Ice Caves of Europa
I’m afraid I can play this, Dave.
Developer Io Normal • P ublisher Io Normal • P rice $ US9.99 • A vAilAble At Steam ionormal.com
in the near future, a hail of asteroids smashes into the surface of one of the most mysterious bodies in the solar system – Jupiter’s icy, yet possibly watery moon, Europa. On Earth, our best and brightest decide this is a great opportunity for exploration, so a probe is sent to investigate. It’s a pretty hard sci-fi premise, but Ice Caves of Europa manages to marry that sense of cutting edge, but plausible technology with a touching and at times challenging narrative.
I’ve got to be honest – the thing I love most about the game is just how much I got attached to the game’s protagonist, an artificial intelligence called Verne. Ice Caves dives straight into some of the deeper questions that science fiction can ask, while also walking the new player through the game’s tutorial. While the probe carrying Vernes’ drone body – the Dragonfly – to Europa is in transit, Verne’s in a simulation learning to pilot the hardware. Once the training is complete, it will be beamed through space to its icy destination.
And the training is… well it starts off simple, but as the game progress, and you’re tasked with new flight modes and new equipment, the difficulty ramps up appreciably. You control the Dragonfly’s thrust in a couple of modes to begin with, maneuvering the drone through 2D environment to hover in waypoints for a set time to trigger them – this later becomes the mechanic for scanning the environment and a lot more, and is an elegant way to make simple controls feel like a much more diverse set of skills are being deployed.
Once on Europa, you’ll be flying between a recharging base station and directed from point to point by an orbiting satellite – each with their own controlling AIs. And every now and then, you’ll also be downloaded back to Earth for new training – each time, Verne seems more than a little confused, quite aware that his free will really isn’t all that free. At the start of the game, even his memories are being withheld, with the intention that they can simply be re-uploaded later.
Oh, and huge respect to Io Normal for the names these AIs have been given. Alongside Verne, are Wells and Banks, named after two other luminaries of science fiction. Bravo. By comparison the human characters you encounter seem distant and at times almost antagonistic. Verne might exclaim that something sounds dangerous, but the technicians training them don’t really care.
But you certainly will, and as you get deeper into Europa’s subsurface, things get downright sinister.
In a lot of ways the narrative of the game trumps the actual gameplay. Europa’s environments are evocative, but can be a little repetitive, and some of the flight modes are downright punishing, especially if you’re playing the game in short bursts and lose the feel of flying the Dragonfly. But Verne’s charm and the deeper mystery beneath Europa’s surface make this indie gem more than worthwhile.
In a lot of ways the narrative of the game trumps the actual gameplay.