Firstly let’s address the elephant in the room. Alpha Polaris pays “homage” to John Carpenter’s The Thing at almost every turn. The setting, the themes of isolation, paranoia and distrust, and the lurking, ever-present evil are all highly reminiscent of Carpenter’s classic. Choosing such an iconic piece of horror cinema as a template is a risky enough venture, but to then decide to produce the game as a point and click horror adventure could be seen as madness on the part of developers Turmoil Games. Strangely enough, however, the craziest thing isn’t the overreaching ambition, the lack of budget, or the fact that the team consisted of only five people, but that they just about pull it off.
Alpha Polaris tells the story of Rune Knudsen, a Norwegian biologist working with the crew of an American oil research station studying the migration patterns of Polar Bears. For the first twenty minutes you’re left to explore the game’s few locations while the research crew happily go about their business, allowing you to familiarise yourself with your location and get to know your fellow inhabitants. It’s a slow start and all the better for it. The camp interior consists of ten or so locations, which take little time to navigate. It’s not until you venture outside for the first time that you realise how isolated and (deliberately) small the station is. True to the genre’s rules it’s not long before a crew member arrives back from an exploration with a macabre find that just might be tied to an ancient evil intent on destroying mankind…
The story is nothing new and plays out with no great surprises. But it’s an involving enough tale with interesting ties to Native American mythologies. Thanks to the game’s cunning design, factors that would normally condemn a game to the bargain bin only serve to strengthen Alpha Polaris. The limited locations soon become unnerving and claustrophobic. The infrequent set pieces serve to make those that that do occur all the more effective, with the player consistently experiencing a “calm before the storm” mentality. While not great, the voice acting is competent, as is the game engine (Wintermute). There are cut-scenes to enjoy which, although obviously suffering from budgetary constraints, are well placed, and serve to heighten the atmosphere. They’re heavy on action, blood and, yes, nudity.
As with The Thing, it’s a case of not trusting those around you while trying to stay alive and work together. A simple concept, well implemented. Exploration is kept to a minimum, but every time you revisit a location it’s with an increased sense of dread, an emotion heightened by the game’s subtle soundtrack. Alpha Polaris is not a game to rush – it’s at its most rewarding when you take the time to soak up the atmosphere and simply enjoy the events and mythology.
It’s not all good news. The game is short (don’t be surprised if you finish it in a single afternoon). Also (and this is somewhat of an issue for a point and click adventure game), Alpha Polaris has one or two puzzles that are frankly ludicrous, the solutions for which are based on anything but logic (I have to admit I was forced to resort to a cheeky read of a walkthrough). Thankfully, however, the game’s execution, story and character interaction are more than enough to justify a purchase. It’s an entertaining, ambitious and well-crafted adventure that doesn’t deserve the cold shoulder.
Alpha Polaris is set for imminent UK release, or can be purchased directly from the developers via the link below.