Inside Pulse 12

Review: Icebound (PC)

iceboundcover

Icebound
Publisher: Fastermind Games
Developer: Fastermind Games
Genre: Visual Novel
Release Date: 08/05/2015

Visual novels are becoming more and more available thanks to convenient outlets and a relatively simple gameplay style. Icebound is one of the latest games in that genre to hit the market, and it seems to want to scratch a lot of different itches at once. It’s got steam punk inspired designs, a bit of romance, some spy novel stuff, it deals with racial tensions, etc. There is a lot going on here, but does it all coalesce into something worthwhile?

Icebound is set in a world where everything is covered in ice. Alchemy is a real thing, and those who can use it’s power are often equally respected and feared. Humans exist alongside a race called Ferrans, but the two sides are at a near constant state of war. It’s a pretty interesting place, and the game has a dossier full of lore for you to dig through.

icebound1The main star of the game is Dougal, a wandering alchemist in search of a steady job. When he stumbles across such a job, it turns out to be something a bit more. It seems a monster is attacking the town, and an aging alchemist is offering up the legendary Philosopher’s Stone to any alchemist who can take it down. As you might guess, the race is on. Additionally, a government agent solicits our protagonist for information on his fellow alchemists. Nothing is at it seems in this snowy town, and by the end of it, a number of mysteries will both present themselves and be solved.

What Icebound does is mix a large number of genres and tropes into a pot. What results is a pretty solid tale with a number of interesting characters. Because he’s sent to spy on his fellow alchemists, you get to spend a lot of time with them. That means getting to know these characters pretty well. Highlights include the Ferran shaman who only feigns hatred of humans, the enigmatic town doctor, and the young blacksmith who practices alchemy in secret. The overall plot twists and turns into a few different conclusions based on your choices, but it’s the journey that will keep you pressing on.

icebound2That’s not to say the game doesn’t stumble a bit. There are some moments where the game goes off the rails in terms of tone and writing. Anachronisms pop up, the writing gets cheesy, characters seem to do things for no other reason than fan service or to tell a joke. There are also some odd moments where characters will react in an odd way to something. This seems to happen during scenes where you have a choice of sorts in how to handle things. For example, at one point, I got into a duel with a guard. I chose to insult the guard, which led him to use weapons. As weapons were against the rules, he was disqualified and lost. However, the other characters reacted as if I had literally bested the guy in open combat. While these problems are relatively uncommon, they are awkward to say the least.

Let’s talk about the presentation. This is a straight up VN, so there’s no animation or character models. Instead, we have 2D character portraits on a variety of different backdrops. Changes in facial expression happen frequently enough, which is nice, but it’s all going to boil down to the art. Like I said before, there’s a mish-mash of steam punk and fantasy stuff here. There’s clockwork throughout the city, stereotypical fantasy guards, run-of-the mill townsfolk, etc. The odd duck in the group is the doctor, who’s get up seems more futuristic than anything else. There are times when it doesn’t blend together all that well, but for the most part it’s fine.

icebound3As for the sound, it has its ups and downs. First thing to get out of the way is there is no voice acting in the game whatsoever. That leaves the music and the effects to carry the day. While the music is fitting and rather nice, there interstitial jingles that play between scenes are disjointing. They sound dramatic and ominous, even if last thing to happen was the main character talking about going to sleep. As for the audio effects, they are rare, and they often go on too long. Of particular note, the walking effect can go on long after you’ve moved passed the section that actually involved walking. It can be distracting. Still, the music helps set the atmosphere for most scenes, so it’s not better to just turn the sound off.

For the most part, gameplay involves clicking the mouse or pressing the space bar to move the text forward. You can use the mouse wheel to scroll backwards if you missed something, and the typical actions of making quick saves and auto scrolling are available as well.

Throughout the game, you’ll have choices to make. Oftentimes, there is more than one way to move forward, and you have to choose which path you’ll take. It usually boils down to an “order” choice, a “chaos” choice, or a neutral choice. Choosing the order or chaos option will build your affinity to that path, and can affect the ending you get. Staying neutral is also an option, and will also effect the ending you get.

icebound4Another way to build up your affinity is to complete alchemy puzzles. There are ten of these in the game, and they involve using a limited number of pieces to fill up colored spaces on a board. The trick is that you can only place a piece next to another piece and no two pieces of the same color can touch. You can switch what piece you have equipped a few times each puzzle. However, it’s prudent to study the order of the pieces you get and use the undo button accordingly. It still make take you a couple of tries to finish the puzzle, but they’re all quite doable. On the flip side, you can just skip any of these, although you won’t be able to build your affinity towards chaos/order at the end. They’re fun puzzles though, and fans of more casual games will definitely eat them up.

A single playthrough of the game will take you about seven hours. That’s a more than adequate length that gets added to if you desire to get all of the endings. For the price they’re asking, that’s not bad at all.

Short Attention Span Summary
diehardjack1-150x150Icebound is an odd mix of various genres, art styles, and tropes. Despite this, and a few bumps in the story, it’s an overall satisfying tale that scores extra points for effective world building. With multiple endings, a puzzle mini-game to break up the monotony, and a decent run length, this is definitely something that visual novel fans are going to want to check out.

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