While everyone else in the ‘90s was blowing up hell spawn or duking it out in space against the Zerg, Protoss, and Koreans, point-and-click was always my choice of poison. Sure, the genre lacked the action and excitement of FPS and strategy games, but it provided a challenge that truly tested one’s wits while becoming completely involved in an elaborate story. Today, the genre isn’t as strong as it used to be due to the years of change in gaming and its new demands but gradually the genre is making a comeback. The emergence of the new Monkey Island and Sam & Max series have provided great examples of providing nostalgia for veteran gamers and introducing new gamers to the joys of point-and-click. But every now and then, you get the bad examples, and one comes from bitComposer Games’ Alter Ego.
Alter Ego is set in 1894 in the small town of Plymouth, England. The town’s infamous aristocrat, Sir William the White Beast, finally passes away and is laid to rest. In life, Sir William was remembered for the urban myths surrounding him and his connections to many unsolved murders. The morning after the funeral his grave is found open, emptied, and surrounded by blood sucked corpses. The superstitious townsfolk believe this to be the omen of impending supernatural doom. Or is it?
Assigned to investigate the case is Detective Briscol, new to the town of Plymouth and its police force. Briscol refuses to believe that any paranormal phenomena are at work and sets out to piece together the clues that will reveal a logical explanation. Meanwhile, Timothy Moor, an Irish thief on the run, arrives in Plymouth in search of his best friend who sent word of a heist that would fulfill his dream of leaving for America.
As you alternate between the roles of the two characters one thing becomes apparent: choosing to name the game Alter Ego didn’t make much sense. If you were expecting a game with a twist where the two men are actually one person, that is not the case. And if you were expecting at least a tale told differently through the perspectives of two different individuals, that is also not the case. You merely trudge along the adventure playing two different characters in their own individual settings. Briscol’s scenarios involve investigating crime scenes, interrogating suspects, and jotting down notes while Moor’s scenarios involve stealing, trespassing, and conversing with those of the criminal underworld.
The common aspect for both characters is solving puzzles. Now in my day, games such as King’s Quest 6 and The Adventures of Willy Beamish had puzzles that tested your patience, attention, and knowledge in various subjects that required you to open a book. There were times when a clue or item was available at the beginning, but if missed you’re unable to solve a midgame puzzle and would have to start a new game. Or there were times where you had to solve a puzzle within a time limit with no visible clock. Failure to solve any puzzles correctly may result in either death, or unlocking a new path that may take you to an alternate ending. None of these exists in Alter Ego.
Unlike its more merciless predecessors, the game is structured with segments having no real transitions in between, thus the game comes off as having levels which is very rare in point-and-click. The “puzzles” are nothing more than just running errands and finding out what items in your inventory will complete given tasks until the level is beaten. The clues to finding out which items to use aren’t at all brain teasing to decipher, as you only need to pay attention to key words in conversations or from examining objects on the spot. If for some reason you don’t understand the clues, just use trial and error with the inventory to get by. The challenges are arranged in an all-inclusive and linear fashion, meaning there’s no worry of having to miss an item from a previous chapter as the course of every chapter ensures that you seek out and obtain all possible items in order to move on.
In making things even more lenient, you also have the ability to see all hotspots and exits within an area by pressing F1. Though the function was made to save one from moving and clicking the mouse all over the screen, the drawback is an overlooked error that can be blamed on the programmers’ laziness. There are unique icons that identify spots holding key items or exits. However, there are areas where the icon for exits is used in place of a hotspot and vice versa creating confusion in distinguishing spots of importance from commonly dismissed exits. What would really get you stuck in this game would be failing to keep a mental note of these mistakes if you choose to rely on using F1.
And apparently it’s not just the programmers who stopped caring when the coffee ran out. Though the game is deserving of praise for its beautifully rendered backgrounds, the sights tend to be blemished with the character models. It isn’t the appearance of the models so much as when it’s time to engage in conversation. The characters flap their lips way before it’s their turn to speak and even after. Amusingly, when a character is in a moment of self-contemplation, the character model still moves his lips and performs hand gestures as if having a schizo-moment. It’s even more unbecoming as the voice acting is actually top notch complete with proper use of accents and nothing over dramatic. But failure to sync it all correctly comes off as something worse than even poorly dubbed foreign flicks. Only the music was given proper attention, as melodies are only played during critical moments and cinematics. The music isn’t much to write home about but fitting and expected from the classical time of 1894.
If you’ve been able to tolerate all the errors the biggest disappointment awaits at the end. The game does a good job of maintaining interest by drawing out the stories of Moor and Briscol as it’s obvious that their paths will eventually converge. As soon as this point is met, the story fast forwards to the ending leaving very little to appreciate about the mystery aspect of the game. With a Scooby Doo-esque explanation of how the crimes were committed, and leaving the ending at a cliffhanger for a sequel, you can’t help but feel insulted and suckered for investing the time and patience for something lasting within 8-10 hours.
The true mystery that remains unsolved for Alter Ego does not involve the story but whether or not any proper testing was done prior to its release. If this was the final project of a programming student who waited to the last minute to complete, then we can at least chalk up all the errors and poorly written storyline as factors needing improvement. Sadly this is not the case. As evident as the game’s efforts to inspire gamers to get into point-and-click, Alter Ego may very well inspire players to look elsewhere for better games within the genre or to leave all interests dead and buried.