Icycle: On Thin Ice review
Freeze a jolly good fellow.
"Hello?" A naked man on a tiny bicycle utters this plaintive question, and it echoes across a frozen wasteland, a little hint of desperation lifting the last syllable as it goes. Who is he? What does he want?
The answers are both irrelevant and yet strangely affecting. When we first meet him he's built a snowlady and is puckering up to kiss her, only for her head to fall off and roll away. He's sad? Lonely? Aroused by snow? Details don't matter - what matters is that it's up to us to guide this pedalling streaker through a series of small platforming challenges, collecting ice cubes as we go.
Control is simple - left and right, a tap to jump, hold it down to glide on an umbrella. From these basic inputs, one-man developer Damp Gnat weaves a dizzying procession of precision obstacles, physics-based trials and gentle exploratory puzzling.
They're basic ingredients, but Reece Millidge, the advertising animator turned solo developer who makes up Damp Gnat, proves to be adept at whisking them into fresh recipes with every flip of the screen. You may be rolling and hopping over spikes one second, surfing on a tide of snow the next. You may find yourself in a concussed dream sequence filled with floating houses and interconnected doorways, dodging spikes or triggering land mines to blow open a path forwards.
It's an endlessly inventive and fantastically crafted game, with a delightful visual style that is immediately appealing. The crisp lines and gliding movements of Saul Bass movie credits rub up against the goofball slapstick of Tex Avery, and the combination is hard to resist. Each section is only ever a few screens long, so the urge to see what comes next never dries out.
The crisp lines and gliding movements of Saul Bass movie credits rub up against the goofball slapstick of Tex Avery, and the combination is hard to resist
Only occasionally does Icycle's sense of wonder trip up the gameplay. There are moments of scripted brilliance here, where seemingly inevitable death is averted by new pathways opening up at the last second. In terms of dramatic timing, it's perfect. As gameplay, it means that some sections require trial and error to get through, as you learn that sometimes the game will shepherd you into an apparently impossible situation for the sake of a gag. Sometimes, of course, you'll pedal into an apparently impossible situation only to die instantly because, this time, you weren't supposed to. Frustration looms later in the game, but it's usually the good kind of frustration - the "almost had it" sting that drove all the best hardcore platformers of old.
There are also, it must be said, some fairly superfluous micro-payment options. The ice cubes you collect can be spent on costume items for your shivering hero, power-ups or for different vehicles. It's hard to tell if rattling around in a shopping trolley actually changes the game, but it's notable that the more useful gadgets - the inevitable currency doubler, for instance - are priced just high enough that saving up for them feels like a waste of time.
There's nothing truly essential in the store, however, so the prospect of spending £13.99 for more ice feels more like it's there because that's what mobile games do these days than because it actually belongs in the game. It's only here that you can feel the corporate hand of the EA-owned mobile publisher, Chillingo, and it sits awkwardly with the thoughtful and defiantly indie-flavoured design elsewhere. If you do want to try and get everything, each section of the game at least comes with five tiered challenges, of increasing difficulty, making those replays more than just a grind.
None of this really detracts from a game that is as lovely to watch as it is to play. A little bit of trial and error and easily ignored in-app purchses are fairly small cracks in an otherwise pristine glacier of gameplay. Slip on in.