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Icarus review: frustrating, familiar survival fare that’s nonetheless enticing

Grin and bear it

About five hours into Icarus, the new survival game from Day Z’s Dean Hall and co, I had a moment. I’d just been savaged by a bear, and had morosely jogged back over to my corpse from the respawn drop ship several miles away. It was dark, and also stormy, and also there were more bears. I desperately needed to find and reclaim my pack, stuffed with meat, tools and building supplies, which was proving difficult because your corpse just appears as a small pile of excruciatingly indiscernible brown sandbags. As the minutes dragged on, my mind flashed back to the time I spent half an hour searching for my wireless earphones amidst gails of horizontal rain on Brighton beach, shivering and still half-soaked from a foolhardy morning swim. The experience was so horrible it transcended mere discomfort and turned into, on some level, genuinely enjoyable farce.

That’s Icarus, that is. It’s obviously flawed, wildly frustrating and frequently janky, but it’s also somehow simultaneously good enough to have kept me playing into the early morning on multiple nights without even realizing the time. It’s like Schrodinger's cat, except if the cat was a bear made of draining thirst meters. I went on to spend another 20 hours (mostly) happily within its grasp.

It helps that my Icarus playstyle is ‘hubris’. During those 20 hours I courted, then full on snogged disaster in countless ways, from not bothering to lay down respawn-granting bedrolls, to slamming raw watermelons I knew would give me food poisoning. I’ve died of thirst, asphyxiation, exposure and falling (well, hitting). I’ve scampered through woods, desert and snowstorms without proper preparation, before shortly and consequently succumbing to claws, teeth and tusk. But mainly I have died of bears.

Rather than the grand survivathon most tree chop ‘em ups subject you to, Icarus is divided into individual missions. You drop into a hostile environment on the alien (yet for some reason Earth-resembling) planet of Icarus, craft whatever you reckon you need to achieve an objective assigned via some bland corpo-spiel, then get out of dodge. Every mission has to be completed within a certain number of hours or your character gets stranded forever, losing access to all your unlocked blueprints and talents. That means you’ll be back to moving and gathering resources at the slowest possible rate, while hungering and thirsting at the fastest - along with being unable to craft anything except basic starter gear. I believe the timers keep going even when you’re not playing, which is a tad rude to anyone who can’t reliably commit to playing a certain amount within a certain period. In practice, every mission I’ve been on has had multi-day time limits but could be completed within an evening, so I never felt close to that mode of failure. Even with all the dying.

Icarus’s (esseses) main trick is to dangle those small, eminently achievable objectives in front of you, then pave the road to them with wolves and weather. "Pfft! I don’t need iron tools just to trek out to that geo survey spot," you’ll think, wrongly. "I can cross the arctic with just a handful of thatch and gumption for shelter," you’ll say, idiotically. "I already have enough arrows to fend off the wildlife enroute to building this hunting cabin," you’ll whimper, about-to-be-dead-ingly.

You get the idea. It’s always tempting to take the shortest route, to rush towards those objectives as countless video games have trained you to do - but Icarus is a game about preparation, and it’ll gut you for moving too fast. Or at least, it will if you’re playing alone, as I was. That’s partly because it obviously helps to have an extra spear-wielding chump or two by your side, but mainly because the punishment for respawning (as opposed to being revived) can be absolutely brutal. Every death in solo play wipes out all your XP progress towards your next level, which can easily represent half an hour or more of play, which you might or might not want to substitute with the word ‘work’.

I’d go as far to say that shrouding death in the grim cloak of actual consequence is the defining part of Icarus.

It’s mean, but Icarus did get me invested. Early on, the growling of a nearby bear would elicit instant dread, and few games have filled me with such despair when the wolves/boars/elements close in. I’d go as far to say that shrouding death in the grim cloak of actual consequence is the defining part of Icarus. I once got crushed to death by a tree I’d just chopped down in an attempt to ‘safely’ hoover up my last few globs of XP, and I quite literally howled. Nonetheless, it’s a pain in the arse I came to begrudgingly respect, and I suspect whether the frustration galvanises you towards beating the fucking thing or pushes you away will make or break solo Icarus for you.

The other defining part of Icarus is the storms. They are mighty. They are absolute. Buckets of rain lash the forest, while the wind brings trees crashing to the ground, or your head, inflicting death or at least temporary brain damage. The desert sandstorms almost entirely blot your vision, leaving you to wander hopelessly into cougars while dehydrating/melting from the concurrent heatwave. The arctic snowstorms are fearsome enough to warrant a story.

My mission was to retrieve three parts of an anti-storm gizmo from across the arctic, then protect it from the elements while it beeped for a bit. After several grueling treks, blighted by numerous polar bear-related deaths, I had the device. I was in the process of lugging it back towards the relative safety of the forest when the storm struck, bringing me within an inch of freezing to death and giving me no choice but to build my pathetic thatch shelter right there and then.

I whacked up the smallest of shelters, plopping a campfire in the middle of it - then noticed I was still freezing to death, because it turns out thatch is no match for a bloody blizzard. Fortunately, that didn’t turn out to be a problem, because I then immediately caught fire and burned to death inside my own suddenly delightfully toasty deathtrap. Undeterred, I ran straight back, a gap in the storms allowing me to fix up the walls and expand enough to let me both place the storm-buster and a campfire I didn’t need to step in. I sat through 10% of the required beeping before the next storm rolled in. The snow physically built up and my roof caved in. I started pelting it back towards the forest - then ran into another polar bear, which panicked me into a crevasse, which I plunged down before breaking my leg and dying of asphyxiation.

In many ways, Icarus is a triumph. Like Day Z, it’s adept at weaving stories out of its systems, where one hasty decision shoves you down the winding path towards disaster. Huddling inside that crumbling shelter felt genuinely transportative in a way games always aim for but often fall short of. It’s gorgeous, deceptively absorbing, and nails the fundamentals - as Ed said, the axe thunks are exemplary. Repeatedly starting from scratch isn’t half as annoying as it might sound, because each time it’s sped up by a mix of talents and an improved understanding of precisely what you need. Everyone knows the best bit of survival games is the beginning, and this is a canny way of getting you to repeatedly run through that basic, familiar dopamine gauntlet.

But. Buuuuuuut. The jank.

Animals are the main offender. They’re prone to getting stuck, as well as clipping in and out of rocks. I had boars successfully gore me even though they were performing their attack animation several metres away, I saw trees go spiraling off into the sky, and I had numerous agonizing interactions with crafting stations that would say they were under shelter (and therefore usable). I glitched off ladders, had my vision obscured by malfunctioning items, and broke my ankle by walking over a log. Worse, I was dismayed to find out that doing the steps for an objective out of order just flat out breaks the mission. After investing several hours into building a route up to the riverlands (an unusually interesting objective, incidentally), I realised I’d wasted my time because I hadn’t grabbed a beacon beforehand. It’s remarkable how quickly my desire to play beyond that point evaporated.

It’s hard to feel threatened when you’re basically Hawkeye.

The combat is a bit one-note, too. The technique I eventually discovered to deal with bears felt less like a desperate, frantic struggle, and more an endurance test about reliably running forward diagonally at the right moment so the bears slipped past me and I could plug them with another arrow before rinsing and repeating. I also feel the auto-aim might be a tad too generous, because after an hour or two of practice I found I could reliably headshot animals from a ridiculous distance. It’s hard to feel threatened when you’re basically Hawkeye.

The unlock trees can be unsatisfying, with substantial perks submerged under individually unnoticeable +5% foraging buffs, and certain blueprints that feel next to useless (I beg you, do not bother unlocking poison arrows). I also disagree conceptually with -10% XP debuffs, which certain storms and ailments subject you to. There’s an entire currency attached to completing missions that lets you bring certain items between drops, which I haven’t bothered talking about because it’s stingy to the point of near irrelevance. Perhaps I could have spent more wisely, but still - it took me 25 hours to work my way up towards a mildly improved envirosuit.

Icarus’s biggest failing, though, is that it doesn’t embrace the alien. I’d hoped it was lulling me into a false sense of security, waiting to ambush with properly unsettling extra-terrestrial encounters, but the only non-earth threat I’ve seen so far are some poison-spitting cave worms. Fear of the unknown is a rich resource, which survival games fail to mine at their peril. If Icarus is (iziziz) still holding back, and wilder fauna lie within missions I’m yet to unlock, then it’s been holding back for far too long.

With all that laid bare, I’m honestly confused by how much I enjoyed my time with Icarus. It relies on repetitive loops and often uneventful hiking, on tedious punishments and uninspired objectives. I am not a patient person, and yet, it does enough. The storms are terrifically atmospheric, basic crafting still feels compelling when you’re doing it for the umpteenth time, and oh, I haven’t even mentioned the way it models individual planks tumbling and getting stuck on each other when you chop down a wall. Despite the jank, Icarus’s (eseses) systems feel meticulous, on scales both big and small.

Most importantly, when it slapped me down I found myself wanting to slap it back rather than just walk away - for the most part. Once I’ve recovered from the knockout punch that was my aborted riverlands expedition, I might even return. I just hope there are fewer bugs.

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Matt Cox

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