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.
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.