Alterity Experience review
When it comes to sci-fi-themed horror stories, it seems like the most popular choice has always been alien invasions. Whatever the motivation, the common thread seems to be that the visitors are hostile and we, the hapless humans, are ill-equipped to deal with them. In Alterity Experience, Anton Cornwell is a farmer in California who is better equipped than most thanks to his app-controlled security system that feels like it would be more at home in The Purge franchise than on a rural ranch. Anton's decision to defend his home with remote-controlled steel shutters on every window is never explained, or even explored, but it sure comes in handy in this debut title from Onitron Studio. The resulting experience has some great moments of tension, but a lack of direction and challenge keep it from being as solid as it could have been.
The premise is fairly straightforward, even as alien invasion stories go. There have been rumors of strange lights in the area, and a weird purple substance has been found in several local fields, including the Cornwells’ own. As Anton’s wife and two kids head out to a movie (hopefully not The Color Out of Space), he decides to stay home and study one of his eerily hued ears of corn as the crops outside literally start glowing, and things just get weirder from there. It isn't long before Anton starts getting visions from the point of view of some sort of strange ... thing out in the corn fields. Soon your security system starts blaring as unknown entities try to gain access to your home.
Keeping these invaders from entering while trying to find pertinent information in between is the central focus here. The aliens aren't too difficult to repel for most of the game; closing a window or activating the correct shutter with the remote app is enough to make them give up temporarily, though they do eventually get more aggressive. But it's the constant need to be on your toes that creates tension as you run around the house to tend to the latest threat, or desperately try to restore the power if it goes out, hoping you’re able to do so before the aliens start encroaching again. Much of the house is dark, and even switching on the lights as you go only slightly offsets the unsettling feeling of looking out a window and seeing nothing but rows of glowing purple corn stretch off into the distance.
Alterity Experience stumbled a bit more for me in the information-gathering segments, however. There are a lot of things to click on as you freely explore the ranch house in first-person 3D, from paintings to DVD cases to the living room TV, which is stuck on an image of people standing and staring at a white light (this image is never explained). But while each item yields a single printed line that maybe tells you a little bit about the family as a whole, none of them are very interesting. Even when you manage to get to what should be juicier sources of info, such as the diary of one of your kids, there's almost nothing compelling that sheds any light on the family dynamic or why you should care about Anton or anyone else in the story. It mostly just mentions the general area where you can find a key to unlock the next room in the house to search.
These keys end up being a major sticking point. Progress is made by finding the next key, unlocking the next locked door in the house, then finding another key inside the room you just opened. This is generally done in between invasion attempts, and Anton helpfully says something along the line of "I think they're gone" to let you know when you can put your focus back on exploration. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be any purpose or motivation behind exploring your own house once the aliens began invading. I felt like I was only scouring the place to move the story forward. This game is clearly going more for atmosphere than puzzle challenge (there's only one segment that can even be called a "puzzle," which involves piecing together the clues to a code for an alien device you find along the way), but the repetitive key hunts are both unjustified and occasionally frustrating.
At one point after repelling a few alien invaders, Anton mentions that he thinks a key is somewhere in the living room. This was a bit annoying because I had thoroughly searched that room at least twice. As I looked again, I realized that certain objects could now be manipulated in a way that hadn't been available before. I understand that this was intended to control the pace of the game, but it made my previous examinations of the room feel pointless. At other times, I knew there simply had to be a key in a newly unlocked area but I had trouble finding it. It took me an embarrassingly long time to locate the hidden key in the family's underground bunker. Some players may get luckier than I did, but detecting such a small item among a lot of clutter is the kind of challenge that simply isn't very fun.
Where Alterity Experience is much more entertaining is during the invasion attempts. In the absence of much plot or characterization to draw players in, the designers have done a much better job with the overall atmosphere. Creeping through the dark house with your smartphone flashlight, you can’t help but feel the stress build until it’s punctuated by a loud siren, bright purple lights, and a mad dash to protect your property. You’ll do this either by manually closing the window the aliens are attempting to open or by utilizing your impressive home security app, which allows you to bring up a floorplan of your house and close the shutters remotely. These moments are great, and the game escalates the frequency and number of aliens invading at a time to keep them from getting too repetitive, even if they tend to underscore the relative drabness of most of the rest of the experience.
One of the things that helps make these sequences work are the quality sound effects. Everything from Anton's footsteps, to the security shutters, to the otherworldly humming of the alien invaders themselves sounds great. This is only slightly undercut by the somewhat bland voice acting. There are only a few lines overall, most spoken by Anton, but while his one-liners in the panic of invasion are usually well delivered, his intro speech and milder statements throughout are less convincing and sound more like an actor just reading his lines.
Overall, Alterity Experience does some things very well while dropping the ball in others. Creating such a creepy mood is an impressive accomplishment for an indie developer’s debut title, but the overall impact would have been much enhanced by better establishing the characters involved in order to raise the stakes and make the world more interesting. I think I got the "good" ending (statements online seem to indicate there is more than one but I was unable to find any others), but even that didn't explain or resolve anything. The game just sort of ... ended, which was a little unsatisfying. It didn’t take long to reach that point either; I would be surprised if it took anyone more than ninety minutes at the absolute most. Still, if you enjoy atmospheric indie horror games, this one may well have some appeal for you, though the short length and lack of any real narrative depth will surely leave anyone wanting more.