Ilomilo tells the story of ilo and milo. You see, they are the very best of friends, and every day they meet in the park for a picnic and to drink tea. Then each night they go their separate ways, back to their respective houses, and in the morning find the path to meet once again has been rearranged. It is a story almost as adorable as the characters themselves and the imaginative world they inhabit. But the ridiculously cute visual style also holds a dark secret; because beneath all of the tea and sunshine, Ilomilo is a devilishly difficult puzzle game. It's also the first must-play game of 2011.
As each level begins, ilo and milo find themselves separated, and it is your goal to reunite them. This begins as a simple matter, carrying blocks to build bridges and, occasionally, walking on walls to bypass obstacles. You see, the world of Ilomilo is made up of a series of patchwork cubes, with each side of the cube presenting a potential path. You must take turns controlling either ilo or milo, with one always requiring equal help from the other as they progress along their separate paths. And as the levels progress, and new puzzle elements introduced, the teamwork binding their adorable friendship becomes all the more crucial.
The challenge in Ilomilo comes in part from the tispy-turvy nature of the world. Thanks to a brilliant camera, a zoom function, and a button that instantly locates your partner in relation to yourself, walking on walls an ceiling is never actually disorienting. It's just such a different way of looking at the world that the puzzles exercise your brain in a way it likely has never tried to think before. Add on top of that blocks that move, blocks that expand, and blocks that swallow you only to spit you out on the other side, and your brain is likely to be working overtime by the time you make it to the second of the game's four worlds. Or rather, I should have said blocks who do all of those things, for they too are living things in Ilomilo's world, friends and allies to help reunite the lost friends.
The developers at Southend Interactive clearly knew how challenging they had made Ilomilo's puzzles, because it is not necessary to solve all of them to progress. Finishing six of a world's nine base puzzles is all that is required to unlock the next world, allowing players to skip particularly difficult puzzles to come back to later. This also presents an odd difficulty curve to the game, since solving only the easier puzzles in one world might not fully prepare players for what is to come in the next world.
There are also three bonus levels in each world, which can only be unlocked by collecting three safkas, miniature creatures similar to ilo and milo, in each of a world's levels. These bonus levels are some of the hardest in the game, but are also some of the most rewarding. They might tell a short story or reference indie games like World of Goo and Super Meat Boy. One of my favorites had Sebastian, a diminutive Napoleon wannabe who acts as the game's tutorial helper, commenting on the state of the videogame industry saying, "I don't mean to diss your new style, but people today want bald muscular types and the preferred color scheme is grey and brown." I found these vignette sequences to be some of the best in-game rewards for being a completionist in quite some time. But just in case you disagree, there are more traditional in-game rewards, like concept art, music tracks, and two highly addicting minigames. Ilomilo Shuffle in particular could have probably been sold as a standalone game.
Of course, in a game about reuniting two lost friends, there has to be a multiplayer mode. And while multiplayer isn't quite what I was expecting, it works surprisingly well. Multiplayer plays identically to single player, right down to the levels. What I wasn't expecting this to mean though, was that both players still take turns moving rather than splitting the screen and having both players moving and puzzle solving simultaneously. So instead, when one player is moving the other controls a tiny flying safka that can collect hidden eggs and highlight moves to help the other player. It isn't a perfect solution, but it certainly fits the game's teamwork themes.
Even if all of Ilomilo's wonderful visual presentation were taken away, it would still leave a challenging and fun puzzle game at its core. Thankfully we don't need to sacrifice that presentation, and are given a magical, rich, and sometimes even sad, world to puzzle in. It is simultaneously more joyous and warm than it has any right to be, and without becoming overbearing, more pithy than most games that try to be.
Bonus: As part of Microsoft's Games for the Holidays promotion, you can unlock two costumes each for ilo and milo from A World of Keflings and Raskulls if you own either game. These costumes can be changed by pressing right and left on the d-pad while playing. While a nice bonus, I still say ilo and milo's original appearance is more adorable.