A wendigo may be hiding in the arctic cold, devouring human flesh and creating psychosis among the members of a research team. A Canadian Inuit may be the only person with any viable information on the predicament and a loss of communications has left a research team literally and figuratively in the cold. What starts as an interesting premise eventually devolves into a cliché ridden game that plays out like a ‘B’ movie at your local drive-in movie minus the stale popcorn and futile attempts to get your girl into back seat.
Alpha Polaris’ controls are very intuitive: left-click to use an object, right-click for a description and double-click to quickly exit a room or area. Inventory items can be combined and there is a notebook in your inventory that is more useful than in most games as it does contain the answers for numerous puzzle solutions. Finally, the now commonplace ‘press the spacebar to highlight all of the interactive objects in a room’ can be very helpful if you are stuck (and is actually one of my favorite features in this new breed of adventure games).
The graphics can be very impressive. Powered by the Wintermute Engine, great care has been taken to create a desolate atmosphere that has been trespassed upon by a research crew who, though they respect the environment, are still unfamiliars.
The voice acting is surprisingly solid for an independent project, but the sound effects seem to often be sparse. A lot more of the wind blowing ominously in the outdoor scenes would have gone a long way in adding to the horror atmosphere and created an intense ‘isolated in the wilderness’ feeling. The same goes for the research station that should have had a permeating claustrophobic feel, but instead became just a bunch of connected rooms useful for collecting objects or seeking out other team members. There are some attempts to create these necessary atmospheres, such as radio static or brief gusts of howling wind when outside, but they are never sustained long enough to be effective and drill down into your soul.
Character interaction is handled via dialogue trees, and while dialogue options try to make it appear as though your choices affect the character’s actions, that is really not the case, as regardless your choice you are always gently steered back to the appropriate decision.
What is interesting is that when the animated characters are speaking, they are replaced by hand-drawn still caricatures who appear front and center on your screen. While I found it a little strange at first, it is actually a nice touch that helps you to identify more closely with the characters rather than just rushing through their dialogue, and helps to defray much of their conceptions as cardbord cut-outs. But unfortunately, these characters are the usual stereotypes with surface depth such as you would expect from a horror game setting: the gruff, but friendly experienced old-timer, the jerky ‘jack-of-all-trades,’ the obnoxious boss’s son, and so on.
There are a few nice and welcome touches in the game. Rune Knudsen, a Norwegian biologist, often cusses in his native tongue so that his team members won’t know what he is saying, and small touches such as the game automatically supplying Rune with the appropriate outdoor clothing every time he exits the station keep the game from becoming redundant. But this noble effort to eliminate repetition also has its drawbacks as the entire game can be completed in 3-5 hours which totally eliminates any replay value.
Easily the most surprising aspect of Alpha Polaris is a totally unexpected and somewhat explicit sex scene. I’m not complaining, mind you, as it was not gratuitous and actually well done, but it is something that American players – and especially adventure game players – are not used to seeing in their games.
Alpha Polaris offers nothing fresh or inventive to the adventure genre – in fact, if you have seen any number of ‘B’ horror films, it will invoke a sense of déjà vu – but it is a solid production all around, even more so when considering that the staff of Turmoil Games is comprised of a total of five people who are situated in northern Finland near the center of the Arctic Circle. The untapped potential is evident, but Turmoil Games needs to take some more chances (other than an unexpected sexual encounter) and develop some characters that aren’t so stereotypical and a plot that hasn't been recycled ad nauseam. Still, Alpha Polaris is impressive for a first effort and here’s hoping that they continue to improve with future releases.
Alpha Polaris is currently available via download for $19.95 at the Turmoil Games site, which also offers an alternative CD version of the game. It is currently available only in English and German with other translations to follow.