Skip to main content

The opening hour of The Alters feels like 11 bit's first third-person narrative action game

Gears Of War Of Mine

A spaceman looking up at a gap in a cave ceiling
Image credit: 11 bit Studios

Calling it now: this is the least intriguing article you will read about 11 bit's The Alters, a blend of Danny Boyle's Sunshine and Duncan Jones's Moon in which (deep breath) you are a marooned space engineer who must spawn different versions of himself by means of backstory-branching gadgetry in order to operate an enormous, rolling base and escape the apocalyptic rays of the local sun.

We're not going to talk about any of that hoity-toity quantum wheeling-and-dealing in this piece, however. We're going to talk about the fact that the opening stretch reminded me of Gears Of War and the many over-the-shoulder adventures it has influenced. I'm sorry. It's been a complicated week involving minimal sleep, and I no longer have the grey cells for branching timelines, though they are certainly the more fascinating aspect of this game.

Watch on YouTube

11 bit aren't known for making stuff like Gears Of War. They're known for strongly themed building or survival-management sims such as 2014's This War Of Mine, a depiction of civilians under siege, and Frostpunk, a glacial alt-Victorian extravaganza in which you tend to the last remaining city amid climate disaster. Nonetheless, when I sat down last week with The Alters, I found myself playing a third-person action game with a sprint button, ledge-mantling, line-of-sight puzzles, and environments consisting of wide routes through rock formations which I could well imagine hosting a shootybang or two (fear not, peaceniks - there are no shootybangs to be had in The Alters, as far as I'm aware).

The opening region is reminiscent of Returnal's stormy purgatorial planet, with cliffs of combed and fissured, slate-blue rock. The encompassing level design harkens back to yer Uncharteds, with conspicuous brightly-coloured or luminous objects such as flares and parachutes to guide you along paths that meander just enough to create the impression of a much vaster world.

There's still a War-Of-Miney side-scrolling management layer at the heart of it all, with your character Jan Dolski trotting between player-constructed compartments strung to the inside of that giant wheel. There are crafting and building menus to wrangle with, and resource counters to stay on top of. But you'll spend a lot of time out in the world, setting up extraction facilities for those resources and building Death Stranding-style pylons to ferry them to the wheel, while completing gentle terrain puzzles such as placing sensors to expose radioactive anomalies, or deploying mining lasers to burn through obstacles in a certain order.

Within the base, there are over-the-shoulder conversations with the different versions of Jan you'll cleave from Jan Prime's timeline, all of whom have personalities and skillsets that reflect their branching life experiences (and all of whom are heroically voiced by just one voice actor, Alex Jordan, who you might remember as the guy who did sex noises in Baldur's Gate 3). Again, it puts me in mind of third-person narrative games rather more than Frostpunk. Where the developer's last two creations are broadly management sims with a substantial narrative component, this one feels like one of those "cinematic action-adventures" with an atypically hefty management layer.

A spaceman looking at a lava flow
Image credit: 11 bit Studios

It's seemingly a real departure for 11 bit, a dramatic shift of genre even as stablemate Frostpunk 2 digs deeper into city-building, and I'm interested to know what it paves the way for. Predictably, 11 bit aren't sure yet. "More games like this?" lead designer Rafal Wlosek told me following the event. "We've never thought about it that way. I mean, definitely there is something in the strategy of the company where we have [piloted] a couple of different projects - I'm talking about internal projects - where the teams develop different ideas and different technologies. And we wanted to split this into a small project, because a small project can handle, like, one new thing. In The Alters, it's not the exploration, it's mostly the conversation-RPG element, when you have all the [versions] of the characters and voiceovers in high quality, and so on.

"So there is this kind of thinking in the company, because after a couple of projects like this, we will have specialists in each area, and maybe one will be able to connect them together, and create something bigger. But when it comes to The Alters, the decision about the exploration was just another decision to adjust gameplay to the story."

One thing 11 bit were at pains to impress during the event is that 11 bit aren't in the business of making games to fit genres. They pick scenarios and concepts and work out which mechanics might support them. As such, to frame The Alters as a broad shift from management to action-platforming is missing the point a bit; these are just the ways of playing that suit the drama.

"We wanted to create space for the player to think about what happened in the base," Wlosek continued. "So you talk with your Alters, you see the problems, you see how they deal with them, you get different perspectives on trying to fix them, and then you might be tired with all this, so you go out into this empty, delightful, beautiful planet and have a space to think about it. And then the radiation comes in and you're losing batteries and [walking] into anomalies or getting kind of lost. So you go back to base. The base is safe space - warm and with food and music playing in the background, but then other problems show up. And it creates a loop."

Look out for more about The Alters, and indeed Frostpunk 2, in the coming weeks.

Read this next