It’s Ian’s first day at his new school, and things are not going well at all. He’s just not fitting in with the other students. But that’s because he’s blind and they’re all zombies intent on eating his delicious bbbbrrrrraaaaiiiiinnnnnsssss. Something to do with a slideshow they all watched at a presentation in the gym. Or maybe they’re all just goth kids indulging in a bit too much roleplay, who can tell? Luckily for Ian he’s got you, North, his ever-faithful guide-dog companion, to help him out. I guess you could say you’re Ian’s Eyes. Woof, woof!
Despite being billed as a survival horror adventure, Ian’s Eyes is probably far better described as a stealth game. Trapped inside the Blue Norholm Centenary School, the gameplay boils down to guiding Ian through a sequence of classrooms and halls overrun with vicious little biters. With no way of killing the zombies, it’s up to you to scout ahead, clear a path by distracting them, and then return to lead the slow-moving Ian to safety. And it’s curtains if either of you so much as brush past a zed or if Ian is left for too long by himself – he will quite literally die of fright if his fear-o-meter maxes out.
Fortunately, North has a few tricks up his furry little sleeve. Not only can he sprint and sneak, but he can his use his bark to lure distant zombies away from key locations. The radius of the bark, as indicated by an expanding green circle, can be increased by holding down the button for longer, thus giving you a fair amount of control over which foes are attracted to your position. Though you need to be careful, because if Ian is in earshot, he’ll start walking towards you as well. In addition, North also has a special “dark bark” ability that temporarily freezes those caught within its range. Again, this includes Ian, who will also become far more frightened as a result.
There are several biter variants to contend with, and you’ll need to adjust your strategy accordingly. Static zeds remain at the last place they heard or saw something, while distracted patrollers will eventually return to their normal route cycle; both having a limited detection radius based on proximity. Then there are the ones with the creepy yellow eyes. These can see much further and will give chase the moment you cross their field of vision. And just to compound things, the larger teacher versions of these enemy types have much sharper senses than their student counterparts.
Like I said, a stealth game. The trouble is, it’s not a very good one. Despite the ostensibly open nature of the school, the gameplay is extremely linear and repetitive. It’s driven by disjointed and arbitrary objectives that seem to come from nowhere. Ian is just full of dead-end ideas – let’s go to the library, let’s go to the toilet, let’s try the fire alarm, let’s find where that draft is coming from, and so on and so forth. Then there’s the very occasional feeble riddle thrown in for good measure. My favourite being the one where you have to press a sequence of barely legible Braille cells.
There’s simply not enough variation in either the gameplay or environments. You seem to spend a lot of time revisiting old areas, though with incrementally harder zombie configurations as well as different passageways and doors blocked off by piles of bodies and debris that seem to materialise from nowhere. I’m pretty sure I went through the same courtyard about 50 times. And then all the new locations you head to look and play out the same anyway. It’s all cramped and cluttered classrooms connected by narrow corridors with near-identical layouts and the same furnishings and props.
Exacerbating things is the camera system. Set in third-person, the game relies entirely on fixed angles, which are poorly thought out and largely inappropriate to the style of gameplay. The chosen viewpoints usually mean you can’t see through open doors or round corners until you pass through them, often straight into a foe. Ditto when you’re moving directly towards the screen up a long corridor.
Frustratingly, you’re often far from the camera, making it very difficult to see what you’re doing or to be able to properly gauge distances, while baddies and objects in the foreground will regularly block your view. Plus, the angles can make the objectives difficult to determine. Even the early 3D games of the 1990s had it better than this.
Adding to the infuriation are the clumsy and inflexible controls. Although Ian’s Eyes can be played with either a gamepad or the keyboard, there are no customisation options other than a choice between tank controls, another horrible throwback to the mid-1990s, or a scheme relative to the camera. The latter is certainly the lesser of two evils, but it doesn’t combine well with static perspectives that change suddenly when you turn a corner or enter a room, typically resulting in the controls being rotated. Not exactly what you want when you’re trying to give a zombie the slip.
And why, given the number of unused buttons available, do I have to double tap bark in order to perform the dark bark? It also didn’t help that during the early “tutorial” stages of the game I was given on-screen cues for a PlayStation controller despite playing on an Xbox pad.
This sequence of poor design decisions means that you lack the precision and situational awareness needed in a stealth-focused game where movement and timing are everything and there’s little margin for error. On top of this, sneaking is incredibly unreliable, it’s a far safer bet to run or bark; whereas enemy movement and detection in general is highly inconsistent and glitchy. It seems almost impossible to predict how an individual zombie will react to the same action on separate occasions. And they’ll regularly ignore the dog, despite being right next to him, and make a beeline for a sometimes out-of-sight Ian. Expect to fail a lot.
Furthermore, checkpoint starting positions aren’t always safe, requiring immediate action after dying. And while, thankfully, the checkpoint distribution is generous enough, they don’t sync up with the far less frequent autosaves, meaning you can actually lose a lot of progress when exiting the game.
It all adds up to an experience that is rarely fun and relies far more on luck than skill and strategy. Progress is more of a relief than anything else, and at times its simply rage inducing. Adding insult to injury, you’re presented with a chalkboard tally each time you die, reminding you of the sheer number of past failures. Who thought that was a good idea?
The other aspects of Ian’s Eyes don’t fare much better. The story, set in the 1980s for no apparent reason, is cliched, predictable, and unengaging. It’s the usual conspiracy and experimentation type malarkey. Then, despite taking place in the USA, everyone has a really obvious Dutch accent. Which begs the question – why base it there at all? And oh my God does Ian’s whiny little voice grate. He sounds almost twice his supposed age, plus you have to listen to him repeat the current objective every time you die, which as we’ve established is a bloody lot. I actually turned the sound off at one point.
Graphically, it also falls short. While the environments are believable enough, the unoriginal and cutesy art style fails to impress. In addition, the textures are generally poor, the lighting is static, the models have blobs for shadows, which looks terrible in this day and age, and North has no shadow to speak of at all. Furthermore, the silhouetted 2D cutscenes are badly animated and just appear so cheap and nasty. Yet bewilderingly, these simple visuals managed to max out my GTX980 for a measly 80 fps.
Let’s not beat around the bush, despite the initially intriguing premise of playing as a dog guiding a blind eight-year-old, Ian’s Eyes is a real dog’s dinner of a game. Not only does it suffer from severe repetition, uninspired level design, and a dull story, but it’s crippled by clumsy controls, an awful camera system, and a multitude of inexplicable design decisions. In short, it’s a lesson in how not to make a stealth adventure.
Developer: Sindie Games
Release Date: 1st September 2016