Publisher Chilingo has an eye for attractive games on mobile platforms, and Icycle: On Thin Ice, the new title by independent developer Damp Gnat, is no exception.
A follow-up to the original game on browsers, Icycle‘s premise remains the same: you play a man on a bicycle – naked except for a hat, shoes and some sort of clothing on their upper body – trying to avoid obstacles and get to the end of a series of snowy courses. Gameplay is on a 2d plane, and controls are kept simple – forwards, backwards (which wasn’t available in the original) and jump: something that works to its benefit, as anyone who’s tried to play a game with complex controls on touchscreen devices can attest.
When you jump, tapping the screen a second time and holding your finger down deploys an umbrella, slowing your fall and allowing you to travel further as you descend. Doing so is essential; the path through each screen is often covered from side to side with lethal spikes, bottomless pits and other hazards, so careful negotiation through the series of screens which make up each level is required to get to the end of each course and progress to the next location.
You also need to think about your momentum – go too slowly and you’ll find yourself squashed by a falling piece of scenery or fail to surmount a large gap; go too fast and you might overshoot a narrow ledge or fly too far before falling, resulting in an unfortunate meeting of face with spike.
Along the way through each level there are ice cubes to collect. These can be used as currency to unlock a series of different outfits and upgrades; these unlockables are expensive however, and with only a handful of cubes in each location you’ll find yourself replaying them multiple times to accrue currency.
Your avatar can’t take any damage, so the slightest mistake will see you returned to the beginning of the screen to try again and you only have 3 attempts in a location. After using them up you can pay for another attempt by using the Ice cubes that you’ve got in the bank, but the prices escalate quickly with each subsequent extra try in a location requiring a price that increases exponentially; as the game isn’t exactly hugely generous with giving out the cubes and purchasing upgrades is expensive, you’re often better off simply sucking it up and restarting the location altogether.
Thankfully though, levels tend to be fairly short, rarely consisting of more than half a dozen screens. Your first run through a level might take you some time and plenty of restarts, but as you learn the ideal spot and timing needed to pass each hurdle you’ll soon find yourself running through them in a minute or two – though this overconfidence can often lead to simple errors. You’ll often get to very last inch of the screen only to be sent back to the start of it thanks to throwing caution to the wind, so you’ll eventually learn to play cautiously.
Aiding replayability and alleviating the tedium of having to replay the same levels over and over, each location (there are 20 main levels, with a few more unlocked as bonuses) has a series of different challenges to complete, unlocked in a linear fashion after completing the previous objective.
Some of these challenges can be quite devious and require you to think about each location in a different way. Your first challenge will always be simply to get to the finish line of each location, but then on subsequent visits you might be asked to do it without ever deploying your umbrella to slow your fall or to complete a course without ever pedaling backwards, for example. Each challenge forces you to think about different ways to pass each screen, revealing hidden depths to a design that originally feels rather simplistic; each location has secrets as well – hidden areas that can only be reached once you’re able to afford certain upgrades, rewarding you with more ice cubes and occasionally a new unlockable piece of clothing. Finding these areas is also something that crops up as a challenge in some areas, but the game never tells you where they are (unless you pay cubes to get a hint) – you’re left to discover them for yourself.
A story links each location together, after a fashion. We’re not talking about anything as elaborate as cutscenes or dialogue here – everything is kept abstract and open to interpretation, with bizarre occurrences that lend the proceedings a dream-like quality – a mishmash of disconnects and asides stapled together into a whole that brings to mind the famous animated collage sequences that Terry Gilliam created during his time with 70s British comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
One level has you flying into the ear of a giant man in a bowler hat only to kiss a fish inside his skull, while another has you flying through a series of floating houses, reappearing in a different area of the screen in a manner that would make optical illusionist M.C Escher proud. While you start on a snowy mountain range, you’ll progress through areas made entirely of sweets, journey through a cruise liner on a mobility scooter and navigate landmines in a static battlefield.
All of this is wrapped up in a wonderful art-deco art style: all pastel hues and simple geometric shapes, arranged in pleasingly attractive ways which result in a final look that is elaborate and original while keeping things clear – a necessity when each screen in a location is littered with hazards.
Icycle is a wonderful game and a worthy addition to your library of mobile gaming entertainment. While the gameplay itself isn’t particularly original, a combination of good looks, challenging design and well-judged balance of difficulty combine with a strong sense of absurdist humor to keep you coming back for more.
You’ll try, fail, try again and fail again before eventually put your device down in frustration. But then you’ll pick it up again for just one more try. That’s a hard balance to achieve and many developers have failed to find the balance between being too easy or too difficult in the past – particularly in the mobile space – but Damp Gnat succeed in the task with aplomb and the final result is a title that sticks in the mind for being a well-designed game that you’ll want to see through to the end.