Icarus: An Open Letter To RPG Developers?

I was going to write my normal review, that is what the game is about and whether or not I liked it. You know the obligatory “what’s in the box” stuff, which is what I normally do. And in fact I will do it this time as well, however, after hearing and reading a few things I decided to maybe provide a less shallow review. I decided this because of what the developer is trying to do. This week’s review is for Icarus, a side-scrolling platform role-playing game. The developer Justin Scott wanted to present a role-playing experience that is told through game play “instead of despite it”. Did he succeed? Well I will attempt to tell you that, even though my experience with RPGs are rather small. I want to tell you this up front so you can judge it based on your own experiences. I’m more of the adventure game persuasion (notably graphic adventures of the 80’s and early 90’s.) However adventure games share some aspects with RPGs which allows me to comment a bit. If this little fact doesn’t throw you off, then read on…

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From my experience role-playing games share one main aspect with adventure games that is different from most other genres, and that is story. Sure we’ve seen in the last decade hybrids, and even first-person shooters that have a nice story component, but they aren’t strictly necessary to other genres. Quite the opposite for RPGs and adventures. You’re basically playing to tell a story. Typically RPG’s have a main quest and several side quests and maybe multiple endings. Most of the stories are generally told through dialog trees, especially the Japanese ones. (Although you can take that statement with a grain of salt because I have not played many Japanese rpgs.) Even adventure games are plagued with dialog tree puzzles. Some of the extraordinarily long, and some humorous additions, like The Secret of Monkey Island’s “Insult Sword Fighting”. Some people may like dialog trees, but I think the developer of Icarus (the game I’m reviewing today) not so much. His goal was to replace dialog trees with game play. And generally he has succeeded.

“Taking the role of a lowly beggar, Icarus, as he finds himself put in a position of great power and responsibility.” The story of Icarus is about the illegitimate son of a Duke, who is a beggar because of this fact. Icarus is the Duke’s only son. However because there are armies storming the kingdom the Duke has no choice but to send Icarus to the King to get some military assistance. So basically the game is about this, but is told through the game. In one level you start out by begging (by simply moving left or right and waiting in front of some characters). Then Icarus is summoned and he must go out on a quest to find an army. Here’s where the game play gets interesting. You can’t fight, but you have a guardian named Garret who will do the fighting for you. Essentially you hit a button to activate fighting mode and non-fighting mode. But there’s also another path you can take and that is, that Icarus can do some digging, so you can avoid baddies entirely if you so choose.

Your choices affect what the endings are, but I won’t place any spoilers here. Suffice it to say it’s a fun little game, and I do mean little. You can finish a game in about 15 minutes. He says 30 minutes of game play somewhere on his site but I played several times in the space of about that long. It’s very interesting how Garrett reacts when you kill regular citizens as in one part of the game you have a choice to go two ways. One way is to get coins to pay a ferry, which are only obtained by killing people (bad guys or good guys). The other is not to get enough coins for the ferry and having to go through the swamps. So if you end up killing regular citizens then Garret states how sad it is that you killed so many people. I want to give a small note here to the fact though, that I don’t remember what the result is of killing citizens other than the short cut-scene where Garret laments the fact. In fact this is going to segue into what’s wrong with this game. Actually it’s not so much what’s wrong with it, as what’s incomplete about it. The game is somewhat amusing, and I don’t really see anything actually wrong.

So basically the bad is that it’s short… VERY SHORT. Like I said about 10-15 minutes of game play on the story mode. And there isn’t much variation to maybe justify finding all the endings. I thought the game was kind of interesting, but not fully realized. He should have put in more levels that directly branch off based on your actions. Right now the only two things you could do was either collect the coins to ride the ferry, or not collect enough and have to go through the wetlands. Also there was one side quest where I rescued some kid and got a coin. Maybe you have more in the game I just don’t know about, but for me there’s not enough variation to justify playing it over and over again. In fact eventually it will kind of get on your nerves, not the game itself, but the music. Before you think I’m bashing the music, I have to say the music is pretty well done chip-sounding music, as this is presented as a sort of retro-based game. But there is no time when the music stops, which is what kind of gets on your nerves if you play through more than once. I think it needed some breaks, but overall the music is done well enough. The graphics look almost programmer-ish that is they’re not that great, however the low-res style that’s used kind of masks this to a certain extent. The controls are very easy to use so there’s no complaints about the interface. There used to be no demo and the developer wanted you to pay for it, however after some advice from various sources he agreed to put in a demo. A quick note that there is an arcade mode which may extend replay-ability a bit, however once you’ve played that there’s nothing else to do because it doesn’t contain multiple levels it’s just a time-based “get all the treasure in this amount of time” game.

Is this worth paying money for. Before the demo I would have said maybe not, although I might would have just for the fact that the dev is building his game in true indie spirit. Now that there’s a demo, it’s only about 2 bucks to buy the full thing. (It’s actually a pay-what-you-want model, however because of processing the minimum is 1.75 USD) I didn’t see a lot of difference between the demo and the full version. You don’t get the arcade mode in the demo, and I guess you can’t save your game (which I don’t think I needed to do). In an email to me Justin Scott said “Icarus is partially an open letter to RPG developers to let them know how fed up I am with the way things currently are. I think one of the best outcomes possible for Icarus would be if other developers could take the core ideas and realize them to a fuller potential in their own creations.” I think this is one of the best reasons to buy the full version. It may not be that great of a game, but the ideas presented are good enough that they should be explored further. Probably the bounds of standard game-play need to be pushed a bit, and this seems like the proper way to do it. I personally don’t go for the “be controversial” tack to push the bounds of games, because all you’re doing is generally offending some types of people. This way trying to find new ways of playing a game and engaging the player more is rather noble, and I personally think that’s a goal worth pursuing.

You can find the game and more information here: ICARUS by Justin Scott

Just a final note, the music was pretty good even though I said it gets on your nerves after while. I want to qualify that statement too by saying any “chip” music (electronic music that sounds like it was made on an old game console)will get on your nerves if you listen to it for too long, so basically this wasn’t a complaint about the music so much as chip music in general. You can find a link to the musician’s home page through the Icarus web site.

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