Created by independent Australian developer Cos Russo, this Got Game-published point-and-click adventure takes place on a giant guitar. Alida is actually an island, altered years ago to take the shape of a huge guitar, under the direction of a young and successful rock band. When the band's success -- and bank accounts -- began to dwindle, however, its members became defensive and paranoid, each claiming a different part of the island as his own and shunning the others. Yet after a long period of fear and isolation, the former rock stars all ended up abandoning the island and returning to civilization.
As is so often the case though, a nostalgic reunion of the group is eventually deemed a worthwhile proposition, and the band's manager suggests it take place on the almost-forgotten island. So Arin, a former band member, leaves for Alida and is not heard from again. Arin's wife is soon in contact, and she sends the player off to search for her missing husband. Once on the island, players will need to explore each of the areas once claimed by the young and paranoid musicians, and conquer whatever tricks and traps may still be left there. The island of Alida is designed to feature intriguing puzzles, strange machines, and graphics and sound that convey a true sense of the island's odd magnificence.
By the time Alida was released for the PC, the Mac version had been out for months and the reviews were almost universally glowing. The hype about the game had all led me to believe that it was the best thing since Riven. Unfortunately, I discovered that while it was an interesting and original game, Alida failed in several key ways to live up to the frequent Myst comparisons. While not all of the hype was overblown, Alida certainly isn't "all that and a bag of chips."
The story is reasonably intriguing, if insufficient for a game as long as Alida. It seems that there was this Australian rock band (named Alida) whose debut album sold a billion copies, making the band members the richest men in the world. (Don't bother doing the math - it doesn't work out. Take it as literary license.) The band, rather than concentrating on a follow-up album, decides to take their newfound wealth and blow it by reshaping a South Pacific island into a giant working guitar and turning it into a theme park (also named Alida). Work on the project grinds to a halt when the blasting crew stumbles across a chamber full of impossible futuristic technology. While band-member Arin becomes intrigued with exploring this technology, the rest of the band loses interest in the project and drifts away. Then Kivas, the band's manager, summons the band back to Alida for an important meeting. When Arin never returns home from this meeting, his wife Julia sends you, the player, a message, asking you to go to Alida, find your friend Arin and bring him home.
All of this happens, of course, before the game ever starts. The story is revealed, in true Myst fashion, through Arin's journal and some letters you find during your exploration of the island. Thankfully, the reading material isn't as voluminous as in Myst, with only a single bit than could be called lengthy. However, this plus is outweighed by the fact that when a certain fact is revealed about Kivas and Arin early in the game, the whole "twist" in the plot is made glaringly obvious, cliché and predictable, leaving the player to proceed along through the majority of the game toward what they know will be a trite and unsatisfying ending.
The main reasons for the frequent comparisons between Alida and the Myst games will be obvious from the word go. Alida uses the same photo-realistic ray-traced graphic style, the same node-based movement, the same 1st-person slideshow presentation. In fact, they even share the same Macromedia Flash-style hand cursor. Unfortunately, Alida comes off much the worse in any actual comparison. While the detail work is quite good in close-up views, much of that detail is lost in longer shots. This was particularly noticeable when one is looking at distant trees; many of the shots made it appear as if some of the tree limbs were floating in mid-air. The water effect also bothered my eye. There are several shots of vast expanses of ocean. However, the effect tended to look like sandwiched blue and white sheets of cellophane being minutely slid against each other.
Perhaps recognizing the weakness of some of their outdoor effects, the designers at Dejavu Worlds kept them to a minimum. The great majority of the game is played in dimly lit underground caverns. And when the player does make it to fresh air, it is frequently to find himself surrounded by cliffs and high rocks that severely limit his view. Although this means that much of Alida is presented with a fairly muted palette of grays and browns, it is these areas that truly showcase the artistic talent of the game's creators. The detail work is generally superb, lending a sense of realism to the frankly fantastic story and surroundings. There are a few cutscenes in which one soars around the island in a "T-flyer" which are quite stunning. The graphical quality is all the more impressive when you remember that Dejavu is a small independent developer.
Given that the game deals with a rock band, you might expect its sound to be important - and you wouldn't be wrong. The sound work is uniformly excellent through the game. This is critical since, predictably, there are several sound puzzles. The game's setting doesn't allow for much ambient sound, but when it's there, it's good. I particularly liked the sound of the ocean gently lapping against the shore in those few spots where you could hear it. Ironically for a game about music and musicians, there is virtually no background music. However, this worked quite well to further the sense of solitary exploration of an empty complex, as well as drawing attention to those sounds one needs to hear.
The big graphical difference between Alida and Myst is that Alida plays in almost the monitor's full screen (though in 640x480 resolution), rather than the little window we remember from Myst. While this allows for a prettier, fuller look at the world, this larger screen also works to Alida's detriment. There are numerous places (and many of them not very intuitive) where one must look up or down for vital clues or mechanisms. Because the player is using a tiny Flash hand icon against a comparatively large screen, it can be easy to miss these key spots. And while it is easy to sit back and say, "Just make sure you check up and down at every node and from every angle," the fact is that the player eventually gets lulled into not making this critical check at every single step, inevitably leading to missing something critical. A larger icon or larger hotspots for such up/down views would have saved a lot of headaches.
So given that Alida is a lovely game full of the solitary exploration and puzzling that I so enjoyed in the Myst games, why isn't this review more enthusiastic? Easy. Many of the puzzles sucked or were downright unfair, thus leeching the "fun factor" out of the game. (WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead. Those who wish to avoid them should skip to the next section.)
As is often the case in the best of this style of adventure game, solving the puzzles depends on paying close attention to the environment. I have no problem with this. Timelapse, which is one of my favorite games, required such environmental observation in spades. But in Alida's case, this requirement is not only carried to extremes, but the designers then made the puzzles unfair even if one "followed the rules" and paid strict attention. I will look at three such puzzles, as they were the most glaring examples of this trend.
Two of the game's sound puzzles require the player to notice ambient bird and insect sounds in a particular area and be able to relate them to an apparatus. No problem. Except that the bird sounds don't always appear where they are supposed to. You may have to be turned one direction or approach one of the key spots from a certain angle to hear them one time, and then have to face a completely different direction to hear them the next time. If one merely walks through the key spots without trying every possible approach and angle, it is completely possible to never hear the bird calls at all, or certainly not enough times to identify the different sounds and commit them to memory. Assuming that one manages to solve the bird call puzzle, one then knows how to do the related insect puzzle, right? WRONG! Because when the player traipses back and forth through the area listening for the four requisite insect sounds, he hears nothing but the same faint drone no matter where he is standing. "I don't get it," says the puzzled player. "I know what I'm supposed to be doing here and I can't hear anything." The reason for the player's confusion: rather than needing to identify four different sounds at four precise locations as the hint for the puzzle, the machine where you enter the solution and the earlier bird call puzzle all indicate, you instead have to use the same sound (the faint droning you can hear everywhere in that area) all four times.
The other prime example of observational mania involves a flickering table lamp. You notice that the lamp has a short circuit when you first encounter it, then dismiss it. It turns out that it is actually a vital clue. The lamp is flickering in a pattern of long and short bursts, which is related to another puzzle. However, there is no way in Hell that you would ever recognize that there is a repeating pattern to the flickering unless you decided for no particular reason to stand looking at the lamp for five minutes straight.
To be fair, the majority of the puzzles in Alida were exactly the type I like, requiring taking notes, translating symbols, and collecting hints from various locations to operate fantastic machinery. There is no inventory, and thus no bizarre combining of a rubber band with a fireplace poker to create a mousetrap. What dialogue exists is all in FMV cutscenes, therefore eliminating dialogue "puzzles." But the several "unfair" puzzles were exasperating enough to really detract from my overall enjoyment of the game.
Overall, there is much to like and admire in Alida, particularly if one is a fan of solitary-exploration-and-puzzle adventure games. The graphics and sound are superior, particularly given its humble origins. The story is reasonably interesting if a tad farfetched... at least until the insultingly cliché "twist." It is obvious that a lot of intelligence, talent, love and dedication went into the game's design and creation. But I came away feeling let down and disappointed. Perhaps it was all the hype declaring Alida the best thing since sliced bread. Maybe it was my continual feeling that it kept building up to being something great, only to throw another unfair puzzle or illogical/impossible story component in my path. I only know that I came away feeling that Alida could have been something phenomenal but ended up just missing over and over. I somehow feel that a game with as much quality as this one should have been more fun.
People who downloaded Alida have also downloaded:
Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None, AMBER: Journeys Beyond, Amerzone: The Explorer's Legacy, Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Final Cut, Ankh, 9: The Last Resort, Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine, Ark of Time
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