Let’s start with a hypothetical – if moons could wear clothes, what would they wear? Luna, our own moon, would sport a graceful purple dress. Maybe a tiara. Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ satellites, are sure to look mean in matching uniforms. Europa, one of Jupiter’s many moons and one of the best spots for a future human colony, would never take off their sick leather jacket. It’s cool, smooth and may just be bringing life to an orbital party.
Yet, we know little about Europa. Being mysterious makes you sexier, sure, but how else are we to know that they’re not just a sociopath and that they really do appreciate our company? What we do know about that cool as ice rock is that it’s ripe for the imagination. Novels like The Forge of God and Schismatrix use it as a sci-fi backdrop, but we can only dream of what lies inside Europa’s trapped oceans. Ice Caves of Europa seeks to explore the cold depths of that ice-laden moon.
Green stuff from an alien planet…what could go wrong?
It is the near future and an automated mission to Europa has been launched with the purpose of exploration. You play as Verne, a drone with a mind of his own, as he sets out into the labyrinth of caves left exposed by meteor impacts. His mission is to seek out new minerals and potential civilizations, to boldly go where no robot has gone before. Verne is accompanied by Wells, his likewise sentient orbital relay, and the no-nonsense lunar lander Banks.
Ice Caves is as disciplined as they come. Instead of attempting to break in as many features as possible, Australian studio Io Normal has opted to focus on its debut title’s thruster-based platforming. Gameplay consists almost entirely of navigation through tunnels and caves that rewrite the definition of ‘claustrophobia’ from ‘scared of tight spaces’ to ‘really scared of tight spaces’. It helps, then, that Ice Caves’ controls are like non-crap gum; they’re mint.
Verne is simply such a delight to control. Momentum feels natural. Nailing a tight corner or narrowly avoiding a crash feel like real accomplishments. I found myself making whooshing noises as Verne ducked and dived through Europa’s endless subterranean catacombs. A real blast was had, but the same cannot be said for some parts of the environment. The ice caves in Ice Caves are recycled too much to be considered a challenge. Furthermore, I found myself getting stuck many a time while trying to fit through a particularly tight crevice – the tail kept getting caught on (flat!) ceilings and walls. Of course, it was all just in need of a patience and physics abuse cocktail, but a line must be drawn. Control options provided no real respite – I found myself sticking to the less intensive method.
Drones with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads?
Speaking of lines, Ice Caves has a fairly deep story to trudge through. Themes of free will and the legacy of species are explored through Verne’s adventures, with additional references to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Ice Caves is clearly a game aimed at the people who look at the stars and wonder ‘”When are we going to actually go, come on it’s been like 40 years since Apollo 11”. The only real issue I have with the story is that it’s simply not given enough time to really flesh itself out. The game was over before I knew it, which was a real shame.
Ice Caves’ presentation is strictly hard sci-fi. The HUD takes the form of a scientific-looking minimalist interface tied directly to Verne himself. The music is likewise timid and non-intrusive, with instruments that reminded me a lot of Portal’s soundtracks. The writing gets the job done. The game looks about as good as you can expect an indie title made in the Unity engine to look, but the way Ice Caves unfolds makes it seem altogether intentional. No spoilers here, but there’s some potential in the way the game meddles with itself later on that’s quirky – and sorely underutilised.
It doesn’t matter that Ice Caves of Europa is short and sometimes finnicky. For what it is, it’s a pleasurable experience that I’d recommend to anybody who’s even remotely interested in real-world astrophysics or the philosophical themes of reality and free will. If you’re not, the slick controls may just keep you hooked on the Time Trial mode.
Reviewed on Windows | Review code supplied by publisher