Alien Function review
Sir Typhil of Artovya is back in Alien Function, the fourth installment in Stand Off Software’s 3D point-and-click series. The problem is, Typhil doesn’t remember who he is, which makes for a good entry point for players unfamiliar with his previous adventures. While there could have been a few more touches to add life to the game’s rather sparsely designed locations, with challenging but fair puzzles, a fine voice cast, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, and a significantly different environment than before, there’s much to enjoy here for both existing fans and newcomers alike.
As the game opens, Typhil is a rather spiritless office worker aboard the starship Spearhead – unless, that is, you play the tutorial first, in which case he’s a wannabe knight in a pseudo-medieval town – a fact that cleverly ties into the previous games, in which he actually was precisely that. While Typhil can’t remember his former exploits, being a knight and adventuring with a unicorn, elves, and dwarves is what he dreams about at night. During the day he shares a small office with his coworker Alloya, a female robot who is connected to all the gossip on the ship.
Typhil’s mission aboard the Spearhead is to boldly go and resolve soil condition work orders for the vessel’s rutabaga garden. Via the Dirt Pro application on his office computer, which presents a rudimentary Windows 95-esque interface, you must adjust soil conditions, balance fertilizer components, and oversee the use of pesticides to keep the crop going strong. After finishing his tickets for the day, the protagonist heads out to have a drink with his buddy Dan, then it’s back to Typhil’s spartan quarters for a night’s sleep before doing it all over again.
On paper it doesn’t sound particularly engaging, but that’s intentional as the idea is to show how repetitive and full of drudgery Typhil’s days are. However, even during these early sections Alien Function never feels like a chore. In part this is due to how the work orders have been set up. Typhil has access to various files on his computer, and sometimes he has to head out to other parts of the ship in order to piece together the information needed to solve a particular Dirt Pro challenge. For example, one assignment requires adjusting sliders that control the numerical quantities of half a dozen chemicals used in the rutabaga fertilizer. The exact values aren’t directly provided. Instead you’re given only partial details to work with, such as the amount of potassium always being half the amount of phosphorous, or the amount of nitrogen must be greater than any other amount. Between having to locate the needed information and then comprehend how to use it, these early Dirt Pro puzzles are surprisingly engaging.
If balancing numbers with deductive reasoning isn’t interesting enough on its own, little hints of a deeper plot start to appear as well. Among the emails Typhil receives are messages from the ship’s unseen middle-management. In stereotypically bureaucratic lingo, when a couple of people are found dead it’s described as a “compliance deviation.” Meanwhile, HR urges people dreaming about fantasy lands with dwarves and elves to seek psychiatric help, almost as if they could read Typhil’s mind. The storytelling is quite clever in that it never makes a big deal of these elements, just slipping them into places where you’re sure to find them as you’re looking for the data to complete your current task.
The same sort of approach to the Dirt Pro puzzles carries over to the things Typhil needs to accomplish outside of his computer. The game generally provides broad overall goals, such as helping to restore the memories of your crewmates, but then leaves players to get on with things. It’s up to you to note all the details in your surroundings and in the various computer documents available to you, and to logically think through how those different elements could connect together. This is one game for which you’ll definitely want to have a pen and paper handy to jot down important notes. The puzzle design is nicely done, and everything makes intuitive sense in the context of the game.
The first few days are primarily focused on fulfilling work orders, with each subsequent day providing the opportunity to access a new part of the ship and meet the various crew members stationed there. Existing fans of the series will doubtless recognize the blue-skinned elf Llyrin tending the crops, or the dwarves Grimble and Lorna as the ship’s doctor and head engineer, respectively. As with Typhil, none of them remember that they come from a fantasy land either. As far as anyone knows, they’ve always been aboard the starship.
I had never played any of the games in the series before, and in fact was not even aware Alien Function was part of a series until after the credits rolled and a message for the next installment appeared. But this was in no way a hindrance. As everyone aboard the Spearhead has forgotten who they were, it’s like coming in at the very start of the new narrative, not trying to catch up four games into an old one. Eventually the characters regain their memories, which is done in a very satisfying way that feels organic to this particular tale. None of what’s come before is essential to understanding what’s going on, though I’m sure there are probably nuances to the character relationships that I missed.
Naturally, if an entire cast of medieval characters has been brought aboard a starship with their memories erased, it can’t be for anything other than nefarious purposes. Without spoiling anything too important, let’s just say the game earns the “Alien” part of its title quite honestly. As Typhil uncovers more and more, the plot that brought everyone here is slowly revealed. Much of this is accomplished once Typhil receives some training in basic computer hacking.
As with many hacking games that consist of typing various commands into a text interface, Alien Function does that too, with commands such as “connect” to establish a link to a remote computer, “ls” and “open” to list and view files, respectively, and “chper” to grant people more access permissions. These commands are conveniently provided in an email when you first learn how to hack, with additional ones discovered as you progress. You’re not locked into extended bouts of text-only hacking with nothing else to do, however. As with the Dirt Pro work orders, the game mixes things up online by requiring Typhil to consult his email and other documents through the normal graphical interface. And just when you might start to feel too bound to Typhil’s screen, you’ll have to go exploring through the ship to gather information to progress on the computer, such as locating the serial numbers of equipment he can control remotely.
The highlight of Alien Function’s hacking comes when Typhil eventually gets advanced training. Hollywood tends to present hacking as some near-manic programmer typing a mile a minute while high-energy synth music plays in the background and multiple windows open and whoosh around all over the desktop. And that’s exactly what happens here. It’s not a puzzle so much as a hilariously fun interlude where the game expects you to type anything you want on the keyboard, accompanied by all those clichéd standbys. It’s the only time I’ve ever played a hacking sim that made me feel like one of those 1337 H4X0Rs (elite hackers), and the crazy thing is that I didn’t really have to do anything. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it absolutely does!
Outside of Typhil’s computer, the rest of the game operates in fairly typical point-and-click fashion. Two interaction modes are provided, use and look, which are toggled between with a right-click. In either mode, left-click will then perform the related action on the object selected. In use mode, Typhil will attempt to take, manipulate, or converse with the target item or person. In look mode a narrator, harkening back to the old Sierra games, will provide a description of the object being observed. In both modes, clicking on any non-active area of a room will cause Typhil to walk to that spot. An inventory bar can be made visible by moving the mouse to the top of the screen, where items can be examined, combined, or selected for use in the environment.
The places you’ll visit are primarily functional. Whether it’s the garden with its plots of rutabagas or the medical bay with a few sickbeds arrayed about, for the most part the various rooms around the ship are just empty boxes with a few basic elements added. Some effort has gone into differentiating their look through the colours and details used in their texturing, but a bit more clutter would have helped make them feel like real places.
Early on, moving between the different locations is fast and easy. Rooms like engineering and the education center are scattered about the ship. However, instead of having to walk everywhere the long way, using the door of the current room presents a simple list from which a different scene can be chosen. Late in the game, matters change as Typhil takes control of a floating security bot. During this section, Typhil remains on his computer and guides the security bot in his place, accompanied by Alloya. Still using point-and-click, you maneuver it through corridors in a real-time 3D, over-the-shoulder presentation to access new rooms. The problem is that the corridors are looong and the bot is slooooow. Given that you have to collect information and items in one room to use in another, I would have preferred the bot have a much peppier movement speed.
Animations in Alien Functional are minimal. There’s the odd moment of Typhil gesturing at another character from across the room to represent him giving them something, or vice versa, and a few basic animations for characters standing up or being shown to hold an item while walking, but that’s about it. No attempt has even been made to animate characters’ mouths when they’re talking. The lack of motion makes the scenes feel a bit lifeless at times and a few more animations would have gone a long way to countering this.
While there’s a dearth of motion, there’s no such lack of voice-overs. All characters are fully voiced and generally done quite well. There are a few minor technical quibbles, such as the odd breath pop here and there, but nothing hugely offensive to the ear. One touch I liked related to Typhil’s voice in particular. Before he gets his memory back, his voice has a sort of sleepy, ground-down quality, as if he’s fighting off the boredom and drudgery of his day job. The moment he gets back his memory, he becomes Sir Typhil of Artovya again, with both his voice and his demeanour hardening and becoming more determined. It’s an excellent character moment.
The rest of the soundscape is unobtrusive, though there are occasional sound effects for the firing of lasers (don’t worry, there are no action sequences here) or the hiss of gas being routed about the ship, which do add to such moments. Musically the game plays what I can only describe as fairytale elevator muzak early on when Typhil’s going about the daily grind of his job. Later things become more uptempo while staying in that fantasy-styled vein, which weirdly works even aboard a futuristic starship.
There is only a single progressive autosave, but fortunately this kicks in every time you change location, so you do have some control over when saves happen. Not that you need much, as the game amusingly defies the current trend towards player choice by stating at the beginning: “This series does not adapt to how you play. You will be railroaded through the story with your choices having little to no effect on the outcome.” Which is just as well; coming in at a little under seven hours, there’s a good amount to play through without having to replay simply to try different options.
Alien Function is a great hopping-on point for the adventures of Sir Typhil. While there are three games’ worth of backstory for the protagonist and the other characters, the dramatic change of setting and the conceit of everyone having lost their memories means no prior familiarity is needed. Although the production values are decidedly modest, the sense of mystery as to what exactly is going on is fun to play through, and the quirky sense of humour is enjoyably tongue-in-cheek, while a solid set of tough but fair puzzles keeps the brain ticking away nicely. It’s a testament to the overall quality of the game that, upon completing it I now intend to go back and play all the previous entries while I eagerly look forward to seeing what Typhil and company, a gang of fairytale characters in outer space, will get up to next.
Its visual presentation is decidedly modest, but solid brain teasers, a quirky sense of humour, and engaging computer hacking elements make Alien Function a lot of fun to play even without any prior knowledge of the Sir Typhil series.