After an attempted suicide, the player has fallen into a coma, guiding the manifestation of their consciousness through a prison of their own mind, putting their brain together one gland at a time while traversing above and across the River Styx by way of planes of existence taking the form of colored platforms.
The player’s main power is turning on and off the red, blue and yellow planes, while white ones are always tangible. This is no small gimmick as the levels are ingeniously designed to challenge the player’s abilities; timing, making, and landing jumps and using the platform tangibility power takes a fair amount of effort and a vast amount of patience, more often than not trial and error will be the only surefire way to traverse an obstacle that doesn’t require brilliant planning, skill, or risky moves.
The level layouts start out pretty simple and easy, easing the player into the controls and jump physics, once they feel comfortable and their confidence grows, it gets shattered by a sharp turn upwards in difficulty with every few levels being excessively more challenging, attempts pile up as do the failures leading to stress and ire, but the levels are never cheap so it always blamed on the self.
Most of the challenge comes from the optional goal of collecting the shards of memories, often placed out of reach and off the beaten path, and the addition of new elements such as the classic crumbling platform, white orbs that change white platform tangibility, blue trampoline orbs, red hazard orbs and lasers that must be avoided as they send the player back to their checkpoint, and the ability to reverse gravity which make the layouts confusing, and my least favorite: platforms that change their color.
The feeling of playing Irritum is something of a head-scratcher to concisely explain, as it seems to change; starting out there is a sense of wonder and intrigue, then it becomes that of irritation and finally devolving into feelings of malice, for the levels and for the self for failing.
If I have one major criticism, it’s the narrative execution. For such a great, dark, and original premise, the game doesn’t really deliver on it. There are two angels of death the player encounters, the purple goal-oriented Sollus, and the pessimistic yellow Cassus, often I feel as though they are only there to remind the player what the plot is, meaning a player going in blind would have no idea what the plot is until they spoke to one of them. I could remove all story elements from this game and nothing would really change much.
In my experience, the best narratives never have to be told to the player or known about beforehand, with the exception of backstory and in-universe lore. Rather, they find a way to give the player an impression of the story and characters just from the events and actions. To use a classic example, one could remove all the dialogue from Final Fantasy 7 and someone who was completely new to the game would still know who the characters were, what their relationships to each other are, and even the plot of the whole game just from the characters expressions, body language and on-screen events. This makes me somewhat disappointed with Irritum because with such a great premise it could be remembered with the same fondness and intrigue of mystery as Portal if done better.
I’m actually forgiving this however, because when I look at it simplistically Irritum is a platformer with an interesting primary mechanic and a dark, moody feel. As such it belongs in the same family as VVVVVV, Braid, Cave Story, and Limbo, and these games were never primarily about narrative (though they did very well) but about adding a new element to a classic, proven genre, and Irritum definitely succeeds there.
If there is something I think can be improved it’s that it couldn’t hurt to have options to make it easier, small things like platforms that only occur in easy mode or the option to skip to the next checkpoint after multiple failures, as I feel these things would make the game more accessible.
Irritum is brilliant in its design and refreshing and new in its aesthetic style and premise, and for that I certainly think it is one of the best platformers I’ve played in recent memory.