Among the best horror games is one you don’t have to pay for.
It’s no big secret that I’m a big fan of survival horror. Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Doom, F.E.A.R., Fatal Frame, Clock Tower, and even System Shock all have their places on my shelves. But I’ve also been skeptical of the genre as a whole. Recent history has led me to believe that survival horror was all but dead; Resident Evil 5 was the most action-packed â€œhorrorâ€ game I’ve ever played, and it was easily the most radical departure from a sense of fear in the series, while Silent Hill hasn’t had a good release since SH4: The Room, probably largely because the legendary Akira Yamaoka wasn’t partnered with any of them (and Team Silent itself has been completely silent for the past few years).
So when I first heard of Ib, I was a little… disappointed. See, Ib isn’t your traditional psychological survival horror game; it’s a 16-bit-esque title made with the RPG Maker software that so many people have used and abused to death for all except its original purpose: making RPGs. But that’s just it: Ib doesn’t need to be a straight-up RPG to be good. There are a lot of elements you can use in RPG Maker to make a game really eerie, if not downright scary. Hell, Yume Nikki had a grand total of zero lines of dialogue, and it still turned out to be one of the most impressively creepy games I’ve ever played on the PC, even if not downright horrifying like its stiff competition in the 3D side of things.
Of course, the draw to Ib, like that of Yume Nikki, is that it’s 100% free: all you need to do is download it. You don’t even have to install it into your computer. It’s got its own little data folder and a clever save system that makes me long for the good old days. Luckily, you’re not left longing for much. Ib starts you off in an odd but seemingly normal art gallery, and wastes very little time in getting to the gameplay. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s executed perfectly. There’s no need for a half-hour buildup here. It’s straight-up ready to take you on a psychological tour de force within 3-4 minutes of play time. I’m immediately reminded of how awesome that is. Do you know how long I’ve waited for a game to get that formula right? The last time I saw it executed the way it needed to be was all the way back on the PS1.
From a sound standpoint, Ib sounds fantastic. The eerie harpsichord and piano melodies blend beautifully with the acoustic guitar work, which is to say nothing of the genuinely haunting backdrop behind your most unabashedly creepy settings. And there are a lot of them here. The soundtrack, like everything else in the game, is small, but more than enough to get the job done. There’s no voice acting, which I guess could be viewed as a con, but I, for one, welcome it. Voice acting has taken a sharp decline from its heyday in Metal Gear Solid, and I don’t feel it would fit in a 16-bit looking game like this one, especially a freeware game. I guess, to me, it’s more of a blessing than a shortcoming, and is executed very well.
Visually, Ib is almost perfect. I can’t say that I’ve always been the biggest fan of 16-bit graphics, and for some, it’s not gonna fit, especially with its anime-inspired character designs. But for a freeware game? This is phenomenal. Even with its technical limitations, Ib does an absolutely amazing job of scaring the pants off of you. Environments range from straight-up artsy to downright hellish and artsy. It’s appealing and pleasant to look at, even when it’s disturbing and creating an imminent sense of dread. Ib is a game you don’t want to put down.
Gameplay is very simple, but it’s got a hint of difficulty to it. While the controls are extremely simple to get a hang of, Ib is a game that makes you think. It makes you weigh your actions carefully, with few save points between sequences of running away from monsters and solving puzzles. It’s one of only maybe three games I’ve genuinely gotten lost in, yet it’s versed in simplicity and has an air of elegance to it. Perhaps the only disappointment I had is that you really don’t have a reason to come back. Aside from going back for the other endings, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to revisit Ib once you’ve beaten it. Running from monsters becomes almost as systematic as the solutions to the puzzles, which never change. Scares are easy to memorize and usually avoid, unless you’re going for that. I couldn’t expect a whole lot more from a freeware 16-bit looking game like this one, but I would have appreciated a higher puzzle difficulty level, such as the ones Silent Hill offers.
The story is surprisingly complex. As a matter of fact, this game has been out for a while, and people are still trying to piece together the truth behind the story and the motives of each character. You play a silent protagonist, but your actions are given a lot more weight than most others in its class. There are only two other main characters, but in the short lifespan of the game, you really feel like you get to know them. But perhaps the most important element of the story is the setting itself. Walk into one room, watch the room react to your presence, and walk out into a room unlike the one you just came from. It’s truly a sophisticated work which, given the leitmotif of the game itself, actually makes it feel like you’re getting to know the artist â€“ the same architect of your nightmarish universe â€“ somewhat more than the characters themselves.
Overall, Ib is worth a look. Most gamers would expect to shell out some spare change to get a game like this, but at the grand price of free, and without the hindrance of needing a high-end graphics card to play it, there is virtually no reason you shouldn’t try it. It’s a haunting, thrilling masterpiece of a video game that really makes you think, even if you only spend 5-6 hours playing it. Ib is a game you won’t soon forget.
Ib is available for free download on its official site here.