Online, Jul 2020
Rarely has my opinion of a game varied so much through the course of playing it. A third of the way in, Alien Research had almost completely lost my interest; and yet thereafter it improved to a degree that managed to substantially eclipse the earlier frustrations.
This is an actor led game that doesn’t involve an avatar. Your surroundings, a space station terrorised by an escaped alien life form, are evoked primarily by audio descriptions, but also includes video footage and some more interactive sections. These go a long way to bringing the game’s world to life and making it feel real, in a way that carries over to the audio-only parts.
You start off as a virtual tour group being shown around a space base that boasts a living alien captive. Naturally, something goes wrong, and since this is a Ridley Scott type of alien rather than a Steven Spielberg one you need to help your tour guide find a way to defeat it. I appreciated that the backstory gave a good reason why the guide was dependent on our help instead of the over-used excuse of “they’re not that smart so will need you to tell them what to do”.
In a game of two halves, I found the first half frustrating and weak. One puzzle seemed to present the key information in an intentionally obtuse way; another looked like a logic problem but then seemed to reduce to simple trial and error. Our NPC contact seemed to be following a strict policy of only doing precisely what she was asked to do, rather than what was intended, and also to only respond when we explicitly used her name, which made communication laborious and repetitive. And there was a great deal of time spent on information gathering without much else happening.
Thereafter the game was suddenly much better. It became faster paced and more narratively exciting. All the snippets we’d scraped together earlier on became useful, with rapid-fire intelligent puzzles that varied between more traditional escape room logic and situational-based lateral thinking.
Having an imaginary environment instead of a physical one has the potential big advantage that the game can use puzzle ideas and solutions that would be utterly impossible in real life. Alien Research uses that to entertaining and dramatic effect.
The earlier puzzles that put me off might be more to others’ tastes, though I suspect many will find it a rather off-putting start. Managing all the information we’d found involved a lot of flipping back and forth – the way it’s currently handled fits with the narrative and uses some cool technology, but I’d still have liked to have an inventory system provided to keep track of it.
Once it got going, Alien Research was an excellent blend of puzzles and adventure, humour and high pressure. I ended up with a good impression, helped a lot by it getting stronger as it went on rather than the reverse. The relatively high price encourages playing with a larger team, and while it doesn’t require many people it’s better suited to a big group than most remote games, thanks to the quantity of information to sort through and the lack of a single videostream as a bottleneck.