Some games want to put their players in positions of power; fantasies of strength, agility and wisdom. Then, there are games that want to punish players; masocore challenges of brainpower and reflexes. Ever more common are the cute, whimsical experiences that fall into the Wholesome games category, which even have their whole show at E3 this year. Alba: A Wildlife Adventure by UsTwo Games fits firmly in this category, and it does what it promises so well, it may well be the benchmark by which to judge all others.
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UsTwo previously made the iOS game Monument Valley, a light puzzle adventure with a strong emphasis on light – there was very little puzzling, as you were led by the nose from one gorgeous vignette to another. Alba is very similar in that it poses very little challenge, but it doesn’t matter. You play as the titular Alba, a pre-teen girl who is visiting her grandparents on the tiny picturesque Spanish island Pinar del Ma. You quickly run into your friend Inés, and together you find a dolphin washed up on shore. From here you gather help to get the porpoise back in the sea, and afterwards form AIWRL – the Alba and Inés Wildlife Rescue League.
From here, you get enthralled in a terrifying conspiracy backed by shady government men, who are plotting nefariously to… build a hotel. A super hotel. Good for tourists, bad for wildlife, as the mayor plans to build over the dilapidated Wildlife reserve. The main goal of the game thus becomes apparent: Fix stuff! Pick up litter! Help out! Do everything you can to get people to sign your petition and save the day by asking the mayor to please kindly not build a hotel on the island.
Ustwo games label Alba as a chillectathon, a game you can take at your own pace. There are plenty of objectives on the island, odd-jobs to do for the various locals, though some won’t be apparent until you’ve progressed the story. These tasks are all small, manageable and environmentally minded, the kind of thing you can imagine a pair of kids getting up to on a holiday. The bulk of your time will be spent collecting rubbish, freeing animals from litter and oil spills, and fixing up areas of the island that have fallen into disrepair.
In between all of this, you’ll be photographing animals on your mobile phone: get close enough, snap ’em, and scan them with your wildlife app. These lovely animals are rendered accurately despite their incredibly low poly count and flat stylised textures. You’ll quickly be able to tell apart four different types of gulls, even if you have no interest in gulls. The attention to detail is pretty cute: Alba has a wildlife book that you can flip through and listen to the calls of various animals. As you wander around the island you’ll hear all of these different noises, and you’ll be able to use them to zero in on their location if you’re struggling to lay eyes on them.
For all its simplistic exterior, there’s quite the detailed little virtual ecosystem going on, with birds circling around, rabbits hopping through the grass, and cats sunning themselves near awnings. Just running around and watching animals and birds scurry is delightful, and there really aren’t enough sweet adjectives for “fun” and “nice” to pack into this review. Character animations are ebullient, with Alba and Inés transitioning from hops to skips to bounds as they gambol around the island from task to task.
Everything is backed by Lorena Alvarez’s wonderful soundtrack with its cheery spanish tones. The island is laid back, and so are its residents. Perhaps too laid back – despite its chill nature, there’s a definite theme running through of responsibility that’s been shirked, people being too complacent, letting the casual rot of laziness set in. Alba is a force for change, a whirlwind of positivity and energy on this sunny, soporific island. She repairs tables, wildlife pictures, bird boxes, tidies up trash – her activity inspires others to act, to challenge their assumptions of responsibility.
Even in your responses to questions, your affirmations and refutations are over the top and exaggerated. Waggle the analogue stick madly and Alba nods or shakes her head in response. Hammer the A button to pick up trash, and you chuck drink cans and crisp packets into a bin. It’s hard not to be entranced, and every care has been given to breathe life into the island’s inhabitants (my favourite touch: the mayor’s moustache that wiggles as he talks).
Players could be forgiven for any misgivings they have about the actual “game” part. In terms of mechanical challenge Alba is pretty barren, except for some birds that prove a little hard to capture as they fly erratically… but this is the point. There’s definitely room in the world for games that are short, sweet, and frictionless. The important part here is the feeling. It’s all about the vibe, and it nails that completely. Alba: A Wildlife Adventure feels like a holiday, it’s sunny, lazy, and full of saccharine goodness that will fill you up and leave you feeling satiated. There aren’t any real gameplay incentives beyond the story itself, and short checklists to complete. It’s actually quite liberating that the photography has nearly all gamification removed making it feel closer to real-life birdwatching than Pokemon Snap’s point scoring, but it is a shame you can’t see your own photos anywhere.
Ustwo’s sweet little world provides an idyllic little retreat on a lovely sun-kissed island, which embraces you with warmth and has an even bigger heart. It may not provide thrills and spills, or even the kind of emotional, earnest narrative you might expect from your usual indie fare, but it does provide a lot of birds, and a lot of good feelings.
Alba is out now for iOS, MacOS and PC. It will release on Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S on June 9. This review was on the Switch.
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is a wonderful little story game with a heart of gold. It’s not complex, and it’s not long, but it is earnest and unafraid to be what it is: a chill adventure in a little spec of luxury. Kids will get a lot out of its charm, and it’s well constructed enough that adults will enjoy the relaxing and joyful headspace it provides. Like the best entertainment, it’s got something for all ages.
- Gorgeous visuals and soundtrack make this feel like a real holiday
- Story is a light touch, but with a solid moral core and a heap of charm
- Animal photography is surprisingly fun
- I can now tell apart four types of gull at a glance
- Those looking for a challenge may be disappointed
- A handful of minor bugs on the Switch version