There’s an unfortunate bunch of stereotypes that some gamers believe about the visual novel genre. One of the biggest is that their stories are dull, similar and lead to the same erotic conclusions. Of course, fans would easily point out a wealth of games counter to such claims. Icebound is an English-language visual novel which offers a distinctive story, an unexpected (but fitting) gameplay element, and an intriguing cast. It may also be worth investigating for those not typically interested in the genre.
With all that said, Icebound begins with a big, silly trope. You play as Dougal, a young wanderer who has lost his memory. He knows that he is an alchemist and has a bat named Isaac, but much of anything that happened in his past is completely unknown. In the world of Permia these alchemists are folks with special powers channeled through familiars. Familiars can be viewed as simple pets, but are of far greater importance to their alchemist partners. Although the start feels incredibly average, the storyline does eventually discuss Dougal’s past, present and reason for memory loss.
Entering the town is both a learning experience for the protagonist as it is for players. We quickly learn that regular townsfolk don’t look upon alchemists highly. Assuming he will only stay a few nights, Dougal seeks a temporary job to make some money before heading off again. Instead, he stumbles upon an alchemist contest and enters. As it turns out there are multiple alchemists in town and each wants a chance at its prize – the Philosopher’s Stone. Each alchemist initially seems like a trope all to themselves until you spend time with them. For example, the haughty know-it-all has far more to his character than simply having a high IQ. It’s a shame that these “reveals” basically end Dougal’s attempts to interact with most characters, though.
As the story proceeds even more outright racial-style tensions flare thanks to a feran alchemist. According to Permia’s religious doctrine, ferans were created due to sin and are to be reviled. This is just the start of Icebound’s heavy lore. Much remains unspoken, but an in-game encyclopedia offers more information to curious players. Fantasy tales often feel cumbersome with heavy use of fictional jargon but it’s not nearly that bad here.
Many visual novels offer up pure text and image experiences with little opportunity to do anything. This isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes you’d like to interact a bit more. Because you play as an alchemist, there are multiple times where Dougal’s skills are necessary. Utilizing alchemy requires players to interact with a logic puzzle minigame each time. The screen presents a flat, gridded surface with symbols. Your goal is to match a limited amount of tiles with their respective symbol on the field. Due to limited supply, and rules about what can go where, each puzzle proves to be much harder than it initially seems. Thankfully, even if you fail the story still proceeds.
Unlike a host of other recently released English visual novels, Icebound is a fairly long experience. Depending on your reading speed it should take around 6-10 hours for one playthrough. However, fans will likely playthrough at least twice. This is due to an order/chaos system which can have players shape Dougal as a (mostly) law-abiding, kind man or turn completely reckless. As such, two playthroughs is recommended. Beyond this feature there are tons of other dialogue choices available. Some affect a great deal while others are just amusing to check out.
All of this does not mean that we’ve got a perfect visual novel on our hands. Perhaps the most distracting issue comes courtesy of character art (which is almost always present). No, it’s not ugly! Instead it seems that different characters were drawn by different artists. This leads to a lack of cohesive style which hurts the overall quality of the product. The same is true of CG scenes which look like rough drafts rather than finalized scenes. Because art is an important factor to visual novels it does unfortunately drag down the experience a tad.
Considering the amount of average visual novels cluttering digital distribution lately, it’s exciting to see Icebound come along. The story is fantastical but remains grounded thanks to a (mostly) believable cast and series of events. It would have been great to see a more cohesive art style as without that simple aspect the game doesn’t look quite done, but visuals are only a portion of Icebound’s whole. Anyone looking to get wrapped up in an entertaining storyline for a weekend should give this a read.