by Jonathan Fortin
reviewed on PC
Oh, God, where to begin with this one?
On paper, Icebound sounds just like my cup of tea. It's marketed as a steampunk/dark fantasy/anime-style visual novel. Now, I love steampunk, I love dark fantasy, I watch quite a bit of anime, and I even enjoy the odd visual novel when it has a well-executed story.
Unfortunately, this isn't one of them.
Icebound follows an alchemist named Dougal, who is search of the only thing fictional alchemists ever search for: the philosopher's stone. Apparently, this was the best idea they could come up with. Because after all, it wasn't like this same plot wasn't also used for the mega-hit anime Fullmetal Alchemist or even the first Harry Potter novel.
Dougal is a wandering semi-amnesiac (i.e. he remembers what the plot requires him to) who has very little personality to speak of. To make up for this, he has a mouthy ice-bat familiar named Isaac, who is intended to be comical, but ends up just being annoying most of the time.
There's Something Kinda Off Here
The cast also includes a furry horned cat-girl named Kimka. The game seems disturbingly intent on sexualizing her, which I'm sure makes ‘furries’ happy, but makes the rest of us very uncomfortable. One great thing about Mass Effect was that, if you didn't want to have alien sex, you didn't have to pursue it. Icebound, sadly, seems to think we're all fans of 'yiffing', and because the game offers us so few choices, even if you don't encourage the furry flirtations, they will keep coming.
It only gets worse with Fei, a talking saber tooth cat automaton who wants Dougal to “play with him.” The game he chooses is “Be My Master,” which has all kinds of uncomfortable implications. There's also a scene in which Dougal (with no input from the player) randomly asks a female character “What turns you on?” and then tries to play it off as a joke when she responds awkwardly. It all adds up to creating a feeling that there's something very wrong with this game.
Other characters include a blacksmith who wears highly impractical-looking armor while at work (because it's not like blacksmiths would find it way too hot to wear while working); a dishonest “shifty merchant” who is, unfortunately, the only dark-skinned character in the game; and a creepy church lady who all the characters, Dougal included, seem to think is the nicest person ever when she's clearly being foreshadowed as evil. Imagine if Harry Potter never realized that Umbridge was evil because she had such an apparently sweet demeanor. Stretches believability, doesn't it?
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: for story-driven genres, visual novels included, the quality of the entire game is dependent on the writing. If the writing wouldn't captivate as a novel, it won't captivate as a game either. Icebound fails in this regard.
On to the “gameplay”
Well, at least it's interactive, right? In many visual novels, the story can go in different directions depending on player choice. They can allow players to choose how they spend their time and how to approach social situations, encouraging replayability and constantly giving players input over their character's behavior.
Icebound, on the other hand, is extraordinarily linear. While the game does have some occasional interactivity in the form of dialogue choices and alchemy puzzles (more on that later), for the vast majority of the game, the only way you'll be interacting is by clicking to read the next line of dialogue...and then clicking again to read the line after that. Click click click. Click click click. Wash, rinse, repeat. For long stretches of time, you don't feel as though you're playing a game at all. All this would be forgivable if the game was well-written, but the story moves at such a slow pace, and the dialogue is so ham-fisted, that you yearn for something with more substance.
Every so often, you'll eventually come to something vaguely resembling interactivity: you might be presented with a dialogue tree, for example. However, this “tree” will actually just be a list of topics you have to talk about to proceed. Early on, the game mentions that dialogue topics marked with an asterisk are required to proceed, while others are optional. However, with almost all “conversations,” every topic listed is required, regardless of whether or not there's an asterisk attached. You can't back out of a conversation because the game won't let you.
Excellent soundtrack; fun alchemy puzzles
Incredibly slow pace; creepy furry element; very little interactivity