For me, the best puzzle games are those that stump you so mercilessly that you're forced to put the controller down and just stare at the screen, thumbing your chin in befuddlement. The answer is usually somewhere within your grasp—so very close to the plane of your comprehension!—yet dancing outside that border, eluding you. With the help of some curious mistakes and acute observations, you can painstakingly piece together the solution, achieving the sweetest sensation of relief. It's a cumulative process that I feel made the 2D games of yore so appealing, except here it's about cognition & perception rather than precision & execution.
Puzzles that lack the aforementioned "aha!" moment (termed as such by Jonathan Blow) can leave a very weak impact. I can appreciate an intriguing story or sidesplitting script tied to puzzle mechanics, like with Thomas Was Alone and Portal 2 respectively, but neither of these games felt as fulfilling as I had hoped they'd be, the answer always somewhere nearby, laid within reach. So when I was perusing through my Xbox Arcade backlog, Southend Interactive's ilomilo stuck out like a tastefully sore thumb; I had half-finished it due to the stumper that was "blank paper", and I wanted to try the game once more, from scratch. Diving back in to its charming, block-based world and vowing to complete every level was a journey I was excited to undertake, as well as one full of some of the best challenges I've had in a while.
Aesthetics in the puzzle games are far from the main draw of the experience, but can work as a very subtle boon (or hinderance), as they're often the first thing that you'll notice about any entry. Being a grid based, axis-shifting mini-adventure, ilomilo could've gone for a look similar to something like English Country Tune but instead developed a warm, hand-crafted art style, filled with airy sound effects, plush character models and some of the most wholesome music composed for a puzzle game (it could easily be listened to by people that detest video game soundtracks). The quirky amalgam that emerges from the garbled voices, chipper tunes, and sock-puppet puppies give the world more flair, adding richness to the already potent Scandinavian flavor.
Yet the sublime visual style is only a part of what makes ilomilo so amusing. The brief backstory fills out why you'd want to get the titular ilo and milo back together again and it's a lot of fun thinking about how you're going to achieve that... as well as quite confusing. You'll have to think in three dimensions as the two buddies traverse multiple faces of a cube, using helpful blocks to bridge gaps or flip to the underside of a structure. It's one of those games that's hard to describe what exactly the mechanics are until you see it in person, but as long as you can wrap your brain around 3D space and objects, it's really thrilling to maneuver the lost friends about their imaginative world.
The only bummer to come out of my time with the game was playing the expansion, Autumn Tale, after the exceptionally strong finish of the primary story, First Adventure (especially after figuring out the mind-bending bonus level that was "space flight"). That's not to say that the Autumn Tale didn't have some of it's own confounding moments, but the difficulty curve was a very gentle slope in comparison. For example, the final three Autumn Tale levels were more or less of the same "toughness", which meant that by the end I didn't reach a satisfying climax of brilliance as I had done with the final bonus section of the First Adventure (though this may also be due in part to the lack of additional mechanics to learn).
But seeing as the worst aspect to gripe over is that the First Adventure was better than the already-enjoyable DLC, ilomilo has a lot going for it. It introduces you to it's mechanics slowly and carefully, handing the player new objects to interact with in multiple ways over four chapters until you're using each of them tandem without even thinking about it. So much of the game feels very thought-out and heartfelt, extending past the puzzles and seeping into the very design of the world—the parable of the Hunter and the Fox (something snuck into the bonus levels) has a strangely haunting conclusion, one that stands in strong juxtaposition to the childlike wonder the rest of the game exhibits (though the collectable polaroids do bridge the tonal nature of these two). It's a small cord that resonated with me, and I'm very glad the developers chose to include this.
The game is both entertaining and endearing, carving out a very unique niche for itself on the Xbox Arcade. I had a fantastic time collecting every trinket in ilomilo, and for fans of games like Braid, Antichamber and The Swapper, I cannot recommend this delightful entry enough. It's cute, curious, pleasant, and above else, constantly engaging with its world and design, asking for the player to truly grasp its mechanics in order to succeed... which is pretty much the best you can ask for.
And my goodness, that music!
Images obtained from: ilimilo.wikia.com, gamingtruth.com wegotthiscovered.com, canardpc.com