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The Alters: The First Preview

Jan Dolski is marooned on an alien planet, tasked with piloting a hulking mobile laboratory shaped like a giant wheel. If he doesn’t keep it moving, the planet's orbit will catch up with him and he’ll burn in the heat of a nearby sun. It takes a whole team of specialists to keep the base running, but Jan is all by himself. So, there's only one thing to do: make more Jans. Not clones, but alternate Jans birthed from alternative realities. He must learn to work with these Jans and, in the process, may end up learning more about himself. This is the crux of The Alters, an introspective survival game about self-discovery as much as it is about seeking an escape plan from an alien planet.

My gameplay demo began with being tasked to gather six metal resources from a nearby ore vein so that maintenance work on the wheel lab could be undertaken, which is where The Alters core survival loop begins. Jan himself was the maintenance worker on the crew, but his related skills will only get you so far. This was a crew initially full of scientists, miners, and other specialists, but with the entire team discovered dead on a beach you need to reassemble that knowledge base. With a rapidly approaching sun ready to burn you to a crisp, there’s no time to sit and read through some textbooks to gain all this info. This is where the wild main conceit of The Alters emerges.

Mysterious video messages make their way to Jan and inform you of an experimental “branching” technology that could aid you in your efforts. Using a shimmering resource called rapidium found in a nearby cave, you can create new versions of yourself in a specialisation of your choosing. I haven’t got a full grasp on just how many Jan variations will be available in total, but in the two to three hours with the game, those available to me included doctor, shrink, refiner, worker, miner, scientist, guard, and botanist. Each come with their own perks and bonuses that will help you and the other Jans work out what has happened to your lost crewmates and how to escape.

But while each of the Jans may differ from one another in vocations, they all crucially share a backstory. The lab’s Quantum Computer allows you to revisit events from Jan's life, such as meeting his partner or leaving university, and the many other decisions he made leading up to joining the space mission at 35. These are all presented as choices, and how you navigate each Jan’s life determines what variant is summoned into your game. For example, if you opt to stay living at home instead of moving away from your family, you’ll create Technician Jan, who is 50% more efficient when doing base maintenance. This unique system offers an interesting dilemma when creating a new Jan: do you navigate their former life in such a way that will create an ideal new recruit purely for gameplay reasons, or do you experiment with different and more unusual choices to see how a Jan with a particular life experience will add to your story?

Each new variant remains familiar but distinguished enough from another.

It’s a credit to both the visual design of each Jan and voice actor Alex Jordan that each new variant remains familiar but distinguished enough from another. It’s crucial that they each have their personality for you to either bond with or rub against, and from what I can see so far it's done really well. You also get to read through each of the Jans’ stories using interactive timelines – often tales filled with tragic loss, addiction, and financial woes.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. I had a touching dumpling dinner date with Technician Jan as we reminisced about our shared mother and attempted to reproduce her homemade pierogi recipe. In yet another fascinating departure from the classic survival game template, this sequence played out more like an RPG conversation, giving me the chance to choose dialogue options that would improve the relationship between myself and my alter-ego. Initially a frictional figure, Technician Jan warmed up during the scene as I managed to chip away at his rebellious streak and decrease his anxiety about the whole (admittedly) confusing situation. These conversations also provide a chance for the Jans to reflect on their past mistakes in life and ask each other how taking a different path worked for them, adding an appreciated emotive edge to the story.

Other ways to build bonds include fulfilling tasks for your crewmates, such as providing them with a comfier place to sleep or a social room so they can enjoy their free time more freely. I also birthed a botanist to help manage my newly built greenhouse and in turn feed my Jans better and boost their morale. I’m intrigued to see how these relationships bloom or dissolve over time and what impact they may have on the story. Could it result in mutiny if things get too heated between the Jans? It’s this central mechanic of creating and interacting with new Jans, paired with the central enigma of the story, that drives The Alters. The fact that this narrative element takes up such a significant amount of The Alters could prove to be its saving grace, as I found the actual survival parts of the gameplay to be far less engaging.

Admittedly survival is a genre I don’t naturally gravitate towards, but the repetitive loop of finding a resource deposit, drilling that deposit, building a new piece of equipment, and then doing it all over again isn’t the most engaging to me. As is often the case, time is your most precious resource of all, and The Alters does keep you on your toes in regards to managing both the clock and your tiredness levels. Every task takes energy, from mining to crafting, so it’s key to manage that. Sleeping for longer gives you more energy to use throughout the day, but this is of course means you have less time to work on fixing the lab during your waking hours. And when a murderous sun threatens to reduce you to ashes, every minute is precious.

When a murderous sun threatens to reduce you to ashes, every minute is precious.

When you do find time to take a breath, there’s a great amount of tangible sci-fi gadgetry and iconography to take in. These range from static-filled phone calls from across the stars to the psychedelic sheen of rapidium deposits, all the way to DNA samples used to create Molly the sheep. A seemingly innocent bystander you can pet freely, I’m not sure what part Molly plays in the story yet, but ewe bet she must do. The planet itself is hostile despite no other signs of life being apparent – sharp rock structures jut out of oily seas whose waves pulse menacingly – and is in contrast to the clinical silvers and whites of the base.

It’s a cross-celestial blend of movies Moon and The Martian with dashes of Death Stranding’s aesthetic thrown into the mix that makes for an intriguing proposition. But while The Alters appears to be ticking many good boxes story-wise, I am wary of the moment-to-moment gameplay wearing thin over time if it doesn’t develop significantly past these first handful of hours. I am looking forward to seeing more, though, and finding out where the mystery leads.

Simon Cardy thinks that one of him is enough for any planet to deal with. Follow him on Twitter at @CardySimon.

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