Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, PS4
Developer: FantaBlade Network
Publisher: X.D. Network Inc.
ICEY is a rather peculiar title. A self-proclaimed metagame that takes the guise as a 2D action game , driven onwards by a story that exists on two layers. With the first layer centering around the titular Icey, a battle android armed with a sword who embarks on a quest to kill somebody named Judas for… vaguely defined reasons, destroying and attacking every robot in her way while traversing through a mostly peaceful looking world in order to reach his lair and presumably save the world. While the second layer centers around the narrator who follows Icey’s journeys, while knowing full well that this is all a game.
If Icey does stray off the established path, she will draw the ire of the narrator who will respond to her curiosity with hostility, divulge a bit about the second layer of the story, and possibly reveal a bonus area of some sort. While these scenes begin as a very amusing novelty, they are very prevalent throughout the game, repeat themselves conceptually, and involve a lot of slowly spoken and drawn out dialog that cannot really be skipped. Yet, they are rather interesting, occasionally humorous, and left me intrigued me until the end, as I eagerly waited to uncover their true purpose… but that did not really happen.
Now, it is clear that the narrator is meant to say something about obedience, player discovery,, and the often narrow mindset that is prevalent in a lot of action oriented games. But I could not figure out the significance of these ideas in the confines of ICEY, or even determine why the narrator behaves the way he does. Why would he get so antagonistic and frustrated by having Icey explore the world presented before her? The closest answer I could devise was that the game simply wanted to evoke The Stanley Parable and its narrator, who also grew upset at the player character when they strayed away from the path they set out for them. Except this story does not really change based on player action, and this game is nowhere near as smartly written as The Stanley Parable. But it’s more than that.
Within its first five minutes it becomes clear what ICEY is, what it is trying to be, and the level of subtlety it will practice to get there. Nothing about ICEY is reserved, nothing about is is particularly clever, nothing about it really surprised me after the first hour. The story plays its hand far too early, it does not build a foundation it can play around with, and it is so insistent about being a deconstructive work that it doesn’t even bother establishing or constructing anything in the first place.
To reiterate, this layer of the game does do some interesting stuff. Such as instances where the player is told about the troubled development of this game within a game, or a particularly entertaining bit where the narrator has a phone call to work out a promotion deal involving a Chinese idol group. Yet when everything was said and done and I was left to put the pieces together, I simply could not find a consistent through line or real purpose of it all.
Similarly, I was confused by what the first layer of the game really wanted to be. On one hand, it really is as simple as I implied in the introduction, but the story does clearly have a fair amount of care and thought put into it by the developers. It’s just that the substantial elements of the story are either casually mentioned by the narrator, inferred from the scenery, or come from a variety of hidden text logs in the game. These text logs are incredibly vague pierces I barely understood at all, and apparently are meant to correlate this games to an H.P. Lovecraft story called The King in Yellow.
Seeing as how lightly detailed they are, referencing undefined terms and only providing morsels of information, these proved to be more of a frustration for me that helped me focus and channel my core problem with ICEY. What does it want to do? What is it trying to say? What is the point of it all? I seriously cannot recall the last game to confuse and bewilder me so thoroughly, to say so much, yet fail to tie its various concepts together into something that I can so much as properly articulate without inadvertently confusing myself.
Things are kept far, far more reserved with regards to the gameplay, as ICEY is a fairly standard 2D action game, one with a higher emphasis on speed and dashing, but nothing out of the ordinary. Fight jobbers, progress down the fairly linear levels, explore a side area to get scolded at by the narrator, and eventually wind up fighting a large boss enemy before continuing to the next level. The fundamentals of combat work decently enough in theory, providing the player with a sizable number of unlockable combos and upgrades for Icey to earn and utilize, and adopting a generally solid game feel that is fast and responsive.
Looking a bit deeper though, I found some things to be concerned about. Most of the combos involves repetitions of a light attack before pressing the heavy attack for a variety of effects vary quite dramatically depending on how many times X was pressed, but the general effect is that same. A series of flashy imagery that often obscures enemies as they telegraph their attacks, and higher damage numbers. Partially because of this often poor sense of visibility, it was not uncommon during my playthrough for ICEY to be locked in a chain attack between multiple enemies, who lob Icey around like a volleyball while striking her with lasers, punches, and massive cyber hammers before she finally bounces free, with upwards of 50% of her health taken away. This is the sort of thing that is usually prevented with invincibility frames, but ICEY does not seem to be a fan of those.
This can also be seen in how the game handles its dash mechanic, a useful tool for avoiding enemy attacks that gives Icey very good mobility during combat encounters, or at least that would be the case if the dash had invincibility frames for the entire dash. Instead, it is very easy to inadvertently take damage just as a dash comes to a stop and before the player regains full control over Icey’s mobility. This can be especially problematic when avoiding enemy attacks by dashing through them, an idea that just makes sense and feels like it should work with the mechanics the game laid out before me. I cannot remember how many times when Icey would dash through an enemy right as they were gearing up for an attack, and then take damage after having dashed through to the other side of the enemy, when their attack is only supposed to hit one direction.
All of these factors combined to create a gameplay system far more frustrating than it should have been, and ended up encouraging me to adopt a specific playstyle around the limitations it set out for me. Ultimately, I found that the best option was to poke away at many enemies with a series of area effect attacks, picking them off one by one, using the finishing move to recover bits of health from each foe, and generally avoiding direct confrontations and intricate combos as much as possible. Whenever I overcame a difficult encounter in ICEY, it was not because I accumulated the skills needed, but because I took a passive stance and looked for aspects I could exploit.
Despite the game being such a linear track, these settings lack much cohesion, with the world varying dramatically with regards to technology, and the route Icey takes feeling a bit roundabout when strung together. Meanwhile, Icey and the enemies she encounters are all well animated and feature designs that while not exceptionally memorable, work within the confines of the game and do keep environments, enemies, and Icey’s abilities visually distinct from each other. Or at least it should.
I previously mentioned how Icey’s attacks can obscure enemies, but the game as a whole has a habit of obscuring the combat with visual clutter, making it difficult to see what is going on, what enemies are doing, and generally managing the crowd. From ranged enemies attacking from off screen, to a somewhat appropriate CRT effect the game uses on occasion, to animations that seem to have too few frames to be reasonably countered.
ICEY has the potential to be something truly amazing and beautiful, but is presented behind a frosty distortion that it is difficult to make anything definitive out and it would take some extra tools to figure out anything more. Its story is both too vague and relies too much on being a metagame to have the impact it desires, while it’s gameplay lacks the polish and variability to make its linear encounters worthwhile.