You may not have heard of Impact Winter before now. This wee gem has arrived seemingly out of nowhere and, despite plenty of the ideas being familiar, it manages to blend them into something novel.
I say all this because Impact Winter is a survival game, a genre so overdone in recent years that it's increasingly hard to get excited about a new entry. This one really is different. Set in the aftermath of an asteroid impact that's left Earth in an endless winter, you play as a big bearded man called Jacob Solomon. Your task is to keep yourself — and your band of survivors — alive until rescue arrives in thirty days.
The game doesn't start well. The opening is bogged down by a clunky tutorial that's a real chore, but annoyingly also contains information about the rules and ideas that you simply need to know. Something a little more subtle would've done the game itself a lot more justice.
Thankfully, after this Impact Winter is hands-off, leaving you to chase whichever objectives you want in whichever order you wish. You can even ignore them all and chase your own. There are strangers to meet and aid, animals to avoid or set traps for, as well as a whole load of optional gadgets, weapons and vehicles that can eventually be constructed.
The game world is large but reaching its edges requires a lot of preparation and the placement of several camps in relay. With new camps, you'll be able to go further out from the church starting zone and find the game's most interesting locations.
The more tasks you complete, whether it be finding medicine for a stranger or powering-up various landmarks, the quicker the countdown to rescue decreases. From my experience there seem numerous ways to progress with plenty of secrets to discover, but what makes Impact Winter unusual is that whatever you choose to do it all feels so organic, with new playstyles emerging from how you react to events.
No matter how you choose to play, a big part of the game is managing resources. This means finding food, water and keeping everybody warm. The usual survival stuff. Yet Impact Winter's emphasis on a small community gives it a very different feel. The emphasis here isn't really on your own personal survival: Jacob is a capable, healthy man in prime physical condition, and I never found him dying due to a lack of resources. His band of survivors are the ones you worry about. Holed up in a buried church, a warm sanctuary in the icy wastes, they need you to find them their supplies and — the real twist of the knife — are vulnerable to injury or attack in your absence. But you never feel like a glorified babysitter. These people help Jacob out as much he helps them, building the tools and gadgets that can make survival for everyone just that little bit easier.
As characters they're let down by the writing, which leaves them resembling vending machines of new objectives, but the place they occupy in the overall structure means you come to care for them in spite of it. You depend on each other, and inevitably feel responsible for any harm that befalls them. It's hard not to wish this group aspect wasn't developed further, with a more nuanced psychological element, but it give the game an emotional anchor.
You're not alone in ventures outside, either, but accompanied by a funky little robot called Ako-light, hovering behind you at all times. It provides illumination (though at the risk of alerting predators) but can be upgraded to drill through the ice and use sonar to discover hidden items. With a limited battery it becomes one of many resources that you have to use sparingly. If it shuts down, you'll have no map or compass and be left to your own means of navigation. Though it certainly lacks in personality, barely mustering so much as a beep boop, the robot's usefulness meant I ended up quite attached to it. Or, more accurately, I certainly felt the absence whenever it wasn't there to help.
I was much less attached to the interface, which frequently left me shuffling around a door until it would finally acknowledge my button press. And Impact Winter has other issues. The inventory screen is fine, but there are perhaps more menus than there should be. Assigning rations is in a separate menu from assigning roles, for example, and separate from the inventory screen you need to visit to feed yourself. I encountered a lot of other minor hiccups, too, like my character catching on scenery or weapons hovering in the air. The developers have said these issues will be patched before launch, but at the moment they're a problem.
I found Impact Winter worth persevering with anyway, and not least because it really nails the setting. Frequently the screen is nothing but white, your character's green coat and pink bag all that can be seen through a blizzard. There's a sense of isolation when outdoors, alone in a vast wilderness. A lot of the game is spent marching through snow and, thanks to the shifting weather and time, this is seldom dull. Plus you leave a trail as you go, which can be used to write out words. When you're noodling around doing stuff like this, you realise something in this world has a hold on you.
Not since 2007's Lost Planet have I played a game that captures the feel of an icy world in so much detail. It was largely set-dressing in Lost Planet, of course, but here it's vitally important. Weather dictates the temperature, how quickly you'll freeze outside. Night brings out predators and reduces visibility. A white-out can come from nowhere, leaving you without a map or any navigation.
That part of the presentation is important to convey challenges and dangers but the aspect that lingered with me was its human qualities. Developer Mojo Bones has handcrafted this world to give it a warmth that faintly glows beneath the impenetrable ice. Empty houses, buried under snow and cut off from the rest of the world, full of belongings. Rooftops emerging from a tundra, with billboards and pylons. This is nothing new in the realm of post-apocalyptic fiction but Impact Winter does a marvellous job of focusing on that humanity, the loss of home. Partly this is down to the melancholy score, that fills abandoned interiors with a sense of tragedy. But the absence of horror elements is what makes it really work.
You don't find monsters in these homes, dead bodies or signs of violence. In fact, the game as a whole is almost entirely without combat of any kind. Instead there's only the cold. These houses are vacant but clearly someone recently lived in them. And there's an empty sadness to that which makes the warmth and community of your little sanctuary meaningful. After a few treks into these buried houses, the weight of what you're trying to save can be felt.
Survival games are so often about the desperate lengths we'll go to preserve the individual but Impact Winter instead wants to see how far we'll go to preserve a community. Because it isn't just enough to keep them alive. We have to manage their morale, make sure they can sleep and even ensure they feel like they're contributing. Being a ruthless pragmatist will see you through, but you'll be the only one left alive. And life like that is harder: without help from others you'll be cut off from so many tools and upgrades. Worst of all, the warm orange glow of the church will die out.
Impact Winter is a great surprise. In a year that's already chock-full of great games, there's none quite like this. It's an engrossing survival game with a gentler, almost leisurely pace. Problems emerge slowly instead of suddenly. Its a perfect world to jump into for an hour or two at a time, resolving minor objectives as you watch the days to rescue tick down.
Pardon the pun, but Impact Winter is a chilled-out survival game, and in that is a welcome alternative to the high-anxiety entries that dominate the genre. It isn't a battle against the odds but a game of slow, deliberate exploration, with humble goals and a wholesome demeanour. This world has that quality so few videogames manage: humanity. In the deadly cold of Impact Winter, that's what you end up holding onto.