Review: ICY: Frostbite Edition is a Lukewarm Post-Apocalyptic RPG

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ICY: Frostbite Edition contains all the fundamental elements of a post-apocalyptic role playing game.

You’ve got an Earth-altering, unexplained cataclysm, communities struggling to stay alive in this changed world, bandits out for everything they can take, a hidden organisation at work and your plucky band of survivors stuck in the middle of it all. Yet these elements never quite gel, often leaving you feeling like you’re involved in a Live Action Role-Playing event. So much so, in fact, that you expect someone’s Mum to wander on screen with a plate of sandwiches or one of your “enemies” to complain that he never should have died from that imaginary bullet.

That’s not to say that ICY: Frostbite Edition, an updated version of the original ICY, is a disaster of apocalyptic proportions, but neither is it going to set your world on fire. The game casts you as an unnamed individual who, after losing their memory, is discovered and rescued by a group of nomads. After a brief introductory section which introduces you to ICY: Frostbite Edition‘s reasonably intuitive interface, you and your fellow travellers are kidnapped by a team of suspiciously well equipped bandits. You and a few others manage to escape but the bulk of your party remains in chains, the game tasking you with tracking down these post-apocalyptic hoodlums in order to get them back.

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However, you’ll find yourself struggling to care one jot about their fates. ICY: Frostbite Edition boasts that it is a “narrative-driven post-apocalyptic survival RPG” but fails to give you a compelling reason to engage with the story, committing the cardinal sin of telling rather than showing. It tells you that your character cares about your extended family, ignoring the fact that you spend all of five minutes in-game time with them. Had the game started when you’d lost your memory and allowed you to meet your fellow survivors for the first time you would have had more chance to become attached to them.

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Nor are the characters you meet subsequently, many of whom are eager to your join your party, particularly interesting. The game would have been better served by drip-feeding you its characters; several hours into the game I was travelling with ten other individuals, none of whom I really knew or could name. You can stop and talk to each one but their dialogue is so awkwardly written that it fails to endear them to you, and, for the most part, doesn’t convey any real sense of personality. Voice-overs aren’t essential to creating sympathetic or believable characters, as proved by Undertale and its ilk, but their absence here does the game no favours.

Nevertheless, actually roaming around the snowy landscape can be entertaining. The game’s hand-drawn artwork is utterly superb, lending proceedings a grim beauty that fits in perfectly with its post-apocalyptic setting. And the game deserves credit for not forcing you into random encounters as you travel the icy trails. Instead, you’re only at risk should you venture into a building or wooded area and decide to explore it. Encounter a group of enemies, human or otherwise, and you’re pitched into combat, which is also an integral part of ICY: Frostbite Edition’s main quest line.

Fighting in ICY: Frostbite Edition uses a card style system – an unusual choice for an RPG – and while you will get acquainted with it, it never seems entirely fair. Instead of using a virtual dice roll to determine whether one of your characters hits a foe, the game treats your entire party as one entity. Prior to each turn, the game shuffles the action deck to determine which moves are available to you. So you could equip every member of your party with a gun, for instance, but you’ll be lucky if half of them get to fire because enough “shoot” cards didn’t come up in the shuffle. You can combine cards to create more powerful attacks but the system still undermines your preparedness and makes victories, and defeats, feel rather happenstance.

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Far more appealing and engaging is the way that ICY: Frostbite Edition handles morality. Far too many games employ a binary morality system where you’re either breathlessly evil or a complete saint, but here your choices are much greyer. True, one of the NPCs I encountered rather ruined things by using a racial slur – pretty much the equivalent of twirling his moustache – but for the most part you’ll be left wondering if you made the right choice or not. Do you listen to the trader who claims that her ex-business partner tried to kill her? Or do you believe the partner who claims she’s set him up to get her hands on their formerly joint enterprise? Even if you play the game again, which is a possibility given the presence of multiple endings, you might never know the “truth”.

Yet ICY: Frostbite Edition’s biggest let-down is the fact while it’s marketed as a survival game, it never feels like one. The game’s one concession towards the genre is that every time you change location, your party uses up one unit of food. When supplies are low, do you cut one of your party members loose knowing that it’ll leave more food for the rest of the group? The choice would have been tough had it not been the case that you use the same amount of food no matter how big or small your party is.

Likewise, despite the game’s insistence that you’re walking in a winter wonderland, cold is a not a problem. There are a couple of scripted occasions where you’re faced with a snowstorm, but for the most part it’s as if you’re roaming around a national park on a summer’s day for all the difference the temperature makes. There’s no need to keep warm and you can stroll around without the worry of frostbite turning your feet into blackened lumps. Nor do the game’s other NPCs seem concerned about their predicament, being a remarkably chilled bunch. Perhaps it’s been a particularly mild winter, but for a “survival” game, survival seems like a non-issue. All in all,  ICY: Frostbite Edition‘s setting feels like a mere veneer rather than an integral part of the game.

ICY: Frostbite Edition is a distinctly average title. It definitely has its moments, particularly when you stumble into the game’s stranger locations and end up having to deal with a colossal mutant tree or similar horror. Plus, never knowing whether you’re “right” is a wonderfully unsettling sensation. But you’re still left with a narrative that fails to draw you in, an oddly out of place combat system and a superficial survival mechanic, making gameplay middling at best. Ultimately, ICY: Frostbite Edition could have been so much more, but as it is, it’s a distinctly lukewarm experience.

ICY: Frostbite Edition is available on PC.