Adventure games are a dying breed. With the exception of Telltale doing their best tribute to the golden age of LucasArts, it's up to the indie scene to resuscitate the genre that put Guybrush Threepwood, Leisure Suit Larry, and Gabriel Knight on the map. Finnish developer Turmoil Games' debut title, Alpha Polaris, is a noble attempt at revitalizing the point-and-clicks of yesteryear with a haunting premise and oppressive atmosphere, but its obscure puzzles, hammy writing, and repetitive environments left me cold.
The game begins with Norwegian grad student Rune Knudsen conducting research on polar bears at a remote outpost in arctic Greenland. Between his bears and wooing the local female (there's only one), he keeps himself busy until things take a turn for the worse and the crew starts having nightmares and behaving erratically.
It starts off promising, but the writing gets progressively worse as it wears on. Initially the characters are stereotypical, but still likable in a Breakfast Club sort of way. Though after enduring a cheesy awkward romance, a cartoonishly snobbish son of an oil tycoon, and a ridiculously abrupt ending, the balance shifts from low-key psychological horror to pure camp.
Equally disappointing are the game's puzzles. At best they're fresh and clever, requiring more thought than simply combining every item with every other item -- sometimes you even have to type in a solution. At their worst, they're borderline nonsensical. One involving a key was so baffling that even after looking up an explanation I still only half understood it. The obtuse puzzles are rare, but they impede progress so drastically that it undoes much of the goodwill the game's worked up to that point.
Even some puzzles that should be sensible are rendered frustrating due to clumsy design. Frequently combining one item with another won't work, but when you try the same combination in reverse it will. Equally irritating is that you can't pick up objects until they're required for a puzzle, leading to endlessly wandering the same rooms in case you can interact with something that you couldn't before.
This is exasperated by Alpha Polaris' small scale. The entire game is made up a tiny handful of locations no larger than an average episode of a Telltale game. It's a convincing locale with its dreary grey corridors lovingly adorned with postcards from home, but spending so much time in the same cramped setting gets old fast. Lasting about seven hours (with a little online help), Alpha Polaris isn't the longest game, but it feels like an eternity when you've seen almost all its scenery in the first 15 minutes.
Ultimately, Alpha Polaris has its heart in the right place, but it lacks the execution to follow through on its ambition. The cast goes from affable archetypes to predictable personalities. Puzzles are unconventional, but maddeningly illogical at times. And it ruins a great setting by making players continually retrace their steps to pick up previously non-interactive items.