Alter Ego – Review

Title   Alter Ego
Developer  Future Games
Publisher  Iceberg Interactive
Platform  PC - retail and Steam
Genre  Point and click adventure, graphic adventure
Release Date  20th May, 2011

Outstanding cut-scenes

It has taken some time for it to reach UK shores, but finally Alter Ego has slipped from the shadows and pounced on a retail release date.  Coming from Future Games, developers of the original Black Mirror, Alter Ego promised dark and gruesome delights with its murder mystery storyline, and with a pedigree like The Black Mirror, it understandably caught the attention of adventure fans.

Alter Ego is a murder mystery, set in the docks and streets of 1894 Portsmouth, and focuses on the lives of two protagonists – both of whom are playable in alternating chapters – Timothy Moor and Detective Briscol.  Irishman Tim, a stowaway and thief, arrives at the docks, where he is promptly delivered into the custody of a waiting Police officer before making his escape and setting off to meet his companion, Brian.

Meanwhile, stuffy Detective Briscol arrives in town to take up a new position on the force (and seemingly look down on as many people as possible).  Both tales are set against the backdrop of the funeral of the town’s most feared and hated man, Sir William Lewis, known as the ‘White Beast’, who is suspected of the murder of dozens of people.  Of course, it doesn’t take long for events to go awry and Sir William’s body mysteriously goes missing from his wrecked coffin, amid several gruesome and unusual murders.  While Detective Briscol sets out to try and solve the mystery, Tim has his own destiny to work towards, although fate sees that their paths soon cross and become tangled… it is just a shame that this didn’t happen far sooner – it may well have shored up the pace and story somewhat.

Alter Ego is a point and click adventure that falls into the 2.5D category, presenting detailed backdrops against which the 3D characters work.  The inventory, as is oft the case, is kept tucked away, with a brief mouseover needed to access it, and the show all hotspots key is present and correct, with everything working as you’d expect from this type of game.  Each location (of which there are surprisingly few) is well realised, offering beautiful settings and character, down to small details and often fantastically detailed textures.   Inside the Lewis manor house, a grand staircase sweeps upwards, while the hallway below entertains the eye with scuffed columns, and ornate bannisters.  In the old stables, the chipped paintwork and dented green bars give way to a tantalising glimpse of lush fields and blue sky, while the cemetary is home to dead trees and magnificent tombs.

The level of detail throughout makes most locations a joy to take in, and, while they aren’t as dynamic and absorbing in terms of lighting and effects as say, the recent Black Mirror 3, they are at the leading end of the graphical pack and are one of the game’s strengths.  However, as impressive as the visuals are, few were truly creepy or atmospheric (rain soaked scenes excepted), which was a shame considering the subject matter being played with.

The cut-scenes are also a standout, with full cinematic scenes of a quality which, frankly, surprised me.  Traditionally, this is one area where adventures fall down somewhat, but there is no sign of that here and in this respect Alter Ego sails above most rivals.  In these scenes the animation is top notch, with beautiful effects to surround the action.  Tim’s initial escape from the docks is impressively presented, with the water lit beautifully around him as he swims.  Sadly, this is almost where Alter Ego’s plus points largely splutter to a halt.

A murder mystery game, with thrilling elements should be bursting at the seams with atmosphere and tension, however, Alter Ego seems utterly devoid of either.  Ordinarily, a game’s atmosphere is built up in a similar way to an orchestra, with every independent part working together to create a wall of interwoven textures; sound effects, lighting, visuals, voice acting, pacing, puzzles etc.  Each work well independently, but it is when they come together that a masterpiece or disaster can be born.  Here, it seems that half the orchestra have given up, the cellist is facing the wrong way, and the conductor snuck out back for a fag and never returned.  There is more tension in a decision to make a sandwich, which is bitterly disappointing considering the potential brought to the game by some of the parts.

The largest culprit is the music.  Or lack thereof.  It took a while for me to put my finger on what was wrong with Alter Ego until I finally realised that there was no music.  Nothing.  A few brief incidental attempts aside, it was silent.  I was actually astounded and I believe that this was a huge oversight in a game that is supposed to be weaving an atmosphere of drama and mystery, and while the sound effects and voice acting were top notch, they are ultimately left to pick up the atmospheric baton and struggle by themselves amid the other issues.

As far as the audio goes, the effects were spot on, with birdsong, creaking branches, and moaning wind helping to make for a more vivid setting.  Additionally, the echoing voices in the church and cavernous Police station were an inspired and well executed touch.  The voice acting, usually an infamous genre failing, was another great plus, with the talents of professional voice actors brought to bear on the script, giving a real polish and representing one of the game’s biggest positive points.  Accents in point and click adventures are usually very dicey territory, but here, they are superb, with workshy Irishman, Tim, voiced with a laid back charm, while the pompous and eminently slappable detective is done perfect justice, along with the supporting cast of rogues, floozies, and port dwellers.

Not just down to the absence of music, Alter Ego’s atmosphere and sense of tension is also effected by its sluggish pace.  The story almost drags itself along for the first half of the game, with seemingly pointless parts, such as Tim’s robbery only there as a long winded, and ultimately pointless, device with which to later bring the two protagonists together.  While he faffs around in pubs and manor houses, generating threads which seem to go nowhere, Detective Briscol fares far worse.  True, with his story comes the meat and potatoes of the plot, i.e. the mysterious murders, but with them comes a world of painful messing about.  Rather than being able to jump straight into the action and start investigating, his first scene is spent in an infuriating and absolutely needless round of human pinball at the front desk of the Police station, bouncing back and forth between NPCs, searching for new dialogue options to resolve a petty and irrelevant theft.

After this random clicking, you’re eventually able to enter his office…  where you start to clear up rubbish by placing it into a cardboard box.  Yes.  This is something akin to watching Columbo taking time to hoover his car out before actually embarking on his case; it served no real purpose other than to frustrate and bog down the action.  The investigations he eventually begins to pursue should have been among the highlights of the game, but sadly, they involve little more than wandering around the limited number of locations, randomly clicking and repeatedly speaking to NPCs in order to try and figure out how to kick the game into progressing.

The puzzles are practically non-existent (there are no ‘biggies’ to be found), and those there are end up in two polarised camps – either basic and simple – examine X, Y, or Z with a magnifying glass, remove something with tweezers, etc. or are annoying sessions of ‘hunt the correct solution’ when what you need to do is staring you in the face.  After it became apparent that I would need to make a plaster of paris imprint of a footprint, and that water would be required, I believed it would be a quick solution, after all, there were a total of three water sources nearby that could have easily been utilised.  Could I use them?  No.  The game made me wait until it jogged along to a scene by the river.  What also had me stuck was the fact that the solution wasn’t exactly logical.  I had to resort to a guide to discover that I was supposed to collect water in a wooden case.  Not a beer bottle, or glass, or non-porous container of any kind, but a wooden case which had contained my detective gear.  This made little sense to me and further exacerbated my frustration with the game’s obtuse blocking and shepherding.  There were also a number of exits and objects which the game leads the player to believe can be interacted with, but which are never explored, leading me to wonder as to the point in them, or whether time or budget had led to parts of the game being shelved.

There is just enough sparking in the mystery to keep the player absorbed, but the lack of tension and drama makes it one for only the most dedicated.  When the game finally brings our two leads together it feels like it is far too late in the day, but this at least provides some of the faster pacing and more absorbing elements of the whole thing.  Sadly, there were still no diverting puzzles or attempts at true atmosphere, but at least the story began to unfold, albeit via a number of hastily disgorged dialogues, as if the game itself had had enough and was bolting for the last fence, trailing the reins of a number of loose ends and unanswered questions behind it.

The endgame dialogues and cinematics (while excellently voiced and presented) were deeply disappointing, since the game commits the ultimate sin by dropping a piano of an ending on the player from a great height.  I actually replayed the end three times, believing that my game was glitched – no one would end a game like that, surely?  I was convinced that my screensaver had become impatient with the long period of inaction during the cut scenes and exposition and had broken the game.  Not so.  Nor was the end any result of me making a wrong decision.  It was just that bad.

Shocking ends to adventure games are nothing new – after all, Future Games were responsible for the original Black Mirror game, which caused an outcry among players.  Black Mirror’s twist was inspired, but its actual end enraged and dismayed many.  With Alter Ego, it could be that they have tried for a similar shock, but failed and, as such, it feels like a shovel to the face, leaving everything you’ve struggled through for the past eight to ten hours lying in the mud, devoid of any point.  Nothing feels resolved, many threads are left dangling and the player is rudely abandoned, with any number of questions bouncing around their skull.  “Why did I bother?”, being among mine, before I was left querying the game’s supernatural hints which were never expanded upon, wondering what the relevance was of several inclusions, questioning the apparent non-resolution of the greater mystery, and pondering the odd choice of game’s title which appears to actually have zero bearing on proceedings.  As far as stories go, I hate to say it, but it was dreadfully executed and some truly interesting set ups, possibilities, and paths were very sadly squandered.

Until this point, Alter Ego had been a slow, often frustrating title, but with some truly redeeming qualities which kept me hanging on.  The cut-scene cinematics were outstanding, the visuals were gorgeous and well realised, and the voice acting was of very high quality… yet, it was all thrown away, with a swiss-cheese story and terrible ending, a distinct lack of anything approaching atmosphere or tension, and a missing soundtrack, not to mention the various frustrations with the gameplay.  The lack of big or complex puzzles may well have been an attempt to pull newcomers and ex-pats into the genre, however the tedium, frustrating faffing, and often obtuse gameplay will only serve to hinder these intentions.  The slap in the face finale (if new players ever drag themselves that far) also pretty much squashes that idea; as such it can only really be recommended to genre devotees, who may be experienced enough to look past the problems and enjoy Alter Ego for what it is – a very flawed, but reasonably diverting eight to ten hours.  If you care at all about story and atmosphere, however, no amount of decent voice acting, top cinematics, or detailed backdrops will be enough to save it, and an honestly promising game, with a great setting, interesting premise, and gorgeous style is wasted.

  • Superb voice acting, flying in the face of the genre's infamously bad traditions
  • Full cinematic cut-scenes are outstanding
  • Beautiful backdrops
  • Interesting story
  • Some great audio touches
  • Appalling ending kicks the player out of the story into the menu, leaving them dazed and confused
  • Loose threads and unanswered questions remain
  • No score of any kind
  • Lack of atmosphere and tension
  • Sluggish pace
  • Frustrating gameplay at times and some obtuse puzzling/progression
  • Lack of any real imaginative puzzles
  • Sad waste of an interesting idea, setting, and characters

Alter Ego is a confusing affair, being almost the antithesis of the typical adventure. Where most fail miserably in terms of voice acting and cinematics, Alter Ego soars high, but while story and a carefully crafted atmosphere are often the norm, Alter Ego stumbles and it is a real shame. The murder mystery has great potential which is sadly squandered with a plodding pace, frustrating level of faffing about, and shameful lack of atmosphere. There is little to no tension, something which isn’t helped by the missing score, and even the backdrops, as beautifully detailed as they are, are, for the most part, under-utilised in terms of creating a truly unsettling sense of mystery or foreboding.

The game hits the mark fantastically in some unexpected areas, yet falls flat in others, but it is the ending which is the real let down. It hits the player like a juggernaut of wet fish, leaving you staring at the menu screen and wondering what just happened. It was like reaching the end of a mystery thriller to discover that someone had ripped the last pages out, leaving a slightly confused, even cheated feeling behind.

An absorbing premise, interesting characters, and fantastic setting all promised so much, but were ultimately wasted on a game that should, and indeed could, have been so much more. Why it all went wrong I don’t know; if this was all a set up for a sequel, then it is marginally more forgivable, and may explain away some of the loose threads and limited locations with oddly hanging hotspots, as is the case if budget or time constraints hampered the score and scope of the game, but if not, then I don’t know what to say. I wanted Alter Ego to be so much better but, sadly, I can only recommend it for genre devotees who can play past the flaws and enjoy the things the game gets so very right… it is just a crying shame that there were not more of them.

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  1. Stu Stu says:

    Nice review, most enjoyable. I keep meaning to get around to trying some point & click stuff as I’m sure it’d run on my ageing PC. It seems as though all recent ones seem to suffer a couple of major flaws though…that said I might try my hand at this or the Black Mirror one as I haven’t played a good point’n’click in an absolute age and I’m feeling the need to try something different for a change!

  2. Lorna Lorna says:

    Cheers Stu :) It was a tough one, and when I began, I never expected that it would turn out to be a predominantly negative review. The biggest let down was when I finally realised that I had indeed experienced the actual ending and not just a glitch. There were some good ideas here and so much potential; it got some key areas brilliantly right (whereas others often don’t), however it was ultimately a let down, which was truly a shame. I heartily recommend jumping back into the genre, but if you do, there are far better titles to start back with, sadly.

  3. Edward Edward says:

    Another amazing review Lorna! Shame the game seems to be such a disappointing waste of time =[
    I’d be willing to overlook the flaws if it wasn’t for the fact that the ending seems to be that bad, as just nice voice acting isn’t enough of a draw for me.

  4. Samuel Samuel says:

    Seems a pretty mixed bag, pretty arse over tit for an adventure game in what it does well and what it does badly. Shame about the bad bits, but I am somewhat tempted to want to see the cinematics for myself.

    I guess the weight of expectation after Black Mirror stifled the dev team somewhat, made them try too hard and wind up fluffing it because of that. Pity, but they can always make up for the imbalance with whatever comes next for them.

    Excellent review Lorna, always enjoy reading these.

  5. Lorna Lorna says:

    Thanks, it was a shame. Future did the first Black Mirror title, but Cranberry took over for some reason for the second and third parts, however, I think it is the first game which had the biggest twist and shock. As far as Alter Ego goes, the cinematics were stunning, and there are far worse ways to spend a Sunday if you fancy picking it up, as long as you are aware of the issues going in :)

  6. Kat says:

    What a bitch to spend so much time on something only to be left frustratingly ‘wtf?’ at the ending. Interesting review!

  7. Tania Tania says:

    Fantastic review, as always. Strange though, that it falls down on the most crucial elements of it’s genre, while excelling in others. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s endings that piss you off, leave you feeling cheated and thinking “what was the point?”.
    And “juggernaut of wet fish” love it! :D

  8. Richie rich says:

    Bloody hell, Lorn. Can you review a genre that I actually play. I love reading your stuff but you couldn’t pay me to play a point and click game even if it featured a naked Nigella Lawson who sent me delicious muffins instead of achievements.

  9. Lorna Lorna says:

    Sorry Richie ;) I love the genre and it has just been a particularly packed half of the year for them! Should hopefully have some other stuff from E3 to preview. Next up for review though will likely be Tiny Bang Story and then Sims Generations, so you’ll have a little while to wait yet ;) Am working on it though :D

  10. Adam Adam says:

    I’ve really been given a second wind with PnC’s this past month and the whole review had me hanging on every word for a morsel of a reccomendation but thats obviously not the case here for fledgling me :p

    I’ll be on Tenterhooks for Tiny Bang Story :)

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