Alaska Review

Alaska’s ambition flies too close to the sun, failing to deliver on its attempt to tell a psychologically driven murder mystery against a snowy plot of wilderness. The protagonist, known only as “Blake,” lives among a small community of neighborly folks in the fictional town of Silka, Alaska. Suffering from the absence of his ex-wife, who left him for reasons unknown, Blake is eventually brought back to life by a community that actively engages with him in an attempt to pull him out of a funk. This has the unintended consequence of turning Blake into a gofer sent to complete various errands and helpful chores. These tasks range from helping a housewife get water from a well, assist a flirtatious married woman to restore power to her house, and help an elderly couple build a fire by scrounging for supplies (why they didn’t already have these necessary items already betrays all rational thought). Over the course of performing these chores, disguised as “fun,” Blake’s life takes a turn when a murder is discovered and the effect it has on the isolated community.

From top to bottom, Alaska fails to inspire any sense of wonder, mystery, or excitement. That last one might sound strange - how can life in the Alaskan wilderness be “fun?” It kind of isn't and instead of trying to find your own fun out of the mundane, the developers at Wreck Tangle Games trap you inside a fiercely linear story punctuated by the most oddly designed mini-games I have ever experienced.

You play Alaska strictly on its terms, which include walking to objectives, talking to people, and take breaks to perform activities. Neither of these mechanics is all that interesting. Walking is about as fun as sticking your tongue on a frozen pole, given that the speed is atrociously slow. This makes reaching mission-critical areas a bit of an infuriating chore. Blake can sprint, which helps to speed things along but you’ll have to pause every so often for him to catch his breath. Blake’s errands take him to various locations on the map with the bulk of them being the wooden cabins occupied by friends and neighbors. Should you get lost among the tall pines and frozen fields, you can call up a map that highlights the area you need to go but, strangely, doesn’t display your current position. Instead, you’ll have to rely on identifying nearby landmarks and follow a compass to pinpoint your exact location, something that’s pretty confusing during the early sections of the game. Have no fear, as you’ll end up revisiting most places several times over the course of Blake’s tumultuous week, so I suppose that is a small mercy.

Large swaths of the story are dedicated to Blake walking from point A to point B to trigger the next beat in the story and advance the day. As you trudge along alone, Blake fills the silence through introspection and monologues as they relate to his current situation, whether it’s pondering which aged video game system was shipped to a neighbor or the inherent terror of walking the woods at night. Much of Blake’s dialog, as well as every other character in Silka, is marred by terrible writing, which is frequently corny and cringy and matched by the recorded delivery of their performers. With activity contained within a few days of the week (marked by very Shining-esque title cards), the “highlight” of each day is a collection of “unique” mini-games designed, I guess, to recreate how people must occupy themselves in a tundra. These games were my least favorite thing to do. Not only do they feel as if they were made to pad length, but the systems and mechanics for each are ridiculous and don’t make much sense.

Chopping down trees with a chainsaw is a convoluted process of holding down keyboard keys to match three colored cubes against flashing colored coded letters. Figure skating is especially stupid because the grace and charm of gliding across the ice are replaced by a pair of skates you need to guide through a cheaply made obstacle course comprised of holes in the ice and spinning buzz saws. I’ll say that again but with emphasis. In the ice skating mini-game, in which Blake is replaced by a pair of ice skates, you must avoid SPINNING SAW BLADES that pop up from underneath a sheet of frozen lake water. At this point, I thought I was being trolled. This is some Deadly Premonition nonsense. Was this supposed to be a joke? I asked this myself again after the start of the hunting game where I received a comically large AK-47 (what is this, Sarah Palin’s neighborhood?) that can only fire one bullet before the entire magazine (huh?) needs to be replaced (huh??). Despite being grounded in the real world, Alaska’s sense of reality is exceptionally bonkers.  

This distorted reality also affects the game’s visuals. The size of the environment in relation to Blake feels larger than it needs to be, making him appear as if he lives among giants, and the construction of various homes and structures is downright lazy. Each house looks like a bad Second Life fabrication that has no concept of space. Many are sparsely populated, some homes have nothing more than a single couch and a fireplace, have no concept of basic architecture (staircases are little more than rectangle logs attached to the wall), and just plain weird. My favorite piece of quirky architecture featured a staircase that led to what looked like a blue and white striped rug that blocked access to the second floor. Textures are ugly and the NPCs are nothing more than plastic dolls that look at you with their soulless eyes.

Alaska has a story to tell that could have been an interesting drama about a murder in an extremely isolated small town. It’s too bad that the whole affair is bogged down by slow movement speeds, generally unpleasant visuals, ineffective minigames, and bad writing. If you’re looking for a game that marries good storytelling and an interesting mystery with framed around mundane work made fun, play The Station instead. It’s best to leave Alaska on ice.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.