It is not about “life after death” as such. Rather, it’s a way of talking about being bodily alive again after a period of being bodily dead. Resurrection is a second-stage postmortem life: “life after ‘life after death’.”
Alteric is one of those games that blends in with the crowd. At first glance it seemed typical of the indie platforming scene: dominated by minimalism; stark colors set in heavy contrasts of light and dark; nebulous, almost guesswork storytelling about heady philosophical and metaphysical concepts; brutally, occasionally frustratingly difficult, presumably under the pretense that too much challenge leads to celebrity.
If that all sounds like its riddled with disdain, let me clarify myself by saying that I enjoyed Alteric for what it was and any heart of negativity is probably due to that steep difficulty. Alteric seems built to elicit stereotypical gamer ragequitting, y’know that moment when full-grown adults throw their toys around like my two-year-old does. People who want others to take games seriously should seriously take a look at how ragequitting makes gamers look, if that matters to you at all, that is.
Ragequitting may get its laughs on YouTube but I’ve never found it that attractive. At least I know now that my mom was wrong when I was a kid: there’s no way I could have ever snapped a controller in half. I could barely do it when I tried it with a dead controller as a thirty-year-old.
The developers behind this enraging experience said in Alteric “We tried to develop a game in such a way that the player realized: here, Thomas [Was Alone] meets with Dark Souls.”
Dark Souls, if this is your first time on the internet, built meme-level fame on the foundation of being excruciatingly tough on its players. Understandably, there would be copycats wanting to capitalize on that characteristic and its success, which does not excuse the ubiquitous mewling that everything ever made post-Dark Souls is like Dark Souls. Since the developers expressed their intention to create a game echoing Dark Souls, which authorial intention I’ve suggested represents at least one objective basis for measuring a game’s design, here is what makes Alteric so tough and we’ll see if the game successfully packages and presents that intent.
As a modest platformer, Alteric is comprised of 27 stages of platforming spread out over 3 chapters with 3 boss fights. Your player character, a block of light, has a limited repertoire of abilities befitting this minimal game experience: moving left and right and jumping (once on the ground, once again in the air). You’ll later gain the ability to push blocks and clone yourself to obstruct lasers or create new vantage points.
The jumps, the hazards, the traps are all simple enough on their own. Spinning saws and lasers look immediately dangerous and if you’ve played a video game before then you’ll know to avoid these. Later levels combine these dangers together in some bizarre ways, and the level design ensures that you can’t see directly what’s ahead. That means that many of your many deaths in Alteric will be due to running into something you couldn’t see coming, like a waiting row of spikes at the bottom of a slope.
Trial and error in very short bursts makes up most of Alteric’s gameplay. Death takes your block back to the start of the level or to one of the game’s uncommon spawning points, which means each level is a prolonged obstacle course demanding muscle memory, skill, and bucket loads of determination.
The mainline feature of Alteric is definitely phasing between two planes of existence. On most of the levels, you can press a button and shift the background from one color to another. This reveals blocks, platforms, traps which exist on one of the two planes but not on the other. Of course you’ll be required to phase mid-jump, revealing safe spaces for your block to land on or phasing out spinning saws just before contact.
The parallel worlds keep Alteric interesting and more engaging than the typical minimalist platformer. They guarantee you remain vigilant about your surroundings at all times and force to you consider your leaps before your take them. Add in quirks like buttons that trigger anti-gravity and there were several instances when I had to stop and plot out how I wanted to proceed.
Even with a plan, a huge part of Alteric is timing…
The product description for Alteric describes it thusly:
You are alone. Are you lonely? You’re lost. Or stuck? Somewhere…but where? And most importantly, who are you?
Only Yesterday You Were A Man.
Today Everything Has Changed.
But your soul is still there. It’s a piece of light energy trapped in the alien space between two worlds.
That’s an interesting backdrop, potentially exploring an in-between dimension after death. Life before life after death? Alteric apparently doesn’t intend to deliver on developing these themes or answering these questions, but I think that description at least explains its title.
If this game’s spiritual predecessor, Thomas Was Alone, was about anthropomorphic shapes and their relationships in life, Alteric is about an anthropomorphic shape in isolation, alone after death, transformed from one shape to another. “Alt-eric” stars an “alternative Eric”, an individual who has been fundamentally changed into a piece of light in the final frontier.
The 8-bit Review
Not much can possibly go wrong when it comes to Alteric’s visuals. The game doesn’t have to worry about awkward stares with facial animations, rendering massive open-world vistas, or safeguarding itself from glitches that remind us this isn’t reality. It doesn’t aim for realism. Minimalism carries it into the realm of the abstract. Even the unintentional flickering of my little white block, which I suspected for a moment might’ve been a glitch, could easily be a part of this digital quasi-after life.
So then how can we grade Alteric’s graphics if they weren’t meant to contest the high fidelity, high-definition presentations of its peers? In an age when consoles can crank out much (some would say) “better” graphics than this, graphics evocative of the 2nd generation of home consoles more than the 8th, Alteric seems deceptively hard to criticize. There are two angles I think we could come at it: one, the successful implementation of the creators’ vision, and two, the utility of the graphics in allowing players access to the game world.
As for the first of those two points of critique, wouldn’t it come as a shock if the developers of Alteric stated that they intended the game to be a realistic first-person-shooter? Of course that’s not what it is and that’s not what they intended: “Thomas meets with Dark Souls“. With Souls supplying the influence on its challenge, Thomas is the clear progenitor of its visual flavor. With its stark colors clearly segregating the dual worlds you phase between, the black walls, platforms, and traps, the glistening white block with its shadow images, I’d say the minimalism intended for Alteric comes across just fine in its actual presentation. Nothing seems overly complicated beyond the mere addition of more elements we’ve already seen: a spinning saw is a simple object and the game only adds these simple objects to achieve complexity. A single saw becomes a cluster, a single laser becomes a grid, a single row of spikes becomes a host of them. It’s a philosophy of developing intricate level design only through irreducibly simple objects.
Minimalism is an interesting and occasionally effective form of communicating meaning in art (and particularly in marketing, too) but in gaming minimalism has to fall under the primacy of function. It’s not enough to try for minimalism on the hope of coming off as chic, stylish, and artistic. The graphics still have to serve the functions of the gameplay and the access of the player. If the visuals actively prevent the player from engaging with the game, then that’s a big no-no. Imagine if Alteric’s background colors were too dark to really see the hazardous obstacles that you needed to. That takes us to the second consideration, the utility of the graphics.
Alteric may be a series of trial and error moments in platforming where dangers suddenly present themselves without warning, too quickly to avoid, but it never embraces purely deceptive traps: spikes that are actually beneficial, blades that are actually portals, etc. It doesn’t trick you into dying in this sense. That’s because it adeptly communicates what its hazards are and then sticks to playing by those rules. From the very earliest levels you’ll know immediately that you shouldn’t collide with spinning saws. Everything from Alteric’s use of color and light contrasts to the placement of hazardous objects tells the player through the minimalism what is what, and that’s what graphics need to do, regardless of design philosophy. This is no different from graphics representing text in a speech bubble reciting a tutorial to the player; if the words did not make sense, did not match up with the gameplay experience, we’d call that a pretty crappy tutorial! Where there are only sparing textual tutorials describing controls, Alteric exists and communicates its rules to the player accurately through its visuals.
While these two points of consideration are attempts to circumnavigate the fact that we’re living in the 4K HD era, Alteric can’t entirely get beyond that. It’s not going to win any awards for its graphics but hey, at least they are what the developers wanted and at least they allow the game to function.
Alteric’s soundtrack is pleasant to listen to and fortunately calming. I always appreciate that in a game which would otherwise seem designed as incredibly frustrating. The music serves to help minimize that feeling of rising rage after missing that jump for the umpteenth time. It’s eclectic and dreamlike, placid as it needs to be while still maintain a sense of momentum and drive seemingly necessary for platformers.
However, your white block makes a weird exerting noise every time it jumps. Why? It’s a block. Considering how frequently I could imagine jumping throughout Alteric, the realization that I’d be putting up with this awkward noise for the entire game hit me like the proverbially heavy blunt force object. As such, my appreciation for Alteric’s sound design went down over time. Muting sound effects wouldn’t solve that either, but thanks for your potential suggestion. When I evaluate a game, I refrain from removing any significant part of its experience.
A lot of Alteric’s gameplay comes down to the success or failure of its level design, and I have to report that most of it is quite good. A lot of the levels feel like intense obstacle courses and many of them demand you put some thought into anticipating what’s next and navigating what’s right in front of you, interpreting the minimalist landscape before diving in.
The levels which tend toward the uninteresting are those which seem more like placeholders than actual stages. These are overly plain without a lot going on and fortunately they are infrequent. Alteric has some good ideas to show off with only a few tricks available to you: double-jumping, block pushing, cloning yourself. Cloning in particular had the potential to break the game, whatever that would mean for a game as simple and straightforward as Alteric, but it is thankfully implemented late in the game when it would’ve been too useful earlier on.
Make no if’s and/or but’s about it, Alteric is hard. It was almost too hard and too frustrating for me to complete, and I’ll admit in the interest of candid critiquery that there was a space of time when I didn’t want to play it at all. I like brutal platformers maybe a bit more than the next guy, but there’s only so much dying in the span of a few seconds that anyone can take. Getting a sense of the scale of the game with a friendly online guide, knowing exactly how many levels were ahead, helped me push through to the finish. Be forewarned, however, that the reward for completing Alteric is limited solely to satisfaction, whatever that means to you.
I already discussed accessibility directly in terms of the game’s visuals, so to reiterate: Alteric has a simple control scheme and easy to understand rules. Even its mainline gimmick of phasing between dual worlds is graspable right away. It has an excellent balance of difficulty without confusing players with too many rules. Lots of surprises but nothing I’d say the only thing that would approach the realm of baffling would be the boss fights. Touching a red spot on a boss body didn’t seem like the most intuitive thing to do.
I didn’t notice any special modes or rewards upon completing the game. There are no collectibles to worry about and with the Switch version there is no trophy/achievement support, either. I can’t for the life of me think of any reason someone would want to play through Alteric again. It leans enough toward being a puzzle platformer that figuring out its levels once means you’ll know the solution until you forget it completely.
Developed with twin influences in mind, Alteric never seemed like it was plowing new ground. In the sea of minimalist indie platformers, there isn’t a whole lot that will make it stand out. Remember, it blends in with the crowd. Perhaps the lack of the truly sensational is something which makes Alteric the sensible, solid platformer that it is, but when was the last time that sensible or solid made the news?
My Personal Grade: 4/10
As mentioned, I had a hard time getting through Alteric, not merely because of its severe difficulty but also because playing it seemed to waver toward the purposeless and uneventful. Perhaps this is the kind of game which best exists as an exalted mobile game pastime on the Nintendo Switch in handheld mode, a game which can be picked up and put down on a whim for a few minutes or a level or two at a time. I didn’t hate it, not at all, and there’s no “but” coming here. It is what it is, for all its dedication to style, challenge, and lack of robustness.
Special thanks to goonswarm and Sometimes You for giving us the opportunity to critique their game. I hope the developers find my thoughts useful! What else could a critic hope for?
Aggregated Score: 5.9
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Categories: Game Review