By Drew D. / April 26th, 2018
|Publisher||X.D. Network Inc.|
|Original Release Date||
Nov 17, 2016
|Platform||PC, PS4, iOS, Android, Macs|
iCEY is quite the experience. Pure enigmatic depth is masked within the framework of a video game, waiting to be discovered. Action packed 2D combat disguises an underlying story rife with profundity and complexity. This is a game that discourages the common practices of simply following instructions, trekking down programmed paths, and fighting your way to a predetermined end. It challenges you to ask yourself “why?” at every given command. Conform, and you’ve missed the point. Embrace your free will and you’ll unlock the true wonder of iCEY.
On its surface, iCEY, or _iCEY._ , tells the story of an android, named iCEY, whose assumed sole purpose is to defeat the alleged antagonist, Judas. Judas has acquired the knowledge to free himself from the never-ending cycle of life, death, and reincarnation. He is attempting to obtain an eternal existence, potentially breaking this cycle in the process and wreaking untold consequences. Set in a now dystopian world, supposedly again due to Judas’s actions, iCEY must kill him and allow the cycle to continue.
This basic plot is actually a front that hides a far deeper story. While it may seem simplistic, in that you are told this assumed foe, Judas, needs to be stopped, the story is far more complex and obscure. In fact, things start deviating from any other game’s norm right after the tutorial. You, as the player, are asked a number of personal questions, along with viewing the first very vague references to the game’s cryptic tale. Then, you are provided with a Narrator, whose overzealousness in instructing you to follow arrows and give commands becomes suspect from the get go. Disobey, and the Narrator may get frustrated or angry, even to the point that he comments about the “game” you’re playing. This is where asking why and using your personal free will to choose the course of action comes into tremendous significance and also where the real mysteries surrounding iCEY and this “game” start to unravel.
iCEY is a meta-game, in that the narrative consciously references and critically analyzes game production from a transcendent, or higher viewpoint; in most cases, it’s from that of the Narrator. It’s revealed early on this is both a game within a game, as well as one that critically examines game production, breaking the 4th wall often, mostly through the Narrator’s complaining about our deviating actions, as well as staff, development, timetables, budget, and the need for sales. It’s really quite clever, because it both adds entirely unique perspectives to the story, but it also allows for a range of tones, emotions, and depth to shine through. In terms of perspectives, the meta aspect sets up layers within the story. There’s the inner game layer that includes iCEY and her world, the Narrator’s layer that exists above the inner game, a fact that fuels the Narrator’s self-superiority, and our layer, the players’, who exist outside the game. And yet, all three layers interact with one another. As for story tones, both the deep mysteries surrounding iCEY and her dark circumstances, as well as the Narrator’s many reactions, all help to bring a spectrum of tones and moods. Plenty of humor and lightheartedness are provided by the Narrator’s frustration at your disobedience. Our own feelings of dissent and unruliness are fueled by his arrogance in both his position within the game (above the “game”) and his directorial work on it. And then there’s his impatience when he realizes we’re going to fight him on everything until the end, which naturally feed into our intrigue and inquisitiveness, as well as the sadness, concern, and compassion we form for iCEY as we learn the truth, to eventual revelation and awe.
Finally, the story pulls from several religious concepts and fictional mythos for its own world-building, but this is where I feel the quality dips, mainly due to a lack of detail. We have reincarnation, from Buddhism, and an eternal existence and the character Judas, from Christianity. Where the real Judas was dependent only on himself and his own actions for redemption (by hanging himself rather than rightly placing his faith in another, Christ), the in-game Judas similarly takes a self-serving approach by digitizing himself in an attempt to obtain omniscience, which would allow him to break the reincarnation cycle, achieve eternal life, and, ultimately, godliness. The story also relies heavily on the Cthulhu mythos, using characters and references from the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, and other Cthulhu authors. Hastur, a deity figure in the mythos, is used here to represent the name of the game’s god, but his role is very much unclear. The Yellow King, a character from the fictional play The King in Yellow that appears in Chamber’s works, is a character used in-game, but his role also remains obscure. A yellow swirl, perhaps a reference to the Yellow Sign, said to impart mind control or possession by the Yellow King, is used often in the more meta moments of the game. All of these themes, characters, and symbols, however, are altered to fit the game’s world. While these changes do allow for a wider audience, as it somewhat removes the need to know a whole lot about the religious beliefs or fiction iCEY draws from, most of us will still be left in the dark due to the absence of coherence and explanation.
We can theorize ad infinitum: for example, I believe the Yellow King and swirl Sign are meant to symbolize control in terms of bondage over free will, AI, and self-awareness, as you literally attack the Yellow King at one point, perhaps to the break that control to gain free will. Another theory of mine, since the “game” is referred to as an experiment several times, but its purpose is never made entirely clear, is that maybe its role is to act as a sort of GUI to interact with the digital realm that Judas has placed himself into. In order to stop his plans, this GUI, along with iCEY, is needed, not only to interact within this digital realm, but to stop Judas from interfering with the life cycle.
This leads to another theory, in that as the cycle continues, so does Judas’s reincarnation and the repetitive need for iCEY. Finally, the biggest change to the cycle is us, the player, the Outsider that directs iCEY and purposely disobeys the narrator, breaking all cycles and programmed endgames. Does that make us like a god, or like Hastur? Are we Hastur who guides iCEY or are we actually playing someone else, perhaps an experimenter, who, in turn, is controlling iCEY? Looking at official artwork and the single mention of a random name, Wendy, this could even suggest there is yet another narrative layer between us and the Narrator. However, all of this theorizing doesn’t address my main complaint, in that the story is just too darn vague. Even knowing the source materials, the game’s story is frustratingly lacking in detail. While I can appreciate the developers’ attempts at mystery and a desire for us players to try and draw our own conclusions, some story components simply aren’t developed enough, nor are they properly connected to one another. It feels far too disjointed and elements that may play a role in unraveling the mystery instead come off as tangential. I absolutely applaud the effort and the ambition, but more detail would have made all of this far less confounding and much more approachable.
Despite the convoluted nature of the story, the gameplay is far more slick, streamlined, and solid. Similar to Rain Blood: Mirage, iCEY is a 2D fighting game that utilizes a combo system, incorporating light and heavy strikes, along with some directional inputs and specials. Although the number of combos is a bit low, combat is incredibly tight with excellent flow, allowing players to act and initiate combos with ease. Combos range from launching enemies, airborne assaults, smacking enemies back down, ground assaults, and specials that do incredible damage at the cost of some health. There are also three unique attacks, one of which is a counter move that allows iCEY to instantly move to and damage an attacking enemy, however, it doesn’t always trigger the way it perhaps should, making it unreliable. The second is a finisher that earns health, cash, and releases energy, while the third absorbs that released energy and launches a partial screen-filling area attack. Finishing enemies and launching this energy attack helps keep you alive and manage crowds. In general, combat is well implemented, but I would have liked more combos, as it may become repetitive with the limited moveset. Again, I wish the counter move worked similarly to other fighting games, as its poor implementation only hurts the final product. My only other complaint is with enemies that can grab or grapple, as they tend to do so often and have a resistance to your attacks when initiating their grab animation. Enemies spamming a near invincible move can get bothersome. Overall, though, combat is definitely a high point and something to look forward to.
Outside of combat, iCEY is part platformer with some exploration and a lot of defiance. Although level designs share some similarities with 2D Metroid games, unfortunately, the exploration is hardly Metroid level. Yet, discovering new paths and baffling the Narrator by going where he thinks you can’t definitely add to the rebellious feel the game nurtures. Almost from the get go, iCEY can go anywhere with her dash ability, so trying to make your own ways though an area can be pretty fun. The one gameplay complaint I have is the pacing between combat and story elements like cutscenes and the need to wait. In many situations, there will be a need to stop playing for the sake of story and this trade off of sacrificing play in order to advance story is frustrating, especially with the action, energy, and fierceness the combat brings. Going from Bayonetta-like intensity to a full stop completely breaks game flow. Plus, it happens often enough that it becomes tough to reimmerse yourself. I realize most of the stoppage is either to rebel against the Narrator’s instructions or to view cutscenes, but I wish the pacing between narration and the action sequences had better flow. And don’t get me wrong, the narration and the many times you’re mutinously waiting around to upset the Narrator can be very humorous and even insightful, especially if you’re in a more story driven mindset. But, I still found myself wanting these moments to move a bit faster. They clash with that energetic tone and fighting mindset, and the loss of play flow and immersion it causes is striking. Individually, the narration works and the gameplay is strong, but together they don’t exactly complement each another.
What perfectly complements every aspect of iCEY are the aesthetics. I applaud the efforts of the artists and composers as they wonderfully apply a style that evokes the feel of a once technologically thriving world now dilapidated into turmoil. The hand painted backgrounds that depict tech and nature integration, as well as facets of a once lively society, are absolutely stunning and convincingly convey the tones of a cyber-civilization halted by disaster. The programming and development stylizations, such as the level menus, chat rooms, and emails, complete with monitor flicker, static, and a convex, CRT overlay effect, all solidify the idea that a terminal connects you to the inner game. I really appreciate the developmental tones, such as the scenes that show the prototype iCEY with a rifle before those ideas were scrapped, or the black and white room, with its sketch lines that was abandoned and never colored in. It’s truly amazing how well tones and moods are brought to life by the artistry. The soundtrack also does an excellent job of delivering a broken down cyber feel, with its techno style and plays on subtlety. The techno tracks are catchy and bring that cyber aspect, but the subtle tones and play on volume and dynamics that the composers achieve add to the feelings of ruin and loss of life. Adapting softer, slower dynamics to a techno melody is an impressive idea and fantastically executed. Together, the visuals and audio are outstanding and remarkably enhance the overall immersion and experience.
iCEY is a brilliant idea abounding with ambition. The meta aspect is cleverly executed and the 4th wall breaking adds a ton of humor, as well as depth. The story is incredibly intricate and it leaves it up to us to think how it all fits together. It’s purposely vague, but perhaps too much so, as too many questions either go unanswered or plot points remain so tangentially out in left field that you don’t know how they’re relevant to begin with. Gameplay is noteworthy due to solid combat, but there is room for improvement and I wish there were more combos to unlock. Finally, the game is painfully short, only taking about 7-10 hours to fully complete. While making sense of the story and unlocking the true ending lends itself to many replays, I feel the game suffers from having everything crammed into such a short experience. Having said that, iCEY is definitely one to consider if you’re looking for quick bursts of destructive satisfactions or an incredibly intriguing story that challenges you to think outside the game.
Review copy purchased by author
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