Irritum Review

What lies between life and death? When a person is comatose, what images and worlds does the mind conjure into being? Philosophers have pondered these questions throughout the ages, but Irritum provides an answer. In this modest platformer, the space between is populated by translucent geometric shapes that present jumping puzzles to your trapped consciousness. Unfortunately, rigid controls make managing these increasingly difficult obstacles an arthritic endeavor, while the existential questions and slowly revealed truth of your situation struggle to transcend dull cliches. In the sparse limbo of Irritum, there is little to keep you from giving up the ghost.

There is some cleverness to be found in navigating Irritum’s puzzles, though it takes a while to uncover if you choose to take on its 40 levels in linear fashion (the level select menu permits some skipping around). The first gimmick you encounter concerns the colored platforms. White blocks are always solid, but the red, yellow, and blue blocks must be active to support your weight, and you can have only one color active at a time. You choose the active color with a keystroke, and many of the puzzles come down to properly activating or deactivating the block you’ve leaped from, the block you’re jumping to, and any blocks that stand in your way.

It’s all about timing. Most levels make your path abundantly clear, so progressing is a simple matter of keeping your colors straight and having the dexterity to execute your jumps. But though you may know how to go, getting there can be tricky. Your character moves with a no-frills rigidity that can be unwieldy. With only a scant whiff of momentum affecting your trajectory, you can maneuver as easily on the ground as in the air. This enables some nifty tricks, like leaping out into a void, pulling a U-turn, and coming down on the other side of a barrier, but it also makes jumping a very mechanical experience. There is no flair to your acrobatics, no pleasure in your performance.

New twists eventually appear, like platforms that crumble after a few seconds and lasers that zap you back to a checkpoint with the merest touch. Some of these twists subvert the rules of the realm and require you to think things through, like the switches that turn the solid white blocks into vacant frames. In its good moments, Irritum’s layered mechanics can make for some tricky situations that are satisfying to work your way through.

Alas, there are many levels in which new mechanics only bring annoyances and expose flawed logic. Jump pads let you soar to great heights, but rather than slowing down and speeding up in a natural, gradual change of momentum at the apex of your leap, you simply reverse direction instantly and bounce back down where you came from. This disrupts the usual jumping tactics and makes maneuvering unpleasantly awkward. Later, the ability to create a clone of yourself and toggle between two figures opens up new possibilities and obstacles, but the logic that governs what your unused character is doing is inconsistent. As a result, I ended up stuck in numerous repeating fall loops that forced me to restart levels entirely.

The most aggravating addition, however, is the blocks that cycle through the three primary colors at random intervals. The place you need to land might be red for eight seconds, blue for three, then yellow for five, but if there’s a way to predict the timing of these changes, the game makes it inscrutable. How can you time your jumps and color activation correctly if the colors change at random times? This gimmick makes platforming immensely frustrating. A good challenge allows you to wrap your head around it and figure out what to do; the randomized blocks simply leave you failing repeatedly while hoping to get lucky.

“Trying to kill yourself was a mistake. We know that. But it doesn’t have to end there. If you remember, you can be revived.”

The uneven action is all cloaked in a bare, ethereal aesthetic designed to evoke the limbo between life and death. Aside from the translucent platforms that make up the puzzles that your monochrome character navigates, there is little else to see. A black void speckled with greenish rain surrounds you at all times, and only a few other things appear in your platform worlds. Smoke trails serve as midlevel checkpoints, while small clouds represent memories that trigger muddled clips of overheard voices that offer clues as to your situation. There are two memories available on most levels: one provides observations from the doctors who are trying to resuscitate you after your suicide attempt, while the other offers snippets from your life before that night, slowly piecing together a picture of a relationship torn apart by infidelity.

The audio snippets are brief and often hard to understand (I had to resort to reading transcriptions in a menu on multiple occasions). They capture moments of suspicion, betrayal, and heartbreak that are pointedly mundane; piece them together and they read like a skeletal outline of a boilerplate broken-relationship story, devoid of surprise, intrigue, or sympathetic characters. Slightly more interesting are the two angel-like figures that appear in each level and offer comments or criticisms to inspire you to reflect more deeply on your condition. In the face of a new challenge, one quips, “This looks quite complicated. There is no shame in giving up. That’s why you’re here, right? Because you gave up.”

But while some of these musings may inspire moments of reflection, it’s not enough to anchor you to this ethereal world. And though there are some clever moments to be found in the platforming challenges, the majority of the levels are either disappointingly tepid or downright frustrating. Irritum’s flawed attempts to challenge your dexterity and engage your mind aren’t enough to inspire you to linger in this limbo.

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