Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat. Impact Winter is a slow burn. If this was a movie, it would be The Witch. A masterfully crafted indie survival game that burns very slowly and ultimately doesn’t come with any payoff. Impact Winter is a fully realized world following, well, an impact winter. A meteor has struck the Earth, resulting in snow covered landscapes and towns. Players will take control of Ethan during this time, who along with a group of four other survivors has helped create a shelter in an abandoned church. Before players can begin exploring the landscape though, Ako-lite (the group’s robot companion) receives a transmission telling them that rescue is thirty days out. Your mission, is to survive the harsh environment.
This is a survival game, and players will quickly come to realize how important managing every aspect of Jacob’s day to day there is. Luckily, Jacob isn’t left to fend the environment and survive alone, and each of the other survivors has useful features. One can provide upgrades and repairs, while another can cook food with the items Jacob scavenges in the world. Unfortunately, they can’t do much on their own. Each survivor (Jacob included), has a couple of bars to keep an eye on, thirst, hunger, morale…And nobody is able to do anything for themselves. It’s up to Jacob to keep their morale up, to keep them fed, to keep them hydrated. All with the precious supplies he finds out in the world.
This micromanaging of tasks I didn’t care about were what really pumped the brakes on my experience with Impact Winter. Why couldn’t I just fill a ration bar, and it slowly dropped in terms of percentages? Did I need to remind these survivors to breathe? What started off interesting with these survivors ended up feeling like a babysitting simulator I didn’t want anything to do with.
Each survivor has a brief questline, which mostly felt vapid and shallow, but provided some character development. Luckily, these side missions helped me push Jacob out into the snow. Out in the wild is where Impact Winter really shows its strengths, reminding me a lot of the movie The Road. Survival by any means. Do I want to continue to push and risk encountering enemies, or do I want to return to base and deposit my finds? This type of risk/reward system was my driving exploration force, and more often than not I ended up playing it safe. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to continue to see what was in the world, but because there is no fast travel in Impact Winter. If I was going to leave my safe haven, I needed to prepare and think about where I was going to go. These thoughtful preparations made me want to be safe, so I wouldn’t have to do it all over again.
As soon as Ako-lite tells you that there is thirty days until rescue, a countdown begins. It felt like about a minute counted as one hour in game, but there are plenty of things that Jacob can do to decrease that clock. First, sleeping eats up a chunk of in game time, but other things like leveling up and completing certain tasks can knock some time off. Impact Winter also features a levelling system. It’s pretty standard, but crafting, cooking, and finding new locations attribute him experience towards the next level. Since exploration is tied to experience, undertaking some of the survivor’s side missions is pretty important since they help push you towards unexplored areas. However, with the in game timer players must prioritize some quest over others. Multiple playthroughs seem very encouraged, but I doubt most players will make it through more than one.
Since this is a survival game, Impact Winter features plenty of hidden areas to explore and caches of items to find. Jacob has a finite amount of room in his backpack though, and it often ended up being a toss-up to what I thought was more important to bring back to the base. Do I want to feed my people, or bring back crafting supplies? There are more than enough items to keep the fire burning, so should I worry about repairs now, or should I push on? I found myself asking questions out loud throughout the entire journey, trying to carefully plan my moves so I wouldn’t waste any time with reloading my save.
Impact Winter is a truly desolate game, with many interlocked systems that present players with challenging choices to make. It really is too bad that everything doesn’t work well together, and that the other characters are more cumbersome than helpful. Impact Winter would have greatly benefited from improved NPC design, because the auxiliary characters were what really made slogging through this hypothetical reality a drag. Anyone who can stomach more character management than I was able to handle should check out Impact Winter though, because there are times when its strengths shine through, even if the in game systems overstays their welcome for most of the journey.