ICY Frostbite Edition review (PC) – Lavish visual novel with strange combat

icy frostbite edition review 76

As I was playing ICY I was trying to classify it. Is it a mid-weight, open world RPG with very light crafting and survival elements and a strange (much more on that later) combat system? Or is it an elaborate CYOA with lots of extra mechanics grafted onto it? I think you’ll enjoy this game more if you treat it like, with some NEO Scavenger thrown in. It sounds like a mish-mash and it sort of is, but it’s also clever and mechanically original.

Should you get it?

Yes, although as I said, you need to at least enjoy CYOA games. Everything else is gravy. Not like awesome gravy that incorporates the meat drippings, but a pretty tasty instant gravy that totally works with fries and curds. If you do get it you’ll enjoy roughly 10-hours of engaging, briskly written gameplay. I had no problem finishing the game despite often getting impatient with other CYOAs.

icy frostbite edition review - score 76
Except for the title the writing is quite good.

The Game

Other than the CYOA elements this plays most like NEO Scavenger but that comparison is not perfect, it’s just the closest I could think of. ICY is appropriately set in a frozen post-post-apocalyptic earth. If not for the setting I might have said that the game feels like those Sorcery remakes of Fighting Fantasy books. The setting and focus on scavenging tilts it more NEO’s way.

I very much liked how, unlike Fallout 4, ICY’s earth feels far removed from our civilization and the disaster that brought it down. In Fallout the relics of the past are ever present making the world feel like a particularly large house on Hoarders. Here you still find some weapons and tech from the “ancient times” but they’re minor and never approach power armor or mini-gun levels of technology. The music and static art help with the overall atmosphere, awash in blues and whites and ominous notes.

Icy Frostbite Edition review - character screen
This is the first RPG ever to give too many skill points.

You lead a band of nomads across the “mantle”, a sparsely populated frozen expanse. From there you follow the story more or less at will. It’s not free form, the map is composed of connected nodes and travel involves simply clicking on the next circle. There are a lot of CYOA segments but they have the potential to impact the overall story, your party composition or health.  And each individual segment is very short. There are no walls of text here. It’s great pacing for the genre and the writing is capable and efficient. There is no animation but the accompanying art is serious, good and plentiful.

Nodes are either empty, have a few locations to scavenge or rarely small settlements. Combat occurs frequently but you can control the frequency by scavenging selectively. You don’t really need to scavenge every tile to survive, which I liked. It feels natural. You hunt in the forest then travel for a while, cherry picking spots that are somewhat safe and likely to yield nice loot.

Speaking of loot, it’s also good. Not vast or elaborate, just sort of mid-grade good. It’s all setting appropriate. I ran short of various resources at different times but not in a constant, momentum sapping way. I was upgrading weapons and armor all the way to the end of the game without getting ridiculous. It’s all generic, there’s no named equipment or special powers but it does a good job of giving you a reason to scavenge and minor goals as you save up for your first sniper rifle.

Icy Frostbite Edition review - crafting screen
Animal fat is by far your most precious resource.

Aside from reading and reacting to text and looting there’s of course combat. If you want to read about the specific mechanics I moved them to the bottom of the review, just because they’re complicated and not exactly like the combat system in any other game. It’s obtuse and has some strange design decisions, I was still figuring out fairly major mechanics as I neared the end of the game. But it’s also effective at conveying flavor if you look beyond the abstractions in a CCG sort of way.

That’s really it. Move nodes, have a bit of CYOA, decide if to loot or not, occasionally fight something and then move on in pursuit of quest goals. The whole thing is not at all busy. It’s almost tranquil despite the violent art and setting. Part of that tranquility comes from the game’s strange relationship with time. Characters and quests occasionally reference the concept and the CYOA segments are set in various times of the day, but it doesn’t really exist. Unless I completely missed it, there’s no day or time indication anywhere. Moving on the world map only reduces food. Scavenging doesn’t even do that, there’s no game difference between scavenging 1 or 4 locations.

The Story

If you’ve read this site at all you know how much I like fully realized worlds that make sense. This version of earth was great in that respect. The writing never made me groan or roll my eyes, the world feels like it could function with tiny settlements and small nomadic families making up the bulk of the population. No strange metropolises in the wasteland here. Things feel appropriately

It’s also not gratuitous, something the post-apocalyptic genre revels in. Sex, violence, betrayal, revenge, relationships – it’s all handled maturely and in a measured, matter of fact way. You’ll see a few of the minor twists a mile away and at times the story feels like an amalgam of stories we already know. It works overall despite a very clumsy transition from act 2 to 3. I was engaged, didn’t want to speed click through the text and cared for my extended nomad family. There was no problem suspending my disbelief which is why I think this game worked for me despite many annoying design choices and rough edges.

I actually didn’t realize how much depth there was in the relationships with the other party members; only getting to know two of them well. Both of those interactions triggered the game’s most interesting sequences. Once completed there was still more story to go, with one a potential romance, but I finished the game before I learned more. It’s my own fault for not pursuing the connections earlier, there’s no game mechanic preventing you.

There’s plenty of choice and consequence and the world is harsh enough to test your morality but not so much so that you become nihilistic. There are pockets of goodness and normalcy and the villains have reasonable motivations for their deeds.

Some Really Annoying Things

I purposefully left all the negatives to the end because although numerous they’re never too frustrating or game-breaking. It’s like a very polished early-access game, despite being an enhanced re-release of a game released in 2015.

Icy Frostbite Edition review - world map
Green or white. Those are the terrain choices.

The most baffling is the complete lack of tooltips or labels on the world map; both on the locations and on the icons that mark your quests. There’s no way to look at the map and know if that brown smudge you visited a month ago is just a rock formation or a settlement. You can’t even see which quest is which. Helpfull question marks are placed on the map for each quest location but they’re not labeled. And the diary entry regarding the quests are one-sentence vague. I often trecked across the map towards a goal not knowing which mission I was attempting. It’s manageable only because you have a small handful of quests at a time but it’s irritating the few times quest order matters.

The tutorial pacing is great, popping up throughout your playthrough when appropriate so you’re not overwhelmed or bored. Its light on details however, too much so when it comes to combat. Some of the text choices are out of order, reacting to things that did not happen. The difficulty is all over the place and not synced with the overall narrative. What feels like an entire end game choice doesn’t materialize. Each of its elements, from story to inventory, is rough but just a tad. They’re all fine considering the game’s indie production values. That’s what makes the mis-steps so baffling. They’re design choices or obvious easy omissions, not decisions born of budgetary constraints.

The Score

This game is a hodge-podge sitting on top of a visual novel. It ends up being enjoyable, probably to whatever extent you enjoy all the different bits within. If you’ve never played a CYOA this is a great introduction. Although that’s where you spend most of your time it’s concise and easy to digest. It’s also a good value at around $10 and you’ll get more playtime than I did if you talk to your party more and follow a few more threads. It’s not a masterpiece and if you don’t like some core mechanic the rest is not enough to carry it. So, 76.

The Combat

The combat is odd. It’s easiest to think of it like a CCG. Each piece of equipment gives a few cards. These can be stealth, maneuver, cover, melee, guns, arrows and a few more. An ax might give two melee cards while a machete gives one melee and one maneuver (being a lighter weapon). Your character also gains cards from his skills. The rest of the party lacks non-combat skills but some do have a single bonus card and you get whatever cards their equipment carries.

Your actual combat skills don’t make you better so much as they make you less shitty. A character with no skill in a weapon gains 5 useless cards. Each skill point reduces that by one until you get no useless cards at the max skill level of 5. It’s kind of original but it also diffuses the connection with your characters. My awesome ninja-assassin dude doesn’t really do anything spectacular, he just contributes some cards to a much bigger deck.

When you fight you fight as a group. There are no longer individuals. The HP pool is just the total of everyone’s HP’s. You also have a moral pool but its depletion doesn’t cause one side to flee as in most games, instead it modifies the damage you do but not in a clearly obvious way. You’ll often fight or force your enemy to fight with 0 moral but damage is still done and the effect seems relatively minor.

The way you play your cards is also odd. On your turn all those actions, useless and useful from everyone’s equipment and skills are put in a deck and dealt twelve per turn. You combine 1-4 of the cards to create an action and you keep doing actions until you hand of 12 is used up and your opponent does the same. A single melee card might do a bit of damage. A melee card and a maneuver card combined will raise your morale and give damage mitigation. Two stealth cards and gun card is a sniper shot, reducing your bullet stock by one, doing damage and lowering the other team’s moral. It’s nuanced and flavorful, and it sort of conveys the choices you made with your character, but it’s also distant and undramatic.

Icy Frostbite Edition review - combat screen
There’s a lot happening here despite not very much happening at all.

In another baffling design choice, these combinations are not listed anywhere so you end up trying a lot of combinations. It’s dumb because each combination has a number of effects so by the time I ended the game I still didn’t remember them all and had to juggle over and over to see what each did. It’s like those alchemy phone games, where you combine elements to make new elements, except here it gets in the way of formulating sometimes complicated strategy. The system allows for abstract feints and ambushes and all sorts of depth and many of the encounters were thrillingly close. But I also felt that there were more optimum strategies I missed because I forgot some combinations existed, not because I lacked “skill”.

Damage, like food and medical supplies, is completely generic. After combat various party members get damaged to various degrees. Since combat uses a single amorphous HP pool no one ever dies or gets injured in any specific way missing an opportunity for tension.

The enemy AI’s use of cards ranges from terrible to very good. I can’t make sense of it. It might even be intentional. It seemed like actually smarter (ie humans vs animals) opponents used their cards better. That of course doesn’t make sense since mutant wolves are presumably quite adept at biting and should use their biting attacks to the best of their abilities.

Like everything else in this game, it’s a strange brew but it goes down nicely in the end. I didn’t hate combat but I didn’t seek it out either. It was dangerous and tedious enough to prevent me from scavenging every square. A few times I had to really think and buff up to win an encounter.


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