One of the games last year that I had difficulty holding my tongue on was Icebound. Created by Fastermind Games, the game promised to be a spark of light on a cloudy year for the EVN community. And, credit where it’s due, Icebound has a lot going for it. The story has incredible scope and detail, the characters are fun and interesting, the minigames have their own learning curve that makes them entertaining, the art is distinct and the soundtrack compliments the mood and atmosphere. There was a lot I liked about this game, but there was also a lot I didn’t like. The reason, however, it took so long to get a review has little to do with either of those. It has to do with something else and before we can review the game proper, this must be addressed.
On September 21, 2013, the Fastermind team closed a successful Kickstarter for Icebound. It raised just over $7,000 and its goal was to cover the final expenses of the game as well as add to it. That additional expense was voice acting by members of Team Four Star and extra polish on the artwork to ensure high quality. On launch day in April 2014, the voice acting wasn’t there. And I’m sure everyone has noticed by now, it’s nearly been a year since then.
I don’t want to nitpick and I know things happen: Lord knows I’ve got a Master’s Degree in Murphy’s Law. And the Kickstarter did cover the expenses of the entire game and not just that one piece. However, the game was pretty much done from what I understand before the Kickstarter. If I’m wrong, I’ll gladly correct it. But, to my understanding, the Kickstarter was to ensure high-grade art and voice acting, with the bulk of the game completed already. And as much as I respect Jonathan X and his team, I also strongly felt that the version we had wasn’t complete. So, out of that same respect, I waited until some word dropped on what happened and if the game was ever going to include what was fully promised.
I have it on good authority that when the Steam version is released, the Kickstarted voice cast will be included. However, the Steam version will also be ‘done when it’s done’. And with the recent announcement of Moonshot, we may be in for a wait on that version. It’s unfortunate, but I did want to explain what took so long and while I’m sorry for the delay, I’m especially sorry that it seems my delay was in vain. For those who haven’t played it yet for whatever reason, let’s take a look at Icebound.
On the frozen tundra of Permia, where a fragile peace keeps two warring races at bay, a wandering alchemist named Dougal and his familiar Isaac stumble into the trading post Isenbarr looking for work and food: mostly food. Luckily for them, a rabid beast is on the loose and the resident Master Alchemist is calling on anyone with alchemical potential to help stop the monster before it can strike again. The prize for their help? The ancient and powerful Philosopher’s Stone. Is it all really that simple? Or is more lurking under the surface for Dougal to find out?
There are several plot threads that Icebound unfurls in the first act and, credits where its due, they give them all extraordinary attention as we get started. The only real focal point we have is Dougal as he deals with the threat against Isenbarr and the potential discovery of a Philosopher’s Stone. After that, there are the separate storylines on the alchemists Dougal run into in Isenbarr who all have the own backstories and reasons for being there. On top of that we have the citizens of Isenbarr who have their own backstories. Finally, there is the larger story about the world of Permia and its mythology. All of these details give the world a great sense of atmosphere and character that put it apart immediately.
However, that’s only the first half of the story. These separate threads never mesh together to form a singular plot cord for the audience to experience. Instead they are all dealt with separately. While they are all handled relatively well, since the plot never truly feels connected, as you reach the midway point you will start to wonder what you are supposed to be doing. Helping a young blacksmith discover her latent talent? Chasing down a badass vigilante taking the law into their own hands? Actually, none of these. They’re all self-contained and only after you’ve dealt with them individually does it feel like the major storyline continues.
The main storyline deals with what Dougal really is and the past state of the world. That storyline only involves a handful of the massive cast along with Dougal and when the story manages to focus on them, the requisite tension is there. I also enjoyed Dougal as a protagonist because, for the most part, he is in over his head. This gives the mythology and separate religions of this world much more depth and importance and it is a shame that it doesn’t have much screen time until the second half of the game when more of Dougal’s history is revealed and her turns into a more idealistic hero.
I probably would have been okay with the reveal if it was never a reveal. Dougal has a likable personality by default: whether or not he stays that way depends on reader input. However, due to events before the plot proper, Dougal has a strong case of ‘Plot Contrivance’ AKA Amnesia. This is done to conceal Dougal’s true identity from the reader, when it would have been far more interesting for Dougal to know exactly what he was and a major part of the game was hiding it from everyone else. I’m avoiding spoilers here for the most part, but even from that you’ve all probably figured out exactly what is going on. And there within lies another big issue with the game.
For all of the build up the first half of the game provides, the second half mostly wastes it. A lot of this I blame on there being too many irons in the fire, as it were. A lot of time is invested in tying up every possible story thread, and a small tip of the hat should go to the team for not leaving too many open elements. Unfortunately, all of it isn’t done neatly and before the final battle it turns into a mess. There are several points that resolve themselves in a way that’s either absurd or abusing the ‘Amnesia’ plot point in that contrivance way we discussed earlier. The game manages to pull itself out of its nose dive in time, but it face-planted several times on its way to get there.
Outside of the larger plot threads, the simple truth is that a big factor of the mess that is the second half of the game, especially when it came to Dougal, is due to several ‘secrets’ that were obvious from the get go being revealed. Knowing the pre-described truth about Dougal or finding out the true antagonist of the game leaves little impact on the reader: ESPECIALLY considering we barely spent any time around them, yet were able to figure out their role in the story. Combined with the fact that we’ve had to slog through much less interesting storylines to get to that point,and I would completely understand if some people just stopped caring before the final battle.
One noteworthy disappointment I can talk about without spoiling much is Lamia. In the first act, she has her comedic moments but is portrayed as mostly competent and far more aware of the situation facing the city than Dougal. Considering the nature of the game, she could even be considered a legit threat to Dougal’s attempts to stay hidden from the rest of the world. However, by the second half she is a completely different character. She is more used for comedic effect and as the canonical love interest for Dougal. The only problem with that is since we’re dealing with a completely different Lamia, whatever connection the player had with her is erased at the exact moment the game needs the reader to care.
It’s an unfortunate misfire that came as a result of too much happening. There were moments where I enjoyed Dougal and Lamia’s romance and , with a much tighter focus, it could have landed the emotional haymakers the game was hoping to land at the end would’ve hit home. In the end, while her character remains entertaining, she doesn’t fit what the story wanted to do with her thanks to the 180 character change.
I don’t want to give the impression that these made the story bad, because it didn’t. It made the second half of the story frustrating. Luckily, as we enter the final confrontation several of the weaker plot points get shored up and the team cleans up most of the mess they found themselves in. The epic scope that the first half promised begins to kick back into gear and I was genuinely excited to see every escalation Icebound took. We’re left with these issues seemingly resolved, but more than enough room for a return if the team decides to do another Icebound game. This is helped by the various endings that are dependent on your choices throughout the game and, here, all of them fit; although IF there is an Icebound sequel, the canonical ending will most likely be the neutral path.
This was a very entertaining story, but also a very flawed one. There is so much here, yet so much could have been cut out and trimmed to focus on the story and make better use of its great cast and fantastic ambition. This is one of Fastermind’s first projects and there is a lot of good the team can take away from what they’ve done. Hopefully, they’ll also make note of what didn’t work and plan accordingly next time.
PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY
These are the strongest cards Icebound has to play and it is done very well. The world has a good style to it and all of the characters have a distinct look to them that borrows notes from other steampunk works as well as certain shounen anime. However, the Event Graphics seem to lower in quality as the game goes on. If you’ve played the demo, there is a great shot of the icy terrain that pans over to Dougal standing in the snow. Yes, we used it for the purposes of the review header SO if you haven’t played Icebound It’s a fantastic piece of work and several early graphics rely on the use of thematic shots. As you plow on, the graphics lose a lot of detail and become sketchy. Compare the header image of Dougal in the snow and this one featuring Dougal and Lamia near the halfway point(link courtesy of Indie-Love). The second graphic is working off a clearly muted color scheme and lacks any real detail and this is how the majority of the rest of the event graphics look.
This is important to note since, again, art and the overall look of the game was slated as one of the major reasons for the Kickstarter nearly two years ago. If this is the look and feel Fastermind was going for that I retract my statement and will replace it with the art just looks lower quality than the normal sprites. However, if the first graphic of Dougal in the snow was what they were going for and, unfortunately, time didn’t permit the rest of the art to get brought up to that quality, then yeah; that’s a problem with their production that needs to be ironed out hard before another development cycle (looking at you Mooonshot).
The highlight of the presentation is, without a doubt, the music. The soundtrack helps the game’s atmosphere and borrows from both Western and Eastern sources to create a sound unique to Icebound. Several tracks here stand out but I especially enjoyed the piano work on tracks like ‘Remember This’ and some of the darker themes such as ‘Infectious Drip’ and ‘Lightning Tower’ stand out. Hopefully we’ll see more of Langdon’s work on the EVN scene and he’ll join the list of fantastic musicians we have creating original soundtracks here.
The Gameplay, while simple, make a great impact in the game. The biggest facet of gameplay is the puzzle system. All alchemical reactions require you to chain different tiles to complete certain requirements. The system does have a slight difficulty curve, but it never gets to a point where it’s too hard to solve. There is also no real penalty for failing a puzzle, so there is no real urgency in getting it right the first time. For their first crack at this type of system, I enjoyed it and it added a much needed break when the game started to become unstable thanks to its separate plot threads.
Similar to any Bioware game of the past decade, dialog options that are blue fill up the Order valve and red fills the Chaos valve. Depending on how far both valves get, you will get one of the three different endings of the game. While the color coding was a bit on the nose, I liked how the system was used to deal with Dougal’s approach to the different challenges around him, although the differences aren’t stark enough for it to influence other works. I would’ve also preferred the valves exist without the Blue and Red indicators and just have it all the same color, but that’s more of a style preference than an actual issue.
One thing I liked about the dialog trees was that there were choices that advanced the conversation and choices that allowed Dougal to get background information on the world’s history, Isenbarr, and the rest of the cast. Usually in VN the choices are used to just fill the requirements for a particular ending or to achieve a particular romantic target. By having two different classes of story, Fastermind gives the reader much more information than it would if their dialog options were focused only on advancing the story. It’s an idea that fleshed out very well and I hope to see more EVN developers use it moving forward.
If you decide not to take advantage of the extra dialog, you can always rely on the great user interface and Extras. Not only does it have a full encyclopedia on the games history, but also letters and notes from the different characters that further fleshes out their motivations and gives them more depth than the story does on its own.The Extras also track how many puzzles you’ve completed and endings you’ve gained, although it lacks the ability to replay ending scenes by themselves or let you go back and replay puzzles. Still, for the completionist in all of us, it is very rich in features and a great addition to the overall game.
There were a few bugs on launch, but all reports are that they’ve been ironed out. It runs great on my copy, so I have no complaints on that front.
A single playthrough of Icebound took me around seven hours. Completing all of the different routes will have you at near or over fifteen hours of gameplay. At a retail price of $14.99, however, I would keep your powder dry until it hits Steam and that first week price drop comes in. This is due to the fact that your mileage will definitely vary once that second half slump kicks in.
There is so much in Icebound that I didn’t cover in this review simply because it would have lead me back to the same issues. The strong religious undercurrent that fuels the major storyline of the game, the Human-Feran War and the layers of details and subtext that affects everyone in Isenbarr and the current state of the Human Empire itself and what it demands from its citizens is just the surface of a story packed to the brim with elements that could fuel an entire franchise for Fastermind.
Icebound is a fun game that uses character, world development and mini-games to keep its audience entertained. However, once you get past that, you realize that several storylines just have no place in the game, several are tied up in ridiculous ways and there is no singular focus to keep this one from running off the rails. It is only by the sheer talent of Johnny X and his team that game didn’t completely fall apart and managed to end well.
Icebound is one of the better games of 2014: there is no doubt about it. What we got is good, but there is a much better game under the surface that was wasted. I have high hopes that the next visual novel we get from Fastermind will be a solid hit. For now, I would suggest you play Icebound, but don’t get your expectations up.
Buy Icebound or Play the Demo Here!