The Macintosh platform used to be a citadel of independent game production, and while the capacity for computer games to be produced first on the Mac has dwindled over the last ten years, certain games have still kept the torch aflame. Not only that, but a few games are even making the fateful leap into the PC realm after being besieged with requests from fans.
Alida is the most-recent Macintosh game to get the Windows treatment. After being almost fanatically well-reviewed on most Macintosh gaming websites, it is really no surprise that it is being released on the PC by Got Game Entertainment. The only question that we really need to ask ourselves is this: does Alida have what it takes to enjoy success with a larger audience of PC-users?
To begin, let's take a look at the type of adventure we are looking at. For an overly-general summary, think of Alida as Myst if it was created in 2002. From the visual look to its emphasis on puzzles, Alida just screams "Myst-clone." Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you enjoy first-person puzzle adventures. Alida, by sheer virtue of its publishing date, improves in almost every area compared to the original Myst. Unfortunately, improving on an old classic does not a new classic make, especially when there are a wealth of other Myst clones for the PC to spend your money on. While Alida is a respectable-enough adventure to deserve being ported from the Mac, it necessitates a highly specific audience: those that gravitate towards first-person puzzle adventures. If you even passingly wince at the thought of playing through this sort of game, stay far, far away from Alida. While people devoted to this sub-genre may be willing to overlook Alida's deficiencies, virtually all other types of gamers will be alienated by them.
The basic storyline of Alida is simple. According to the introduction, you are sent to the theme park island of Alida which is famous for having the world's largest playable guitar. Your goal is to discover the fate of one of the rock star musicians that built it. If you can accept this alternate reality as a suitable storyline, my congratulations go to you. For me, the island of Alida is one of those game settings where you would be hard-pressed to understand why a millionaire would build so many puzzles into every little door and walkway. Although it is an admittedly hokey setting, however, the story is still a lot easier to understand than many other first-person adventures, especially compared to the original Myst which Alida clearly resembles. It's nice to have some semblance of a plot, even with a gaping hole or two. My biggest nitpick with the plot of Alida is apparent in the first scene, which starts you off on a railing hundreds of feet above the water with no explanation of how you arrived there. No boat is in sight, and there appears to be no possible way to return to the mainland. While this kind of introduction worked for the fantasy world of Myst, Alida suffers for it.
Overlooking the plot, the visuals in Alida are easily its best asset. Some of the textures are simply mind-boggling in their complexity, as well as the amount of detail in various elements of the world architecture. If you're like me, you'll probably be craning your neck more than once just to figure out how the developers crammed so much detail into something like a chair. Unfortunately, this detail comes at a price. You'll also be craning your neck forward to squint at the frustrating maximum resolution of 800 x 600. While you can adjust your desktop to 800 x 600 and experience the game in full screen, those with LCD monitors or non-standard screens (such as laptops with 1280 x 800 resolution) will probably have to run the game with a large black border around the game window. This is a pity, as Alida's visual production is excellent. It improves on the original Myst in leaps and bounds, and is only hairs away from the devastatingly beautiful environments of Riven. Having a choice in resolutions for the game would have gone a long way towards making the visuals stand out on any monitor, regardless of size.
Alida, like Myst and other first-person adventures that followed it, also incorporates FMV and CGI sequences. I particularly enjoyed the short FMV scenes and elaborate CGI animations. While similar scenes in Myst and even Riven stood out as pixellated, blocky additions, the FMV scenes in Alida are crisp and blend well with the scenery, and the CGI animations are seamlessly embedded into the background screens. Both rendering and digital film technology have clearly conquered mountains over the last few years. After Alida, if I find poor FMV in any new adventure game, I'm apt to tear my hair out.
Moving on to more functional things, the interface of Alida is very much derivative of its predecessors, although again this is not a bad thing. Control is entirely mouse-based, with a cursor that changes to a hand over "hotspots" or to a magnifying glass on areas that you can magnify. These conventions are tried and true and work quite well for the game. In addition, there is no pixel-hunting whatsoever in Alida. There is only one item to pick up and it is easily utilized. However, without any apparent inventory interface, a few gamers might not explicitly remember that they picked it up.
Before I continue on to evaluating the actual gameplay of Alida, it is important for a section of this review devoted to the installation process. Most games nowadays are trivial to install (just double-click on setup.exe), but setting up Alida is much more involved. The game manual carefully instructs you to copy the Alida game folder onto your desktop or chosen folder to play. This flashback to 1993 seemed a little out of a place for a game released in 2004. This is not the optimum install scenario, however, as you will realize when you first run the game. Transitions between scenes will be slow, as each and every image is accessed from the CD-ROM. The manual (in an entirely separate section) explains that to reduce this lag, you need to copy the contents of the 5 CD-ROMs into the Alida game folder. This takes an unbearably long time as you individually insert the CDs and drag their folders into your install directory. Considering that Alida is a modern game charged at a modern price, I expected more out of the installation process than an exercise in Windows file management. A simple setup.exe with options for a Minimum or Complete install would have gone a long way towards improving my initial impressions.
Also, a word on the technology behind the game: the core of Alida is heavily dependent on Quicktime. The engine is used for everything from displaying screens to integrating FMV to cross fading effects. It is absolutely imperative, if you have installed Quicktime on your own, to go into your options and let Quicktime download everything it possibly can. I am not joking here. When the game reminded me that it was built with Quicktime 6, I scoffed, knowing that my personal install of Quicktime 6.5 was perfectly set up to run videos. As it turns out, running Alida with a basic or customized version of Quicktime will have a huge number of problems. Image transitions won’t fade into one another and movies displayed will have noticeable white flashes. It wasn't until I let the Quicktime auto-updater run wild that Alida ran much smoother on my PC.
While letting Quicktime install literally everything it wishes on your computer is an unsavory necessity, it does fix the majority of problems users will probably experience with the game. Note that I said "majority"; Alida does have bugs. I encountered a frequent exception with ntdll.dll, especially towards the end of the game. While the solution at this point is as simple as saving often, I was fairly disappointed with the technical core behind Alida. When you're worried about transition lag or crashing to desktop, the pleasure of solving many of Alida's puzzles is drastically reduced.
And Alida does have many of them-- puzzles, that is. The entire island, guitar and all, is built around them. While it is pretty ludicrous for a band of musicians to have the technical prowess to develop complex puzzles having to do with light, sound and astronomy, they constitute the primary game experience. After exploring the world of Alida for the first time, your goal is obvious: get the guitar to play again. This simple-sounding task is extraordinarily complex and involves gallivanting around the island solving a variety of puzzles to get different pieces of machinery to work. Although the puzzles are not nearly as connected to one another as with the puzzles of Riven, Alida does have a diverse variety and most are quite enjoyable. The difficulty is moderate, with most puzzles requiring at least good note-taking skills to solve.
Despite their difficulty, these are not puzzles for the casual adventure gamer. Alida's puzzles are extremely time-consuming and are definitely the sort you have to tell yourself, "Okay, Self. Today, I am going to mow the lawn, do the dishes, and map out how to solve Puzzle XX in Alida." While gamers who enjoy complex first-person adventures may appreciate these puzzles, most gamers will not. What cements this statement is the fact that at least 70% of the puzzles in Alida offer *no* immediate aural or visual confirmation of a successful solution. So the player might spent his entire afternoon working out the puzzle to access a bit of machinery and then find out that he actually solved it three hours earlier without realizing he had actually solved anything. The "try and check" philosophy completely fails in Alida, so most gamers will either be walking away or hitting walkthroughs after struggling with the puzzles.
I should also make note of Alida's atmosphere. Although the world doesn't overwhelm you with interactivity, the background music and sound effects do wonders towards making the game experience come alive. There are a plethora of sound effects in the game, with every lever and knob having a unique sound effect. I was considerably surprised by the raw diversity of the effects in the game. The background music is more ambient than orchestrated, but it does complement the puzzles and sound effects very well. This combination, of soothing background music and varied, if somewhat muted, sound effects, makes the experience of playing Alida quite leisurely.
As a seasoned gamer, I spent approximately 13 hours finishing the game and although I did have to consult a walkthrough for a number of puzzles, Alida succeeds at providing a developed world to explore. It is nice to find a lower-budget game that has enough "meat" to justify its commercial release. If I was truly taking my time, I might have spent a good 15-20 hours to finish Alida, choosing to explore the island more fully and work out some of the tougher puzzles on my own. Considering its $30 price tag ($10 cheaper than the original Macintosh version), Alida does indeed deliver a complete adventure experience.
Despite the failings I have noted in Alida’s puzzle design, installation process, and maximum resolution, Alida is still (by most definitions of the phrase) a good game. With its beautiful, crisp visuals and at least 10-15 hours of gameplay, Alida comes across as a multi-platform labor of love. Indeed, it warms my heart to see such games still being produced by the Macintosh gaming community. But please remember—if the thought of working out puzzles like I have described brings out the onion in you, there are easily much better choices in first-person adventures to chose from. While the problems that exist in Alida are unfortunate, the game is still recommendable to die-hard first-person adventure devotees, especially those who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and getting down and dirty with puzzles.
A quality product for its given niche of first-person graphic adventures. If you enjoy this sort of game, Alida is a worthwhile experience. Otherwise, set your sights on different fare.