While it lacks the finesse needed in the genre, Alpha Polaris nails several key areas. They took one of nature’s most beautiful anomalies and added a dark presence to it. You’ll truly feel the isolation of living out in the tundra. Unfortunately, the developers seem like they tackled a larger project than they could handle, and the game focuses itself in all of the wrong areas. Characters are boring, most of the action takes place during the day and paranoia is exchanged for rationalism. All of the details feel smooth and polished, but gets lost in its poorly paced and executed storyline. Hardcore fans of PnC adventure games will find things to love, but everyone else will have problems with Alpha Polaris’ missed opportunities.
WHAT WE LIKED
º Some of the puzzles require a bit of research and typing in answers.
º When the northern lights roll in, the game gets incredibly terrifying.
º Horror’s most important aspect, sound design, is top notch here.
WHAT WE DISLIKED
º The majority of the game is during the day, removing most of the fear.
º Pacing is awful, and the story feels rushed and underdeveloped.
º Some of the puzzles are impossible without the use of a guide.
The best way I can describe Alpha Polaris is with the tried and true Fruit Stripe gum analogy. Awesome packaging, amazing flavor- but shortly after biting down and chewing it for awhile it becomes very obvious the manufacturer doesn’t understand longevity. The benefits quickly disappear, and you’re left chewing a stale piece that used to have so much going for it. Sure, another piece returns you to the utopia that only a naked zebra can deliver, but you sadly return to disappointment after only a minute. Alpha Polaris is frighteningly flavorful, but only in short bursts.
The game is an impressive undertaking for a small team, but the developers at Turmoil Games have sadly missed the mark. The game has an amazing premise; you’re a biologist named Rune Knudsen, who’s residing in a research center for an oil company in the icy hills of Greenland. You are not Nova, the woman who’s slapped on all of the promotional material. She’s a microbiologist who works for the company and was born into an indigenous tribe native to the icy wilderness. Rune is there to study polar bears and was given a room in the facility to paint the impression that the company cares about the environment. After capturing a sick polar bear, the lead researcher Al returns from an expedition with the news. Not only did he find oil in a giant crevasse, but has also found an old cave with piles of bones and ancient symbols on what appears to be the hide of something (or one).
This kicks off the ‘Horror’ aspect of the title. From that night on, the characters all experience waking dreams, where they envision themselves doing awful things to one another, and a looming presence that beckons them. The Northern Lights roll in, causing electrical interference and blocking radio transmissions, leaving our scientists with no outside communication. The next morning, the polar bear escapes, leaving a trail of blood as it runs off into the white unknown.
And this, sadly- is where the game begins to fail. None of the characters show any sign of fear. The facility seems the same, and everyone just goes on about their day, despite everyone having a minor freakout the night before. I know I’ve already made one comparison, but I think bringing up John Carpenter’s The Thing is justified here. In that movie, the unease stemmed from the creature that was terrorizing everyone; but it wasn’t the central fear. It was the people around the situation. The paranoia, mistrust, and savagery of the characters were the main grab of that movie. In this game, everyone just continues- brushing everything off. No one accuses anyone of releasing the polar bear, or even acts irrationally. You have to wait until night for anyone to start acting irrational again, which makes the day segments as scary as a sponge cake.
All of the occult stuff is pretty terrifying, and the Lovecraftian nature of this beast looming over the station is an amazing setup. Your characters are isolated, vulnerable in a hostile and unforgiving environment; and yet you spend half of your time in the safe daylight, making deserts. But when it does hit, it hits pretty hard, and I never thought I would think of the Aurora Borealis as being scary, but this game succeeds in making it terrifying. Sadly, everything your character does is reactionary, and you never really feel like you’re making decisions, but rather watching a movie unfold until you can get back to the ‘pleasant side’ of the game.
There’s a romance angle with Nova, who is a far more interesting character than the unfortunately named Rune. She’s the one you spend an eighth of the game preparing a tasty snack for. She has a much more interesting backstory, and I felt would’ve been a much better protagonist than the dull Norwegian bear stalker. I guess they wanted to focus on the ‘environmental themes’, but sadly these messages are as subtle as Birdemic. Too much dialogue is spent shoehorning this message in when the story is really about an occult. Maybe I didn’t make the connection, but these two ideas don’t blend very well, and I would’ve loved to see a more focused approach to the scary elements of the game.
Other character interactions are rather two-dimensional. Al is a simple man, who just wants to do a good job for his company. Tully Crean is an obnoxious and ornery young man, who is basically there to repair equipment and complain. Alistair, who doesn’t show up until the second act, is a corporate prick. These characters have little personality outside of that, and all of them seem only ever to want to talk about Nova. With these few characters, I would’ve liked to see some more character development, especially in a game where bodies could’ve added more conflict. Sadly, when bodies do hit the floor, they’re done in the most anti-climatic ways, with very little conflict arising from them.
With it’s pacing problems, the game also feels like it holds your hand, walking you to the next puzzle every time. When the game does hit its conclusion, Alpha Polaris starts to flow. Characters turn on one another as they question their own sanity and actions. This kind of stuff should’ve come in sooner, but better late than never. Once again, sadly, the game’s twist is pretty predictable, and the ending falls very flat. The game leaves you little to maul over or contemplate and didn’t stay with me at all. No amount of darkness and isolation will make this as scary as some of gaming’s greats.
I know I spent a lot of my review talking about the story, but in a game like this, there’s not much I can say about the gameplay. It’s standard point and click fare. You move around by clicking on objects, and you can quickly get to rooms by double tapping on doors. The inventory screen is a standard backpack that you click on to lay everything out, and once again to fold it all backup. There are some additions that were warmly received, such as typing in coordinates or having to decipher ancient tribal marks by guessing the intended meaning. These were a high point for me, as I hate it when a game just fills in the blanks, and it was a challenge reading notes and figuring out what word was needed.
However, the puzzles are as divided as the crevasse in the game. Some of them are so simple; you’ll do them in your sleep. Some are so difficult; I had to look them up in a walkthrough. Maybe I’m just dumb, but there’s a key puzzle that I doubt I would’ve ever gotten, and even having the answer after an hour’s worth of head scratches, I’m still confused on how it made sense. Sometimes the game will give you a vague idea of what to do next, only to find that a small map has been added to a back wall somewhere between scenes, expecting you to notice. The puzzles that do work are amazing, though; I enjoyed one where you have to use tracking equipment by moving around and triangulating coordinates.
One of the best parts of this game is the audio design. When it comes to horror games, this is a must. Music is free, open source catalog music, but it’s used perfectly. When the darkness hits, the game’s tone shifts into one of the most terrifying I’ve experienced in a while. Slow and methodical, the subtle use is refreshing in an era of using heavy-handed soundtracks to convey a fright. The voice actors are also top notch and sound like they were directed very well for an indie title. The dialogue could’ve been cringe-worthy, but the actors deliver every line with precise execution.
The character artwork is a nice touch, adding a lot of dimensions that could’ve been two character models standing in a pre-rendered room talking. While they help, they lack any kind of shading or dimension and come across as Flat Stanley cut-outs. The locations are also very well done, but don’t convey any kind of stress or help add to the horror. It does, however, feel like a bunker in the middle of nowhere, but I would’ve loved to see some additional attention to bringing the scares to the forefront.
Cutscenes are well paced, and might be some of the scariest parts of the game. Both because of clever camera movement and direction, but also because they look like they came right out of The Adventure Company’s catalog. To say they look best suited for the early 90’s would be kind. They’re very stiff and lack any polish. The developers seem like they know this, so they cleverly hid these shortcomings by placing the slower moving moments in darkness, while using fast-paced editing in more lit conditions. Despite the very dated graphics, they do a great job with the tools they had.
At the end of the day, Alpha Polaris does many things right but falls on its face too many times for me to fully recommend. If you’re a fan of games like Syberia or Broken Sword, you’ll probably get some enjoyment out of this one. I mean, in all honesty, adventure games seem like a guilty pleasure for many fans, so what’s one more? If you’re not a fan of the genre, this game won’t change your mind. It’s marred by too many structural problems, and while it hits moments of amazing atmosphere, the rest of the game feels like a slog. I do commend the team for tackling an ambitious and unique experience, and I hope they continue honing their craft because, for a first game, this was a good entry.