Impact Winter is a snowy, post-apocalyptic survival game that came out last week for PC. Some of its design decisions are bizarre, and a lot of the game is downright broken, but I’ve been playing it obsessively anyway.
Development studio Mojo Bones released Impact Winter on Steam through publisher Bandai Namco after an unsuccessful 2014 Kickstarter. You play as Jacob, a middle-aged man leading a group of survivors holed up in a church following a meteor hitting Earth, decimating civilization and covering everything in snow. At the beginning of the game you’re informed that rescue is coming in 30 days. All you have to do is keep yourself and as much of your team as you can alive until then.
Jacob splits his time between scavenging the world and managing his and his team’s temperature, hunger, thirst, and morale. His companions on his snowy treks is Ako-Light, a floating robot with a limited mini-map who can light the way and use its sonar and drill to find buried supplies. The ruined wasteland is beautiful: there’s a weight to slogging through the snow, stumbling upon the remains of petrol stations, collapsed highways, and whole neighborhoods buried under the drift.
Each team member at the church has a different skill: cooking, technology, survival, and crafting upgrades for your base. Via unlockable roles, they can be ordered to forage for supplies at the risk of getting sick, craft faster but be more likely to get injured, or keep the peace among survivors in exchange for draining energy. You’ll regularly need to pop back to the church to manage roles, keep everyone fed, treat an ailing team member, and top up the heat.
All of this will feel familiar if you’ve played This War of Mine, The Long Dark, or Don’t Starve, though Ako-Light provides a twist. Everything you do with the robot costs battery life, which can only be restored in the church. If the battery drains you lose your mini-map and have to rely on the in-game map, a relic from the old world that features a few landmarks that are mostly buried and some petrol stations. At one point in the game I pushed myself too far from home and depleted Ako-Light’s battery. I had to find my way back through the darkness and increasing blizzards, while the game constantly informed me that my team was freezing, starving, and arguing. The game world, which had previously been a harsh, snowy wonderland, became a mix of vaguely familiar landmarks and impassable fissures. I wandered for in-game days, stumbling upon places I knew and desperately trying to remember where they were in relation to the church. By the time I made it back to base, realizing I had missed the church multiple times by mere fractions, one of my characters had died and two others had the flu. I had to choose which of the sick characters to treat with my limited scavenged antibiotics. It was gripping.
Most of the ideas in Impact Winter are good, but little of it actually works. The game is riddled with bugs, resulting in the mostly negative Steam reviews. Problems with mouse and keyboard controls that many users complained about have been patched. I used my Xbox 360 controller and didn’t have too many problems, though prompts often required between one to three button presses. Instead, I encountered other bugs. Items disappeared from my inventory or got lost when I tried to send them back to the church from my campsite, at one point forcing me to abandon a save and start again as I got trapped in a starvation loop. I regularly got stuck on buildings, rocks, other characters, and the snow itself, occasionally requiring restarts that cost me hours of progress. The game can only be manually saved when Jacob sleeps, which he will only do when he’s sufficiently tired. There appear to be saves when you enter areas, but I found them inconsistent; one reload sent me back to a previous location but with a character who should have been dead alive again. Load screens could be up to a minute long, especially when entering and exiting the church. Character quests wouldn’t update, or character names wouldn’t appear; I received multiple messages that “NPCNAME” was in distress or having a birthday, which was good for a laugh but not much for caring about my team. In addition to the stress of in-game survival, I wondered if the game itself would even work long enough to let me get to the end.
Certain design choices are also wobbly. Jacob’s limited inventory doesn’t stack, a decision that makes sense for larger items but certainly not for smaller ones. One quest I followed involved giving 50 bottle caps to a wandering nomad, which meant taking up 50 individual inventory slots with a cap each. Inventory can be upgraded to be larger, but it never gets large enough to keep from being unwieldy. I constantly had to juggle items I needed for multiple upgrades and make repeated trips, more or less pursuing one planned upgrade at a time, with a lengthy journey and long church load times in between. I can understand the impulse behind this limitation, but in practice it’s clumsy and annoying.
Then there are the tasks that can reduce the rescue timer, which also ticks down when you level up. Some rescue-shortening events require having certain items on you—a substation fuze, a radio battery, a signal booster—which means taking up already precious inventory space with an item you might, on an off-chance, need or backtracking to go get it. Some of these tasks are unavailable until a questline explains them, while others can be present without explanation. Impact Winter doesn’t hold your hand, but at the same time its structure limits your freedom.
Even managing your team isn’t fun. While you can assign roles and set characters to crafting or scavenging, as far as I can tell you can’t order them to eat or sleep. I constantly received messages while out in the field that a character was hungry or tired, but there was nothing I could do about it until their stats depleted and they saw to it themselves. They won’t keep the church warm on their own, which meant several got sick while I was lost, even though the church was stocked with fuel. While This War of Mine actively juggled character tasks with foraging, in Impact Winter these two aspects blend into each other in such a way that there isn’t all that much to do in the church, but you have to constantly return to it to deal with stuff anyway.
Nevertheless, Steam indicates that I played about 13 hours of Impact Winter this weekend and have yet to see the end. This is in part due to my game-ending inventory loss, but also because, despite all its flaws, from its literal brokenness to its conceptual wobbles, I love it. I love the snow, and the terrifying ruins, and the limited range of Ako-Light’s map that means I have to remember where things are on my own. I want to see what happens when the rescue timer ends. I want to upgrade Ako-Light to get into so many blocked-off areas, even if I know they’ll be full of things I can’t carry or won’t know if I need.
At one point over the long weekend my roommate even came in to ask me why I hadn’t stopped playing, given how frequently I was screaming “GO TO SLEEP, WENDY!” as the game uselessly informed me my cook was tired. “It’s a survival game about snow,” I shrugged by way of explanation. Impact Winter has so many pieces almost in the right place that it kept me going. I’m charmed by the broken mess of it, how aspects that would be stellar if they worked a certain way seem to needlessly hamstring themselves. Working around its limitations feels like another aspect of the survival mechanics of the game itself, and as I learn its peculiar logic I find myself more and more willing to try to meet it on its terms. I want to beat it despite itself.
If Impact Winter sounds interesting to you, you might be best to wait a few weeks until more patches roll out. The developers appear to be working damage control as fast as they can, and more of the bugs will hopefully get fixed.