Impact Winter – Review
Watching him wake from a restless night’s sleep, you’d be hard pressed to say Jacob Solomon is anything if not haunted. By what, exactly? That which haunts us all of course: time. Holed up in the decaying remnants of a church, buried deep beneath the snow, the star of Mojo Bones’ first foray into the survival genre finds himself preoccupied with the matter of time. Or, to be more precise, his lack thereof.
Solomon’s robot companion, Ako-Light, “has intercepted a mysterious radio transmission” prompts the game’s tutorial early on, as you huddle around its blinking lights with four surviving companions. “Using an abandoned church as your makeshift home,” it adds, “your aim is to stay alive until the rescue timer expires.”
“In 30 days, help is coming…”
For all the challenges those days come to pose – rationing food supplies, weathering snowstorms, and gathering resources – the toughest of all may just be your struggle against time, right up ‘til the bitter end. This revelation will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever whispered questions of it to the ceiling at night (guilty), grumbled at the sun in the morning (lock me up), or passed the hours wondering what use there is in shouting into the void when, it turns out, the void will never shout back (and throw away the key!). Time is ruthless, it is relentless, and it follows you everywhere in life like a dog at your heel, or in Impact Winter’s case, like a robot companion at your side in the snow. Time comes for us all. There is no escape.
Or is there?
It just so happens that the rescue signal can be strengthened if you’re up for the adventure, with every quest, challenge, and menial task completed along the way shaving minutes if not hours off the clock. So while a gun may still be your best weapon in a fight, and food the best tonic for a hungry stomach, here in the snow, Impact Winter’s genius twist sees it framing simply getting shit done as your greatest weapon against the inevitability that is time.
As for your companions? They’re undoubtedly the impetus for this struggle, and yet over the course of those 30 days they remain menus more than they become close friends. That’s not to say they’re useless. Not by any means. Wendy Dolloway can cook up a mean scrambled eggs, for example, while Blane Bishop could craft most anything your heart desires, but strike up a conversation and you’ll soon find they talk in riddles and tutorialised catchphrases. This alone would be enough to drive anyone to cabin fever, if it weren’t for the ladder that leads to the surface.
From the sheer 220km2 of DayZ’s Chernarus to Ubisoft’s obsession with push-pin riddled murder mystery maps, video games are in no short supply of open worlds. But whether it’s the shift in perspective (the camera frames its hero from an isometric perspective, as if a vulture circling overhead), the way Jacob leaves long trails in the snow, or just an inherent soft spot for snow-swept landscapes, the post-meteor impact locale of Impact Winter is one which inspires extended journeys.
It’s painted in broad strokes and fine detail for one, as if inspired by one of Simon Stalenhag’s dystopian sketches, only that artist’s alien technology has been replaced by nomads and the pack animals that walk beside them – awash in glowing lights – who fill this role admirably. Strike up a conversation and they might offer you a quest. Stumble upon another in the attic of an abandoned house, and they’ll offer to sell you items in exchange for seeds.
There are limitations to this sandbox (or should that be snow globe?), too. Ever the spice of life, betrayal and backstabbing are absent. You can’t, for example, turn around and kill the nomad with the ammunition they’ve tasked you with finding (yes, I tried…), nor can you go out of your way to sacrifice your companions (not that time, hunger or thirst can’t take them, though. And oh, they will…). And while there aren’t any irradiated cockroaches out here, this world is infested with bugs of its own, many of which Mojo Bones are, to their credit, making double-time to eradicate.
Back to the topic of time, and of all the timers you’re tasked with managing in Impact Winter – and believe me, there are many – the one attached to its campfires may just be the most troubling of all. Found at the church or at a campsite of your making (whiteouts come and go in the wastes, and campsites remain your only way to venture any great distance from the church), they keep you and your companions warm. Campfires are no stranger to video games of course, but never has the crackle of a fire elicited such comfort, or, for that matter, anxiety.
The fire here feeds on time. Or, to be more precise, the past. To keep it burning you must venture out and find scraps of yesterday – old clothing, books, even furniture – and return in time to toss them in, with each item’s worth now measured not by the neatness of the stitching or the quality of the prose, but by the amount of time they take to burn.
Huddle around the fire as they turn to ash, and like those nights spent staring at the ceiling, you’ll start to question whether you’re spending what little time you have as best you can in what is Impact Winter’s most powerful, persistent question. Stare into the flames a little longer still, and you’ll find the answer: much like that fire, we all burn bright and yet are gone too fast, and as for what’s remembered of us? Just the scorched marks of our intensity, and the warmth of the people we’ve comforted.
That’s the great irony of Jacob’s journey, then. No matter how well you do, how much you twist and contort time, no matter how brightly you burn or how warm the fire, time will, as ever, come for him. Whether by a freak accident, disease, or just plain old age, beyond the game’s closing credits it will pounce. That’s the thing about time. It can wait forever.
What Impact Winter leaves you with, then, is the 30 days you’re granted – fewer, if you’re good, a lot less, if you’re great, and a few more, if you can’t quite tear yourself away from this winter survival wonderland – and the determination, and the tools, to do the best you can with it. In that way, the game grants you a rare ability: to become a master over time.
This power is nothing new to video games, of course. Nintendo’s tunic-clad hero has held this power in his hands, through sharpened steel and musical instruments. Mario’s wine-sipping, ‘you just know he sends food back at restaurants’ cousin thrice removed – Braid – can control it too. But where they wield tools to do so, Jacob’s ability comes from somewhere much humbler: his own two hands.
Whether scavenging for supplies, managing your inventory, or hunting for food, each and every so-called menial task offers you the ability to twist, contort, and turn time to your will in order to save Jacob and his friends. Forget punching trees for lumber. Forget grinding for hours for materials. In its ability to give meaning to the mundane, and find something special in the every day, Impact Winter crafts an anxious mix of adventure, survival, and intoxicating time-bending mastery.
Time may be our greatest curse. It haunts us to the last. But on this occasion, it’s a video game blessing in disguise. With the addition of the game’s timer, Mojo Bones have introduced something most other survival games lack, and it’s all the more powerful for it: a use-by date. So while its early days may be remembered for crippling bugs and haphazard controls, updates are already smoothing it into the surprise of 2017 that it deserves to be remembered for. But for now, that’s a wrap on Impact Winter. I have deadlines approaching, and I’m running out of time…