Lovecraftian horror has a big influence in gaming, as should be expected. The writer’s work is fitting and seems to translate well in video game horror. Also, the weird nature of Lovecraftian stories offers video game writers a free pass to take some creative liberties that make their work easier. For instance, when you are writing a story about alien gods, strange dimensions, visions of otherworldly places and huge tentacles, you don’t have to stick to traditional storytelling methods; you can tell your story any way you want.
Study the Ancient Ones, lose your mind
This new Lovecraftian game, The Alien Cube, takes full advantage of its surreal nature. It’s a very typical story about a man, the protagonist’s uncle, who studies strange things that may or may not have something to do with the Ancient Ones (they do). You control a person who inherits some other strange things from his now dead uncle, and you find out that there’s something eerie going on in his house. The narrative doesn’t really make much sense, and it throws everything it’s got at you without any buildup. You go to the uncle’s house, you find an alien cube, you wake up in another dimension, you learn about a cult that wants eternal life or to merge with their god, you solve some random puzzles and you hear/read a huge amount of exposition.
In the face of your doom, write a letter
It is disappointing that a writer using a setting as otherworldly as this cannot find ways to advance the narrative apart from letters and journals scattered around the place. You find a sunken, derelict place, full of dangers and creepy undertones, only to discover that it’s littered with pages full of information about everything regarding the plot. It’s really as if you are reading letters written by the game itself, addressed to you, the player, so that you understand what’s going on.
The Alien Cube’s environmental storytelling is lacking, but its visuals are excellent; very fitting, atmospheric and just plain beautiful. The game is made by a single developer, who really did a great job in the graphics department. Lighting effects, fog and many types of image filters are utilized to induce the appropriate feelings, and it works more times than not. You’ll explore some dark forests, you’ll visit surreal greenly-lit landscapes, you’ll descend in snowy dungeons and in all instances you’ll want to take some time to admire the visuals. Also, when you’re indoors, in everyday places or otherworldly ones, you’ll appreciate the amount of work done to bring them to life, with many details in the background adding meaning and a sense of place.
Should I run or should I hide?
Sadly, this sense is lost in the narrative, which doesn’t give you a clear purpose and you end up feeling like you’re just skipping from one story segment to the next one, without properly understanding why the character does what he does. Also, the detailed environments create a distraction when you’re looking for a particular object, like a small key, and this sadly leads to pixel-hunting scenarios -the puzzles’ simple, too typical nature doesn’t help: “oh, this generator is empty, find some gasoline!”.
Additionally, the developer has added jump and crouch mechanics that are annoying and underutilized. There are not that many scenarios in which you’ll have to use those moves; you just crouch to activate a button prompt and you jump in frustrating light-platforming bits. The controls are not made for such mechanics, as the input lag is strong and the movement not very tight. Thankfully, you will not find many such instances in The Alien Cube.
Another gameplay mechanic you’ll have to tackle comes in the form of chase sequences that seem totally random. The rules are not clear and are never explicitly laid out, and so you just know that you have to run because the music gets intense and the screen blurs out. In general, most of this game’s rules are left unexplained. You lose health sometimes, but it’s not clear if you made a mistake or not. You are suddenly chased by a creature and you die when caught, without knowing how to respond, where to go, if you should hide or run. This random aspect gives a level of unpredictability to the gameplay, but it also gets annoying after a while. The visual feedback provided in such occasions is just not enough to actually guide the player, and so the game would be better off without these chase-scenes.
A feature that could and should be omitted, unexpectedly, is the voice acting. Most of the narrative unfolds through written text and the protagonist doesn’t speak much, so in most cases you are reading what the character is supposed to be saying. Then, at random, some lines are spoken out loud. The actor portraying our character is very dramatic, even when he shouldn’t be, and the result is a bit campy, especially when you can go for 30 minutes without hearing a word, only to listen to him saying: “I can’t believe this! It’s just like in my dream!” randomly. The inconsistent voice acting creates a disparity that damages the believably of the whole narrative.
Is it scary?
Nevertheless, The Alien Cube doesn’t overstay its welcome. The game’s runtime sits at around 3 hours, with some optional secrets to uncover here and there, and it manages to keep things interesting until the end, albeit based on an incoherent narrative that’s filled with overused genre tropes. If you’re a fan of Lovecraftian stories, there’s a lot to like here, mostly in the audiovisual representation which is excellent. There are some scary parts, many of them consisting of jump scares, but others going the cosmic horror route, trying to give you nightmares through storytelling. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a worthy effort that will scratch your cosmic horror itch, if you have it.