Wot I Think: Alpha Polaris

By John Walker on July 4th, 2011 at 12:23 pm.

These Northern Lights aren't caused by the Catholics.

Indie traditional point-and-click adventure Alpha Polaris fell out of the sky last week, and confused me by not being awful during its demo. So I got hold of the full version (which costs just under £17) to find out Wot I Think of the whole thing.

The difference between a good and bad adventure game can be remarkably slight. Alpha Polaris – an indie adventure from a small team in Finland – explores that differentiation throughout. It seems to make most of the mistakes that make so many adventures so displeasing to play, and yet is a mostly enjoyable experience. It contains no original themes, but I was still captured by the story. The writing is sometimes dodgy, but I was still interested in what people had to say. The ending is a complete disaster, but… no, the ending is just rubbish.

The first unoriginal yet engaging theme is things being set in an Arctic research station. You’ve seen The Thing and everything that’s copied it since, you know the deal. A small group of researchers isolated in a ice-bound building, everyone’s lives in danger, a mysterious enemy that could be any one of you.

The second unoriginal yet entertaining theme is the cast of characters. You’re Rune Knudsen, a Norwegian biologist, in an oil research centre as the lone environmentalist, looking to tag polar bears. With you is sexy-but-grumpy Nova, an Inuit scientist who you well fancy. There’s Tully, the maverick, angry, sweary American whose job is to disagree with things and say “fuck”. There’s Al, an older, fatter, beardier gentleman who is the station’s grown up. And latterly there’s Alister, the spoiled son of the company boss, who’s there to be suspicious and obviously not the real baddy. One of you is up to no good!

The third: An ancient evil that’s trying to bubble to the surface. The fourth: the Aurora Borealis is in fact some mysterious force of evil. The fifth: People start dying, one by one.

And so on. It’s such well worn territory that it shines with the polished smoothness underfoot.

As an adventure game it doesn’t break new ground either. Inventory puzzles and knowing where to go next form the core of the game, with conversations only offering mostly fake alternatives. (One choice does make quite a significant cosmetic difference, but cosmetic it is.) The one thing that really stands out is in fact a throwback to very early adventure days – a text box into which you can type. It’s used sparingly, and it’s used well.

It’s mostly used for translating ancient symbols, which is again a hoary adventure meme but here one that genuinely requires the use of your brain. With scant information on the translation of very few symbols, it’s up to you to extrapolate, improvise and guess at what others might mean. And often the answers are interestingly esoteric. The accumulation of knowledge gained as you play, from reading the couple of pages from books, and having successfully translated previous symbols, are your prompts. That it’s a text parser means you’re genuinely working it out, rather than choosing from a list, and when you’re close the game will prompt you further. I absolutely loved this, and solving them made me feel extra-clever.

You begin tagging a polar bear. It’s a gentle, “ordinary” sequence, involving veterinary work, snowmobiles and long-distance needles. It’s a clever use of the ordinary before the arrival of the strange. Then as the strange arrives it appears in a very sensibly slow, calm way. While this certainly does become about paranoia and fear, along with a healthy plop of gore, it gets there without making a loud fuss.

There’s a real emphasis placed on relationships, even leading to a saucy boobies-involving sex scene at one point, but the game’s relatively short length (a day’s play at most) does mean things feel truncated. While stereotypes accelerate the process, it’s hard to shake the sense that there was much more ambition than delivery. Perhaps the biggest failing is that I never even once speculated as to who the baddy might be. That’s partly because things do get a touch ambiguous as to whether anyone in the station needs to be responsible, what with ancient evils rising and all. And it’s partly because the writing wasn’t quite up to the task. Still, it managed to shock and surprise me when people died, which is a good chunk of what matters.

I'm reliably informed this is some Norwegian swearing about getting out of bed.

The pacing is certainly strange. Once things really kick off, it’s a little peculiar that I’m asked to collect the ingredients for a cake. And I’m not convinced anyone really reacted to the deaths of their colleagues in a convincing manner. The nightmares everyone suffers from are far more affecting, both to play and in character behaviour afterward. Death fails to make its impact on the story.

Which brings us to the ending, which is a big fat nothing. It makes that awful mistake of having things be resolved in an entirely unconvincing cutscene, without any involvement from you, and then just collapses like a sad soufflé. A complete lack of closure is met by what I presume was meant to be the credits sequence, but was in fact just a blank, scrolling rock face. And then it closed itself to desktop. Dump.

The presentation does its job, while being a bit odd. The graphics are out of date, but that matters not a jot. What’s strange is the overlaying of 2D cartoons of characters on screen for the conversations, while the 3D models remain in the background. It just looks weird. And while the effort that went into the rendered cutscenes is clearly enormous, they look amateurish and could probably have been done more effectively in-engine.

So much is clearly because this is a five-man team making a game with no outside investment. And let me stress, for all my nit-picking, this is a fantastic achievement. It’s approximately 490 times more fun than most adventures coming out at the moment, with a damn site more personality. I think what it needed to do was to recognise its strengths a lot more clearly, and focus there. More writing, more character writing especially, and going further with its understanding that being quiet and gentle is a huge strength. Many of the puzzles are very smart. Others are obscure (the key puzzle is just ridiculous, for instance). The team behind this seem like they should be smart enough to tell the difference and ditch the latter. It leaves me feeling very excited about what they might do next, so long as they can realise where Alpha Polaris falls short. Which is mostly in the confidence to be as low-key as they clearly want to be, and to allow themselves more space to explore relationships rather than dictating them by stereotypes.

In the meantime, if you’re jonesing for some adventuring, this is the most fun I’ve had in the traditional wing of the genre in a long time. It’s smart, and that counts for a hell of a lot in one of the stupidest genres in existence.

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54 Comments »

  1. VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    Why does everyone remember The Thing, and not Who Goes There? Grump.

    Anyway, I’ve been meaning to pick up the demo for Alpha Polaris given John’s preview. Given the WIT, I might skip the demo and grab the full game for a lazy Sunday afternoon’s adventuring in the near future.

    • HilariousCow says:

      Oh yeah, I know “Who Goes There?”. That’s that thing The Thing was based off of!

    • torchedEARTH says:

      Well The Thing and Who Goes There? (the book) are both excellent I feel and continue to be so.

      Whereas Who Goes There? the film was excellent in it’s own era but has been trumped really.

    • MajorManiac says:

      I would hazard to guess that the average person doesn’t remember “Who Goes There?” as its rather obscure.

      I do like older movies and this is the first time I’ve heard of it. Checking IMDB there are 3 of this name. There are from 1914, 1917 and 1952. Do you know which it is as I’ll try to check it out.

    • qrter says:

      Personally, I’ve always liked The Thing From Another World more than Carpenter’s The Thing. It seemed a scarier film to me.

      There’s a prequel to Carpenter’s Thing-thing coming out this year. It’s supposedly called The Thing, because giving films their own titles is just needlessly confusing.

    • Snargelfargen says:

      The book The Terror by Dan Simmons is a fantastic arctic horror that’s definitely partially inspired by the thing. Definitely worth checking out if you like the genre.

    • Warth0g says:

      Yes, and let’s not forget that The Thing, The Thing from Another World and The Terror all take their primary inspiration from HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, who invented the whole arctic horror / science fiction sub-genre.

    • ucfalumknight says:

      The Thing from Another World is an excellent horror movie, but I never really connected that movie to Who Goes There? Carpenter’s The Thing is more closely tied to the original novella. The Thing from Another World is a wonderful study in claustrophobia, light and shadow, and fear. The Thing attests more to paranoia and shock/gore. Both excellent movies in their own right.

    • piratmonkey says:

      I really have to demand that the prequel to “The Thing” be called “The Other Thing” or “The Thing 2: A Different Thing”

    • qrter says:

      “Another Thing”..?

      Or go the Alien/Aliens route – “The Things”. Oh wait this is a prequel.. “Prometheus”, then.

    • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      @MajorManiac: The older film was “The Thing From Another World”. “Who Goes There?” was a novella. The films with that name are unrelated.

    • Urthman says:

      Actually, “The Things” is the name of a fantastic short story by Peter Watts written from the perspective of The Thing, and you should drop everything and read it right now:

      http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/watts_01_10/

    • lurkalisk says:

      @qrter

      Turns out Prometheus isn’t an Alien prequel.

  2. Yargh says:

    John, have you played the French voyeur game Experience 112?

    The symbol translation bit here sort of reminds of the email code breaking you have to do in Experience 112.

    • john_silence says:

      Oh that was a funny one.

    • KaL_YoshiKa says:

      That game is fantastic…it is also really god damn long. I thought it was about to end and instead…it ended the second act.

    • sinister agent says:

      I really enjoyed that game, should really get round to finishing it. The concept was terrific, though I think it could have been delivered a little more convincingly at the start.

  3. john_silence says:

    Ah, an engaging write-up as always. Which leaves me pretty much on the fence about this. Guess I’ll wait a bit but eventually I know I’ll get it.

    It would be great to read more coverage of PC-specific adventure games such as this. Gemini Rue attracted quite a bit of press, but other games I’m more hesitant about were never covered on RPS as far as I can ascertain. Alter Ego for instance; the Black Mirror games never got their WIT; are the Secret Files games still as terrible as the first one? So many questions. It’s all the more frustrating with Mr. Walker being a pro adventure gamer and all.

    Some nice little projects would benefit immensely from the exposure; for instance I hold a slightly fond memory of indie adventure game Daemonica. It was crude but showed promise.
    The adventure genre needs a lot of wake-up slaps on the butt and buckets of cold water on the face, but it also deserves more support from the PC crowd.

  4. qrter says:

    “The required minimum resolution is 1280×800.”

    Really? I mean, I know 1280×800 is below standard these days, but it still seems rather high.

    • djbriandamage says:

      That’s a standard netbook resolution which is pretty much the low watermark. The only devices that can’t handle such a resolution are smartphones and some tablets, to my knowledge.

      Good riddance to low res, sez I. I’m tired of new games booting into 800×600!

    • jon_hill987 says:

      My netbook is 1024×600

      Serves me right for being an early adopter.

    • qrter says:

      Mine is 1024×600, too, and I bought it less than a year ago. As far as I’m aware that’s the standard ‘low watermark’.

    • djbriandamage says:

      My wife just told me that hers is 1024×600 as well. Thanks for the correction, chaps.

      So I guess this one ain’t for netbooks.

    • viverravid says:

      My laptop which plays most current games tolerably well is 1366 x 768.

      So assuming 800 is a minimum vertical resolution, I couldn’t play this.

    • qrter says:

      I have a strong suspicion that there’s a pretty large market for the adventure genre under netbook users, you know, with more emphasis on the story and less on the graphics.

      Gemini Rue runs marvelously on my netbook, and it’s a nice thing to dip in and out of, now and then.

    • Zeewolf says:

      It’s too high for me, the refresh rate on my monitor goes haywire (60hz, which gives me a headache) at resolutions that high. Same with Capsized, which I stupidly bought on Steam (that one just gives me a black screen). At least Alpha Polaris is decent enough to inform about this requirement before you buy, unlike Capsized.

    • gwathdring says:

      Most notebooks are 16:9 or 16:10 now. A 4:3 ratio wouldn’t even look good on a notebook if the minimum vertical resolution weren’t 800.

    • Stardog says:

      @djbriandamage

      It’s not about them being able to “handle” the graphics, it’s just that some monitors don’t support that res, even when the CPU/GPU can handle the graphics easily.

      Unfortunately the dev’s probably took a shortcut. Instead of making their GUI/backgrounds scale to all resolutions, they’re probably hardcoded to a specific size.

  5. djbriandamage says:

    You gotta hand it to games journalists. Where most of us would quit and fire up another game, brave men like John must press on, using frig with frag and asking flim about flam until he has succeeded in hip hipping the hooray.

  6. Kaira- says:

    “It’s approximately 490 times more fun than most adventures coming out at the moment”

    Either I don’t play enough adventure games, or I have a horrible, horrible taste.

  7. Werthead says:

    Slightly off-topic, but I quite enjoyed THE THING game that came out what, eight or nine years ago? Quite atmospheric and unsettling, with a solid puzzle element. Underrated, I think.

    • ucfalumknight says:

      I agree with you sir. If I remember correctly, it was a “sequel” to the Carpenter movie.

    • eclipse mattaru says:

      High five! Yep, that was one great game. It did have its share of awkward, semi-functional features, but then it was trying to do a lot of fairly original things –especially considering what was out there in its time.

      And yes, not only it was kind of a sequel to the movie, it had so much fanservice that it really pays to watch the movie right before playing the game to get it all. And most of the references were rather subtle too, which made discovering them all the more rewarding.

    • qrter says:

      I thought it was quite awful. All the scares were telegraphed from miles away, the whole insanity system was wonky as hell and it had one of those horrible savepoint systems.

  8. Rii says:

    I haven’t seen The Thing.

    • AndrewC says:

      It’s jolly good, you know.

    • qrter says:

      I’m not very fond of it BUT.. it is a great testament to the idea of physical special effects, as opposed to doing it all as CGI.

      Carpenter’s The Thing still looks great. Same goes for Alien, btw (much moreso than Aliens, I think).

    • Hodge says:

      Yeah, well worth a watch. I saw it right through for the first time a couple of months back (had seen bits and pieces of it when I was growing up) and it holds up pretty well. Not a great film, but a fun one with the added bonus of a hairy Kurt Russell.

      And speaking of Alien, I watched that in HD last night, and was astonished at how well it has aged. It had been about twelve years since I last watched it, so I was bracing myself for the nostalgia bias, but every single aspect of it is still extraordinary. Christ, he nailed it, didn’t he?

      (as for Alpha Polaris, I think they just got another sale)

      EDIT: Fixed the italic tags.

  9. eclipse mattaru says:

    Here we go again: Why do we always discuss original themes with the Fallouts and the Alpha Polarises of the world, but noone will say peep on the subject when it comes to the Dragon Ages and the Skyrimes?

    Me, I wish there were half as many games about 1950 Suburban America or Lovecraftian Monstrosities In The North Pole as there are about the f’ing Middle Earth.

    Edit: That said, I just realized there are many more games about mysterious mysteries in very very cold places than I though I remembered when I started writing this.

    • feighnt says:

      well, i dont know about Skyrim, but when Dragon Age was coming out, basically everyone i saw commenting on it said “didnt The Witcher *just* do this?”

  10. rapchee says:

    which reminds me: why is there no gemini rue review?

    • JohnnyMaverik says:

      This.

      Gemini Rue is the best point and click for ages, one of the best games to come out so far this year IMO, it’s certainly the one I’ve played that has stuck in my mind the clearest.

      Also: “one of the stupidest genres in existence.”

      **glares @ Mr. Walker**

    • Rinox says:

      Thirded!

      Apart from those silly shooty moments, Gemini Rue was amazing.

    • Soon says:

      Echoing Gemini Rue love.

    • Thants says:

      There was a post when it was released, with Quinns saying he would write more about it. But, ah, I guess that’s not happening.

      That low-fi, sci-fi, noir art style they used was pretty great.

  11. Grape says:

    “Faen. Eg får vel stå opp.”

  12. Igor Hardy says:

    It’s smart, and that counts for a hell of a lot in one of the stupidest genres in existence.

    Now that’s the kind of ending sentence to win over the hearts of genre’s fans! ;)

  13. Soon says:

    Sounds promising. Will probably give it a try soon.

    I’m interested in this: A New Beginning. Basically, because it looks pretty. But it also has good reviews from the few places that have reviewed it.

    Who’s buying all these obscure adventure games? Because an awful lot of them seem to exist. But I don’t know anybody who plays them.

  14. feighnt says:

    GREENLAND.
    POLARBEAR.
    FUCK YEAH!!!

    (is how that poster should end)

  15. Emmanuel says:

    If these are gameplay screenshots then this game has really good graphics.
    Great Review

    http://www.newlyreleasedgamesreview.com
    http://www.newlyreleasedgamesreview.com
    http://www.newlyreleasedgamesreview.com