Daily Independent: Alpha Polaris Gets Spooky in Greenland

The Daily Independent is a recurring feature in which we shine a light into the darkened wilderness of indie gaming, illuminating both the good and the bad of what we find there.

Scandinavian developers are inescapable these days. The success of Angry Birds, Minecraft, and Limbo only hints at the vast array of titles hailing from Europe’s frozen north. Finnish studio Turmoil Games stands out, however, for creating a game that hits from right in the region’s sunshine-deprived wheelhouse. Alpha Polaris is horror adventure game set in an American research station in remote, Arctic Greenland. Players control Rune Knudsen, a Norwegian biologist who arrives at the station intending to study polar bears, before things go rapidly awry.

Turmoil Games’ website mentions their Arctic pedigree, and the game effortlessly captures the climactic rigors and psychological repercussions of Alpha Polaris’ chilly, isolated location. The polar setting and the slow-burning, supernatural-inflected plot draw natural comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the game exploits the claustrophobic, uncanny aspects of the research station to similarly frightening effect.

Alpha Polaris was created using the Wintermute game engine, a Czech-designed framework that enables developers to build classic point-and-click adventures using 2D backgrounds and either 2D or 3D sprites. Gameplay consists mainly of conversation and puzzles, though Turmoil introduces a number of creative twists on the latter — players will triangulate sensory data, parse prehistoric symbols, and even prepare an exotic dessert. Though the backgrounds are universally sharp, the 3D characters are disquieting, especially if you focus on their eyes, which seem constantly crossed.

A similar inconsistency defines the voice acting, which veers wildly from wooden to wonderful with little or no warning. This foible is counterbalanced neatly by the hand-drawn character portraits that pop up when two characters are speaking. Though the images are static, they are a surprisingly efficient way to convey emotion, and when given context by the gameplay, sound design, and story, Alpha Polaris is at its most engrossing.

The game’s story is without a doubt its strongest feature. Well-written and well-paced, it draws the player in from the outset, avoiding the condescension and cliche that seems endemic in video game scripts. Particular credit should go to Turmoil for the quality of their research and for their scientific know-how — the specificity and believability of the dialogue, and the avoidance of psuedo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, lends heft to both the plot and the characters.

Available for download at the Turmoil Games website, Alpha Polaris shows independent gaming in its brightest light. Taking advantage of a free game engine, Turmoil’s Finns have created a game that is ambitious, adult, and genuinely scary. Drawing inspiration from old sources — Native American myths, 80′s horror movies, and 90′s adventure games — they have created a game that is modern in its storytelling sensibilities and brash originality. Reward their efforts by using the link above, and they might be able to afford to create another.

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