I am always very cautious and even a little sceptical when it comes to games that contain meta-narrative, break the fourth wall or somehow interfere with the real life. It just spooks me, ever so slightly. Meta-games for me have two extremes: my favourite Undertale where I nearly had a heart attack and was spooked out of my pijamas, and OneShot, the most precious game that tells you outright that it knows about, well, you. Not to scare necessarily but to make the journey and the story of little Niko closer to your heart. Most meta-narrative games are psychological thrillers/horrors and they try to scare players: Pony Island or Doki Doki Literature Club would be great examples. I try to avoid those games because I generally don't like being scared. Besides, meta-narrative is very rarely appropriate, so it's more often a miss than a hit.
I wrote down ICEY into my imaginary notebook in 2016 when it released and was praised by several people that I trusted. I read about the game a bit, not to spoil anything, and thought, 'I should play it when it's on sale". Then I got caught up with other games and other games and... yep. The time for ICEY has come in 2020.
Breaking of the fourth wall and meta-narrative are not a genre but a way to tell a story, it can be easily separated from the game mechanics themselves. ICEY is a 2D side-scroller hack'n'slash where you throw your enemies around and do huge combos to make a better spectacle of it. To tell the truth, it's extremely entertaining even without the narrative: ICEY does have solid gameplay mechanics. There aren't many but they are good. You can buy upgrades for your super-smash-strikes, do different combos and generally flex left and right, and it's a lot of fun. There are a lot of bosses per square meter of the game, and beating them up feels great. I opted for an easier difficulty since I intended to focus on the meta-narrative rather than the combat itself, and I died probably only once, if at all. However, I had a great time: the game offers you as much as fits its length, which is always a difficult balance to maintain. ICEY does remind me a lot of Dust: An Elysian Tail when it comes to gameplay. If you haven't played Dust, I can't recommend it enough.
The main trick up ICEY's sleeve is, of course, its meta-narrative and other means of blending game into reality. If you've ever played The Stanley Parable, you know what I mean. From the very beginning, you are guided by the Narrator who leads you step by step and explains what needs to be done. Should you listen to him and do as he says - the game will be over in an hour, and you will be able to add ICEY to the pile of games you've completed with stellar success. Should you ignore him and do against his guidance - you're in for a real adventure.
I also want to mention the voiceover: since the only voice you will hear in the game - and will be hearing constantly for quite some time - is the voice of the Narrator, it's important the voice is actually pleasant to listen to. Voice acting here is great; the game released with Chinese voiceover and English subs, and later got English and Japanese voiceovers. By the way, in the Japanese version the Narrator is played by Hiro Shimono, so if you're a fan, you might want to change the settings :D
I don't really want to spoil any meta-narrative stuff but I'll say that some discussions it sparkles are really interesting. Mostly they are about the gaming industry from the point of view of the developer: how to find a working strategy for game development, how to please the player and what players want and a bit of satire on the industry as a whole. These monologues are funny and sad at the same time, especially when you realize how true to life they are.
The game is divided into several locations that you're going to complete several times over to explore all nooks and crannies off the beaten path that the Narrator insists you take. The map is riddled with secrets and collectables so it makes sense to explore every corner - 80% chance you'll stumble into a stash or a secret room. I'd recommend taking a piece of paper and a pen and draft location maps as you go: they aren't big but the paths fork quite often and chances are you just won't remember where you've been. You can find location maps in-game but it's going to happen later in the game, if at all. I would take a piece of paper :3
ICEY turned out to be one of the rare games I actually want to have all achievements in. I usually ignore achievements, but here every single one equals a scenario I have not seen yet, a dialogue I haven't heard or a location I haven't explored. After you think that you have been everywhere and seen everything, find an achievement guide somewhere online, and I guarantee you'll find out that you've missed at least a thing or two.
It's only logical for such game to have a secret ending: you will get it as soon as you explore the majority of scenarios and get enough achievements. This is, in my opinion, quite a benevolent approach to secret endings: explore more, stay curious, experiment, and you won't miss the real ending of the story. The game has two sets of credits: for a fake ending and for the true one, and I find this detail super awesome.
ICEY pleasantly surprised me: it's a solid hack'n'slash and a fascinating adventure cloaked in meta-narrative. I thought to give it a go quickly and then play for several days but I just couldn't stop playing and finished it in one sitting. Every time I wanted to hear what the Narrator has to say when I go the other way. Jump into the chasm - three times. Ingnore his instructions. Go back to the start. Stand in an empty room for a minute. Decide not to fight a boss. It is also a great way to look at videogames from another perspective: how often are we ready to challenge the rules of the game and go against them? Does the game reward us for it or somehow punish us?
ICEY was critisised for being to short: it is a little bit short, expecially if you play on easier difficulty. However, it will entertain you immensely in the several hours that it lasts. If you are ready to defy the Narrator, choose the other path and see what hides in the dark corners - try ICEY.
... and if you haven't played The Stanley Parable or Dust: An Elysian Tail, I do recommend both games. Aaaand I envy you - in the best way.
Playtime - 4hrs