Given the drought of fantasy RPGs in recent years, this odd little title is very much like a glass of water scooped from New York's East River: You'd pour it down the sink if you were sitting at home with Evian in the fridge, but you'd gulp it down and ask for more if you were dying of thirst in the desert.
Actually, that comparison is a bit on the harsh side, but you get the general idea - a game that's as stupefyingly average as this one wouldn't be worth a second glance if it had any competition. But because there are so few fantasy RPGs on the market, it's all the easier to embrace this one and overlook its various shortcomings. And the funny thing is that despite registering off the scale on the mediocrity meter (except for the excellent 3D-modeled characters), Icarus somehow manages to make you want to keep returning to it from time to time.
The action takes place on a world that's been created by a bunch of Gen-X gods led by an ambitious deity named Tetheus. After launching a revolt against their elders, Tetheus and ten of his followers are banished from their homeworld and forced to roam the universe as "cosmic vagabonds." After ages of wandering, Tetheus and ten of his followers set up shop on a planet that caught their eye, created a continent, and named it Icarus (the name of the planet they were booted off of). After the wearying task of creating all forms of life, the gods took a nap while mankind developed and grew.
When they awoke, there was a power struggle between Tetheus (good god) and Ercanet (bad god). The remaining gods were split evenly in their support of these two (this in spite of the fact that according to the story there should be nine gods casting votes), so the decision was put before the humans in a sort of theological plebiscite. Tetheus won, and in a jealous rage Ercanet summoned all the evil forces on the planet and sent them out to ravage, murder, terrorize, and generally make a nuisance of themselves.
One of Ercanet's henchmen is a wizard named Colias, who wipes out the entire population of the village of Coshark save for two mercenaries, Dreus and Guile. Guile sacrifices himself so that Dreus may escape to battle Colias another day, and as the game opens we see Dreus and his fiancee Helena heading out to exact revenge on Colias and rebuild the Coshark Mercenaries.
Players looking for AD&D-style role-playing might be a bit put off by the anime-style characters in Icarus, but they'll feel right at home with the gaming system. As Dreus (knight) and Helena (sorcerer) move from town to town, new characters join the questing party: the swordsman Argon (his character type is listed as "combatant," whatever that means), Pares (archer), Lydia (another sorcerer), and finally Hermes (warrior).
The money earned for performing various undertakings, as well as the money to be had by opening treasure chests lying around conveniently during battles, is used to purchase new equipment and items; as each character engages in combat or uses magic, they rise in levels and class to acquire new modes of attacks and spells, along with greater amounts of hit and magic points.
Because of its wonderfully rendered characters and its three-quarter overhead perspective, Icarus bears a striking resemblance to Diablo, but unlike the frenetic real-time pace of that classic, all the combat here is turn based. After deciding where the first character in the party will move (you don't gain or lose any hit points for movement), you can then have him attack or use an inventory item before ending his turn and moving on to the next member in the party.
And it's during your first time around with this turn-based system that you discover one of the biggest problems with Icarus: Each encounter seems like it lasts an eternity. Even if you turn off the animations to avoid watching combatants walking to new locations, you can still expect a medium-sized battle to last 45 minutes to an hour, and Tetheus himself only knows the potential length of a really major fray.
One of the reasons these affairs take so long to resolve is because you're so heavily outnumbered - it's best to lure only one or two enemies into combat at a time. Another is that there's no way to command the entire party to stop in a safe spot to rest and recover its hit and magic points before heading back into the fray (the party members can also regain those points by using special items, but it's senseless to use those except in the midst of combat). Instead, you must right-click twice for each character (once to access the menu bar and another time to end that character's turn), which in turn means you can wind up right-clicking 70, 80, or 90 times (or more) before all members of your party have fully recovered. It's one thing to be constantly clicking your mouse while you're in combat, a la Diablo; it's quite another to do it dozens of times just to regenerate hit and magic points in a quiet, out-of-the-way spot.
But one of the most infuriating aspects of combat is that you can't collect money, weapons, and other items from the treasure chests littering the battlefields unless you do it during the middle of the fight. Once the last enemy falls, you might get a chance to hear your foes sputter an excuse before you're whisked along to the next town - sans treasure. Given the decided numerical superiority of the forces you battle, would it be too much to ask to let your party leisurely collect the spoils of victory?
Still, the turn-based system has some advantages: It allows you to carefully formulate an attack that maximizes your team's strengths, it gives you the chance to focus on eliminating the deadliest enemies first, and it makes it easier to decide when to use valuable items to resuscitate wounded members in your party. And it must have something going for it, because inevitably I found myself loading this little mother about once a day to see if I could win a close-run battle and get to the next town to see what twists the story would take.
Icarus ships with two CDS: the game and a "bonus" CD featuring the music from the game. How much of a bonus that really is, though, depends on your musical tastes. If you think you'd like rock songs that sound like early Kansas seasoned with some Emerson, Lake, and Palmer being performed by an amateur outfit who's discovered the wonders of drum machines and guitar flangers, this might be up your alley. There are a few mood pieces to listen to as your questing party (represented by Dreus alone) roams around a town, but even these essentially harmless noodlings are occasionally spoiled by some clownish synthesizer riff.
It's true that gameplay in Icarus quickly degenerates into a steady routine: combat, visits to towns for new equipment and a new "assignment" (which can also mean the next destination on the journey toward the showdown with Colias), then combat once again, ad nauseam. And it's true that the combat system will have more action-oriented gamers crying in boredom. But if you've got the patience to deal with the slow pace (and don't mind myriad misspellings and grammatical errors, as well as the anime graphics stylings) then Icarus: Sanctuary of the Gods isn't a bad choice - especially if you're desperately in search of some type of fix for your fantasy RPG cravings.