Great

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The characters of Iji are great overall in terms of their function within the game, but at the same time are restrained by this function.  Let me explain:

Iji’s story is undoubtedly one of the best- or at least, one of my favorites, in all of gaming.  And that story is only possible because of the personalities and ideals of the characters involved.  Iji is a great player character, able to be guided towards both murderous, and pacifistic tendencies in a believable manner, while still maintaining an amount of sass and confidence that makes her distinguishable.  Every other character is similar in how they are portrayed, in that they are given clear personalities, and clear idealistic views.  They certainly have more personality and individuality than your common, run-of-the-mill stereotype, but the game doesn’t focus on these characters specifically.

Iosa the Invincible is fearsome, powerful, and bloodthirsty, representing one of the strongest enemies Iji must face, and the assassin Asha is the same, albeit, in a more single-minded, honor-driven way.  Dan, Iji’s brother, fulfills the supporting protagonist role for Iji, and General Tor is the strong, reasonable type of leader.  These characters are all given decent amounts of depth, but they simply aren’t the focus of the game.  As such, despite being really well-done, they don’t have that extra push to make them something legendary.

3. Art/Style: (7.5/10)- Good

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The pixelated art style that Remar aims for, if I had to describe it with one word, is simply…adequate.

Now, considering the game’s style, and unique development, it’s really rather hard to judge it based on artistic prowess alone.  Created by a single person, there’s only so much that can be accomplished, after all.  There are cutscenes that utilize this art style very well, as well as specific moments in the game that look stunning thanks to some pretty great particle effects, but as far as everything else goes…well, it gets the point across.

nonsense029Iji, despite having a specific character design that stands out, looks almost exceedingly simple in-game. The same can be said of any enemy really.  Looking extremely geometric, every enemy consists of the same basic shapes, and although it looks alright for the purposes of the game, I can’t help but think it could have been done a bit better.

Sound-wise, Iji does quite a good job.  The soundtrack maintains a relatively consistent theme, but the music is different enough so that one doesn’t exactly get bored of it.  With a techno-rock fusion that switches up with each level, including a few GREAT boss tracks, Iji’s choice of music is nothing to sneeze at.  It gives the game a sense of identity, and although it is not exceptional, this music can’t be overlooked!

4. Gameplay: (8.3/10)- Great

The gameplay of Iji feels very fulfilling, and excel in giving it huge replay value, yet the mechanics fall just a bit short in regards to actually controlling your character.

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So, the main draw of Iji, at least for me, was the ability to go through the game in whatever manner you want.  There’s a variety of upgrades to invest into, that DRASTICALLY change how you play the game.  You can put all your points into the attack and weapon stats, to become sort of a glass cannon.  You can invest all in on Health and hacking, in order to maintain a more pacifistic playthrough.  Never before, have I felt that my level-up investments meant so much to the flow of a game.  Kill counts, even accidental ones at points, are acknowledged, and the game, the reactions of the characters, change accordingly, and that makes for a VERY replayable game.

The gameplay of Iji heavily reflects the moral theme that it goes for, which makes it, as a narrative experience, extremely fulfilling.  However, in regards to specific, mechanical controls, Iji is a bit weaker, especially if you enjoy having control of your character.  Iji moves relatively slowly, and is restricted to shooting only on the ground.  Certain powerful weapons knock her back, which, again, makes sense considering the story, but isn’t conducive to very smooth gameplay sometimes.

This isn’t to say that this slower gameplay is always bad, because it still WORKS for the game, but compared to other platforming games, like Cave Story, you just don’t have a huge degree of control over your character.  It’s something I’m not particularly a fan of, but I believe the flexible nature of certain gameplay elements definitely makes up for it.

5. Personal Enjoyment: (9.4/10)- Exceptional

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Personally, I feel that Iji was a wonderful gaming experience, and one that I recommend to anyone who’s looking for great storytelling in a video game.

It’s clear from the structure of the game, at least to me, that the emphasis of the game was based almost entirely around telling a very intriguing, deep story, and it completely succeeds in that regard.  Iji remains, after even 9 years, one of the most thematically powerful video games I have ever played, and forever holds a place in my heart because of that.

However, it must be admitted that mechanically, it is outshined by modern games.  Cave Story, Super Meat Boy, Hyperlight Drifter, and more, all have far smoother gameplay mechanics, as well as less outdated graphics.  Braid is an example of a 2008 indie game that has graphics that hold up very well, compared to Iji, which…well.  Has personality at the very least.

All things considered, Iji was a wonderful gaming experience, and one that I’m looking forward to playing again, considering that Daniel Remar released update 1.7 no more than a month ago!  You can download the game and its soundtrack for free here, if you’d so desire!

Final Rating: (8.66/10)- Great

Recommended If: You are fine with rather old-school graphics, and can appreciate learning about the world of the game, rather than being in it just for the gameplay.

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