Iffermoon is an independently developed RPG that pretty much came out of nowhere this year and gobsmacked me. The game has absolutely gorgeous dreamlike 2D visuals, killer music, a solid storyline with nicely written dialogue, fun gameplay including some sweet mini-games, and the best part of all is that it's absolutely free! I am in complete disbelief that Iffermoon is a freeware game and not a game I would find for retail price at my local video game shop. Many independent projects I've played are games that really look and feel "indie" in the vein of lo-fi music recordings. Those kinds of games I would pay indie prices for (read: $20 or less). However, I would gladly pay a commercial retail price for Iffermoon because its production values make it look and feel more like a higher-budget commercial title rather than an indie freeware project. Iffermoon is a charming and unique RPG that can share company with the likes of Valkyrie Profile and Popful Mail.
The most striking aspect of Iffermoon is its graphics. Forget about tech specs and all that mumbo jumbo, the game is gorgeous. The environments are lush, detailed, beautifully colored, and full of depth. They look like places that would only appear in my dreams. Starnest, for example, is a lush, multilevel place that looks like a futuristic dreamlike fantasy and where denizens travel from one level to another via balloon. As I walk around Starnest, I stop to look at balloons hovering in the background, transporting people where they need to go. Every environment in this game is beautifully imaginative and they are all a pleasure to explore. Each time I walk around, I notice new details I did not notice before.
The characters, both playable and non-playable, who inhabit this world look wonderful as well. There are a wide variety of NPCs from reptilian people, bird people, people with elephant heads, robots, and more. Not only are the character designs highly original, they all integrate well into the game's world, unlike some side scrolling games where the characters look pasted on their environments. The game is a 2D side scroller, but the characters have a deep 3D look. They all animate nicely as they walk and fight, though a few characters appear to move slightly stiffly. There are occasional cutscenes featuring close-ups of the characters' faces and they look fantastic.
The gorgeous graphics highlight the one and only major flaw of the game: lengthy load times. Every time I enter a new area or access the menu, there is a loading screen consisting of an hourglass and a funny caption such as "Potty break," "Get a snack," "Good things come to those who wait," and more. I certainly had a chuckle at the loading screens, but they eventually got slightly bothersome, especially when going in and out of menus. As an RPG player, I'm exploring areas and accessing menus frequently, so the load times were the one aspect of the game I did not like. The game has a snarky response to that complaint in the one loading screen that says, "Well, at least you didn't have to pay for it." Gamers with more powerful computers will likely not encounter load times as lengthy as those I experienced.
The music is highly varied throughout the game. From the melodic guitar-driven rock piece on the title screen to the layered melodic yet atmospheric techno-inspired pieces throughout the game, the music is never boring and is exactly what I would envision the soundtrack to the environments would sound like. I also think that these pieces would sound fantastic outside the context of the game. It's not easy for me to describe the music heard in the game beyond "I love it, I think it's really good, and I want the soundtrack on CD."
Given that this is a freeware game, there is no voice acting, though I definitely think the cutscenes would really pop with voice acting. I cannot fault the game on this because it's a freeware title without the kind of budget that a big name title would have.
Iffermoon's story begins with a mysterious meteorite decimating the land of Dinostria. Dinandus and his squadron of soldiers prepare to enter the meteorite and defeat Cosmose, the foe within. Although Cosmose knows that he will be defeated in this struggle, Dinandus worries that Cosmose is unafraid of his fate and is almost welcoming his defeat. After Cosmose's defeat, the heroes find some hatchlings left in the wake of Cosmose's destruction and take them to the flying city of Starnest to be reared. It seems that the demise of Cosmose issued a call to the newly born minions of evil that was answered by many. One of the hatchlings Dinandus found was supposed to answer that call, but did not because he was deaf at birth, hence his name, Silence. As Silence grew up, however, his hearing mysteriously returned. So now this runt of the litter who didn't hear the call of evil when he was born has a destiny on his shoulders greater than he even realizes. There is a new threat on the horizon that promises to be an even bigger danger than what Dinandus and company faced eight years ago.
The story follows Silence as he leaves Starnest, learns about himself and his destiny, and earns favor with various denizens in Dinost in order to create a powerful legion to fight alongside him against this imminent threat. It is not the most original tale, but what makes it so compelling is the dialogue. The dialogue, particularly during cutscenes, is extensive and beautifully written. Silence is such a thoughtful young lad that it is very easy to forget that he is only eight years old. He is more insightful and mature than video game protagonists two or three times his age. Adults acknowledge that he is a child, yet they do not treat him like one, save for the golem-like Bugbulls who think any being made of flesh is a crybaby. I am not the biggest fan of child protagonists, but I enjoyed adventuring with Silence.
Iffermoon's interface is simple, yet the gameplay is varied and deep. The only keys gamers need to use are the arrow keys to move, shift to jump, z to perform actions in the mini-games, tab to open the menus, and the mouse to navigate the menus and the battle scenes. The interface is intuitive and both the status and battle menus are easy to navigate. The only issue with the interface is that the game only has one save slot, but the game saves every time players press ESC to quit the game, when Silence enters a new area, or following a Game Over.
Silence walks around the 2D environments, jumps to collect colored coins that raise party-based stats, and talks to denizens by stopping in front of them. One task Silence needs to do is curry favor with certain people so that they will fight alongside him when the time is nigh. Some characters may require Silence to gather items strewn all over the place, others may require him to seek out and engage in battles, and others still may ask him to best their high score at a mini-game. Some characters will not even consider joining Silence unless he has the full support of other characters and performs the tasks they ask of him. The more people Silence curries favor with, the stronger his legion can become. If one character falls in battle, the next one in line with maximum affinity with Silence will take the fallen soldier's place. Therefore, it is a good idea for Silence to curry favor with as many people as he can.
Silence and his many companions will inevitably find themselves engaged in combat, which is necessary for level gain. Battles occur in realtime and only four combatants fight at once with backup characters coming in when a combatant dies. Success in battle yields "iffer" (the game's equivalent of EXP) which players can allocate to any of their characters' stats, regardless of whether they fought in the battle.
The battle system operates as follows. All four combatants follow the enemy around the screen and automatically inflict physical attacks on it each time the action bar fills up. Characters' icons can be clicked, and a menu opens showing the special skills a character can use. When a character's icon glows red, said character can unleash a major special attack provided he or she has maximum MP. Besides accessing skills, a character's stance can be changed in the battle menu as well. There are three stances to choose from and can be changed at any time. One is a battle stance where a character inflicts but also receives a lot of damage. Another is a defensive stance where a character inflicts, but also receives, the least damage. The third is a medium stance. As players fiddle through the menus, the characters continue to trade blows with the enemy, so the battles are both realtime and menu based. Battles are not too briskly paced, so players will not feel overwhelmed by a flurry of activity and numerous split-second decisions. Personally, I prefer the full control and patience of regular turn-based battling, but this style of battling is par for modern RPGs such as Final Fantasy XII and works well.
I have mentioned mini-games a few times and I shall describe them now. There are three arcade machines in the game's world, each with one mini-game. Silence can only play the games if he has Game Tokens that are liberally scattered throughout the world. One mini-game is a vertically scrolling space shooter that is not graphically impressive, but challenging and fun to play. Another mini-game is like the NES game Toobin' where you control a person floating down a river on an inner tube and avoid mazelike obstacles. The third mini-game is a simplistic old-school RPG where you guide a thief around vast areas finding treasure and engaging in turn-based battles with randomly encountered monsters. It hardly gets more meta than an RPG within an RPG. The mini-games not only provide a nice change of pace, but some of the treasure earned in the mini-games translates to tangible treasure for Silence. These mini-games control beautifully, are cleverly designed, and are surprisingly robust. The space shooter and Toobin' save after each level is completed, so there is no need to keep restarting. The RPG is saved after the hero dies or if the player chooses to exit the game. When play resumes, the hero starts in the same location, but his level and EXP will be retained.
It is no secret that I think very highly of Iffermoon. The game excels in all areas and the fact that it doesn't cost any money only makes it that much more awesome, especially in these lean economic times. I hope the talent of Scott Cawthon does not go to waste and that he can create more games like this on a variety of platforms. I want Iffermoon on my PSP so I can play it on the go when I don't have access to my PC. I want action figures of Silence and his friends. I'd watch an Iffermoon animated series because the world and its inhabitants are awesome. I cannot give a game much higher praise than that. There is no excuse for gamers not to try this game out, so now that you are finished reading this review, go to the Iffermoon website and download this game.