If you are anything like me, you probably find going outside for walks to be calming and enjoyable. Despite that I still try to do this as often as I can, we have also gotten titles that recreate this atmosphere without just setting you on linear and dull pathways, which 90% of walking simulators sadly do. Games like a short hike, Death Stranding, and Eastshade, shows how immersive the simple act of walking can be, while still presenting unique concepts, styles, and even tones. Entering this field is Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, which has you playing as a small girl exploring around on a small island and taking pictures of animals. This title sounded cute and I had a hard time saying no to partake on this journey, so I gave it a shot. After coming back from it, was it worth my time?
Simple does not mean underwhelming
We start off this small tale by meeting a young girl named Alba, who is visiting her grandparents on a small Mediterranean island. Ten years has passed since that short introduction, and Alba has returned to this place for her vacation. However, while she is still enjoying her time with her grandparents and friends, the island seems to be falling apart and even worse; a nature reservation is threatened by a new luxury hotel that is planned to be build on top of it. Knowing that something must be done, Alba sets out to restore the island and help the inhabitants, be they animals or people.
If you have ever seen an environmental cartoon from the 80s, this is pretty much it on a much smaller scale. The story might even be more straight forward in comparison, due to how clearly you can see who the villains are from their tacky looks and how narrow minded they are about pleasing their own greed. Alba is not subtle at all about its concept of good versus evil, and it makes the messages it wants to convey fall flat for a general audience. The characters make this story even more underwhelming, as they are sadly forgettable and only have minor traits to go by. At the end of this adventure, I only remembered Alba’s name because it was a part of the game’s title.
To be fair, this is a story meant for a younger audience and the developers clearly wanted the important messages to be easily digestible, but they are not presented in any clever or strong ways. You are just going along for this ride regardless, where you have to clean up the island and help out those in need. That is it. This could have been easy to shrug off and still appreciate the game for teaching moralistic goals to the players, but the worst part is whenever you discover a new animal.
Since taking pictures and filling up your animal logbook are significant parts of the game, I expected to be provided with more insights to the creatures you discovered than just where they are found and how they look. Sadly, you get no more info than this, which is terrible for a game about saving the nature and the animals. This is a title that should definitely have provided more trivia about the animals you discover, especially when the overall messages and gameplay are so strongly connected to them.
However, I was never angry at this story or felt its themes were forced upon the player. Simply put, it told me messages I could agree on, and had nothing else to offer to make me take actions upon them. I believe if the shallow plot was taken out and you had to do more interactivity from the start to better showcase its messages, it would have left a stronger impact on the player. Alba tries to both show and tell, which is where it faults as it does not go far enough with either aspects. Thankfully, it is not Illumination’s form of bad. It is just forgettable.
Story Score: 4/10
This is what is being used to describe this title by the developers, and I find it somewhat misleading. You control Alba in an open exploration game, where your goal is to do any task you have acquired on your to do list. What will be the most critical objective, is to get enough signatures in order to save the nature reservation, which you do by helping out anyone in any way you can. Pick up trash, fix billboards, help sick or trapped animals, and other tasks a good environmentalist would do.
All of these will require you to explore the island in order to do them, which is engaging and atmospheric. However, the interactivity is minimal as you will not do much more than go to a specific place and press X. It is also here where I noticed one annoying flaw about this title, which is that all the items needed for specific tasks are unlocked progressively throughout the story. The medicine kit, recycling bag, and more will stop you from restoring the island any further until you go back to bed and sleep to the next day. This unnecessarily halts you from wanting to explore beyond the main tasks, since you might not be able to do anything more at this point either way.
Luckily, the Island itself is interesting to travel around on and easy to remember thanks to clearly laid out areas and memorable constructions. You even get a map in case you have no sense of direction, making it virtually impossible to get lost. Although, this is where I would argue that Alba is an exploration game, and not really a collect-a-thon (or “chillectathon”) as it describes itself as. Our protagonist cannot even jump, and there is little activity and interactivity involved on this vacation. The only things you can really do that are more than just hitting a button, are three elements.
The most important one involves your phone, as it is used for taking pictures of animals and filling up your logbook. While you can only zoom in and out with the camera, it automatically identifies a creature as long as you get a good shot at one, so it is easy to get to grasps with. However, I question why I cannot walk around while I am taking a picture and why R2 is mapped as the button for taking photos. The latter one is minor, but takes me out of the experience when I am not using an actual camera and instead a phone where I press on its face instead of a button on the back. After all, details are important for a game about immersion.
It is still exciting to search out for the right animals to take pictures of, and I love how you can use the audio to locate an undiscovered one. Unfortunately, being stuck and unable to move makes you have to take in and out the camera in order to reposition yourself. This is especially annoying when the animals can move around fast. I can also understand if the developers wanted to make photography a simple element, but a true camera could have added to the creativity with lenses and more. There might have been more planned here, as you have the ability to sneak, but it is never needed throughout the entire game.
As a strange twist, one unique interactivity you can do is one I believe should have been scrapped altogether. You have to nod or shake your head by flicking the analog stick in order to answer questions, and it adds nothing to the experience. Why not give me the simple options of yes and no? The last form of interactivity, is fixing billboards by replacing destroyed pictures on them to give tourists an idea of what creatures they can find in the areas. This is one I found quite fun to do, as you have to figure out which one of the photos you have match the remains of the old ones or if you have to search out for an undiscovered animal.
This is where I find Alba strange, as it is very atmospheric and charming whenever you are allowed to explore freely. However, the moment it tries to implement a new element or interactivity, it rather does so poorly to the point of padding itself out. Thankfully, the game is short and can even be completed in about three hours, making it not overstay its welcome. It also has more strengths to it, by focusing on you travelling around the island and taking pictures of interesting animals. I just wish the interactivity was more exciting than unique.
Gameplay Score: 6/10
A nice view
The visuals are done with simple geometries, giving the game a nice and creative look. Everything is brimming with strong colours, and all the animals and humans are made out of clear shapes and forms, almost like they were handcrafted. It is all pleasant to look at, and due to how diverse the areas and inhabitants are, it all comes off as a neat artistic choice. The locations are varied to be easily recognisable, be it the harbour, the old ruins of a castle or the small forest down by the church, to name a few examples. It is all believably constructed and I was never lost on where things were, thanks to how memorable each location was. The characters are forgettable though, as none have unique designs to them. At least, their models fit well with the game’s setting.
I also wanna highlight the wonderful details that were implemented, such as the subtle lighting being directly influenced by the sun with minor motions to simulate the time of day, how Alba and her friend will eventually skip as they run, and how all your objectives are presented on a clipboard. It all adds to the atmosphere and I love how charming it all becomes. There is a healthy variety of animals to discover as well, with about 62 different species being included. While most of them will be birds, there is enough diversity to make you engaged in the activity of photographing them. Even if a select few of them can be very similar in terms of look.
The first thing I noticed when starting this game, was how impressive the ambient sounds were. The strong and varied cries from the different creatures, the waves hitting the shores, and the busy town, everything added to make you immersed into this small island. In other words, a good set of headphones is recommended. While not as impactful, the soundtrack is also appealing and focuses on instruments fitting this summery area, such as the acoustic guitar. It all gives a feeling of a relaxing vacation, as most songs are uplifting and calm, making me easily smile and feel invited.
Presentation Score: 7/10
This is where I am extremely puzzled, as I was always having fun trying to take photos of every creature and explore this island. Neither were daunting aspects to do, but required you to have a keen eye, making me engaged in the tasks I took upon doing. However, when even animals to find are locked away until you progress through the game, it became quite tedious to complete this title.
What really hurts is that you do not get much for doing the objectives either. Taking down laundry from clotheslines or throwing trash in a nearby bin, results only in visual appreciations and nothing else. This also goes for completing the game, as you are just rewarded with a pat on your back and a badge. I would say the journey can be fun, but when you are always stopped and reminded that you have to finish the main story in order to get all the abilities and animals to find, it makes the freedom of exploration lessened. For such a short game, this feels like an awkward problem to have.
Extra Score: 5/10
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is a game I believe a younger or more casual audience will enjoy, as it is nice to explore this island and it will charm you with its atmosphere, which is strengthened even further by you having to take pictures. However, it does feel limited due to how underdeveloped the interactivity is, and the constant halting from completing and fully exploring this island is just bizarre. It is almost like the developers wanted the player to stay, despite how short this title is. The characters could also have had more personality to them when the story is quite bland. This vacation was nice while it lasted, but I probably will not return.