Developed by Fastermind Games, Icebound is described as a “steampunk fantasy visual novel and puzzle game” hybrid as it follows the journey of a young alchemist named Dougal taking on a job in the city of Isenbarr that turns out to be a hunt for a dangerous fiend. With other alchemist taking on the job for the tempting reward offered, a fierce competition ensues – one that Dougal needs to win for his own sake. Drawing me in based on the genres incorporated alone, did that sentiment transfer over to the entire experience?
Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk, Visual Novel
Developer: Fastermind Games
Length: 7-10 hrs
If anything, I can say that the writing for Icebound is probably the most noticeable aspect. Being way too detailed to be developed as a short story yet also too sparse to warrant a 15-20 hour read like most visual novels, the audience in mind does seem to be of the young adult age range. Containing a lot of offhand humor, moments of action, and intrigue – the diction is very plain and simple, but never causes a problem for the delivery or quality. The sentiment of quality also extends to the worldbuilding: a richly elaborate fantasy setup with all sorts of systems and terminology that the game nicely compiles into the in-game dossier. Some of it lacks any permanence and explored during the duration, but for the most part, gives the world of Permia a lot of character. Sadly, while the world of Permia and everything populating it has a lot of consideration placed into the conception, the same amount of quality manages to elude the characters. Even with the exploring the motivations and backstories, they still feel as if they bring little to the table as far as the narrative is concerned, and if going by personalities – nothing more than a collection of tropes. There a few moments when hilarious quips or signs of structured characterization shine through, but those moments are few and far in-between.
While the same “make a decision” aspect is involved like any visual novel, the choices (except in a few places) seem like they don’t impact anything story wise and more for manipulating the notoriety system in the game, a measure of how chaotic or lawful the choices you have made are. The game itself describes it as changing aspects of the story and future choices you can make – which does seem to happen, but since the game throws so many choices at you regularly that can swing your alignment either way drastically, it is almost impossible to tell or even play in a balance manner. Another issue that I have with the choices is that the action taken usually isn’t all that consistent with said choice. For example, I had the option to lie or tell the truth about a particular piece of information to one of the key characters, and when I choose to lie, the main character made an aside about mentioning it anyway. Given that there is a certain amount of linearity to the story, the number of choices (that seem arbitrary at best) can really be scaled down especially if it comes down to making choices for the sake of it.
Like a few visual novels, Icebound does breakup the story segments with an interactive portion that comes in the form of a puzzle mini-game. If you don’t fancy yourself good at puzzles you can breathe a sigh of relief since the rules are easy to understand and getting to the desired solution is even more so. Players are introduced to gameboard with a few colored symbols and must place the appropriate tile piece on them in a predetermined amount of moves. When starting, the beginning piece can be placed anywhere that the symbol is, but all subsequent tiles must be adjacent to one another with the only exception extending to two of the same color. So, if you placed a blue and red together another red can’t be placed unless it is on the other side or separated by another color. If you find yourself getting pieces you don’t need, you can either place them in empty nodes or exchange the piece for another, but the latter can only be done a set number of times depending on the puzzle’s conditions. If the game becomes bothersome or want to proceed onward with the story, there is the option to skip it, but you will receive a negligible hit to your notoriety. Either way, it is a nice distraction, but sometimes can be an annoying one, too – especially since the puzzles rise in difficulty and time consumption as the game progresses.
When it comes to the aesthetics, Icebound does falls into the “middle-of-the-road” category with regards to how it uses what it has. The artwork style has a certain hand-drawn quality that can appear delightful at times as it can jarring, music masterfully setting the mood in one scene and making it listless the next, and the animations used for the characters either imbuing them with life that captures the written personalities or just for show. Being impressed one moment and disdainful the next, I would have to say that I was still overall pleased with the quality of work on display since most indie visual novels I have seen don’t reach this level of work and can see that the developers did put a lot of care and effort into the small details. One of my favorite examples would have to be byway of the mechanical lion Fei and his animation that makes him bellow smoke. A small touch, but still one that demonstrates the care put into the set dressing. The game does claim that it has voiced dialogue, but at the time of composing this review and waiting for the official release on Steam, I cannot evaluate that portion of it.
All-in-all, Icebound is an average visual novel experience that I can’t recommend to newcomers or veterans, but do believe that it will find a following somewhere in that intersection. With the choice system not as good as it could be, dull character personalities, and plodding pacing, the few twist and turns that the story does have isn’t nearly enough to save it from the unsatisfying outcome. Even so, I still enjoyed my time with Icebound even if it was just to place myself in the world for a couple of hours. Unless it’s a burning curiosity you just have to check out, I suggest all others to skip it.
Pros: Great artwork, very imaginative setting and world, music composition, puzzle segments are somewhat challenging yet easy.
Cons: Choices appear too frequently, managing notoriety in one playthrough is difficulty, characters personalities feel flat, narrative beings to drag during the second half of story, puzzle segments can require a lot of trail and error.
Disclaimer: In no way, shape, or form was I compensated for the composition or publication of this review. This by my own volition. A review copy of the game was kindly provided by the devloper. All images and rights to them belong to Fastermind Games and only for review purposes.