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ICEwall – Review

ICEwall is one of those games that launches to almost zero fanfare and is a gem you discover through a dig in steams new releases. It is a love letter to retro arcade shoot em ups from the late 70’s into the mid 80’s. It brings along a fun upgrade system and smooth gameplay that sneaks its difficulty up on you. Designed to catch you out, its good fun to attempt to climb the leaderboards.

Changing up your weapons through upgrades usually is a good idea but giant bubbles can trigger a lot of explosions to dodge!

At first, ICEwall feels like it’s going to be a Space Invaders type shooter by the numbers. You choose a ship and stay at the bottom of the screen, moving left and right and shooting up at enemies. The beautiful neon retro graphics really shine as your thin narrow bullets explode the enemies like glass shards. Your shot being narrow is a key part of ICEwall because it means you have to slide into direct line with the enemies and their fire, shoot, and then dive out again. Early game this isn’t a problem but as enemies get more aggressive your timing here is crucial. Your health doesn’t replenish unless you gain very specific powerups so its a game that rewards caution over bravado.

After each level you enter the draft phase which is the roguelike upgrade system. Here you get given a selection of minidiscs to install onto your ship. You have a random choice from three but if you aren’t damaged from the previous level you’ll get four to choose from. These range from increasing your fire rate, movement speed, damage or damage multiplier. You can add additional bullets, spread them out, make them wider or add drones for additional firepower. These usually come with a negative effect to overall damage so you need to balance accordingly. Do you want a fast but weak ship or a powerful tank that doesn’t move fast. You can also add on Space Invader defence blocks or unlock the ability to move around the lower third of the screen like Centipede. You can also switch out bullets for bubbles or lasers and if you merge these powerups with all the others above you can really pimp out your ship in interesting and varied ways. It makes runs feel different despite the levels having the same layouts depending on the difficulty you chose.

I love the minidisc upgrades and the fact they spin around with their own artwork.

All this leads to a game that is very playable and easy to pick up and enjoy. The nature of dodging attacks and having very limited health raises the stakes of even the smallest enemy causing you pain. This does bring me to a slight quirk in the game design. ICEwall doesn’t have tons of bullets flying at you and so it doesn’t feel like a bullet hell game for 80% of the time. However everyone usually fires at once and so you switch from everything feeling fire to ARGH for about 2 seconds and then back to calm again. I got used to it but most of my deaths came from the red aliens whose bullets are aimed at you and if they fire from one side of the screen to the other, often you can’t get out of the way even with a few seconds warning as the bullets trajectory will scrape you.

It is a tiny annoyance in what is otherwise a superbly polished and enjoyable game. I must also commend the online leaderboards for each difficulty and mode (draft or no draft). I also really enjoyed the slightly unusual orchestral electronica soundtrack used too. I was expecting chiptune or techno and instead the game has a much more cinematic score. Unlocking different ships with points earned is quick to do and they provide additional challenges to try and overcome with their base stats.

Bosses are quite challenging – especially on the harder difficulties.

Put simply, ICEwall is another great game from another promising solo dev that executes a well thought out idea excellently. It’s out now on Steam.

Final Thoughts
Excellent aesthetics, smooth gameplay and plenty of retro charm collide to make ICEwall a charming roguelike shooter.
Smooth gameplay that is responsive and rewards caution as much as daredevil skill.
Upgrade system can give you a lot of different results and makes runs feel like variations of a theme.
Cool graphics and soundtrack.
The bullet hell nature of this game sneaks up on you so it feels calm and then suddenly you are in a momentary barrage and difficulty spikes really slap this in your face.
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