Impact Winter understands that the best survival games envelop you in their world. Its setting and premise swings for the fences: a frozen apocalypse that feels like it can stand alongside fiction’s more striking landscapes.
You're Jacob, a gruff and bearded everyman in a world buried in snow following a cataclysmic asteroid collision. Rather than the solitary struggle of a game like The Forest or Subnautica, you’re stranded in a buried church with four other hardened survivors, including a retired cop, a veterinarian, a mechanic, and a computer genius. As the chosen leader of the group, it’s up to you to make sure each party member is happy, healthy, and working hard on something to benefit the group or shelter. The good news is that you only have to stay alive for 30 in-game days before a rescue force can lock onto the signal emitting from your robotic companion, AKO-Light.
Impact Winter is mostly about departing your shelter and exploring the vast snowscape for resources. Crafting items and discovering new locations levels up AKO-Light, boosting his rescue beacon and reducing the 30-day timer by a few hours. In many ways it cribs from The Long Dark, Hinterland's first-person, winterbound survival game. You’re making calculated excursions out into the wilderness, looting cars and homes for valuables or food, setting up camps (which let you transfer loot back to the church), and generally trying to avoid influenza or ravenous wolves. While a game like The Long Dark certainly touts its evolving weather, Impact Winter revels in it, forcing you to play a careful long game of placing waypoints and memorizing landmarks, especially during dangerous whiteouts that threaten to blind you and trash your radar.
It’s a daunting experience getting lost out in the snow, trudging for what feels like forever before you hit some sort of landmark. The world is persistent, and totally open in all directions from the get-go, so you’re likely to get lost more than once. I passed entire residential districts without realizing they were there, with nothing but an old paper map and my robot’s flashlight to guide me. The game feels like it’s daring you to push further while simultaneously yelling “turn back!”
A by artist Mitch Murder adds to that mixture of dread and wonder, filled with deep piano chords and synth punctuating every laborious trek, evoking the same tension of John Carpenter’s The Thing sans alien monstrosity.
My first frigid steps
After chewing through the tutorial, it’s time to begin exploring for the team’s immediate needs. I’m always a bit trepidatious when trying a new survival game, so I quickly set out to establish some security by following my team’s more structured story missions. Maggie the mechanic suggested I track down some parts for a more efficient furnace by checking out a nearby park, so I hoof it northward, past shattered highways and dilapidated electrical towers. When I do hit the park, I find it’s actually a snow cave hidden beneath the surface. Below, I find a snapshot frozen in time. Homes and park sheds lie half-covered, lawn mowers and picnic tables sitting nearby. Streetlights struggle to bounce so much as a shimmer off of all the dust and frost. I won't be able to loot everything I want with my limited inventory, so I resign myself to prioritizing furnace parts over food ingredients, only to find much of the grub gone during a return trip later in the game.
While Impact Winter’s overworld map may not be that immense when you get down to square mileage, it’s these handcrafted interiors that breathe life into this white void, especially when you discover someone already taking shelter there. I liked that Impact Winter isn't just a struggle I was sharing with four 'friends,' but one populated by a community of strangers, traders, and thieves, all just trying to make it by.
While Impact Winter's world is both enticing and intimidating, its mechanics are a little messy. Managing the church’s fire, each party member’s rations, their squabbles, crafting, gear upgrades, roles, unique missions, and the ever-present threat of scavengers and mother nature. It often felt like I was getting more lost in the menus, or while scrounging for the one closet holding a paperclip, than I ever did in a whiteout.
Compounding this issue is a slightly uneven mission and inventory management system. I found myself having to backtrack more than once because I’d forgotten to take an important item from the church storage or an abandoned home, all while the clock keeps ticking. A few times I even noticed that the objective marker on my radar still indicated the houses I had just explored, despite the fact that I had acquired everything I needed. It’s evident that Impact Winter would benefit from just a bit more handholding in its opening hours. Thankfully, a recent update from the developer explains that the rescheduled release date (May 23) should let them address some of these accessibility issues.
It’s hard to get angry at such a harsh experience, much less one so visually striking, when that’s clearly the game’s intent. I just ask it come from the scavengers, wolves or weather, not the tools meant to help me.