First posted on 10 October 2011. Last updated on 10 October 2011.
Alpha Polaris is a third-person point-and-click adventure game developed by independent Finnish game studio Turmoil Games. The player takes control of Rune Knudsen, a Norwegian biologist who is stationed at an American oil research facility named Alpha Polaris that is located in the midst of the snowfields of Greenland. The horror themed story unfolds beneath an ion storm that brings with it a strange intermixing of reality and night terrors.
The game is mostly set within the Alpha Polaris oil research facility and its surrounding area. The isolated setting means that there are only a small number of locations to explore—such as Rune's room, the garage, and the lab—all of which become extremely familiar after a fairly short period of playtime. This also applies to the minimal cast, which includes only a handful of characters. Although at first glance these elements may seem to be negatives for an adventure game, they actually work in this game's favor by adding to the atmosphere of paranoia and isolation that the developer is so obviously striving towards.
The game unfolds over a period of 4 days. Each new day is clearly indicated after Rune sleeps and then reawakens in his room. The game does a great job of making you feel like you are a real biologist stationed within an isolated research facility. For example, among the first tasks that Rune needs to undertake involves sedating a polar bear and getting it into a cage, a process that feels surprisingly involving. However, the daily routine at the research outpost is quickly interrupted when Al, an older bearded man who serves as the elder of the group, brings back some human bones and a hide he has found hidden in a nearby cave. Without knowing, Al has unleashed unspeakable evil, and each subsequent night from then on, members of the team are driven to the brink of madness by vivid nightmares that foretell death and bloodshed.
The story unfolds effectively, and the strong use of supporting characters, such as the constantly edgy Tully or the attractive Inuit scientist Nova, allow Rune's slightly flat protagonist to become much more acceptable. The 5 characters that form the main cast are all fully voice acted. The English script is well written and clear, if not a little generic and safe. Sadly, it does not help that the voice acting itself is somewhat devoid of emotion throughout. Rune does not speak at all when looking at objects within the environment either; instead, his thoughts are only displayed as text on the screen. This damages the immersion of the game and is a disappointing design choice made by the developer.
The puzzles are mostly fetch quests, with Rune having to hunt down objects to achieve his goals. Clicking on Rune offers his opinion on what he thinks he needs to do next, which helps to keep the player on track. However, the game can often be quite vague about exactly how some goals need to be achieved, thus raising the game's difficultly far higher than it perhaps intends to be. Sometimes the puzzles flow beautifully, simultaneously making the player feel clever and immersing the player in the world. Yet, the use of a text parser in several of the puzzles can be frustrating almost to the point of aggravation. Guessing what word a vague symbol represents with only the smallest of hints—if indeed a hint is even offered at all—only serves to break the flow of the game and antagonize the player, as do the puzzles that are not explained properly. It is not that the game is consistently tough; rather, it can sometimes hit a brick wall due to an inconsistent difficultly level caused by some poor design decisions.
The graphics are bright and colorful, with the snowy white location of the oil research facility contrasting sharply with any instances of blood or violence, such as a particularly memorable polar bear encounter. The Wintermute Engine on which the game is built offers very impressive looking graphics that nonetheless can feel slightly stiff at times. The 2D character portraits are well drawn but do little to hide the lack of animation applied to the 3D character models. The soundtrack only plays at certain times and is used sparingly, as the developer has chosen wisely to let silence reign king when and where necessary or appropriate. The Full Motion Video (FMV) cut scenes look slightly blurry and outdated but still remain impressive for an indie production and help to move the story along at a brisk pace. The game adopts traditional point-and-click gameplay mechanics, with the inventory displaying at the bottom of the screen whenever Rune's satchel is clicked.
Overall, Alpha Polaris presents itself as a promising debut from Turmoil Games. Although the central premise—based around an ancient evil called Witiko that is trapped in the Boreas behind the Northern Lights—ultimately comes across as somewhat hokey, the atmosphere of the central location is spot-on. This game may not be as terrifyingly scary as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but it still has its moments of tension and manages to build up at an admirable pace. Alas, the game lacks strong puzzles and more nuanced storytelling. As it stands, Alpha Polaris is still well worth playing, if only to experience the promising start of a new indie developer within the adventure gaming scene.