It seems like every year we get at least one new puzzle game that features a small child wandering through a dark and foreboding world. There is nothing wrong with a little market saturation; trends come and go in the games industry all the time, but when your game has a lot of competition from similar products there is an amount of pressure put upon you to find some way to stand out amongst your peers. Some games really excel at making their own path, while others provide an experience that you could swear you have seen before..
The latest game to tread these waters is Iris.Fall from NEXT Studios. You play the role of Iris, a young girl who is awoken from a dream by a mysterious cat. You follow the cat into a strange building and the adventure begins. There is a heavy thematic focus, both narratively and mechanically, on the relationship between light and shadow which naturally leads to a dark, moody experience.
I think the first thing that has to be brought up while talking about Iris.Fall is just how impressive it is visually. Utilizing a contrasting palette of dark and light greys, NEXT Studios has created a gorgeous world for Iris to explore and puzzle her way through. The game is divided into several chapters, each of which is centered around a different locale. All of these environments are fairly unique, but still retain similar accents like clockwork machinery, staring eyes, or marionettes. Every locale, whether it be a tower covered with forgotten doors or the interior of a large clock complete with a massive, sparking automaton, exude an interesting blend of whimsy and apprehension. The most visually captivating section of the game takes place within a giant storybook, with Iris navigating its pages like a pop-up book. Experiencing each carefully crafted part of Iris.Fall’s world is probably the most interesting part of the game.
First and foremost, Iris.Fall is a puzzle game and the puzzles within the game manifest themselves in a variety ways. The chief mechanic of the game centers around books Iris can stand on that allows the player to gain control of her shadow. Doing this pulls Iris from the 3D world she typically inhabits and instead binds her to a 2D plane. Most of these sequences require manipulation of objects in the “light” world to change the shapes of the shadows in the “shadow” world so Iris can work her way to the next objective. I have seen similar mechanics in some other games, but Iris.Fall plays it pretty safe with the shadow puzzles. There is one instance, however, in the penultimate chapter that lets Iris’s shadow fall on one of several staggered 2D planes and this creates a more interesting puzzle that allows Iris to transverse the environment in a three-dimensional way while still binding her to two-dimensional space. It would have been nice to see more of these more complex shadow puzzles scattered through the game.
It feels like the developers knew that Iris.Fall needed more content than just these shadow puzzles to come across as a complete game, as there are a ton of more traditional puzzle sections sprinkled in between the shadow sections. Almost all of these puzzles are unique within the game, and the variety on display goes a long way to making Iris.Fall a more intrinsic experience. However, I felt like I had seen a lot of the puzzles before despite them having a very Iris.Fall-specific coat of paint. Pieces of a certain puzzle might look like paper dolls, or a sequence needed to solve another puzzle might be hidden on the wings of moths that could only exist in Iris.Fall’s world. A bunch of the puzzles, while visually unique, simply boiled down to pattern recognition or connecting the dots in one way or another and because of this some sections feel kind of shallow. The aforementioned storybook section of the game is beautiful, but the entire puzzle of the chapter is essentially just a very pretty maze. There was only one puzzle within the entire game that really tripped me up, and I found the difficulty overall to be pretty inconsistent with some of the last chapters being the easiest to complete. Still, the variety of the puzzles keeps the pace of the game consistent as you are constantly seeing new things.
One of my concerns with Iris.Fall is that I am not entirely sure who this game is for. The soft, almost nonexistent, difficulty curve would suggest that maybe the intended audience is younger, but the dark themes and nebulous narrative point to a more mature audience. This kind of mixed messaging adds to a feeling that this game is not as refined as it could be. I also found most of music and sound design to be pretty underwhelming with most of the soundtrack being cliche music box tunes.The game is kind of short, clocking in at a brisk four hours, which is not strictly a bad thing but Iris.Fall feels short. I felt like the game ended pretty abruptly with little fanfare, and the puzzles go by pretty quickly. Iris.Fall can be comfortably beaten in a single afternoon, and some people are going to jump at that while others are going to feel let down.
Iris.Fall is one of NEXT Studios’s first games, and at times it definitely feels that way. That being said, there are some really great foundational pieces here like art design and a knack for puzzle building that gives me hope that NEXT Studios has a bright future ahead of them. Iris’s adventure ultimately lands somewhere in the middle between “a truly unique experience” and “just another creepy puzzle game”. There are enough unique elements to make Iris.Fall stand out, but the game does not do quite enough to elevate it to greatness. That being said, Iris.Fall was a fun, but petite, game that will hopefully be a stepping stone for NEXT Studios to make bigger and better things.
Iris.Fall is available now for PC via Steam. This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.