Developer: Turmoil Games
Publisher: Just A Game
Release Date: 04/24/2011
…and here it is. If you’re a long time reader of Diehard GameFAN, you know I’ve covered Alpha Polaris a lot in 2011. I put it as one of the ten indie games I was most looking forward to in 2011, I interviewed the head of Turmoil Games about this, their first release, back in February, and I did a hands-on preview of the game in late May. Now I’ve played through the entire final version of the game and it’s time to give my final judgment on whether Alpha Polaris lived up to the hype I made for it in my mind, or if my search for the next Prisoner of Ice continues. What can I say? I like my “Extremely cold landscapes inhabited by a strange unworldly horror” games.
Alpha Polaris unfolds over a four day time span in a remote part of Greenland. Your main character is a young man named Rune Knudsen, a biologist from Norway doing a thesis on polar bears. He’s been allowed to stay/work with the oil company, but at times this does create a conflict of interest for the poor man. After all, oil drilling brings destruction to one of the last remaining homes for polar bears as we lose our Arctic and Antarctic ice. Of course, there turns out to be another unexpected side effect to digging through thousands of years of permafrost for the liquefied remains of something long since dead. Al, the team leader at the site discovers a bountiful oil site, but it appears to be on the grounds of either an old Inuit burial ground…or something far worse, a ritual site for a tribe of cannibalistic natives that were only thought of a myth until that point. Rune and Al spar a bit on whether or not to let people know about the archaeological discovery in addition to the oil one, but of course the corporate bottom line beats out the historical one. This comes back to haunt all four characters as the unearthing of the crevasse seems to coincide with a brilliant display of the Aurora Borealis…and a series of chilling nightmares for all the residents of the Alpha Polaris station. The crew members begins to experience walking nightmares as well and slowly but surely, they begin to realize that besides oil and human remains, a third thing was unearthed in the crevasse – something not of this world and with a hunger that cannot be sated. Whoops.
The story is very well told, mixing Inuit legend and fact in with a nice little fictional horror story. As someone that has been writing folklore pieces longer than I have video game ones, this made me exceptionally happy. I also loved that the story was a slow burning old fashioned horror story rather than the Contra with Zombies or Aliens style of horror games that have become prolific these days, and actually lack any real sense of nameless dread at all. To be sure, this is more akin to something by Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, M.R. James or Algernon Blackwood than say, Stephen King or the Resident Evil games. In fact, the game’s story is very much an homage to one by Blackwood, although it may be an unintentional one, since the plot hook and even the antagonist in question are the same.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few plot holes. For example at the very end of the game, you see a character gone mad (or possessed – who is to say?) covered in blood. Yet the only characters that have died in the game were either by their own hands or by your main character. So where does all the blood come from? Second, part of me was hoping they’d have gone with a different character allying with the antagonist. I won’t spoil who it was but the optional love making scene (Yes, there is sex in the game so be warned both parents and prudes alike.) made me hope it was one of those two for more pathos and horror rather than the obvious choice. Still, what’s here is a very nicely done first story from a brand new development team. I enjoyed the characters of Alpha Polaris and the way the story unfolded, even if it was a little obvious what was going to happen and how. Sometimes, a game in the style of a classic “Weird Tale” is not only what you want, but what you NEED, and Alpha Polaris certainly fits that bill.
Story Rating: Enjoyable
Like most adventure games, the graphics in Alpha Polaris are primarily static ones. The only things that move are character models or items you pick up along the way. This is pretty standard for adventure game fans, and those that enjoy the genre will be very impressed with the visuals, especially the backgrounds as they feature some of the best looking mountains and/or arctic scenes I’ve seen in a game. People who want a little more animation in their games will probably poo-poo the quality of the static visuals though, and instead focus on the quality of the cut scene animations, which are more akin to late PSX or early Xbox/PS2 level cut scenes. Yes, the cut scenes aren’t up to par with what we are used to with big budget releases, but for those that know the adventure game genre, and especially those games that use the Wintermute engine, this really does sport impressive visuals. Especially compared to cut scenes in other 2011 releases like Black Mirror III. I will say that my only real complaint about the graphics is blood didn’t look like blood and that the CGI version of Al really didn’t look like either the in-game character model or any of his portraits that were used with dialogue. Especially the beard.
Overall the game is a very impressive looking one for an indie title and/or an adventure game. The character models are detailed and move with lifelike animation. The static dialogue images for each character are well done and each character has a series of images instead of a single one – a big change from a lot of games in this genre. The cut scenes are a generation or two behind what is possible, but they still look nice and will be enjoyed by those that love the genre. Mountains, caves, and snow are beautiful, if static, and I truly think most gamers that pick up the game will enjoy the graphics, if not be blown away by them.
Graphics Rating: Enjoyable
I think the audio aspects of Alpha Polaris just might be the best bits of the game. The voice acting in the English version of the game is top notch, right down to dialects and emotion. You really get to know about these characters, and when someone dies, you feel it. Every line of dialogue in the game is fully voice acted and it really fleshes out the overall story of the game and makes it come alive. I was very impressed here.
The music for Alpha Polaris is also quite good. You don’t really pay a lot of attention to it as the story and voice acting takes center stage, but when you take the time to listen to it, you’ll find each track to be haunting and a little bit creepy. I especially liked the track playing as the end credits were rolling.
Overall, the music, voice acting, and sound effects in the game are top notch and it’s one of the most impressive aspects of the game.
Sound Rating: Great
4. Control and Gameplay
Have you played an adventure game? Even if you haven’t then you probably know that the game is played primarily by the mouse. You click on objects to interact with them, you click on people to talk with them and so on. Alpha Polaris does make a few slight changes to the gameplay, but both of them really impact how the game is played if you aren’t prepared for them, so take note. The first is that there are a few puzzles where you don’t just click on one object and then another, but instead you’ll click on a total of three objects in quick and specific succession in order to proceed. This isn’t a big deal, but even long time fans of the genre might not catch on that you need to do that the first few times they try those puzzles. The other is that there are some text based puzzles. In these cases you’ll be given a blank form to enter a word in. You have to get the word right to proceed, so for those of you who aren’t very good at spelling, these may trip you up. The word based puzzles are a big deal, especially since the last two puzzles in the game are this manner, so unlike a lot of adventure games where you can eventually break something down into “guess and check,” if you don’t apply a little intuition and critical thinking, you’ll be permanently stuck.
Overall, the game is remarkably solid. There are only a few times where you’ll have a bit of a pause with loading (getting up or down from the roof of Alpha Polaris at the tail end of the game) or where it’s a bit hard to find the arrow to move out of a background screen (one of the caverns in the crevasse). Other than that, the game is tight and even someone brand new to adventure games will be able to figure out HOW to proceed, even if the puzzles give them pause.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Good
Ah, the kiss of death to all adventure games. Like the majority of the genre, Alpha Polaris is an extremely linear game where all the puzzles will have the same exact solution each time, and where the story offers no real chance for exploration of divergence. However, unlike most adventure games, there are two scenes/puzzles that I found which can lead to different results – both of which involving the courting of Nova, the Inuit love interest of Rune. In the first, it’s all about making a Baked Alaska (Which the game called Bombe Alaska for some reason. Hey, the team is Finnish and the game is in English. I bet most Americans couldn’t do a game in Finnish half as well as this.). Depending on how you go through the recipe gives you a different result, although not much of one. The other option comes when Nova invites you to sleep with her, what with it probably being your last day alive before being devoured by a fiendish thingie and all. You have the choice to stay or leave. Choose stay and you get a NOT SAFE FOR CHILDREN sex scene (It’s got naked boobies!) and if you choose leave…well, I don’t know. The game autosaved over before where I had the option, and I wasn’t going to replay the entire game just to get to the end and deny Rune his just desserts. However, since you have the option to say no to sex, you obviously will get something other than cut scene. These two small things do provide a bit of a reason to replay the game, but since you already know all the twists and turns, the suspense is lost on a second go-around.
Replayability Rating: Poor
Besides replay value, balance is the one area where Alpha Polaris takes the biggest hit. In the nearly nine years, I have reviewed 419 games. In that time I have needed help in progressing in one game. Alpha Polaris was the second. I had to email Teemu (the head of Turmoil Games) and go, “Okay, It pains me to admit this, but I’ve been stuck on PUZZLE X” for a few hours. What’s the solution.” The funny thing was that it turned out that I had already discovered the answer with paper and pencil, but I was like, “There has to be MORE. It can’t be THAT SIMPLE.” But it was. I just over thought the damn thing because I’m used to some adventure puzzles having insanely convoluted solutions. In this case, chalk it up to having played way too many adventure games over the years.
However, aside from this problem, I can see a lot of gamers having problems with the puzzles in the game. Even for a lot of diehard adventure gamers who cut their teeth on things like Maniac Mansion or Shadowgate might be stymied by the puzzles where you decipher hieroglyphics. Most adventure games don’t require you to think past items in your inventory and clickable regions on the screen. Alpha Polaris does. As much as *I* enjoyed this, it might be too far outside the box for some fans of the genre, and it definitely will be for those that are casual adventure fans or outright new to the genre. As well, there was one puzzle where I found that the solution wasn’t actually in the game. It was the four digit combination lock for Nova’s suitcase. You’re supposed to find the answer somewhere in the game. A poster in her room has the year 2009 emblazoned on it in big letters, but that’s not it. In small print on a postcard in the lobby is the date 02/08 in regards to when the postcard was mailed, but that’s not it. I went through every four digit (or pairing of two digit) combinations in the game and finally discovered the solution was 0209, which appears to be in reference to one or both of the two four digit codes I listed above. Most people would NOT figure this out outside of guess and check and I only happened on it by sheer happenstance. I’m still not sure if it is an error in the coding, if the 02/08 was MEANT to be 02/09 on the postcard and wasn’t, or if the game was purposely this obscure. No matter the answer, Alpha Polaris is probably a bit too hard for someone that doesn’t spend a lot of time with this genre and even those that do might find themselves a bit frustrated with the game.
Balance Rating: Decent
Alpha Polaris does boast some pretty original puzzles, like the text based puzzles I haven’t seen since Zork , or the deciphering of hieroglyphics. The story isn’t all that original, but rather a combination of some old Victorian era fears about the Arctic combined with modern man’s worries about global rising and the evils of Big Oil (The latter of which HAS been around since the Victorian Age oddly enough…). They’re timeless themes in a story that combines classic bits from yesteryear with both a modern setting and more up to date reason for being in such a remote and frigid area. Obviously Alpha Polaris doesn’t reinvent the wheel , but it will feel fresh and new to those that haven’t devoured everything featuring Ithaqua or certain Native American flesh eating spirits.
Originality Rating: Above Average
I beat Alpha Polaris in two straight settings. I beat the first two and a half days (in-game, not real life people; this isn’t a RPG) without taking a break. Even then I only stopped because I was stuck on the key puzzle of infinite overthinking. Then when I got the solution, I played the rest of the game straight through without a break. Alpha Polaris had me glued to my computer, even though I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going. Sure, the plot progression was a bit obvious to me, but it was HOW the story was told, combined with the excellent voice acting and some of the hardest puzzles I’ve seen in an adventure game in some time. Now I also realize that as a person who loves adventure games, folklore, and Lovecraftian horror, this game is geared specifically to my tastes, but hey – I’m the reviewer and it managed to keep me glued to my PC, and that’s what counts.
Addictiveness Rating: Good
9. Appeal Factor
Horror oriented adventure games tend to be the most successful these days, but with sites like Bigfishgames.com offering these things at only $6.99 a pop, Alpha Polaris‘ price tag will no doubt put it outside of the casual adventure game fan’s price range. These days only adventure games with a long pedigree like The Next Big Thing and Gray Matter can get away with a retail tag of $30. Even Black Mirror III was only ten bucks. As well, due to the difficulty of some of the puzzles, long time adventure gamers that are conditioned to the same set of puzzles or the “use item A on item B to make item C” format might find some of the puzzles frustrating. These two things combine to give Alpha Polaris two strikes against it. In its defense, it has a great story, a nice dose of originality in a genre where 99% of the games have the same mechanics and the voice acting is top notch. It doesn’t save Alpha Polaris from being a niche game, but it does mean the game will have a loyal audience, even if it is a small one.
Appeal Factor: Poor
At the end of the day, Alpha Polaris is a game I enjoyed, but I also realize it’s not the game for everyone. Do you prefer a slow moving horror game where the emphasis is on mood and terror instead of gore and action? You might like this. Have you been looking for a game that mixes the best aspects of Victorian horror with modern day fears? You might like this. Are you looking for a horror adventure game? This year’s seen ones like Raincliff and Gray Matter, that are more mysteries with a touch of supernatural, or ones like Devil on the Mississippi , Blood and Ruby and The Next Big Thing that have monsters but aren’t meant to be scary. None of them can truly be called horror games though. The only horror adventure game that has come out in 2011 is Black Mirror III and Alpha Polaris beats it hands down. The only other horror competition that it has is Dead Space 2 and that’s like comparing apples and monster trucks. At the end of the day, despite being in a niche genre, Alpha Polaris is my pick for the best horror game of 2011 so far, largely due to the story, voice acting and ambience. It might be a bit pricey for a point and click PC title, but if you’ve been at all intrigued by this review, than by all means purchase it. You’ll be supporting a independent studio that have created a very nice game their first time out. If that’s not worth supporting, than I don’t know what is.
Miscellaneous Rating: Good
Control and Gameplay: Good
Originality: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Poor
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Alpha Polaris is an old school horror adventure game in the same vein as Scratches, Shadow of the Comet, and Dark Fall. The emphasis is on storytelling and emphasis and it does a wonderful job of both. The game is very pretty for an adventure game and it makes tremendous use of the Wintermute engine. The slow burn and difficulty of the puzzles aren’t for everyone though, especially those used to a more action oriented gorefest. The price tag might also throw the average adventure gamer for the loop since they are used to paying between $6.99 and $19.99 for titles in this genre these days. Still, if you’re a fan of Victorian or Lovecraftian horror, Alpha Polaris is a beautiful mix of the best of both worlds and for a first game by a small Finnish development team, this is a pretty impressive end result.