By Jeremy Parish

What’s the difference between a great game and a transcendent one? Perhaps the answer lies in its potential to resonate with players even more than its creators intended. Consider Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, whose premise of isolated Americans connected to one another by couriers seemed like bizarre sci-fi meandering when it launched in 2019—yet suddenly appeared prophetic less than a year later, once a global pandemic shut Americans into their homes and left them relying on delivery services for essentials. 

Similarly, FantaBlade Network Technology’s ICEY for PlayStation 4 has gone from being simply a blazing fast combo-action game to one that speaks to the current moment of global protests and civil disobedience in ways (or on a scale, anyway) its creators likely didn’t expect when it debuted in late 2016. But then, there’s always been more to ICEY than surface appearances would suggest. You can credit its multiple layers of meaning to the creative passion of FantaBlade, the novice developers responsible for its creation. 

Based in Shanghai, FantaBlade Network Technology was founded in 2014 by a group of college students with a deep love of games… and who mastered the art of actually creating one as they built ICEY. “None of us had experience in game development,” says a company representative. “When we teamed up, all we were thinking of was trying to make a game that was very different and unique. We’ve faced quite a lot of challenges on our journey but are rewarded with great game developing experiences.”

As independent developers, the FantaBlade team naturally took inspiration from their peers and predecessors. “The team was really fond of The Stanley Parable,” says FantaBlade’s representative. “The ideas and inspirations came in part from the interesting interaction between the player and the game in The Stanley Parable.”

This connection probably isn’t obvious to most people who only know ICEY from its trailers and promo videos, which focus on its furious, blade-slinging action. ICEY’s more unconventional concepts are woven throughout the story in subtle ways. The narrative accompanies but rarely intrudes upon the moment-to-moment gameplay, which has the high-impact immediacy of top action titles like Capcom’s Devil May Cry or the works of developer Platinum Studios. That is to say, protagonist Icey (a cyborg warrior) wields only a limited set of weapons. Rather than juggling a complicated set of tools in combat, she instead uses her basic, standard blades to juggle enemies instead. The complexity inherent in the action emerges through the combo system, not the need to swap between tools.

ICEY encourages an aggressive style, rewarding players for leaping into the fray to juggle foes and chain together attacks. In spirit, it’s not unlike something along the lines of Sega’s Shinobi titles for PlayStation 2, which required players to maintain the offensive in order to maintain a score multiplier high enough to allow them to reach a target point value. Unlike in those high-impact console titles, though, the 2D style seen here helps keep the action direct and minimizes visual confusion or targeting issues. 

According to the development team, the speedy action works so brilliantly because it was the starting point of the entire ICEY project. The combat system served as the basic framework around which the game was constructed. “The combat system was actually decided quite early in 2014,” says the company’s spokesperson. “The concept was to create a fluid, easy-to-understand combat system that flows well in gameplay. Mechanics such as execution and absorb attack create a satisfying combat loop that pushes players to keep moving and chain together every different move they have.”

The FantaBlade team wasn’t content to create just a combo-based sword brawler. After locking down ICEY’s brisk fighting mechanics, the team used that core gameplay as a foundation for a game that ventures into far more adventurous territory. Literally adventurous: Despite initially appearing to be a simplistic slash-’em-up, ICEY soon reveals a flirtation with metroidvania action-exploration concepts. Although the game doesn’t contain a vast interconnected world a la Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Dark Souls, neither can players simply breeze through the game as if it were a linear brawler or platformers.

According to FantaBlade, the exploratory elements weren’t simply tacked on; ICEY’s creators are big fans of the format. They spent a great deal of effort trying to strike a perfect balance between blistering action and slower-paced movement through the world. Games that attempt to combine intense combat with exploration (which, by definition, is a slower-paced form of gameplay) often end up feeling uneven, with a stop-start sensation to their overall flow. Spikes of high-friction conflict can pose a brick wall to progress for players invested in the leisurely rhythms of exploration, while on the other hand lengthy stretches of quiet wandering and vague quest objectives can deflate the experience for adrenaline junkies. ICEY, its creators hope, manages to find a perfect middle ground.

ICEY was our first project after graduation,” says FantaBlade. “Before we began development, we studied many classic games, including ‘metroidvania’ style games. After much trial-and-error, we settled on a balance point between exploration and combat. Too much exploration, the game gets dull. Yet linear combat experience couldn’t generate enough conversation among players. So, we put one or two exploration sections in each area to keep the balance between the two mechanics, giving players a good place to explore the depth of the game.”

Even as it tries to strike a balance between two disparate gameplay concepts, ICEY further ups its ambition by breaking the rules of game design—or at the very least, defying player expectations by allowing them to defy the rules of the game laid out by its narrator. ICEY treats its narrator as a character of sorts, a popular concept in indie games. But rather than placing the narrator in a role akin to that of the sonorous voiceover heard throughout, say, Supergiant’s Transistor—describing the onscreen action in soulful but absolute terms—ICEY’s narrator can be treated almost as an antagonist. Players can obey the disembodied voice’s guidance as word of law… but they can also choose to act against the narrator’s mandates, which gives the adventure an almost anarchic feel of resistance that calls to mind breaking free of the laboratory boundaries in Portal.

“In the beginning, the team started making ICEY because we wanted to make a game that provoked players’ emotions in a unique way,” says FantaBlade. “For example, if players were to enter Icey’s world and treat it as an action game, only to find that as early as the new player tutorial they could ignore the narrator’s directions, wouldn’t that be cool? Wouldn’t it be nice to feel that the narrator was actually a real person who could be resisted and annoyed?”

While the narrator may get irritated with players’ free will, playtesters received the concept with enthusiasm. “We showed a few of our classmates an early demo with these ideas, and their response was overwhelmingly positive. As a result, we moved forward with producing the full version of the game.”

FantaBlade’s imaginative storytelling has proven the key to ICEY’s newfound significance; nearly four years after its initial debut, the game feels more on-point than ever. In an era that has seen an upswell of authoritarianism and protest both in FantaBlade’s home country and abroad in Western countries like the U.S., ICEY’s storytelling mechanics add a layer of meaning to a game that have stood just as easily on the strength of its sleek action alone. Though ICEY wears its gaming influences with pride, the sum of the product rises far beyond its individual components thanks to its intriguing approach to storytelling. And while they’ve created a top-flight action-adventure, it’s the multidirectional narrative in which the fledgling game creators at FantaBlade take the greatest pride. “We definitely hope the players enjoy their interactions with the narrator… and the surprising consequences of those interactions,” they say.

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ICEY is on sale for PlayStation 4 from Limited Run Games through June 7.

June 05, 2020