Icarus: First Cohort is a game undermined by its unusual design choices and poor balancing.
It’s a survival/crafting game, but rather than giving you a persistent world, you are repeatedly sent down with everything except your skill progression and tool unlocks reset.
In typical survival game fashion, making items requires a bunch of prerequisite materials. You pick up sticks and rocks to make stuff to acquire better materials to make better stuff to acquire better materials.
But those tools also require unlocking a progression tree with skill points. And almost all items require one of many special benches to make, and the benches themselves require unlocking and materials.
As is often the case with these games, some items have a chain of items and builds that borders on the ridiculous, for what can feel like minimal improvements.
Icarus is also mission-based, so you get thrown down to the planet with nothing, start from scratch every time, and can take nothing back with you.
This means every time you start, you’re almost certainly going to spend your first 15-30 minutes doing the same things – picking up sticks, rocks, and chopping down trees to make the basic things you need to survive.
The missions have timers. Originally, these were real-world timers that ran even when you weren’t playing the game. Start a mission with a 24 hour limit, and if you didn’t complete it within 24 hours of real time, you failed. Fortunately, the devs realized this was an unpopular design path and switched it to being “in game time” only. But this has the effect of making the current time limits a non-issue.
Most of the time the tension seems to be “how much grind do I want to do before I start the actual mission goal?”
Icarus understands that the “scrabbling to survive” part of survival games is often the most fun, but making you replay exactly that every time on every level gets old quick. There are no real shortcuts to get past this repetitive start, either.
Unlike some other games (Valheim, for example), there are no ruins to discover, no items to find. You’re in nature, up against regular animals. There aren’t many types in each biome (and it’s the standard forest/desert/snow, too).
The combat is not great. Even at a high level, if the wrong kind of animal gets the drop on you, you are probably going to die, and probably with your inventory or loot windows open as you frantically try to close them. Combat is mostly sniping from far away and then running like hell or exploiting terrain.
If more than one creature is aggroed, you’re also probably going to die. Even at Level 50, I am carefully sneaking around and completing many missions by running and hiding, rather than doing things “properly”.
Combat tends to be either trivial, or “oh, fuck this”.
There is a punitive death penalty when you do die, giving you “negative XP” you must re-earn to progress. Plus you have to run back to your corpse to get your stuff.
You can build elaborate bases, but given the inherently disposable nature of them in missions, you’re going to build the smallest possible thing, usually out of wood, since any of the other materials require a grind completely not worth the benefits. This is also the problem with most of the upper tier objects – the benefits don’t seem worth the grind.
Even if you build a nice base, a storm might blow it (and the benches inside) to bits, or lightning might set it on fire and burn it to the ground while you are on the other side of the map questing away. Fun or frustrating? You decide.
Some missions are deliberately opaque, and require you to have unlocked a particular technology to complete the mission. The game does not tell you this, however, you just find out on your own once you’re down there. So you either abort and fail, or stay down and grind until you unlock the thing you need to win. Or you can read a Wiki and get instructions before you launch.
On that note, the world map is fixed. Most of the items always spawn in the same place, and once you know where caves are, you know where to look. But the game does not mark things on your map, nor does it let you mark things on your map. (My heuristic is anything I can do with a paper and pencil, the game should be doing for me, so give me a persistent map I can mark up, guys!)
The “metagame” progression of unlocking items at the base also feels unnecessarily difficult and expensive. You have to “research” items for one cost, then “buy” them after researching them for another cost. The majority of these items seem to be only slightly better than the 2nd tier (of 4 tiers) items you can craft, and you can generally get to that level of crafting after a few minutes on each run.
The missions seem to fall into a few standard types: Gather materials, go scan at a location, kill some critters, or build a base.
Some of these missions are unnecessarily tedious, like requiring you to build a tower 10 stories high, and having to do it in a particular way so it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Perhaps the designers thought this would be a clever and fun puzzle. Maybe. But then you have to do it twice, exactly the same way.
There’s a lot of narrative inconsistency. You have a space suit, you have to fill it with oxygen, the atmosphere isn’t breathable…but you can get pneumonia in caves. You can’t bring stuff down with you, until you can bring some stuff down with you. You can’t bring stuff back, except for the stuff you have to bring back. You have a space suit, but no flashlight. And so on.
The game does a few things well, though. Icarus feels like it was balanced for multiplayer, and accommodates single-player by having a whole separate “Solo Skills” tree you can unlock, providing boosts for single-player runs only. That’s a clever solution, even if Icarus still feels excessively difficult solo.
The world looks decent, with lots of detail. There’s plenty of stuff to build. The biomes each present unique challenges.
I haven’t played multiplayer yet, but it seems like the game would really shine here.
Some of Icarus’ problems are fixable with some balancing and quality of life improvements. Beyond that, I would likely restructure the missions into a proper campaign, where you are locating and building materials which are then sent to you in later missions, allowing you to skip at least some of the grind and giving some consistency and flow to the missions on tap.
It is hard to recommend as it is, and yet I find myself going back to it.