Hands-On Preview: Alpha Polaris (PC)

Alpha Polaris has received a decent amount of attention from us here at Diehard GameFAN. In January, I listed it as one of the Ten Indie Games to Look For in 2011. Then in late February, I did an interview with Teemu VilĂ©n, who is the project lead for Alpha Polaris as well as the CEO of Turmoil Games. Now, not only does Alpha Polaris has an official release date for the game (June 24th), but Turmoil Games has released a demo in both English and German for people to try out. Since I’ve been paying close attention to this game all year, it probably comes as no surprise that I downloaded this immediately. After playing through it three times, I’ve definitely got a feel for Alpha Polaris – both the good and the bad.

Let’s actually start off with the bad. The demo can be quite buggy. Several times in each playthrough the upper left hand corner of my screen would tell me there was an error and to check the log for details. Of course there was no log for me to check and this wasn’t part of the game. It usually occurred if I tried something out of the natural process of the game. One example would be in the midst of collaring a sedated polar bear, I backed out of the puzzle and tried to talk to people. This gave me a script error. I’m hoping it’s unique to the demo though. The errors didn’t crash the game. It just flashed a message in the corner of the screen and let me go about my business so it acted more as a warning that “the developers didn’t think of that possibility so go back to what you were doing.”

Another bug was getting the game to actually run. I had to actually force to game to run in a window ala an old DOS game (like my SSI AD&D titles). Otherwise I’d click to launch the demo and…nothing would happen. Finally, the game only runs in 1280×800 and because my laptop’s native monitor is 1366×768, the game didn’t necessarily fit my screen and so I’d miss some commentary and had some severe trouble with a puzzle because it turned out I could click on THREE things with an object instead of one which is standard for 99.99% of all puzzles in adventure games. That’s not the game’s fault, but this is the first game I can think of that I couldn’t get to fit my widescreen laptop correctly and so it made playing this game a bit of a chore as I had to move the window around to see everything. It’s going to make reviewing this a bitch. Either that or I’m going to have to hook up my laptop to my big screen TV and play it on that.

Now for the good and thankfully, there is a whole lot of that. First of all the game looks beautiful. The snow and mountain visuals are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game. Now granted, they are static images but they are really beautiful. This is some of the best background visuals I’ve ever seen come out of the Wintermute engine and Turmoil games has a lot to be proud of here.

Human models are a little behind the times for what you’d see in a high budget console or PC release, but for an adventure game, they’re actually well done. Characters are animated nicely and they look realistic, which is all you really need. Dialogue in Alpha Polaris is fully voiced acted (although item descriptions are not) and the four cast members I was able to hear in the demo all did an excellent job. Dialogue is accompanied by static character portrtaits. Each character has several portraits based on their emotional state or what they are wearing/holding, and the art looks like something right out of a comic book. I really enjoyed this and am looking forward to what else I can see/hear in the final release version of the game. The game even offers some nice looking cut scenes which I was impressed by, especially since they were from an indie development team.

Even though Alpha Polaris is being billed as a horror adventure game, you don’t get any real sense of dread, terror, or foreboding in the demo. That’s because the demo takes place at the very beginning of the game before the hammer falls. You play as Rune Knudsen, a Norwegian biologist who is doing his Master’s thesis on polar bears. He is being housed by an oil company in Greenland which creates a conflict of interest with the other people there. After all, Rune is there to help protect the species as well as the environment while the oil company is there to help humans, but in a way that will also destroy one of the last remaining refuges for polar bears. As such, the game really has layers of morality and ethics built into in addition to the usual point and click gameplay and the main storyline. Between this and A New Beginning really making global warming and humanity’s desire to make money over making the planet inhabitable for future generations, we’re really seeing a wave of adventure game developers talking about a issue that has been avoided by most of the industry so far.

The demo revolves around Rune getting his gear together to sedate and collar a polar bear. Then after seeing the bear has an infected tooth and need a veterinarian, they have to find a way to lug the slumbering behemoth into a cage until it arrives and can help the poor creature. The game played out in standard point and click fashion. You used the left button of the mouse to move around, talk to people and pick up objects, while the right one gives you a description of items. Rune carried around items that he can use in his knapsack, so you would left click on the sack, left click on an item within it and then click on where you want to use it. As mentioned above some items let you click on multiple things before they will be used, which is a change of pace from the usual adventure game. This will throw one off at first when they first encounter this possibility, but once you realize it can be done, it’s just as elementary as the rest of the gameplay.

One of the more interesting puzzles I encountered was a throwback to text adventure games like Zork. At one point you have to tell Tully, the Irish born mechanic at the station, what you want him to do. The game then brings up an empty form for you to type what you want him to do in there. There is no list of things to choose from. You just have to try a command or two. I really enjoyed seeing this and it will be interesting to see if this was a one-off puzzle or if it will be a common one throughout the full version of Alpha Polaris.

The demo cuts off after you lug the polar bear into the cage (complete with a cut scene). You then go back to the station to get antibiotics for the bear where you learn that the CEOs son is flying in to look at an oil discovery that one of your co-workers found. Also that oil deposit? Is right on top of an old human sacrificial mound and was littered with human bones and strange glyphs. Rune gives foreshadowing by saying that maybe the area shouldn’t be touched, or perhaps the site should be explored by historians/archaeologists first, but the oil company workers want to keep it quiet so they can just start collecting the black gold and make money. Something tells me that is going to come back to haunt them. BUM BUM BUM!

Overall, despite a few minor issues with the demo, Alpha Polaris is shaping up to be a pretty impressive games and it’s one I’m definitely looking forward to playing the full game in late June…even if it doesn’t want to fit my laptop screen correctly. If you’ve been looking for a quality horror game this year, it looks like Alpha Polaris is going to be one of the best. You can learn more about the game by visiting either Turmoil Games’ official website or their Facebook page. You can download the English language demo here or the German language version here . Check back here around Alpha Polaris‘ release date for a full in-depth review of the game.

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