Review for Almost My Floor
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When a new developer releases their first adventure game, you never know what to expect. Will they play it safe? Will they fall on their faces? Will they make some homage to 1990s graphic adventures and just add a bunch of crude jokes? Will they surprise everyone with a surprisingly polished gem? Almost My Floor, from husband-and-wife Russian team Potata Company, is definitely one of the latter, and boy does it come out swinging. It’s a bold blend of traditional point-and-click adventure with an investigative detective game, timed action sequences, and captivating pen-and-ink comic-book-style graphics. It's a grotesque horror game about loss, heartbreak, morality, and dangerous psychotropic experiments where choice matters. It has its shortcomings, but it’s a thrilling adventure from start to finish.
Almost My Floor starts in a cold open with our “hero” in an interrogation room, looking like he's been through hell. As he begins telling his story to the police officer, we jump back and see Alex just as he’s arriving home to his run-down apartment building, reeling from some strange and sad events in his life. Here the basic mechanics are introduced in a short instructional graphic, and they’ll all be very familiar. The interface is largely point-and-click, played entirely with the mouse. You click anywhere on the scrolling 2D background to move Alex or double-click to run. There's a permanent inventory bar lining the top of the screen, along with an icon that highlights every hotspot in the current scene with a white glow (or, randomly, with a white dot over top). When you click on people or objects of interest, Alex will either perform the default action (if only one action can be performed) or a small verb coin pops up, allowing you to either look or interact.
This is also where we discover that Alex is an unlikable protagonist. In the very first playable scene, if you “look” at a woman named Masha on the main floor of their apartment building, Alex suddenly slaps her on the butt. The moment is shocking, and if you keep using the “look” function, he'll actually do it twice until she kicks him and he says to himself that he doesn't want to take it “too far.” Too late, Alex! It's surprising that this action is unavoidable as moments later you’ll encounter another major mechanic that would have really come in handy here. At various points throughout the game, Alex is presented with a decision to do something potentially good or evil and you, the player, get to make the choice. “Where was that two minutes ago!?” I wondered, but clearly Alex is not a man without significant character flaws. Even if you roleplay him as good guy when you're making choices for him later on, he generally comes across as cynical and misanthropic.
These good/evil choice points occur at various times when difficult situations pop up. A familiar cartoon angel and devil will appear over his shoulders, encouraging him to, for example, club someone that's standing in his way or find a peaceful resolution. This system is deployed in a really clever way, as the “evil” option is always the easier one at the time but creates consequences for you later in the game. The “good” option generally requires more thought or more steps, but will pay off later on with characters being friendly or helpful to you. The prospect of encountering people again and having them react to you depending on how you treated them earlier is a really effective incentive to make thoughtful decisions. Your cumulative choices, for better or worse, lead to one of two potential endings that vary in small but significant ways. You'll need to play twice if you want to experience both.
After puzzling through some difficulty in the lobby of the building, Alex hops in the elevator up to his apartment. We've had hints already that something strange might be happening here: inanimate objects moving weirdly, some eerie stuff visible in the background. But this elevator ride is where things fly off the tracks into a truly surreal and horrific reality. Alex's elevator blazes right past his floor, past the top floor of his building, past all conceivable numbers. When it finally dumps him out, he's in a different world than the one from which he entered—a world filled with twisted and monstrous creatures made of eyes, exposed red flesh, and sinew. Blood pours from the vents, and Alex's neighbors now seem to be warped or possessed versions of themselves.
The rest of his journey is characterized by trying to survive this demonic apartment building and the creatures within it, as the world becomes increasingly abnormal and bizarre. In trying to escape, you'll take the same elevator up and down the building, facing monsters and solving puzzles, as well as flashing back to the events of the past week of Alex's life. You’ll soon discover that his girlfriend Nika went missing after she began seeing unusual things around their new apartment, and Alex, still mourning the recent loss of his dog and overwhelmed by Nika's paranoia, screamed at her. Now she won't answer her phone and no one else has seen her. Missing person posters featuring her face are plastered over the walls.
As odd as the setting is, the puzzles are fairly par for the course for point-and-click adventure games. You’ll explore a scene looking for ideas or items to distract a character so you can walk past them or take something they don't want you to have. You’ll read a fairly innocuous document and use details from it to figure out what order to press a series of symbols. You’ll convince characters to help you by doing favors for them and combine inventory or find missing keys to open cabinets—all the goodies we've come to expect from the genre. There's nothing spectacular about the puzzles here, but they're breezy and logical and enjoyable diversions from your exploration of the world.
Where Almost My Floor does take a risk is in its inclusion of action sequences. The story is periodically interrupted by moments of violence as the building makes new attempts to kill Alex. Almost all of them are connected to the same mini-game: a precision challenge where you have an arrow zipping horizontally across the length of a bar that must be stopped at the right colored spot before a timer runs out. The mini-games only take a few seconds, but if you misclick even once, Alex will die and you'll have to start the challenge over. There are also a few other mini-games that require quick thinking or quick reflexes or a combination of the two, whether fiddling with wires under duress or blocking an onslaught of laser blasts, for example. While these sequences create a mild twitchy challenge, they’re pretty forgiving as they come and go quickly, and if you fail you can simply try again.
But all that is only half the game.
About a third of the way through Almost My Floor, Alex’s chapters begin to alternate with those of a private detective named Adam Trust. He's been hired by Nika's parents to look into her disappearance, and his search takes him almost immediately to the apartment. Everywhere you visit as Alex in a hellscape populated by monsters and horror, you revisit as Adam but instead see a normal decrepit building. By bringing in another character to unravel the tangled mess the first character has unwittingly made, the game cleverly plays with your sense of reality by experiencing each event in an entirely different light. You, the player, begin to reckon with Alex's odd or even monstrous behavior, even as Adam begins to discover that something complex and possibly even conspiratorial might be happening here.
Adam's chapters generally consist of detective-style gameplay. The interface is the same, but there are no timed events and all the puzzles take the form of finding keys and codes to access more information. You’ll thoroughly pore over each scene, looking for any clues you can, interrogating characters, and generally investigating Nika's disappearance in a way that Alex doesn't have the resources or time to as he struggles to survive in his distorted reality. What’s particularly ingenious is that as Adam you're investigating the bizarre actions you yourself have committed as Alex in the intervening chapters! It's a really clever juxtaposition that works very well.
All told, Almost My Floor is broken into seven chapters comprising about three hours of gameplay. While on the short side, the experience feels very tightly plotted and wraps up at just the right moment, before it has a chance to wear out its welcome. There is very little fat on this game, as every scene effectively serves the story being told or the world being built.
One of the things in no danger of ever wearing out its welcome is the art style. The cut-scenes are delivered in lightly animated comic book panels that slash across the screen. The hip-looking character designs are punctuated by thick, black, inky outlines and white borders to make them pop out of the frenetic background drawings. The dialogue, while not voiced, is appropriately expressed through speech bubbles.
In the game proper, these bold character sprites are dropped into incredibly detailed backgrounds that perfectly evoke the feeling of a grimy, low-rent apartment. Even before the horror starts to creep in, you'll already be feeling uneasy about the stucco walls held together by tape or the overly cluttered notice boards. Then, as more supernatural elements begin to seep in, the atmosphere is cranked up even further. Instead of simply presenting a grim world of demonic horror with dark colors and the occasional splatter of blood, Almost My Floor achieves this effect with a full color palette. A patch of glowing blue hands reaching down from a light fixture is every bit as creepy as Alex stumbling over a pile of dark red viscera on a ground tinged with slime, a room full of floating green eyeballs, or a pack of ghostly silhouetted figures staring dead-eyed through a window.
Even in Adam's more realistic scenes, the environments ooze a pervading sense of disquiet. When you discover a dead body, it’s not in a gruesome horror game tableau of blood and gore, it’s found sitting in an eerily crooked posture, leaving it up to your imagination to fill in the blanks about the person’s tragic fate. Later, when Adam visits the office of a powerful but suspicious figure, the office is clean and extravagant but subtle demonic imagery is scattered about to unsettle you.
Likewise the sound does a great job of establishing atmosphere. The music emulates the kinds of horror movies that clearly inspired it with tense and echoing pianos or low-droning tones that leave you constantly expecting something to pop out (though, truthfully, this isn't really a “jump-scare” kind of game). The effects add an immersive ambiance, with buzzing fluorescent lights and the harsh wet sounds of the game’s many grotesqueries pulling you deeper into a world gone seriously awry.
My biggest criticisms of the game are about the writing. For the most part the script succeeds in creating tension, delivering a very competent horror story that goes to interesting places. Where it fails is in an English translation that leaves a lot to be desired, as much of the dialogue suffers from grammar and syntax errors or just feels kind of stilted and unnatural, without the benefit of voice acting to compensate. What’s worse is that its ending doesn't fully jive with the rest of the narrative up to that point. The game leads to an incredibly tense climax, it’s followed up with a denouement that's a little too neat and light. While the mystery wraps up satisfyingly, the character arc resolutions feel a bit hollow and unearned. For a game that seems to pull no punches with its creative choices throughout, I was slightly let down by a finale that feels as safe as could be.
Despite this late stumble, Almost My Floor is incredibly impressive overall, especially for a two-person indie team. The artwork is stunning, and the gameplay integrates some moments of danger and tension while mostly offering a lot of traditional point-and-click goodness. The timed sequences might be somewhat divisive, but they’re so simple they really shouldn't diminish the enjoyment of what is otherwise a very solid adventure game, even for the most action-averse gamer. With its clever dual narratives, evocative soundtrack, and amazingly illustrated artwork, Potata Company has achieved an unflinchingly bold horror experience that makes it easy to recommend to any genre fan.