Alpha Polaris Review
There’s just something creepy about the arctic. A huge expanse of bright snow seems inviting at first, but then darkness falls or somebody turns into an alien, and you realize all at once how alone and isolated you are. It’s the reason John Carpenter’s film The Thing is such a success, and the setting is used to great success in the indie point-and-click adventure title with a horror genre story, Alpha Polaris.
Things start out innocuously enough for Rune Knudsen, a Norwegian biology graduate student studying at an oil prospecting station in the vast icy wastes of Greenland. Rune is looking to track and understand polar bears for his thesis, and the oil company and its scientists feel that allowing him to use their small facility is a good PR move — but they’re not exactly thrilled for him to be there. The building itself strongly resembles Carpenter’s sets for The Thing, allowing also-Norwegian developer Turmoil Games to capitalize on creepy right at the outset of the game.
Alpha Polaris (PC [Reviewed])
Developer: The Games Company
Publisher: The Games Company
Release Date: July 24, 2011
Being an adventure title, Rune is guided around the facility by a series of mouse clicks and major gameplay boils down to discovering objects in the background, moving them around and using them to solve puzzles. At the outset of the game, this is a little trying, because Alpha Polaris neglects to give much in the way of hints as to what the hell you’re up to. Rune’s very first task is to prepare to head outside for some polar bear-related situation, and the player is tasked with exploring the (fairly small) research facility and picking up his necessary equipment before heading out. Simple enough, but if you’ve never been to the arctic before, and if you’ve never studied polar bears, and you’ve never worked a tranquilizer rifle, you might not know to pick up a few of the things that Rune needs.
That means a lot of doubling back and wandering around a little bit aimlessly, an issue that’s sort of common to all adventure games. Alpha Polaris does feature a nice hotspot system accessible simply by hitting the Space Bar, which shows everything that’s available to be clicked or manipulated in a given space. It’s a massive time-saver.
Meanwhile, the story trucks along at an interesting pace. Alpha Polaris isn’t a long game, but it is infused with some decent voice acting and a script that’s better than mediocre, though it isn’t incredible. Conversations are interesting and the other characters are fairly rounded out; there’s good writing here. It’s not incredible for a few reasons, among them some awkward lines and hard transitions, but for the most part, Alpha Polaris is engaging.
The length here is kind of perfect for the story, which focuses on the isolation of the arctic and has overtones of environmental destruction and the arrogance of man. The horror aspects are a little slow in developing, and the story has a tendency to make some leaps in logic at a few points — things progress quickly from “what’s going on!” to all the characters accepting something fantastical without much reason.
But where Alpha Polaris excels is in making you feel smart. Its puzzles can be tough and the game presupposes you’re pretty smart. One puzzle has you doing a little basic chemistry to study some ancient bones one of the other scientists has discovered while oil prospecting. Another has you deciphering cave drawings based on a few fairly vague articles you’ve collected. Diligence in exploration and patience in gathering information are key here, and while the puzzles are never quite insurmountable, it can be tough to find that one clue you were supposed to pick up to know what to do next. Still, when you find it — without the help of the Internet — you feel pretty intelligent.
Best of all, Alpha Polaris is an adult experience that doesn’t pander and isn’t made weaker by falling into the traps of gaming cliches. I keep making favorable comparisons with The Thing because Alpha Polaris finds a way to snag all the best elements of that movie’s presentation without needing to throw in dick jokes or needless action sequences. It also doesn’t waste time with popcorn-tossing scares and instead opts for being all slow-burn, psychological creepiness. Atmosphere is what this game is built on, and a strong understanding of its setting and subject matter, and that’s what you’re paying for. It feels like a well-made movie free of studio meddling.
And while the story develops toward somewhat anti-climactic final moments, for the most part, Alpha Polaris is a well-paced adventure with interesting characters and interesting subject matter. It isn’t perfect, but it does a great job of being the kind of alternative experience that isn’t always readily available from bigger game studios. A solid and atmospheric purchase, you can snag Alpha Polaris from Turmoil Games’ website for $20, and that’s not a bad price for what’s on offer.
- Engaging, sometimes tough puzzles
- Atmospheric story and setting
- Good handling of the subject matter
- Pretty decent voice acting and script
- Adult presentation and feel
- Story makes some weird logic leaps
- Puzzles can get frustrating
- Not a lot of direction if you’re lost
- Game’s a touch on the slow-moving side
Final Score: 75/100