The Alters Next Fest Preview

Dark Sci Fi Done Right

Jun 15, 2024
The Alters Preview Title Screen.jpg

Out of all the games I played for the Steam Next Fest this June, the most polished game, the most well put together game, and the game that has stuck in my head the longest after putting it down has been The Alters.

It’s a game that is incredibly story driven, so even though I only played for 90 minutes, I’m worried about giving spoilers even in this preview. So for the sake of brevity, I’m breaking up the article here into a pre-spoilers portion and then a story section that is filled with spoilers. I’ll also just say up front go play this game. Go wishlist it. If you want to know as little as possible, just understand this is a sci fi game that is going to make you think, has some resource management elements as its main gameplay besides story choices, and is made by the people behind Frostpunk and This War of Mine.

The Alters Gameplay Demo.jpg

A quick note - I’ve seen a few people reacting to the game saying the whole demo took them only 45-60 minutes. I probably took longer because I wanted to read all the lore and was chatting to a friend about the game while trying it out.

Heck, you can even watch the announcement trailer they dropped years ago to get a taste of what you are in store for. The idea was tantalizing then, and I’m now even more rabid to play the game after the demo.

The Non-Spoiler Demo Review - Jan Dolski Is Having A Bad Day

The Alters is a deep sci-fi style game set with you marooned on a distant planet. It’s a pretty dire situation: you start by breaking out of your landing pod, trying to radio the rest of the crew, and getting back only radio silence. You are Jan Dolski, a simple builder. You are not the ship captain, just one of the crew suddenly way, way over your head. As warnings about how radiation on the planet becomes lethal during nighttime even in your bulky suit, it’s time to find your home base on the planet.

The Alters Home Base.jpg

Again, this game is incredibly story driven, with most of the important gameplay coming down to you advancing the plot and your choices made to advance the story. It’s made by the same developers behind games meant to make you sweat a little, like deciding if child labor is necessary to survive in Frostpunk, so plot and theme are going to be a huge element of gameplay. However, the game still feels like a game, and not just a ‘walking simulator’ to advance the plot. There's a lot to do with how you have to manage resources and survive from objective to objective.

If you’ve played Citizen Sleeper, you’ll be right at home here: all actions take time, and time is a very, very precious resource. You only have a few days to survive before getting to your next objective, and taking any action such as running around outside the base or making supplies takes valuable time. You can set up extraction locations and even build fast travel networks to extraction locations, but again, the initial set up takes extra effort. You repair, build up, and manage your base as well.

The Alters Base Management Demo.jpg

Graphically, the game was stunning. The world felt hostile and beautiful, and while there are games with sharper graphics, it was the art direction that makes it fit together so well. I love the funky design of the mobile land base, and all the various rooms inside that base feel wonderfully realized.

I played for 90 minutes total, and the whole experience such had an intensity to it thanks to both the advancing story and the constant sense of danger of taking too long. Besides an occasional graphics stammer while using the elevators inside my own base, I have no complaints about how the game ran, and I’m really excited to see how these survival and resource management mechanics expand as the story grows more and more wild.

The Story-Spoiler Review - Jan Dolski Needs To Phone A Friend

Now again, it feels wild to me that I’ve put a spoiler section into an article that’s about a demo instead of a full game, but this game is intimately tied to its story and how you react to the reveals coming to both Jan Dolski and you as the player. I was fortunate enough to play through most of the demo with a friend watching in discord, and he exclaimed things like “what the hell” and “this is so messed up” about a dozen times as we made our way through the adventure.

If you are familiar with 11 Bit Studios as a development studio, you already know they like being mean to their protagonists. This War of Mine has you surviving a war as a civilian bystander in a besieged city, and Frostpunk makes you try and keep a city alive during temperatures that have frozen the world solid, making desperate choices for how to keep order.

So how bad is it going to be for Jan Dolski, their named main protagonist in The Alters, as he wakes up on an unknown planet alone?

The Alters You Can Pet The Sheep.jpg

Have no fear everyone - you can pet the sheep.

Well, within half an hour, you find out everyone else has died upon landing on the planet, that the company you work for can barely contact through breaking equipment, and that the planet is so filled with radiation that you’ll cook alive if ‘sunrise’ happens in a handful of days. This is all just setting the scene, because the real mind twist isn’t the survival, it’s the existential questions that come with ensuring that survival.

You see, your crew was sent here following some quantum computer algorithm trying to find a theorized element, ‘Rapidium’. As you run around the map learning how to find basic materials, Jan finds a massive cache of it, harvests it, and brings it back to the ship. His incredibly distorted calls have him trying to get the mobile base somewhere safer, but he can’t manage it. Again, he’s just a builder; trying to get the base moving has it breaking.

Fortunately - or unfortunately - Jan does have access to two things: rapidium, an element that dramatically speeds up organic growth, and a quantum computer that he finds out to his horror has a copy of his ‘mind records’, a detailed record of his entire life.

The Alters Timeline.jpg

Now, even that announcement trailer I shared from 2 years ago lets you know the concept of this game is all about clones, but it doesn’t share how it's about clones. When they revealed in the demo exactly how cloning occurs, I was practically shouting at my friend, because it's so much more interesting and intense and existential than I expected.

You aren’t just cloning yourself to get help. Instead, you are using the quantum computer to branch your own life story’s timeline at a critical point, and then cloning a theoretical clone of yourself who went down an entirely different timeline.

The Alters Branching Timeline.jpg

Meet Jan Dolski, technical engineer. This Jan, unlike you, didn’t escape from an abusive home to go to college, but instead chose to stay at home and stood up for his sick mother, pushing the abusive father away. He didn’t get a degree, but learned how to repair things, apprenticed at a technician’s shop, and toiled as a blue collar worker on machines to get by. And this Jan Dolski is not happy to see you. To realize that he’s trapped on a lethal planet with a bumbling version of himself who can’t seem to operate the machinery.

What plays out next is a bunch of dialogue choices where you have to talk yourself into helping out, but a version of yourself who is more blue collar, more blunt, more frustrated. You get little floating bubbles showing his mood worsening or getting better based on your choices, and again, this is Jan Dolski, but one who went down a different path nearly 20 years ago. How do you relate to another version of yourself who might hate the person they see in the mirror?

The Alters Jan Technician.jpg

In the span of about thirty minutes, I got one of the strongest title drops I’ve ever seen in a video game as original Jan waits for Technician Jan to be born, followed by one of the most wholesome cut scenes I’ve seen in a video game. The two bond by trying to replicate their dead mother’s pierogi recipe in the kitchen, reminiscing about her and all she did for them. It’s a scene so absolutely bizarre it loops back around to feeling genuine and touching, filled with mixed emotions of nostalgia, hope, and desperation.

I’m Wishlisting This Game. You Should Too.

I don’t know what else to tell you here. The concept I saw years ago had piqued my interest, and seeing how it played out at just the very start of the story has me entirely hooked. It’s now my most anticipated game of the year, just because I want to see how the story goes. I adore the main concept, and while I don’t know how intense the gameplay will get, I really enjoy how the gameplay that I have seen feeds back into the story.

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The Alters comes out later this year, although there is no exact release date. I would highly suggest playing the demo to see if this particular blend of survival-and-resource management is your speed. It is definitely not a walking simulator, although it might not have combat for those folks who want conflict that is solved with shotguns. I think The Alters is going to be my game of the year, but I am also entirely aware that when a game is based so intensely on story, an assumption like that can be very subjective. I’d love to find out if others are frothing at the mouth for the full game too.

I’m in love with Jan Dolski, and I can’t wait to find out which Jan Dolski is my favorite Jan Dolski. The end.

Wyatt Krause

Editor-in-chief, Co-founder