The first day in a new school is always the hardest, especially at a young age.
You’re unfamiliar with your surroundings; everyone present is a stranger, and no matter what happens you’re stuck here for 7 hours.
Now do it all blind.
This week I played Ian’s Eyes, Sindie Games’ indie horror adventure stealth amalgamation about an 8-year old boy’s first day of school. How appropriate considering the time of year. Regardless, during Ian’s first day, something happens to make a scary situation go from bad to worse: A simple school presentation of a slide show from a time capsule left for this year’s centennial turns everyone watching into mindless hungry zombies. Oh no. And someone locked the front door. Oh Nooo. And your parents aren’t even supposed to pick you up anytime soon. OH NOOOOO. Oh, but you’re not even human. OH WHAA…?
What I mean is you’re a dog. Your human is blind. Everyone else is a zombie. Get out of the school.
Yes, the very eyes of Ian are North’s, his seeing-eye dog, and it’s your responsibility to lead your owner out of a school infested with kid & teacher zombies. An extremely interesting, even “fetching” (I’m not sorry), idea to build a game around, in my opinion, but let’s examine it first.
Ian’s Eyes eases you into its primary controls early on, introducing you to movement, barking, and guiding/leaving Ian. Movement is, by default, classic Resident Evil tank controls (to complement the fixed camera angles), but you can switch to modern controls (moving in any direction you aim your joystick or d-pad) at any time through the options. I found the “classic” controls slow and unruly for most of this title’s challenges and subsequently left them immediately. Also, the buttons shown on the controller screen were wrong for my gamepad. It displayed a Dual Shock 4 controller, but every button was reassigned differently onto my Xbox One controller. Selecting an option was B, usually reserved for backing out of options, and to open the menu I had to click R3 for some reason. Thankfully, the controls are simple enough that once I figured out what did what, I no longer had any problems.
Anyways, back to movement: while guiding Ian, North can only move at a regular walking speed, but once free of his owner, he can run, walk, or sneak, depending on what’s necessary. Another ability of North’s that comes into play regularly is barking (it’s so obvious its genius). Holding the appropriate button charges North’s bark from a low, warning “ruff” to a powerful and threatening “WOOF,” which even scares Ian into staying still for a couple of seconds. The loudness of the bark affects a particular radius around North, making it easy to distract specific characters on screen at will. While all of these abilities are exciting, you need to be conscious of your time away from Ian, as the longer he remains unattended, the more frightened he becomes. Stay away too long and Ian will yell out for North, getting the attention of both you and any nearby zombie, leading to a quick game over. All of these are elements and skills you’ll be required to use to guide Ian to safety throughout the school, so get used to them.
Graphically Ian’s Eyes presents itself similar to the creepy fondness of Tim Burton’s easily recognizable art from The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. This makes character models change readily from friendly and full of life to creepy and clearly dangerous. Of course, aesthetics are entirely subjective, changing from person to person, but I think it looks nice. Performance, on the other hand, is certainly objective. Not once did I experience a single bug affecting graphics or gameplay.
The soundscape of Ian’s Eyes is aurally simple, made up of eerie ambiance combined with the echoes of footsteps from pacing zombies always moving around you. North’s barks cut through the stillness of the world, quickly frightening anyone not paying attention. The voice-over work throughout, though, is… odd. Ian sounds a little older than his reported age of 8, but not completely unbelievable; however, his cadence is peculiar. If I were in that situation, I would not be so calm about everything happening around me, especially after seeing the seemingly expired body of a flesh-eating zombie child lying dead on the ground in a pool of its blood with black holes present where its eyes once were. But that’s just me. Either way, Ian’s lines are clear and concise. He does sound worried when he calls to North. Principal Bates, on the other hand, sounds extremely out of place. With all of his students and faculty members now zombified, he calmly gives Ian new objectives to help get out of the school while speaking with the broken prosody of a foreigner overdosing on codeine. His monotonous intonation, low and cold tone, disjointed sense of stress, and a regular rhythm quickly shattered by uneasy pauses at random punctuation marks throughout make him seem fake. And this is the voice you’ll be hearing the most, well almost (we’ll talk about that soon), as he narrates the story, tells Ian where to go, and speaks on cassette tapes found hidden throughout the school. The game’s subtitles don’t even care to wait for him, as they quickly pass up his lines, racing to the end of the interaction before he finishes speaking in most scenes.
So how do all of these elements work together? Is it a symbiotic relationship?
Well, no. It feels more parasitic, and you’re the host. My time with Ian’s Eyes was trying, to say the least, but let me explain why. Typically, fixed camera views are left for small areas to interact with or for tense moments to highlight a specific scene. Here, they’re just used everywhere, and in a terribly ineffective way. Most classrooms are deep, like a long rectangle, and in order to safely navigate them, you’ll need to move from the foreground to the background. But there’s clutter in the way: Zombies, desks, walls, and sometimes even hidden obstacles that you have no way of seeing due to the shallow angle of the camera. I understand the importance of being able to see most of a room in this game for visual awareness. However, when there’s so much to avoid and so little room for error, it becomes incredibly frustrating to move from one screen to the next, turning your entire playthrough into an endless game of trial and error from room to room.
To make matters more complicated, neither Ian nor North have any way to defend themselves from enemies, who instantly kill you when you come into contact with them. This makes rooms where you should be able to walk easily around them tricky as you become unsure of how close or far away you are from them. Couple this with the fact that every time you respawn, Ian speaks the last line he said, summarizing the current objective, and you have a terrible recipe for disaster. Hearing Ian repeatedly yell “HURRY BACK UPSTAIRS, NORTH!” over and over becomes mind numbingly annoying, especially with inconsistent zombie AI. I’ve played the same puzzle room over a dozen times in a row, and each time the zombies noticed North at different ranges and speeds. One moment I could run next to or behind a zombie, the next moment they see me just walking by. I’ll try to sneak by another threat only for them to notice me, then all I hear is “HURRY BACK UPSTAIRS, NORTH!” and another tally on the death counter. Enter a new room and “HURRY BACK UPSTAIRS, NORTH!” Open a do-- "HURRY BACK UPSTAIRS, NORTH!” It does an excellent job of wearing the player down.
The camera itself becomes a real interfering obstacle when you find areas that jarringly change viewpoints. Several sections have you roaming hallways that have multiple camera angles, meaning you can walk straight into the path of a zombie that isn’t even within your viewpoint until you’ve crossed the invisible threshold. But then there are other areas where the camera pans left or right with the player model. Why these aren’t implemented in other hallways, I don’t know. All of these problems make solving a simple room puzzle that much more painful with constant unnecessary deaths at unpredictable intervals.
Other puzzles, on the other hand, are easily solved by having North loudly bark in the corner, distracting all zombies to that point, while you circle back, pick up Ian, and prance out of the room completely unscathed. It’s the juxtaposition of basic, one-trick puzzles followed immediately by areas of disarray and enemy spam that create a disappointing feeling of grinding through room after room, only to be told you need to go downstairs again, or upstairs again, or downstairs again.
I explained Ian’s Eyes to a friend this way: imagine playing Metal Gear Solid, but you’re dragging around Ashley from Resident Evil 4, and she refuses to do anything without you.
Then imagine that the complex and intuitive systems the guard AI runs off of, you know: watching for footprints in the snow, listening for sounds of movement, having a specific cone of vision… take all of that and throw it away, you don’t need it here. Instead, the guards will just run after you whenever they feel like it, at random intervals. Also, you’re playing on European Extreme, because if you’re spotted, it’s over, as you can’t outrun them. If they touch you, you’re dead. Then every time you spawn, you have to listen to Ashley yell out her infamous “LEOOOOOON!!!” Also, you’re looking through a doll-house to play, and you can’t open it up to see exactly where you are. Oh, and you actually play as D-Dog, and Otocon is voiced by your favorite cast member of Sega’s The House of the Dead, agent Thomas Rogan. Towards the end, it kinda sounds like it could have potential, but it doesn’t. Not with current technology, anyways.
Deceiving camera angles, unpredictable enemy AI, and an inconsistent difficulty spike with puzzles make the promise of an enjoyable indie horror game with unique mechanics unattainable in its current state. Some moments are interesting and even rewarding, but fleeting with frustrating areas and enemy design consistently acting as roadblocks. Do yourself a favor and download the demo to try it out before committing to this title if you are still curious.