I play hundreds of games in a given year, so it’s not often that I come across a new release that truly surprises me. ICEY managed to do just that not just once, but dozens of times through my several playthroughs. What at first seems like a pretty standard action game quickly turns into one of the most effective creative works I’ve seen in years. It winds up being a striking commentary on games, those who create them, and the fans who purchase them.
My playthrough of ICEY began as many games do; I was following directions during a tutorial. Eventually, the narrator started telling me what to do. “Activate a bridge,” he said. This seemed unnecessary due to the incredible boosting ability the titular character has, so I used that and managed to cross the gap without following the desired path. The narrator commented on my actions, and that’s when I knew I wasn’t playing a normal game. Whenever the narrator told me to go right, I went left. I started to disobey him at every chance, and he started to get annoyed that his attempts to help me were going nowhere.
As the narrator’s frustration mounts, it becomes clear that the person talking over the actions is the game’s developer. It’s almost as if players are getting a behind-the-scenes look at all the frustrating play testing attempts that the game went through. It explores one of the most interesting aspects of gaming, that the player ultimately has agency despite it being a creative work made by another. The perfect playthrough that a developer wants players to experience rarely happens, and ICEY shows that it can become even more special when the person manning the controller goes in their own unique direction.
It’s easy to get caught up talking about the meta-commentary that ICEY evolves into, but the actual gameplay is a lot of fun too. It’s a fun 2D brawler that gives players an incredibly mobile protagonist to control. ICEY can jump through the air, dash in any direction, and new attacks are available to purchase for new combo attacks. It’s a fully featured game, and if someone chooses to obey all directions they’ll still have a good time (even if they’ll miss out on what makes the game so genius).
The most interesting parts of ICEY were when the game drew back the curtain on its own development. It’s possible to come across areas that are unfinished, and the creator will even show off prototypes of the game in prior forms. It’s not for show when the developer talks about how it took nearly a decade to create something they were happy with, and it’s interesting to hear the dev explain how ridiculous it is when discussions surrounding games often focuses on minor bugs instead of the thousands of hours of hard work it took to develop.
It’s not just a trip inside game development, though. ICEY is also an incredibly creative title that allows the player to do whatever they please. There’s seemingly a different ending (gag or not) for different actions, and while a playthrough of the game might only take an hour or two, there are many reasons to go back and experiment. I constantly found myself stumbling upon new choices, and judging by the trophy list there are still secrets that I haven’t found despite trying every possible solution I can think of. It’s truly a title where you get more out of it the more you put in.
In a lesser game, the constant narration and attempts at humor would eventually fall flat. That never happens in ICEY. I constantly found myself laughing at how ridiculous the game got, and it kept topping its previous highs. One of my favorite moments was when the developer decided that I just didn’t like action games, and that’s why I wasn’t be cooperative. Due to this, he brought me into a room with a large monitor, and started telling me about KOI, the Chinese-developed exploration game that came out on PlayStation 4 last year. The gag went even crazier afterwards by doing something I won’t spoil, and I haven’t been so impressed with a game playing around with the medium itself since NieR: Automata and Undertale.
It was only a matter of time until China had their first great game published on consoles, and ICEY is that landmark title. Not only is it technically sound in ways that prior games have lacked, but it’s filled to the brim with creativity. I can’t wait to see what the scene will offer up in the future, and it might be gaming’s next hotbed if this is any indication.
ICEY is a biting commentary on the entire medium of games. Beneath a solid 2D action game lies one of the most interesting titles I’ve had the pleasure of playing. It’s a game that isn’t afraid to take risks, and managed to constantly surprise me despite pulling off the ridiculous several times prior. Everyone who considers themselves a “gamer,” should play ICEY, and then sit down to think about its message.
ICEY review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.