The amount of alien shooters available in today's market is undeniably huge. In Halo, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Dead Space and countless other blockbuster franchises, shooting space grunts in the face seems to be a recurring theme. Now, I love games like Mass Effect that try to put a new spin on a weary formula, but those type of titles are few and far between. The main problem with the "space marine action game" genre isn't so much that it's overdone, but rather that no one's willing to take any risks in it. But if the mainstream media isn't up to the task of mixing it up a little, who is? I'm sure that was the question consistently going through independent developer Daniel Remar's mind when he created Iji, which does everything and a half to stand out amongst the crowd.
Of course, graphics alone don't carry Iji. Far from it. The gameplay system Remar has put in place works wonderfully, and you'll never feel like anything less than a nanoteched-out badass. The basics are actually incredibly simple: Arrow keys for movement, 'Z' to kick, 'X' to shoot, and 'C' to interact. But the core gameplay goes far deeper than that. You begin the game with your standard shotgun, which deals reasonable damage, has infinite ammo, and a relatively short reload rate. As you progress further and kill more enemies, though, you'll begin to acquire a substance called "Nano." There's a little bar in the lower right hand corner of your screen that tracks the amount of nano you have left until the next level. Level up, and you'll be given a point to spend at any of a series of modules for upgrading various stats. Want to get better weapons? Upgrade your "Tasen" or "Komato" stats. Can't break down that door? Upgrade your strength. Want your weapons to deal more damage? Getting some more attack power should solve that problem. If you could level up as much as you want, this could make for one pretty overpowered character, but there's a limit of 5 levels per sector, so you'll have to distribute your stats sparingly. This type of upgrade system really allows for a lot of experimenting, and encourages you to play through a certain sector multiple times to try out all sorts of different combinations.
The little choices you make in the game have a large bearing on the way the story unfolds. During your first kills, Iji seems apprehensive about shooting down the Tasen. You'll hear her apologize, sniff and whimper when she delivers the killing blow. Little details like these bring a sense of humanity to Iji's personality, making every shot a difficult decision. Start to kill more, however, and Iji loses that initial sympathy, with phrases like "Sorry!" being replaced by cries of "DIE!" Iji's emotions aren't the only thing affected by her actions, though. Throughout the sectors, logbooks of the Tasen and Komato (the alien force fighting the Tasen) are scattered about. At the beginning of the game, the content of them is pretty much set in stone, but as you are presented with more and more choices, the text within the logbooks changes to conform with the outcomes of those choices. There are many intriguing elements to be found in these little electronic diaries, ranging from historical facts about the Tasen and Komato to first-hand accounts of war from each side. They really do a great job of adding on to a game already strong on story.
As you begin to unwrap this mystery of the outside world, you are constantly reminded of the fact that nearly every living thing on the planet has been eliminated, which leads you to question what you're doing. Is there really much of an Earth left to save? If you do manage to kill every alien on the planet, what is there left to do? In many other "space marine" games, the whole point is to stop aliens from destroying Earth. In Iji, they already have. It's an interest twist that I can honestly say was very welcome during my time playing. It makes you focus less on the well-being of humans, and more on the beings that destroyed them. While Iji's methods of advancing its narrative aren't necessarily completely original, they're done with an air of finesse that few games I've played can match.
Before I wrap this review up, I'd like to talk a little bit about the sheer level of content this game provides. The lab is split up into 10 different sectors, each an adventure in of its own. It should take you somewhere in the range of 20 minutes to complete each level, and that's not counting any of the boss fights in between. A straightforward playthrough should be around 2-3 hours long, which is still an amazing feat for a free game, but chances are, you won't just play through it once. There are secrets - loads upon loads of them - to be had. Each sector has a poster and a ribbon in it. Ribbons will advance a side story about Iji's little sister, while the posters serve a greater purpose. Collecting all ten of them will unlock something. Something incredibly, incredibly secret. I'm not going to tell you what, but it's certainly worth the effort it takes to get there.
But, all gripes aside, Iji is an utterly amazing game. The amount of content and absurd level of polish will have you dropping your jaw every minute. Between the excellent level design, inventive leveling-up system, challenging enemies and bosses, intriguing story and stellar soundtrack, this is a title that won't soon be forgotten. So take a look at your calender, save a date, and download Iji. I assure you, you won't be doing anything else that day.