Developer – Fastermind Games
Length – 2-10 Hours
Version Played – No Voice-Acting Patch
[Fastermind Games has had no input into the content of this review]
One thing you may or may not have noticed is that every single visual novel reviewed on this site up till now has been translated from Japanese. That changes today with Icebound, an Original English Language Visual Novel (OELVN) that I’ve been asked to take a look at. Previously I’ve kept English productions at arm’s length, more because I’ve wanted to get through the classics from the medium’s country of origin than because I don’t like the idea of reading stories from closer to home. Unfortunately, while Icebound certainly isn’t bad, as my first OELVN experience it doesn’t do anything to endear them to me. If I were asked to pick out an example of a visual novel that sat exactly in the middle of the road in terms of storytelling, characterization and production quality, Icebound would be a strong contender.
For as long as anyone can reliably remember, Humans and Ferans have lived in a constant state of tension on Permia. Many individuals on both sides are known as alchemists, with supernatural abilities afforded to them by the presence of a familiar, a being from another plane known as the Infinitum. Dougal is one such person, travelling on the Human side of the border where Clockwork machines have become commonplace with his icebat familiar, Isaac. Stumbling upon an outpost in the middle of a blizzard, he soon becomes wrapped up in a contest that may very well cost him his life. With a monster to slay, mysterious powers at play and other alchemists in his way, Dougal has questions that he wants answers to, and failure isn’t an option.
The entire time I spent playing Icebound I couldn’t stop thinking that it read a lot like a young adults’ book. While that’s not an inherently bad thing, and I’m sure a younger teenager would love it, it means that it simply can’t stand up to much of the quality I expect from visual novels. Many of its aspects are just too ham-handed in their execution to make for a truly enjoyable read, with romance jumping out of practically nowhere and cliché comedy similar to the western cartoons I remember from my childhood falling flat far more often than hitting its mark. I can see influence from Japanese media as well, in the awkward allusions to attraction and sex peppered throughout. The story in general skips along at a brisk pace, picking up plot devices nearly at random and treating each scene as a task to be ticked off so that the finale can be reached rather than pieces of a whole that need to mesh together. I would be lying, however, if I didn’t say that the writing style was solid; both narrative descriptions and character dialogue are well done. The issue comes with the tone of the writing and the content itself.
Continuing the theme of “not technically bad but not particularly good either”, many of the characters present in Icebound are just a bit too shallow for me. While not unlikeable, their personalities seem to only have one major faucet to them and any secrets they might have held are almost immediately given away by utterly transparent hints pushed at you through the screen by either the narrative or characters themselves. It’s not a spoiler to say that the Feran who supposedly hates humans actually has a not-too-innocent fascination with them because it’s given away before you have time to question it in the first place. What may be worse is that the hinting continues during nearly every encounter with the involved characters, just in case you hadn’t noticed it earlier. If it’s any consolation to Icebound, there were one or two character-related developments that I didn’t see coming, though I knew that something was going to happen simply because those characters hadn’t been used for anything else. If nothing else, characterization is consistent throughout the novel, which is a positive.
What differentiates Icebound from many visual novels is that it has a gameplay component. Whenever Dougal is required to perform alchemy you are entered into a mini-game involving placing tiles in a certain order. The inclusion of a little something extra to break up story segments is nice but the game itself isn’t particularly entertaining. At first glance the puzzles may seem to require a great deal of thought while in reality, because the order of tiles is set each time, it’s more about selecting the right spot to place your first tile than anything else; as soon as you figure that out the challenge is gone. There’s also a basic morality system tied in with the choices you make throughout the course of the story. There are choices which give you “Order” and choices which give you “Chaos”, with the points in either category determining which choices you can make later on. Having only played through the “Order” side of things, I can’t comment on how much difference those choices actually make. What’s worth noting is that Icebound suffers from choice ambiguity, in that sometimes Dougal’s actions are completely different from what the option you had chosen had implied. Additionally, some of the scenes that have diverged don’t connect well afterwards; at one point I won a fight by angering the opponent and forcing him to draw his weapons which disqualified him…which then connected to a scene of that same opponent talking about how his old wound caused his loss.
Icebound’s user interface has some personality to it. The menus are pleasant to look at and the method of text delivery changes in some interesting ways as you play. Different fonts are used to display changes in character speech on some occasions and that works well. The rest of the art is….variable. Sprites and CGs range from average to shoddy-looking while backgrounds can be wonderful or just plain bad. There’s a big difference in style between them that can be a little jarring. The music selections fit the overall feel of the visual novel well without being amazing in their own right and there are some pretty nice sound effects as well. I’m told that there’s a voice-acting patch in the works with some pretty stellar talent, though I can’t comment on that because the patch had not been released for my playthrough.
Summary – For an indie studio’s second attempt at a visual novel Icebound is alright. When up against what I’m used to from visual novels, however, it simply doesn’t stand out. While the writing style may be fine the storytelling and characterization are ham-handed in a number of ways that prevent the tale as a whole from coming together, and the VN’s other features, such as gameplay and art, don’t do anything to make up for that. Despite my complaints Icebound doesn’t quite make it into “bad” territory and may in fact be very entertaining for younger audiences. Unfortunately, for those with experience reading visual novels, I can’t recommend it.
Score: 5/10 – Average