To start this Black Iris review, I must preface by saying at first it feels like I’ve clicked the wrong link… that I’m not paying attention somehow, because I think I am viewing one of the shortlist finalists for a major Art award at the National Gallery.
The game has a stuttering whirr of noise behind it at times, rather like the time you stuck a peg in the spokes of your bike wheel as a kid to make it sound like a Ducati and it includes some short silent black and white videos of time speeded bacteria growing across a petri dish.
You know the sort of art I’m talking about.
The opening titles are disconcerting Blair Witch Project style shaky close ups of trees and foxgloves in the woods and all of this builds a sense of tension at the start.
But no, all is well, I have indeed downloaded The Black Iris, developed by Arboreta Games. I say all is well, but in fact the premise of the game is quite the opposite.
You play an engineer tasked with shutting down some research stations in the woods (it’s always the remote woods isn’t it) in North Eastern Scotland, with all of the workers disappeared or dead.
You can tackle things in any order and the pixilated graphics are made to lend themselves to the theme, at times making me feel like I am reliving the last 15 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with it’s disorienting, psychedelic presentation. This works well in creating a world blistering between the normal and some chaotic otherverse.
The Black Iris is a third person, over the shoulder supernatural horror adventure game drawing heavy influence from movies like Beyond the Black Rainbow; where black irises play a significant part in the movie and the setting for all the terribleness of the film is a research facility called Arborea, clearly where the developers here get their name from.
Another inspiration appears to be a similar horror movie, The Void where they take the triangular shape prevalent in that movie and make it look like the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, but in fact it turns out to be a Church to a new lunatic cult for sacrifice of the individual…wait it is Glastonbury.
In any case horror references abound in the game design, the chaotic mind-altering focus around the sphere in Event horizon is another and the developers do achieve their aim of making a credible interesting take on it.
Most of the Black Iris reviews I skimmed through have missed the way this game is balanced. Sure there are flaws; the graphics are blocky and there are moments when you inexplicably pass through walls of buildings and the entry to buildings instantly rotates the camera view but not the movement controls making for some stuttering to the play, but they get so much right.
Diversions, delay and misdirection to your mission, an ability to interact with your environment and you need to in order to progress. There are empty bottles lying on the floor of some buildings for no other reason that you can knock them when you walk and the noise makes you stop to look at what happened; mist emerges from a door when you open it, for no other reason than to try and add atmosphere.
These little things are painstaking to construct, but elevate the game beyond what might have been a simple linear adventure. Why make your life more difficult than all of the above by deciding it should also be set in the rain? Because it matters and recognizing all these things matter to convincing world building and drawing the player in, is a mark of good development.
One of the best things about The Black Iris is the score; it matches the feel of the game perfectly, with the sinister, suspenseful and uncomfortable rattling and the sound of wind and rain, it all adds to the experience.
The game has been regularly patched and improved since its release; there are plans for controller use to be added and the developers are keen responders to feedback. So go join the nearly 4000 other people who have downloaded this in the first two weeks since it dropped on Itch.io.
Black Iris is the first ever game developed by Arboreta and considering that it is a marvelous achievement and I can’t wait to see what they do next. You will get about 30-40 minutes play out of this and the best bit? The developers will let you have the game for free; but they ask you to consider paying what you like for it. Here it is worth pointing out to you that all of the profit after Itch.io gets its 10% will go to their local food bank in West Dunbartonshire.
I hope you have enjoyed this Black Iris review as much as I have enjoyed both playing and writing about it. Black Iris is available on Itch.io:
Take my word for it, you won’t be disappointed if you pay the suggested amount to be taken on this short trippy adventure. And it’s better modern Art than you’d see for more money in any Gallery, so really you’re winning.
This GRIS review looks at the first game developed by Spanish team Nomada Studio; the result of a meeting at a party between some triple-A designers, and an artist who expressed a desire to make games. Devolver Digital are the publishers of GRIS, and looking at their back catalog, Nomada Studio are in good company.
Looking at the numbers, GRIS has sold well over a million units since being released in December 2018. In that time, it has consistently remained in the top 10 most popular indie games on Steam. These numbers would suggest the game is a bona fide hit. Or is it?
Years ago, I took the lady to a posh cinema for Valentine’s day. There, flunkies would whisper in your ear when delivering a glass of chilled wine and some Vol-au-vents as you reclined in an enormous chair. The only trouble with this was the completely inappropriate choice of Valentine movie on offer for this romantic date; it was either 12 Years a Slave or The Wolf of Wall Street; both of which being potential deal spoilers. Playing GRIS is a little like that date…
GRIS means grey in Spanish and whilst the game starts off all binary colors of black and white, the choices GRIS makes in being a game are anything but grey and ordinary. There is no death, no dialogue, no killing, no enemies to fight and color bleeds into the game gradually. At its heart GRIS is a platformer and a fairly simple one at that.
Playing the game feels like designers want you to experience something here – not be perplexed by it. To that end, puzzles are simple, levels are short, and the game can be completed in one sitting.
The art in the game is genuinely wondrous; color oozes into the game gradually as you progress. It is a beautiful game to see in this respect. The movement of your character is fluid, graceful and interacts with the environment seamlessly.
The camera zooms in and out at various points to show you goals, destinations and moments when you have to tackle larger sections. The viewport zooms back in for tunneled sections and works so well that there is no disappointment in being delivered to either camera point.
GRIS is played with a controller, or keyboard if you are on PC, but you will find there are no instructions. On the PC facing no help at the start I gave the WASD keys a shot and discovered I could move left and right. To begin with all you can do is walk in this 2D platformer, you cannot even jump.
Objective Of The Game
The object is to work your way out of the game by collecting orbs of light scattered around the world to build bridges in the sky and so gradually climb out of the game world and back to where you began. It does a good job of presenting a sufficient puzzle for you. It is a little too simple at times, but this helps GRIS to avoid the plague of many platformers – that of tiresome repetition attempting to complete that one jump sequence again…and again.
You are gradually introduced to new movement skills: jumping, becoming a stone block, floating and singing.
As you move through the levels the ways these skills can be used varies and develops in different environments.
The designers never want you to have to look far or get stuck or bored and the way platforming gradually changes through the game keeps you well involved.
You will get about four hours of gameplay out of GRIS, but there is no real replay value in it. Once complete, the main menu opens levels to replay but you cannot do so with all of your acquired skills… you are reset for each level. A bit pointless there then.
Elsewhere you can access some artwork and it is so nice that you might well take a screenshot for your wallpaper (which I have done for the purpose of this GRIS review, incidentally). You also get access to the game music. Whilst it sounds like a bridge ripped from a terribly clichéd and achingly worthy Coldplay song and something I winced at to begin with, it does suit the subject matter of the game well.
GRIS Review – Is It Worth Buying?
The problem with GRIS is the subject matter.
The game is about grief, depression or mental collapse, and your character metaphorically shatters, falls down into a dark pit and has to work through problems to rebuild herself. Although done well and evocatively, it may not be an especially happy prospect to indulge in.
I can admire the beauty and it was nice to have a gentle game so very different to what I might normally play, but we all come to games for a variety of reasons, to frighten ourselves, for the excitement of combat, for the speed of play, or the high of successful collaboration in today’s plethora of co-op games. What I doubt most of us pick up a game for, is to experience grief or mental breakdown…it just isn’t enjoyable in that sense.
For some it will probably hit like swinging brick and be their GOTY. For others, like me, it will be a good game albeit with some faults. Certainly though, there is enough great stuff going on here in a coherent, smooth and well-constructed gaming experience that will have gamers very much looking forward to what Nomada Studio do next.
Should you play it? Well the movies on offer didn’t spoil my Valentine’s date and the flaws of GRIS will not spoil the overall pleasure of the gameplay on offer here, you just probably won’t return to it. So yes, go ahead, it will be different to most things you play and that’s probably a good thing.