ICEY is a 2D character action game developed by a Chinese indie studio by the name of “Shanghai FantaBlade Network Technology Co., Ltd..” Despite releasing in mid-November, it seems to have gone completely under the radar, in general, mostly just receiving some critical praise and reviewing well on Steam, and that was it. For a studio’s first foray into gaming, which not only spent an absurd amount of time in development, but is also one of the first games to come from China, for these reasons we decided to take a look, and what we found was something special.
ICEY can be purchased on Steam for $10.99
The story follows ICEY, who appears to be a cyborg, as she tears through progressively stronger generals until she can get a chance to challenge Judas, the antagonist. The story isn’t quite so simple as that however, the narrator is reminiscent of The Stanley Parable in that he will direct you to certain areas and tell you what to do, but can be ignored, leading to alternate endings and hidden goodies of all kinds, one of which even shows you what the game was like earlier in development, or a hidden platformer section with different mechanics compared to the base game.
For a first time through, the novelty is fantastic, and on return trips through the title, finding new ways to screw with the narrator is both fun, and can legitimately take some experimentation. The writing is fairly well done and provides some replay value in finding everything in the game, it’s handled surprisingly well for an indie studio working on a character action game, as many of the greats in this genre tend to go for more intense, upscaled scenarios. ICEY knows what it is and acts accordingly; it doesn’t try too hard to be something it isn’t.
While the story is fantastic thanks to the narrator, at the end of the day, it’s still a character action game, and while something like The Stanley Parable completely failed to be a fun game in its own right, ICEY succeeds with flying colors. The gameplay follows a fairly basic control layout, heavy and light attacks can be comboed together, as well as a dodge than can be timed to allow for a counter attack, or just used to fly around the battlefield and executions that return health and shield energy. It feels almost like a 2D Metal Gear Rising as tearing apart enemies with crazy combos then tearing them apart with executions that heal the player is a common occurrence, even on bosses, which thankfully become regular enemies later in the game. Enemies and secret areas also reward the player with money which can be spent on upgrades, which aren’t particularly interesting for the most part. Upgrading combos to deal more damage or increasing the health/shield bar isn’t exactly an engaging choice, but there are two special attacks that allow players to attack while invincible for short times but cost health to use. Unfortunately, the use of them is pretty questionable, and by sharing buttons with the shadow slash mechanic, accidentally draining one’s own health is too easy in the heat of combat.
ICEY feels like a genuinely fantastic and fun character action game, there was clearly a lot of thought put into how the character moves and acts for each individual combo, as each one has a legitimate use in and out of boss fights. It’s a shame then, that the enemy design can tank some encounters so hard. For the most part, the enemies work fine, and each serves to put some pressure on an encounter, especially when thrown in with bosses, but there’s one particular type of enemy that makes every single encounter they’re included in frustrating. Unlike many other character action games like Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising, there’s no recovery time from taking hits in ICEY, meaning when enemies come in and attack with laser beams, the player can be juggled almost endlessly across the screen, being forced to take half or more of a health bar with no real options out of it.
While this can be avoided by dashing like crazy to avoid the lasers, the fact that laser enemies tend to come in groups, as well as one boss fight having a laser movement pattern that forces the player to get juggled to hell and back, means many encounters can force the player to lose over half of their health bar just from one bad dodge or movement. We’re all for having challenging gameplay in a character action title, hell games like Kingdom Hearts are at their best in critical mode, but this kind of difficulty isn’t how it should be handled. Being juggled by a laser appearing with little to no warning for half of a health bar is frustrating at best and downright unfair at worst. This does nothing to mention how some enemies that can grab and throw the player are also capable of juggling, albeit to a much less frustrating extent.
In terms of presentation, ICEY varies from looking fairly typical in non-combat scenes, as the environments aren’t particularly interesting, and while somewhat detailed, it does nothing to match the calibre of say Bastion or Transistor which also went for the same kind of background art. That said, enemy and boss designs are varied enough to keep things interesting, and the various particle and slash effects do help a lot in terms of adding to the gameplay. ICEY looks its best when in motion, fighting several enemies at once and dashing around the battlefield; it’s just a shame the art out in exploring the world doesn’t do much to match that same quality. It’s also worth mentioning the cyberpunk aesthetic in some areas does a good job adding to the game, and the final fight taking place out in the open room of well-detailed building deserves some brownie points, it does a good job of setting up a climactic encounter, even if the lasers have prevented us from passing it thus far.
In addition to all of this, we have to bring up how great the music is, being a somewhat small title, there’s not a lot of tracks to sift through, but we were hard-pressed to find a single bad one; every song does a good job setting the mood of the area, with the fighting music being enjoyable as well. It fits the cyberpunk aesthetic of the later areas and is great both in-game and on its own, which is laudable given the amount of games releasing lately with filler songs that do little to add to the game.
In terms of content, there’s a lot to enjoy here, especially with the narrator adding to new playthroughs, but that said, the game itself isn’t particularly replayable. Upgrades are basic, and if one runs the narrator dry to any degree, then there won’t be much novelty left for subsequent runs of the title, and while the combat is very enjoyable, it’s not something we see ourselves revisiting years from now when its contemporaries offer much more fleshed out gameplay. All that said, the game lasts long enough to be worth the money. Launching at a modest price point and lasting about 6-8 hours means getting value out of the game isn’t difficult, one run is more than enough to get all the enjoyment one would need to call it a worthwhile purchase. There’s enough variety of areas to keep the game from becoming stale, and the game does demand a certain level of skill that’s respectable, which can increase the playtime for those less inclined to play games similar to this.
ICEY is a flawed game, enemy designs can get frustrating, the environments aren’t particularly special and the gameplay is fairly basic as far as character action games go, but what it lacks in some areas, it more than makes up for with satisfying combat, great boss fights that can actually challenge the player, some unique mechanics that add extra layers of skill to the game for those that can use them, as well as having a great soundtrack layered on top of everything. The story feels self-aware enough to make screwing with the narrator fun, if fleeting and discovering hidden areas and dialogue, as well as new ways to handle enemies in combat, makes the game feel fresh from the first hour right up to the end of the game. Yes, there’s frustration to be had here, but there’s so much to enjoy about the game that it’s worth checking out for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a character action game, and it’s an impressive foray into game development for a studio that spent so long developing a single game. Here’s hoping the developers learn from their mistakes and get right back into the nitty-gritty of game development, and let’s keep our fingers crossed that it doesn’t take so many years next time.
|+ Satisfying gameplay in combat and in exploration||– Some cheap enemy design hurts the game|
|+ Narrator adds to the game in a big way||– Not very replayable once the narrator runs dry|
|+ Fantastic music sets the scene in every fight||– Environments aren't very detailed|