I'll come clean up front and say that Ivy the Kiwi? is a hard title for me to grade. Innovation counts for a lot in video games, especially in today's risk-averse climate, but you have to make sure the game both plays well and is easy to grasp, even when you're trying something new. I give Yuji Naka (one of the original creators of Sonic the Hedgehog) and the Prope development studio respect for trying new and novel things with every new title they create, but after making my way through Ivy, I'm about ready for a more traditional platformer from the studio.
Believe it or not, this is more of a compliment than anything else.
Ivy the Kiwi? is what one would call a "proxy-control platformer." The player does not control the main character but is allowed to manipulate the environment around the character to control his progress. The closest relative to this game would be Kirby's Canvas Curse on the Nintendo DS. Aside from a few scattered taps with the stylus to set Kirby in motion, that game only let players guide Kirby by drawing lines on the screen to act as roads and bridges.
Ivy the Kiwi? goes a couple of steps further with this concept. The titular character, Ivy, is a just-hatched baby bird searching for her mother. Ivy moves by herself, and it's the player's job to place stretchy vines on the screen for Ivy to walk. These vines are always straight lines and can be stretched, swiveled and rotated during their creation.
Before I get into how this game actually plays, I really need to stress that Ivy the Kiwi? does just about everything right when it comes to creating a character-based platformer. It has an appealingly designed character and a simple story that endears players to her plight without being overwhelming. It has great artistic graphics, a fun soundtrack, and roughly 50 very well-designed levels when one takes the challenge of the game's collectibles into account. Finally, at $20 to $30, depending on where you look, the price is very much right for a game of this size. Aside from the gameplay issues I am about to touch on, I cannot find a single thing wrong with this title.
However, as with all video games, the actual play experience is tantamount, and here's where Ivy the Kiwi? simultaneously shines and falters. Since you don't control Ivy directly, there is an immediate disconnect, and the learning curve for this game is higher by default. There really isn't a learning curve so much as there is a learning wall. During my first couple of hours of play, I absolutely hated this game. The basic controls are easy enough to figure out, but there didn't seem to be a way to get better at the game.
After checking out a few gameplay videos, I learned some things about the freedom you're granted with controlling Ivy. Not only do the vines allow players to build bridges for her, but they can also be used to give her momentum, both in a straight line by pulling and snapping the string like a rubber band, and rotational by swinging around whatever vine Ivy happens to be walking on at the time. Slingshotting Ivy's vines is also how players bestow offensive abilities and use angles to her advantage, since she bounces off of walls and ceilings. The game doesn't really teach you these advanced techniques (especially the rotational momentum) until later, and considering how essential they are to ensuring that controlling Ivy is not a clunky experience, it's a misstep that will likely be frustrating for novices.
Another potential problem is when enemies and movable obstacles come into play. Ivy is difficult enough to get the hang of without enemy combat, but around World 5 or so, Ivy tosses them in, meaning you now have to manipulate your character with a greater degree of speed. This is definitely a problem on the Wii, where players don't have direct contact with the screen. DS users may have a better time.
If one sticks with this game, it is indeed possible to get better at it, to the point of having a relaxing time navigating levels, going for all the collectibles, or going for personal speed runs. However, since we're dealing with a motion-pointing interface as opposed to digital buttons, potential speed-runners and people trying to practice a stage to perfection should be ready for some precision shortcomings ruining otherwise perfect performances. On the subject of speed runs, this game would be great for them, except that the title only touts one save file. If you want to get some practice in, you have to erase your save data every time. If this game were any longer, this would be outright inexcusable. As it is, it's merely a nuisance because once you've mastered this game, you can pretty much walk through it.
Ivy the Kiwi? is a curious beast and certainly worth at least a rental, but it certainly isn't for everyone. Like Let's Tap before it, it feels more like an experiment instead of a tightly focused game. Between both titles, it's clear that Naka and Prope know how to design 2-D platform games with good themes, but their control schemes always feel like they're missing just one thing that would make them utterly perfect. I'd like Prope to finally attempt something more traditional. As far as proxy-control platformers go, Ivy is likely the best of the very small bunch, but it does little to sway me away from the appeal of a run-and-jump game where you directly control the character.
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