Trudging through a desolate, snow-covered landscape for ten minutes, scavenging a couple of gas cans, and hiking another ten minutes back to the fire you need to fuel sounds like a chore. This series of actions is what characterizes the experience of Impact Winter, a slow-paced survival game. But monotonous as it may seem, you'll be driven to keep performing these actions because of the tense scenario that contextualizes them. Instead of challenging you to persist indefinitely, Impact Winter asks you to endure for a set amount of time with the looming promise of rescue--an end to your struggles--and pushes you to stretch your already thin resources just that little bit further.
You play as Jacob, who leads a group of four other calamity survivors. They're holed up in a church when a little robot called Ako-light springs to life, broadcasting a mysterious transmission that states a rescue operation is occurring in 30 days. Jacob's task is to leave the safety of the church with Ako-light at his side and traverse the post-apocalyptic tundra, scavenging for supplies in order to keep the group alive until that time.
Each survivor, including Jacob, has a number of meters that must be maintained at a safe level in order to avoid their deaths or departures from the group. These include overall health, energy, hunger, thirst, temperature, and morale. Keeping the church bonfire fueled and making sure each survivor is fed and happy are as important as exploring the world and completing quest lines, which fast-track the looming rescue operation by taking chunks off the timer. The constant juggling of all these priorities keeps you anxiously engaged, your thoughts constantly being occupied with short-term planning as you trek through the snow.
Each individual back at camp has a different crafting specialty that Jacob can take advantage of to help ease the burden of his tasks. For example, Wendy can effortlessly cook a number of filling meals given the right ingredients, while Maggie is exceptionally handy at mechanical repairs and upgrades. These characters also provide a series of personal quests, the completion of which help decrease the rescue timer and expand that character's range of crafting recipes. These quests are narratively thin, but they are the primary motivators for you to explore the world and push the boundaries of how far you are willing to risk traveling from relative safety. And it's the exploration of this bleak, snowy wasteland of a world which is Impact Winter's strength.
The overworld feels desolate, but once in awhile, you'll encounter a hint of what once was. A half-buried gas station or the scene of a disastrous airline crash help create a gloomy world, in addition to being useful landmarks for navigation. You'll encounter the roofs of what were once tall buildings that lead to dank underground caverns of former shopping malls and airports. These dungeon-like areas are convincingly devastated, with a mess of receptacles to scavenge from. The ominous soundtrack that accompanies your long journeys hit the correct notes to instantly evoke the tension of classic thriller films like The Thing. It's an ominously intriguing world to explore, provided you're adequately prepared to survive the journey out there and back.
Impact Winter runs on a constantly ticking clock, and traversing the icy overworld, referred to as "The Void," takes up an enormous amount of that time. With no means of fast-travel, each journey you take topside requires some forethought and planning to avoid completely wasting the day while your group's well-being declines. Limited time and resources mean that it's also difficult to follow all character quests to completion, so the best course of action needs to be decided on well in advance.
Are you going far enough to warrant bringing a portable campsite to restore your energy for the journey home? What kinds of tools do you need to accomplish the goal at your destination? Should you bring food and drink for yourself, or do you think you'll be able to procure some on location? Have you left enough room in your backpack to bring supplies back? Traverse frivolously, and you could find yourself in a situation where you're desperately trying to satiate Jacob's hunger to avoid health loss. Or perhaps using Ako-light's flashlight and scanner functions too often has caused it to temporarily run out of battery power, leaving you with no radar, meaning you have have to navigate home with just your memory of landmarks and a paper map from before the world was buried in meters of snow. The game constantly holds you in a state of mild anxiety, worrying and hoping that the path you've chosen will pay off.
Deciding what to pick up while scavenging is also a constant dilemma. Impact Winter adopts a grid-based inventory system where each item takes up a different amount of physical space, meaning there's a constant value assessment between, for example, grabbing a number of small food items versus a giant can of gasoline. With the sheer amount of items available in the world, it's hard to tell what's going to be useful or not in the beginning. With limited inventory space and unlimited pressure to provide for the group, it's foolish to pick up every shiny thing you find and constantly make long hikes back to base to drop everything off. Scavenging requires you to always have clear goals in mind.
However, despite Impact Winter's tonal strength and the genuine uneasiness its gameplay nurtures, the struggle to survive this harsh world is made even more difficult by a significant number of technical issues that quickly snowball, coating the already taxing experience in a layer of frustration that makes it hard to stick with for long periods of time.
Areas for contextual actions are ill-defined, meaning that precious time is often spent trying to move Jacob into the right place to perform actions like searching a specific container or climbing a ladder. Collision detection is spotty, so you'll struggle to get up a flight of stairs but also find yourself clipping through tables. Jacob will often refuse to respond to movement inputs until you pause and unpause the game.
Technical problems can also prove deadly. The game's passage of time, which continues while you're fiddling around in menus, is an interesting and thematically relevant feature, but it means wolves will continue to attack if you're unfortunate enough to get a series of large, in-game notifications while trying to escape them. You'll also likely experience dire situations where you're cornered by hostile animals and ready to fight, only to discover that the weapon lock-on system has ceased to function properly.
We experienced what felt like consistent input delay when using a controller. At the time of writing, the developers only recently released a patch that implements previously nonexistent mouse and keyboard controls, though there are notable usability annoyances such as being unable to click a scrollbar to go through your supplies, and some bothersome key placements with no option for custom mappings. Some impossible side-quest lines also had us scratching our heads, like being asked to specifically deliver ten 45 RPM vinyl records to an NPC, and discovering that we were not physically able to bring ten of these objects to the quest-giver, even with our inventory space maxed-out.
There were also problems that veered close to game-breaking. In our time with Impact Winter, returning to The Void from an interior area meant we had to sit through long loading times--sometimes wondering if our game had crashed. These loading times were shortened dramatically in a patch, but we then encountered instances of freezing and large swaths of texture pop-ins when spawning into the world instead. Most of these issues are minor on their own, but together they quickly become intensely irritating. To their credit, the developers have been transparent with their plans for upcoming patches, and mapped out their priorities to address a number of these issues in the short- and long-term future.
Impact Winter deftly captures the tension of being put in a survival situation and makes every compromise you need to make a tough and near-irreversible decision. Surviving in The Void is a mentally taxing experience, and once you begin to internalize the world and the well-being of your group, juggling the countless priorities can be engrossing. Unfortunately, the numerous technical issues make this experience more arduous than necessary, and mar what is otherwise an impactful survival experience.