Enjoy being yelled at for playing this game.
ICEY, by FantaBlade Network, is a nice looking Muramasa-style brawler with a sci-fi setting and an insufferable narrator. The gameplay is simplistic, enjoyable, and surprisingly flashy but I’d go as far as saying that ICEY’s core gameplay isn’t really the point. What you’re really experiencing is an unbelievably grating version of The Stanley Parable with a hostile narrator who seems to be taking out a lot of unresolved anger on you, the player.
Things start out confusingly. You run through a very brief tutorial that introduces you to ICEY’s core combat: our blue-tinted heroine can use a light and heavy attack, dash, counter (sort of), and buy new attacks or upgrade existing ones in shops strewn throughout every stage. However, once the tutorial ends, the game goes through a strange reset made to look like an error, and after choosing your difficulty setting, you’ll regain control back at the beginning of the tutorial area, now under the omnipresent shadow of The Narrator.
The Narrator tells you the game’s plot: ICEY is on a mission to defeat a soldier named Judas, who had allegedly murdered a bunch of people, but The Narrator is more concerned with ICEY following his clearly-marked path. Do so and you’ll be treated to a largely uneventful side-scrolling brawler that mimics Muramasa: The Demon Blade. However, because most of us have played video games for longer than a week, we know that the road less traveled is often the more interesting one. So we ignore The Narrator’s insistence that we stay on track and explore. This is where things go wrong.
The first time you’re given the option of going off-track is in a sewer system, early in the game. You’re briefly shown a map of possible routes, one of which is the actual exit, another shows a treasure chest, and a third shows a trophy. Because this is 2018 and, again, we all know how video games work, I think most of us would go towards the trophy. You’re confronted with an empty room and The Narrator starts lecturing you.
Now, at first, his monologue is a kind of funny meta-commentary about how gamers just want achievements, but then it just keeps going. The Narrator reads what seems like several pages of aggressive scolding, eventually giving you two fake trophies (which actually do unlock two in-game achievements) in his disgust. It goes on too long, and too far, especially considering that The Narrator is speaking as the game’s developer. The whole sequence boils down to the developer, who developed the game and gave you that map, admonishing you for following said map and seeking out content that he created. There’s another instance much later where you’re given a powerful weapon but, if you use it, The Narrator accuses you of “cheating” and forces you back to the last checkpoint (as if you died). Dude, you put it in the game.
This happens every time you go off-script. Sometimes the game will sort of “glitch out” and give you some context-less backstory in text form (that, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, often references The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers, which you may also recognize from True Detective), but usually The Narrator will just chide you, whining that you’re playing his game wrong and this is what he was TRYING to do and you should be THANKING HIM. At one point he shows you earlier builds of the game, fretting that he’s spent ten years of his life making ICEY so YEAH, think about THAT. Another time he accuses you of thinking the game’s combat is too hard because you took an alternate path that had nothing to do with combat, so he actually puts you into a completely different game, a combat-less platformer, and then yells at you when you inevitably die.
ICEY’s meta-commentary very occasionally (but more towards the bitter end) dips into territory that asks you to change your perspective on the lead character, the world, her mission, even The Narrator. While those bits are interesting, they’re far too rare. The balance between being lectured and becoming woke is seriously skewed, and I just didn’t have the patience for it. In time you learn that the point of the game is to disobey The Narrator to find out what his reaction will be. This usually amounts to standing around a room not doing anything while The Narrator goes on and on in an increasingly-maniacal manner.
Meanwhile, there’s a surprisingly enjoyable brawler happening in the background. The spritework is great and the animations recall Vanillaware designs but, you know, sci-fi. The music gives a healthy electronica vibe and the combat upgrades add some depth and pizazz to combat that might otherwise become somewhat stale. From a gameplay perspective, things go just fine until the final level (this is a short game), when different pieces of previous levels are cut together in a jumble mess that makes The Subspace Emissary look downright elegant by comparison. You can revisit cleared levels at any time via the pause menu, and doing so lets you farm zenny for further upgrading.
If you like meta-commentary in your video games, ICEY might be right up your alley, but I found the narration to be overdone, overlong, and overly aggressive. I appreciate ICEY’s attempt to differentiate itself but…not like this. Not like this.