"ICY's snowy catastrophe is a cool setting but the game's numerous technical issues and damp script left me cold."
Games set post-apocalypse are quick to show us the aftermath of nuclear holocaust and the ravaged wastelands it produces. It's an evocative speculative setting no doubt, but with so many ways for the world to end, why stick with the same old story? Crowdfunded RPG ICY breaks the mold to tell the story of permanent winter under a dying sun, and the challenges a group of nomads must overcome to survive in this harsh climate. It's a neat take on the end of the world that's filled with potential, but ICY's technical foibles and awkward script prove that this is one game that would've benefitted from a bit more time in the oven.
ICY opens with a character customization screen in which you choose your sex, portrait and assign points to a handful of skills such as strength, charisma, hunting, scavenging and so on. I'd like to note, strangely enough, that one thing you can't do is name your character, nor does he/she have a default name. It's a small cosmetic detail, but its absence is unusual and almost discourages attachment to your avatar. Once you've decided on everything you can, the game opens on a sequence in which you and an older hunter named Jerome are hunting elk together in the woods. You're given a few text options on how to treat Jerome and approach your prey, which serve to introduce you to the game's mechanics: ICY is less of an RPG as much as it is a choose-your-own adventure with stats, feeling not unlike the old AD&D one-player gamebooks. Dice rolls are hidden from player sight, making it hard to determine how you're doing: Things either happen or they don't, and I was often left scratching my head as to why. Interacting with your companions seems to have no dice rolls attached nor any bearing on the story. No matter how nice or mean I was to Jerome, it only seemed to affect his immediate dialogue as my overarching relationship with him stayed static from beginning to end.
Once you've succeeded in bagging your elk, it's back to camp to share your game with your fellow nomads. However, there's barely enough time for a peaceful sit-down before the camp is under attack by raiders. Your group gets splintered as some allies are kidnapped, and you and Jerome escape to wander the wilderness in search of help. You're given access to the overworld map and it appears that this is where the game opens up, but it's soon found to be a rather linear affair: Though the map is speckled with buildings and woodlands, majority of these locales serve purely as basic scavenging/hunting grounds. Whether you're exploring a derelict gas station or an apartment block, you'll find a random selection of items and perhaps take some damage in the process. Events will occur in these places but have little outcome; you may be invited to explore a basement with the choice to light a torch or move carefully without one, but this only dictates whether you'll take damage when looting. Functionally identical, hunting grounds offer food instead of loot, with wolf attacks serving the same purpose as environmental hazards.
The meat of the adventure lies in locations indicated by pushpins that can only be visited in a set order. These are often towns in which you gather information and have the opportunity to trade scavenged items for more useful goods. Bullets are the currency in ICY's desolate world, forcing you to trade-off a valuable offensive item for food, medicine or other helpful items. It's an interesting concept that requires careful inventory management at first, but by the middle of the game, players are sure to have amassed a thousand bullets, which completely undercuts the stressful consideration that the game may have once demanded. The occasional sidequest gives the opportunity to gain more rewards, yet the game sometimes fails to communicate what may be gained. Early on, a quest-giver offered me 150 bullets for bringing him some items and I had the option to haggle for more. I was told that I'd succeeded, but I wasn't told what
my negotiation skills had won me, and I never found out.
While you're out walking in the winter wasteland, you'll eventually find yourself embroiled in battle against a rival faction. ICY handles combat in a way I still haven't figured out, and I'm inclined to believe it wasn't implemented completely. Each round you select melee or long range attacks, then a piece of text calculates how much damage each side has taken. Both you and your foe have HP and morale meters. Deplete your foe's morale and they'll retreat, but if your morale reaches 0 your entire party dies on the spot and it's back to the title screen. It's confusing.
In between rounds a short event takes place, usually to do with stopping a foe in its tracks to rescue a comrade from danger. Depending on your action, you'll succeed and injure the enemy or fail and take additional damage, but often the results don't make much sense. Many a time have I tried to shoot an arrow at an enemy about to crush an ally's skull only to miss, but be told that both sides took 0 damage. ICY is full of these little oversights.
Being so inspired by tabletop roleplaying and gamebooks, ICY relies heavily on its writing to describe your actions. Unfortunately, the writing is extremely stilted and awkward, suffering from odd grammatical choices and even odder phrases. The script reads like it was written by a non-native English speaker, which it was, but the lack of a dedicated localization editor is sorely missed here. On top of that, the story never really digs into why the world is the way it is, and rarely elaborates on its evocative mise-en-sc'ne. Mutants show up with little fanfare or explanation, and a late game introduction of a tribal people with magic-imbued tattoos felt completely at odds with everything seen before. The story tries to touch on some sensitive topics; you have the opportunity to rescue an African man, Mobolaji, from a group of slavers. It's handled about as sensitively as you'd expect — that is to say, clumsily — and when Mobolaji joins your group, his skin color becomes his sole defining trait. As a result, ICY's anti-racism story arc ends up feeling a bit prejudiced itself.
Problems with battle scripting extend into character interaction as well: At one point I found myself sitting around a campfire with a character who was shot dead minutes earlier. Later, a character's husband died in front of her and she had a nervous breakdown. I chose to speak to her immediately after, only to find her pleased as punch, speaking of her deceased lover as if he still lived. I suppose a generous interpretation would be that she had retreated into denial, but her dialogue was identical to the first conversation I had with her hours earlier. It's no coincidence that every time I spoke to Jerome resulted in the same pointers about taking on the game's very first quest, no matter how many hours after it had been resolved.
The search for your abducted allies is ICY's main story goal, and you soon learn they're being held captive by a group of mercenaries with high tech weaponry. It's a fine start to a mystery, although it ends up taking a backseat as you complete smaller quests and recruit the occasional party member. Oddly enough, ICY always offers you the choice to a reject a prospective ally but they end up joining you regardless, making all recruitment events scripted. I'm not sure if ally deaths are scripted as well; individual characters cannot die during battle so the two people I lost were killed in event scenes, one unceremoniously shot by a bandit and the other eaten by a living tree (!!). As none of my interchangeable nomads had a character arc, their deaths ended up lacking any gravitas.
ICY isn't a bad looking little game, featuring what appears to be hand-painted backdrops to illustrate its ruined towns. An aerial view of a junkyard is intricately detailed and a far-off landscape of a giant wind turbine looks appropriately solemn. Character portraits come across a bit more random; some painted, some drawn and some even computer generated, causing them to clash with each other. The game's sound design doesn't fair quite as well, being heavy on music but light on effects. Where you'd expect to hear harsh blustering gales, ICY prefers light woodwinds. It's an unfortunate choice, as a little ambient sound would've gone a long way. The only time I recall hearing any sound effects were during battle, where you'll hear the exact same sword, arrow or gunshot sound each time you select one of those weapons.
ICY's snowy catastrophe is a cool setting but the game's numerous technical issues and damp script left me cold. Its Indiegogo campaign topped at under $8000 — a very
modest sum to create a fully-featured game — however, ICY is far from fully-featured, feeling more like a proof of concept than a completed product. With sharper writing, functional combat and more to do, ICY could've been a special little game, but in its current state its numerous flaws cause it to suffer from exposure.