Review for AlternativA
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You may not have heard much about AlternativA, a new game from Czech studios F1rst Reality and Centauri Production that flew well under the radar during its lengthy period of development. This sci-fi adventure sketches a very bleak, disturbing future that should appeal to fans of games like Blade Runner and Nightlong. Its themes are equally dark, exploring such issues as violence, corruption and abuse. Clearly, the world of AlternativA is not a nice place to live, but is it one that’s worth visiting for a short time? The answer to that is mixed. Despite its grim setting, the game itself looks great, and the gritty subject matter can make for a thought-provoking experience. Unfortunately, the actual story and gameplay behind it leave much to be desired.
The year is 2045, and with only the briefest introductory cinematic, the game starts with you (Richard Rocek) being dropped in front of a gate. An android tells you that your employer no longer has any need for your services and takes your employee pass away. Without that, you know you will be unable to find a new job and therefore be confined to the Prague Slums, the poorest of the city districts. Everybody lives in cities now, which are divided into three districts: Slums, Industry and Government, and to travel between them you need an employee pass. Making matters worse, although Richard still has his travel card, it has no credit left on it. That means he can’t even get home, so you'll have find a way to refill it through unconventional means. Once you have done so, other parts of the Slums become accessible, and later in the game you will travel to the Industry District and eventually to another city, this one in Brazil.
At first Richard accepts everything that has happened to him without thinking. When it finally sinks in, however, he starts to wonder about the way the world around him is organized and if there might be something he himself could do to change it. His former employer, Endora, is one of two gigantic corporations that now hold power over the world in tandem with the global government. Money and crime no longer exist, but nor do civil rights. Officially, neither does unemployment, but everyone without a pass is effectively doomed, as they have no possible means of getting the credits needed to live, eat and travel. There are rumours of a Resistance that might be trying to sabotage the system, but nobody wants to talk about it, as people who do tend to disappear.
With nothing left to lose, Richard decides to contact the rebel group anyway, and soon he is sent on a journey through Prague to find documents or items for people who promise snippets of useful information in return. Whether they really are with the Resistance or just trying to get someone to do something for them remains to be seen. Along the way, slowly Richard grows into a person you start to care for. As for the people he meets, they range from corrupt officials and uncooperative receptionists to friendly bartenders and amicable taxi drivers. Most of them are only a small part of the story, but some, like your roommate Andy and a mysterious person called NoName, are recurring characters. A girl named Andrea, who claims to work with the Resistance, accompanies you from Prague to Brazil. It is not always clear what everyone’s exact role is or what their motivations are, so you’ll never really know who you can trust.
Your PDA offers more background details as you progress, but there is simply not enough information to create a believable world. There are huge gaps in the history, and the player is left in the dark about many aspects of this dystopian future. The story itself is dark and depressing, telling a tale of greed, abuse, rape and corruption. It is not a future to look forward to, and the detail in which some of these stories are portrayed can be quite graphic. This makes playing the game not a very enjoyable experience, but rather a thought-provoking one. Such a story could have been a very strong point of AlternativA, but due to translation errors, inconsistently spelled names and leaps in logic, it is not nearly as compelling as it could have been. Richard sometimes seems to know details he couldn’t possibly be aware of, and there are situational discrepancies as well, such as a particular location appearing abandoned for months despite being populated as recently as the day before. None of these issues are critical, but they combine to continually chip away at the immersiveness of the story.
As you begin to explore, you’ll discover a Prague that looks devastated. Buildings are falling apart, rusting cars and machines line the streets, there’s debris everywhere, and a derailed tram in the middle of a square. Apparently the cleaning robots have stopped visiting the Slums and the garbage containers are overflowing. There are also defunct androids everywhere, and the only green in sight is plastic grass. Although it certainly isn't a scenic world, the graphics depicting this desperate, desolate world are nicely done. There is a lot of detail and animation such as running water, flapping banners, and twitching androids. The developers have even added a couple of Easter eggs in the advertisements that adorn the walls of airports, malls and train stations, like a pest spray with a rabbity logo called Samax. Less appealing than the backdrops are the character models. They tend to glide rather than walk, and there are a couple of instances where Richard spins around awkwardly when he positions himself in front of an object.
The point-and-click interface is very straightforward, with left-clicks used to carry out most commands. Many hotspots simply yield a comment from Richard, but when further interaction is allowed, a radial menu of action icons pops up to choose from. A couple of objects are very hard to find because of their tiny hotspots, but the highlight feature will mark any interactive areas onscreen if you choose the lower difficulty setting at that start of the game. (You can't switch between these modes during the game, so choose carefully.) Richard’s default walk speed is quite slow, but you can double-click to run or exit screens automatically, and you can fast travel between distant locations by clicking on the map, which you’ll get to carry with you in Brazil. The inventory is hidden at the top of the screen, and you can examine items more closely by right-clicking them there. It is important to inspect everything you acquire carefully, as this can give you clues for puzzles. Combining items is a matter of selecting one and clicking it on another, either within the inventory or on the main screen. As there are never more than ten objects in your inventory at any given time, it isn’t ever too hard to figure out what to use.
A permanent feature of the inventory is your PDA, which provides more information about such things as how the train system works or the history of the company you used to work for. The PDA also has a Note function that shows your current objective. It is a pity you can't scroll back, however, as you sometimes need to remember names of people you have met or read about much earlier. A couple of times the PDA gives you a clue about a puzzle, though a particular ‘clue’ about how an algorithm for a password might work is deliberately misleading. In this case, the PDA warns you the information may not be accurate, but it still felt unfair when I found out the information was in fact untrue, and I could never have solved the puzzle with the information provided.
Some of the puzzles are timed, and if you don't find or use the item you need within the time you are given, you will die and return to the moment just before the timed sequence started. This will happen a lot, though depending on the level of difficulty chosen, you may only be 'resurrected' a limited number of times. If you die too often, you will need to load an earlier saved game. You can load a manual save on your own to avoid using up your chances, but there are a limited number of save slots available to you. I like to experiment with branching dialogues, and twenty slots meant I had to overwrite older saves lots of times. Some puzzles are pure trial-and-error, while others have very sparse clues. For instance, you are supposed to guess a user name and password, but all you know is that you should be using lower-case letters, not what format the user name is in (last name only, combination of first and last, initials?).
Unfortunately, the game is extremely linear and suffers from a case of invisible triggers. Often it is obvious what you should be doing, but the game won't let you because you haven't looked specifically at something – or not often enough. Some objects have a different description if you look at them a second time, or after you have looked at some other unrelated object. As it is totally unclear why something that you are sure Richard should be doing isn't happening, it is sometimes necessary to go back to all previous locations and look at everything again and again to find that one object or dialogue option that has now changed and was preventing your progress. This can get tedious and detracts from the flow of the game.
At one point you are offered a choice of whether you trust someone or not. The story branches from there, and you get to play as either Andy or Andrea depending on your answer. But this is only for a short while and then the story continues as if nothing divergent had happened. After around ten hours, the game suddenly ends just when you have discovered something interesting and expect further developments. Perhaps a sequel is planned, but as it is, AlternativA leaves you with many unanswered questions and unexplained motives.
A final source of distraction is the audio. The voiceovers are mediocre, with the actors not using enough emotion to be convincing and putting the emphasis on the wrong words. They sometimes opted to fix obvious script errors while recording, like DNA being '”alternated” by a chemical, which leads to the subtitles being different from the spoken text. The sound quality is also very inconsistent. Some lines are much louder and clearer than others, as if they were recorded in different sessions and not edited properly afterwards. The music isn't bad, but it doesn't add much to the atmosphere and isn't always appropriate for the surroundings, such as an up-tempo orchestral track in a deserted neighbourhood.
Currently available only as a download through Steam, AlternativA’s grim setting and bleak themes should hold some appeal for sci-fi fans. The future it shows us is a very unattractive one, but it is feasible that such a world could exist. The story is quite unusual for a game, as rarely does something played for fun raise subjects like rape, violence and corruption as it central themes. This can trigger some strong emotions that could have made for a truly memorable adventure. Unfortunately, there are too many translation problems and story gaps that leave players guessing why things are happening or have come to be. Along with the poor sound quality and invisible gameplay triggers that hinder your progress unnecessarily, the end result is a promising game that never manages to rise above its modest station.