Adventure Gamers Awards
It seems every culture has its boogeyman. The Mexicans tell tales of the chupacabra, the Himalayan mountains are rumored to be filled with abominable snowmen, and some Native American tribes tell stories of the Wendigo, an evil spirit inspired by cold and hunger. Alpha Polaris, a psychological thriller set in remote, northern Greenland, focuses on this last mythological monster. The spirit of the Wendigo is said to possess the minds of humans in cold climates, driving them insane and causing them to kill and eat their fellow man. That’s bad news for a remote arctic research team but good news for players, as this game weaves the legend into a slow-burning horror. It does have some weak areas in terms of graphics and limited scope, but these don’t mitigate some truly effective storytelling. Alpha Polaris is creepy, and I mean that in a good way.
The game is set at an exploratory oil facility, many long miles from civilization. You play as Rune, a Norwegian student who is a guest of the station working on his thesis on polar bears. As play begins, the facility is already abuzz with excitement, as a stray bear has wandered onto the grounds. Elsewhere, Al, the leader of the expedition, has found a crevasse filled with oil, along with something strange that he can’t wait to show everybody. This turns out to be some human bones and an aged picture showing dark images and strange pictograms. These artifacts become the harbinger of extremely trying times for the team, as an ancient spirit slowly but surely begins to make its presence known.
What makes Alpha Polaris really work as a horror story is that it takes its time gathering momentum. Apart from the wounded polar bear in need of sedation and care, it’s initially business as usual at the base when the game opens, and it isn’t until Al returns with his creepy cargo that the evocative music suddenly takes a twisted turn to a minor key to hint of something spooky going on. Even then, the growing evil only takes the form of nightmares at first, before gradually intensifying with increasingly irrational behavior among the team. From there, Rune’s focus shifts to learning more about this strange menace and how to fight against it, eventually resulting in some fairly intense scenarios. The tension builds so gradually, at times the cause is easy to doubt. Are you and your friends really being preyed upon by an ancient evil? Or is it simply a pervasive case of cabin fever?
Along with starting slow, Alpha Polaris feels a bit smaller than the average adventure game. It’s not that it’s too short, though at around 5-7 hours it clocks in at a little less than average. But the facility you spend most of your time in has fewer than a dozen locations inside, and only five or six outside. You visit the crevasse at one point, but apart from that trip Rune spends all of his time in the station’s various bedrooms, laboratory, radio room, and garage. Still, it could be argued that this sense of confinement suits the nature of the story. Much of the creepiness stems from the heightened sense of isolation and helplessness. The basis of the Wendigo legend is the natural horror of an unforgiving winter environment, the terror of frostbite and starvation in an arctic landscape. Here there is really no place to go, no place to hide when trouble begins.
With limited locations to explore, the story is carried mostly by the characters. In addition to Rune and Al, there is also Tully, a coarse and somewhat obnoxious handyman; Nova, an attractive girl whom Rune naturally has a crush on and whose family background gives her special insight into the situation; and Alistair, the arrogant son of the company’s CEO, who shows up by helicopter partway through the game. They all have defined and believable characters, though Tully and Alistair seem a little clichéd at times. Better yet, the dynamics between characters allow some scenes to really resonate. There’s an interesting conversation between Rune and Al about whether the aurorae is more a scientific or spiritual event. And there’s a cute, if obvious, love triangle set up between Rune, Nova, and Alistair. With such a strong setup, however, the ending was wrapped up a little too quickly for me, as I expected a more substantial conclusion to the relationships that had been developed.
Alpha Polaris has a fairly typical interface for a third-person adventure. Each screen has numerous hotspots, all of which can be examined by right-clicking on them, and several of which can be manipulated by left-clicking. Like most adventures these days, all hotspots can be revealed by clicking a button, which is rather helpful here as some items would be very difficult to pick out from the backgrounds otherwise. Left-clicking on Rune himself prompts a message explaining the current goals, which makes for an unintrusive task list. Rune doesn’t run, but exits can be double-clicked to ‘warp’ him instantly there, though this is visually a bit jarring. The inventory icon is displayed at the bottom left corner of the screen and can be opened with a simple click, revealing all your items. Some must be combined to solve certain puzzles, while others (like Rune’s notebook) reveal important info simply by examining them.
Most of the puzzles are fairly simple to figure out, solved by using inventory items and certain tools and devices in the environment. Some are as easy as following instructions, like when Rune is making a baked Alaska for Nova. But effort has been made to add different kinds of challenges as well. Hearkening back to the days before point-and-click, some sections require you to actually type in an answer to a question. Early on, for example, you are questioned how to move a 500-pound polar bear into a cage. Later these puzzles take the form of translating pictograms you discover. Using clues the game provides, you’ll need to determine just what certain pictures represent. I found this frustrating at first, as the game would fail to recognize many of my answers as correct. But as I got the hang of the logic behind them and solved a few, the rest became much easier and the puzzle as a whole felt quite satisfying.
A couple of other puzzles are less intuitive. One has you using a tracking device and moving Rune’s character around very precisely to triangulate a position. It’s a little different, but still based heavily in logic and didn’t give too much trouble. Where I found myself baffled was a particular puzzle in which you need to cut pins on a blank key in order to make a master key that unlocks all the doors of the facility. I found some other key shapes to base my master key design on, but that is all the help the game provides. Personally I have no experience with keys or their workings, and even after I looked up the answer I still was confused as to how I was supposed to arrive at the solution. This puzzle is an isolated incident, however, as the majority are much better about giving you all the information you need.
The graphics in Alpha Polaris are a bit of a mixed bag. The design is a little bit dull and there isn’t a lot of color for the most part, though in fairness an isolated facility in arctic Greenland doesn’t provide the most interesting visual setting. The characters also tend to move stiffly, and Rune walking through a bead curtain at one point looks like he’s passing through a hologram. On the other hand, there are other elements that work quite well. There are some very nice mountains in the exterior backdrops, the aurorae that appears at night is quite pretty to look at and adds some badly needed color, and the close-up portraits of the characters are excellent. These drawings appear whenever you’re in a conversation, and although static (save for the occasional blinking) they display a good deal of character. More emotional scenes show a different depiction of the character in a more agitated state to provide a little more variety. These portraits are an effective addition, as the in-game character models have virtually no sense of life or expression at all.
The characters are further enhanced by the solid voice acting. While Rune doesn’t feel the need to audibly state his observations as you explore, all conversations are fully voiced and done fairly well. There are a few moments that feel a little overdone, particularly with Tully, but these are rare. The interface for conversations is fairly typical, presenting a selection of topics to ask about, or sometimes even the tone you want Rune’s response to be (i.e. rude or polite). While these choices can lead to slightly different lines of dialogue, they all eventually lead to the same place. The only exception I could find was one choice late in the game, where a certain response to Nova led to a fairly graphic extra scene of animation.
Alpha Polaris shows signs of being an independent studio’s first offering in terms of both scope and graphical limitations, but it’s still a commendable title. The environments may feel a bit flat at times, but the character portraits are a welcome visual touch. And while some puzzles feel too easy, others provide a good challenge, often with a different approach than the typical point-and-click inventory format. The game takes a slow-burning, creepy psychological tack in unveiling its horror, and though the climax is a little too brief for such a gradual climb, overall this method pays off nicely in a story that has some truly unnerving moments that stand in stark contrast to its early peaceful origins. Ultimately, Alpha Polaris succeeds in the areas that matters most, and horror adventure fans shouldn’t miss it.