Review – Ib (Switch)
One upon a time, a young girl named Ib was brought to an art gallery by her parents. Ib wasn’t sure what she thought of art overall, but she wanted to explore the new exhibit of the very famous Guertena, so off she went. Her parents warned her to be mindful and not be a nuisance to other patrons, so Ib was a good girl. She looked and observed, even if she didn’t know all the words. Ib tried to admire the statues and paintings that filled her with wonder and worry. She even looked at the painting that beckoned to her, and invited her to somewhere else.
Suddenly, the gallery was empty of people. Everyone, including her parents, had just vanished. Ib was scared: she couldn’t leave the gallery and had no idea what was happening. But the same mysterious painting said it would show her a fun place to go. She followed the path that suddenly appeared and approached a massive floor mural that reminded Ib of the ocean, only much scarier. She tried to be brave. Ib tried to be the stronger person that she wanted to be. So, with a deep breath, Ib stepped onto the painting and, very suddenly, found herself somewhere much, much worse.
Ib, a horror game from Japanese developer kouri, has had quite the cult following since its initial release back in 2012, not the least of which is credited to freelance localizer, vgperson. Building on the backbone of RPG Maker 2000, Ib is an ambitious third person exploration game in which you, Ib, must slowly uncover the secrets of the bizarre gallery of Guertana’s artwork. Ib finds a red rose early on, which represents her health meter, but there are plenty of instances where she can be killed immediately. Ib also will find two companions, Garry and Mary, who have their own stakes in Ib finding her way back to the real world. Equal parts reactionary reflexes and puzzle solving, multiple endings await those who wish to enter into Guertana’s magnificent mind and discover all of the dark secrets waiting within.
Naturally, this isn’t simply a Steam release of the original title from 2012. Instead, Ib has gotten a full fledged makeover in the past year, and we are now celebrating the release of this intriguing title onto the Nintendo Switch. Besides the original game being ported over to RPG Maker XV, the graphics have been stepped up, there is an entire additional “dungeon” to explore and the True Exhibit, a gallery of all the artwork you discover in the course of the game, has been added.
The artwork added to the Exhibit can only be seen if both Ib and Garry witness it together, so there’s some incentive to go back and really explore multiple times, which isn’t much of an ask given how short the game is. Truth be told, if you aren’t looking for a full depth plumbing, you can usually get through a run in well under an hour.
At first, I was a little disappointed in Ib, I won’t lie. Last year I had a chance to run through The Witch’s House, and I was delighted and charmed by the purposefully difficult insta-death scenarios that cropped up at every corner. In contrast, Ib is almost more relaxing, as the rose life meter and multiple locations where you can recharge your rose (a vase of water will do wonders for cut flowers) means the stakes, at times, felt significantly easier. Ib, as a character, moves a bit slowly, and there’s no real chance to sprint around. A handful of puzzles do speed up your character to help convey the urgency of the situation, but, for the most part, Ib almost feels like she’s moseying along this frighteningly surreal experience, which feels a bit at odds with everything that’s happening.
But then you get a chance to drink in the atmosphere of Ib, and suddenly things feel a bit different. You realize the pace matches the creeping sensation of dread and unnatural ideas that float around you. There’s always the opportunity for something to damage you – hands from walls, paintings that chase you, gas from the floor – and you realize that the purpose isn’t to kill you instantly, because that takes you out of the learning curve.
Instead, you build your paranoia and anxiety about the things around you because it isn’t always clear what’s dangerous and what’s not. Mary, the second character you meet, seems to almost mock you with her childish positivity and need for keeping to the bright side of things, and you understand that’s purposefully disarming, as the game will later show. Granted, having artwork “be more than it first appears” is a bit on the nose, but that works incredibly well with the entire concept of this game.
Also, the soundtrack is surprisingly evocative, which I deeply enjoyed. You expect games of a certain caliber to be laden with soundtracks to match, and I thought that we would see something very electronic and retro to help match the pixel aesthetic of Ib. Instead, there’s a wide variety of orchestral tracks, from something just sound of Vagner in the museum itself to the disturbingly low-fidelity ambience of tracking along the darker corridors.
When I walked down the steps and was transported from the art gallery into Guertena’s childish early works, it creeped me out properly, not least of which was because of the music box tunes that started tinnily piping through the speakers. It’s very clear that kouri used the trigger system that RPG Maker has built in to deliver key moments, and they stood proudly amidst a story that slowly brought more and more elements to the table.
Ib herself is a fantastic silent protagonist, and seeing this explosion of art subversion happening to her and around her really makes the game feel like a more complex and subversive beast than you might initially take in. The first time I played through, I was mashing the buttons a bit too quickly, and ended up with one of the proper bad endings which, like all great titles, left me more disquieted than upset or angry.
It was then I realized that there’s an invisible counter system to all the actions you make during the game through dialogue, and suddenly I was more aware of my choices. I really wanted to explore all the different ways that Ib could find her way out of this predicament, and that meant good and bad results. After all, as much as I want to find a happy ending, I was morbidly curious: how bad could it possibly get?
Additionally, there’s a mild element of randomization to help keep the puzzles fresh without making everything too disarming. Items and triggers that should be in the same place every time might appear in another location, though nothing too wildly different, just enough to make players sit up and take notice when they believe they’re going to speedrun through something. It’s a tiny adjustment that tells me two things. One, that the developer knows players will want to come back again and again, and two, that there’s value in a bit of extra code to help scramble the exact spots you should encounter. Certainly, some puzzles didn’t change (the tone puzzle in the scribbled world stayed the same), but realizing that the precise spot where clock hands might try and hide is different was a fun little discovery.
Lastly, I think it says a lot that there’s a compulsion that derives from simply trying to find all the artworks. Mechanically, it’s already an interesting motif with the zoom function (I didn’t see a need for it for puzzles, only for appreciating the designs), but it also builds the narrative of the characters. Ib, as a child of nine, cannot understand all the titles to all the pieces, so it’s important that she view them with Garry and he can teach her the different names so that they can be remembered later. I don’t know why, but that was a sweet little element that made the exploration even more fun and memorable.
The relationship between Ib and Garry might be brief and fairly basic, but it’s one that develops very quickly and under extreme stress. One of my first playthroughs got Garry killed, and that was genuinely an awful moment for me. Being able to craft these characters out of simple pixels and then deliver them to players to toy with their emotions…well, that tells me that Ib itself is a work of art.
I really and truly enjoy having Ib on the Nintendo Switch, and I feel like the right fanbase will as well. Yes, you can, technically, play the original version for free, just as kouri intended, and that’s all well and good. But this version of Ib has all the trappings of a wonderfully updated version. Better graphics, more puzzles, a wider scope to the story, and, best of all, you make sure that all the people involved get a slice of the pie. I will always support a Japanese indie developer’s right to release their work to the general public and expect nothing in return, and I will, furthermore, support the right to want to monetize their work in some form.
This is not a single venture. This is not one awful dream you wake up from and shake yourself, letting the moment pass. This is the lingering shadow at the edge of your consciousness, waiting, patient and hungry, for you to slip back under. This is the gentle patter of feet that shouldn’t be there. Ib is a slow burn of disquiet and high strangeness that gets you with a scare and keeps you with the story. It’s a fantastic marriage of art and gameplay, and it’s worth a trip to see the crafting of something truly unique. Beware; the art may not show what you want to see.
True to the original art styling with a good upgrade in sharper lines and smoother edges, Ib brings a fresh face to the console release and still underlines the exquisite art that permeates throughout the game.
While dirt simple in terms of control, there’s a satisfaction in a game angling to do one thing well and sticking to it. Explore, deduce, interact, survive. My inventory was never overfull, and I never wasted an opportunity to check with the NPCs on their thoughts.
A surprisingly complex score of music and sound effects to help craft the full sensation of both the waking world and the nightmares. There’s nothing worse than hearing the tinkle of glass off camera and knowing that a painting is now alive and angry.
A fantastic turnaround of a game, Ib takes its time to make the most of a rather short story in order to help the player fully indulge everything it has to say. In short, a more compacted play allows for repeat runs to fully enjoy the nuance of it all.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Ib is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Ib was provided by the publisher.