Alida Review

Alida is an adventure game based on an unusual premise. A highly succesful rock band (Alida) has decided to develop a theme park -- guitar-shaped, at that -- on a remote island, with a musical theme. Unfortunately, a falling-out between members of the band has resulted in some unknown catastrophe, and the band members have disappeared. The wife of one of the band members has asked you to go to the island (also named Alida), and see if you can find out what is going on, and where her husband is.

Originally developed for the Mac, Alida has now been released for the PC platform. Like games such as Rhem or DarkFall, Alida is an independent work, designed and created by a single developer. And often, in such situations, time and resource constraints make it difficult to focus attention on both the gameplay and the mechanics surrounding it. So let's start with the mechanics, where my few issues with Alida arose.

The first part of the mechanics of a game that a user encounters is the installation. The problem is that Alida has none. No auto-play installation, no setup or install program to be found on the CDs. Being fair, when I resorted to the tried-and-true "RTFM" approach, the information regarding installing the game is quite clear. You must manually copy an entire folder from CD 2 to a folder on your hard drive, and the game is installed. Of course, this provides no game shortcut, no Start menu option, no Control Panel uninstall, or anything else familiar to a Windows user. But it's simple.

In fact, the basic game installation only requires that single folder -- and about 285MB of disk space. Quite an impressive reduction from some of the other recent adventure games that demand anywhere from 2-3GB of hard disk space. Even more interesting, the instructions also mention that the user may, at their discretion, perform a similar copy operation on any -- or all -- of the remaining 4 CD-ROMs that make up the Alida distribution. And from that point on, the game will recognize that they are there, and never ask for those CD-ROMs during gameplay. (If the user does choose to install the entire game on their hard drive, they must be prepared to have a whopping 3.38GB of storage space available, however.)

Another part of the mechanics of a game is how well it runs on an "acceptable" platform, and if it causes any unanticipated errors. In my case, I have no complaints about performance. As can be seen by the sidebar, system requirements are actually quite low for a game of this kind. So Alida will run on many configurations that cannot support other contemporary adventure games.

As I have said, Alida is the work of a single developer, Australian Cos Russo. The version of the game that I had was a press copy, and I did encounter a number of crashes and some problems with the game ejecting discs for CD-swapping at the wrong times. However, I was able to contact the developer with problems, questions, or issues. After sharing information back and forth, the problem was isolated within a matter of days, and patches were put in place on the Alida game web site. So despite the problems, I was quite impressed with the response from Mr. Russo, and the ability to resolve a problem quickly.

That's it for the mechanics. A few things missing from what might be considered a "standard" PC game nowadays. But at the same time, I was impressed with the positive response from Cos Russo, and the quick-to-fix solutions. So let's move on to the game itself.

Alida is played in much the same still-frame manner as a traditional game such as Myst. The user moves from still-shot to still-shot. Forward moves are typically accomplished by dissolving the current view into the new scene, while turning right or left causes the current scene to scroll sideways, with the new scene scrolling into its place. (This can result in "seams" between the two images -- something that may bother some, although I found it acceptable.) Users who are more familiar with games providing complete 360-degree panning from every location may be disappointed. But I didn't find that it was a significant detriment to the overall game play.

Cursor icons indicate directions of movement, or interaction with other objects or "hot spots." The game provides some settings to increase performance on slower machines. It also has a built-in "rocket mode" to allow a player to move quickly to locations already visited (something I wish every adventure game implemented).

One interesting feature about Alida is that there is no inventory. The only time that an object can be picked up, it remains "in hand" until it is used in its correct place (nearby); or it can be put down again where it came from. This removes one element common to some adventure games -- the "inventory puzzles." There are no "find an object and bring it back here" puzzles in Alida.

But what puzzles there are! And they range from the intuitive to the logical to the analytical. Despite the lack of an inventory, Mr. Russo has cleverly woven one puzzle into another, often in a hierarchical structure, such that one puzzle cannot be solved until something happens first -- which requires solving another puzzle, which can't be solved until something else happens first, which requires solving another puzzle... I was absolutely amazed at the intricacy of the puzzles, and the interrelation of what was happening in the game. At times, it seemed that everything related to everything. Which, in itself, can lead to a word of caution.

Alida is not a trivial adventure game. A novice user is not going to walk through the game, pick up objects, use them in obvious places, solve a sliding tile puzzle, flip a switch, and so on. The incredible depth of the game -- based, in itself, on a story line woven into every fabric of the game -- can, at times, make for some pretty brain-bending puzzles. In fact, there were several places in the game that I might have come to a complete stop without a walkthrough. And one thing I would have liked to have seen added would have been some kind of audio or visual clue after completing some of the main segments of the game. More than once, after completing what I thought was a major puzzle, and nothing happened, I referenced the walkthrough, only to discover that I'd done exactly that -- completed the puzzle! Yet there was no tangible feedback that I had succeeded, and could move on.

What does this say, then, for the "solvability" of the puzzles? There's no question that they are difficult. But the difficulty, rather than lying within one single puzzle, often comes from not knowing what to do next, where to go next, etc. During gameplay, you will encounter other characters. And in a couple of cases, what you hear from them will help you determine where to go, or what you need to do. However, there are also plenty of times when "the next step" just isn't clear. And given the size of the game environment (and swapping between 5 CD-ROMs), it can be a daunting task to "just go back and see what's changed where".

Yet what was so interesting to me was that, upon reading the story line, every piece fit together. True, it's all based on a rather silly plan to have a rock band transform a remote island into a gigantic guitar-shaped theme park, and then have all puzzles relate to that guitar. And much of the story itself is not told in detail in the game, but in the accompanying documentation. But in a really strange way, it all fit together.

The high point of the game, for me, was the overall environment created by Alida. The 3D rendered scenes, the complex locations in the game, the animated video sequences, and the accompanying music track were all of extremely high caliber. I believe that this is what will grab most users from the moment the game opens. It was difficult to imagine, while playing the game, that this was all the work of a single developer. Dozens and dozens of scenes are rendered down to the smallest detail. Waves move on the water; leaves ripple in the trees. Close-up views of many objects reveal an awesome level of detail. Lighting, shading, and textures combine to give a sense of reality to the scenes. The only problems I encountered were in making out details in one or two very dark locations. (I played the game on a laptop, which provided minimal adjustment for contrast and brightness.) However, playing with the room lights darkened helped greatly.

As might be expected of a game with a musical theme, the audio complemented the game quite well. Rarely is the game completely quiet. There is either a musical track playing (which would be wonderful to have on an audio CD, just for listening outside of the game), or ambient sounds -- such as birds, insects, moving doorways, machinery, etc. -- are integrated into the environment. In fact, several of the puzzles are audio puzzles. My only complaint is that one of them, in particular, was so demanding on my own ears -- in that it was so quiet -- that I found that I had to resort to the walkthrough to get beyond that particular puzzle. I simply couldn't distinguish the sounds enough to solve the puzzle on my own.

Alida supports an unlimited number of game saves, each of which requires a minimal amount (<1KB) of space. So saving games often is a no-brainer. There is no journal kept in the game, nor any way to replay previous conversations, or re-read letters or notes which may have been found in other locations (and which are always left where they are found). So going back to previously-saved games allows the player to listen to those conversations again, or re-read a note left behind.

In summary, the gameplay within Alida is its strong point. And since my own personal tastes focus on gameplay (more than mechanics), I am happy to say that I rate Alida quite highly. Other than occasional frustration with the difficult of some puzzles, any staunch adventure gamer should enjoy playing the game. And some additional fine-tuning of the mechanics -- perhaps the inclusion of an installer/remover, or the elimination of unnecessary disc swapping -- would only make it better. Kudos to DejaVu Studios and Cos Russo for a quality -- and fun -- game.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.