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Alterium Shift Impressions – What’s Old is New Again

From spell to sidequest, Alterium Shift captures the spirit of classic role-playing adventures and reconstitutes them into an earnest love letter to the genre, and makes an excellent choice for those looking for a compact #JRPGJuly pick.

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  • Release Date: July 5th, 2023 via Early Access
  • Price: $19.99
  • Suggested Audience Age: Everyone 10+
  • Estimated Time to Complete: At time of writing, 5-7 hours per character for three characters.
  • Availability: Steam and, with demos on each
  • Recommended for fans of: Zeboyd Games, lovingly tongue-in-cheek narration, or any turn-based RPG released on the SNES

Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title by Drattzy Games.

While blockbuster role-playing video games grow in spectacle and length, there are just as many releases that focus their efforts in the opposite direction. And that's hardly meant as a negative! Rather, these games can feel every bit as deliberately crafted as their higher-budget predecessors.

And often, more like a labor of love for it, which is sure to catch our eye as it did at last year's PAX West.

Throwing back to crunchy numbers-based combat, an art style closer to the chest, and an overall more compact experience, Alterium Shift captures the experience idealized by more constrained games of yesteryear – without being bound by the same limitations.

A Strong Entrance

First impressions really set the tone here.

On starting a new game, you're presented with one of three viewpoint characters for your campaign, with three distinct-but-overlapping story paths:

  • Pyra, your traditionally-courageous melee fighter,
  • Atlas, a soft-spoken lad deft with a bow, or
  • Sage, a spellweaver who knows that they're better than you.

Obviously, I had to go with the fabulous mage.

And so I was whisked away to the most familiar of opening scenarios: the main character's bedroom, a quaint 3D-rendered space textured with a rustic pixel-art veneer. At the door came a call to wake up, literally and figuratively, to the Inevitable Adventure.

Obviously, I chose to sleep in.

Alterium shift sleep-in dialogue
The most natural part in the world to role play

And the game was happy to let me do so. Repeatedly. To the point where the initial surprise stayed through its welcome, circled back around, tried several times to trick me out of bed, and finally drifted its fascinatingly long descent toward the very limits of the writers' stamina for this scene.

This all happened before I moved my character a single step.

Been Around the Block

The whole exchange makes for a delightful gag, but it also speaks to how savvy the creators of Alterium Shift are. It's deliberately crafted to play into players' impulse to, well, play. Too many of us have been trained that Non-Player Characters will react with fun, harmless dialogue if we make an obviously “wrong” choice. So, the natural instinct for a genre fan is to jump at the cheekiest responses available.

And, even and especially if you've read your classics, it's all too easy to take the bait.

The wise would do well to remember the Millenium Fair.

And the game even rewards this directly – much of the scenery you inspect will have several descriptions, often only giving up an item after multiple inspections. Then they neatly fall into a single, repetitive line to indicate “we're all done here”.

So many of us are nosy little explorers by habit that we know the cues that “games like this” give off. Alterium Shift is just indulging in that shared experience.

Which, really, is this game's entire M.O. in a nutshell.

Alterium shift painting description
Feeling seen and called out are mere inches apart

The Visual Sweet Spot

And that follows through to the game's visuals, which are fantastic. They aim for that sweet spot straddling the mixed-media RPGs from the Saturn and PS1 and recent “HD-2D” offerings that turn spritework into a diorama-box aesthetic. And honestly? They pretty much nail their version of it moment-to-moment.

What 3D techniques and modern tricks are used here are deliberately modest, serving as a platform for that art to really shine. Which is great, because this is one of the more visually-consistent pixel art styles I've seen employed by an independent studio, much less a team of only two people. It's even matched by a soundtrack so perfectly “throwback-video-RPG” that it disappears effortlessly into the scenery.

It helps that the game's influences are worn on its sleeve; no need to re-invent the wheel when you can build on aesthetics that already stand the test of time. There's a sense of familiarity on display, and aside from the occasional juxtaposition of a 2D character against a “2.5-D” potted plant, it does an admirable job of providing something both consistent and robust. There are even details on display that go beyond what you'd strictly get back in the day, like seagulls that fly overhead and scatter when you run up to them. These little things really do go a long way.

Alterium shift spellcasting
A lot going on visually but it all works

Fresh Faces

One thing I'm happy to see the game build away from, though, is traditional gender roles. The turn-based RPG space is a little lean with female-led titles, and even leaner with any characters outside the binary. Alterium Shift handily addresses both. Its selected-by-default heroic knight character is, rather than some squeaky teen, a woman with a darker skin tone than is typical for the genre. And the pun-loving mage I controlled throughout my campaign is notably referred to exclusively with neutral pronouns.

Nobody remarks on it within the text. The characters don't feel the need to justify themselves within the world. They're just there, as natural as can be, normalizing their presence within the space.

Inclusivity rules.

Back on the Road

But none of this really speaks to the moment-to-moment action of the game.

And that's pretty solid, all things considered. Classic turn-based combat ain't broke, so the developers didn't attempt to fix it – save for perhaps a lack of a dedicated healer character or how long it takes to gain area-of-effect skills, the game feels well-balanced around its own tools. There's even frequent-enough context around its required battles – such as a gently-handled escort mission or saving a missing cat – that each encounter feels purposeful.

It certainly helps that the game's enemies are visible in the overworld, doing away with the annoying encounter rates of yore. And it helps more that the time they take to respawn is quite generous, allowing plenty of time for unperturbed exploration. There are even a few assistive features, like the in-game Point-of-Interest Detector ability (which helped my colorblind eyes spot a particularly well-hidden key), or the camera that zooms way yout when solving certain navigational puzzles.

All in all, any time wasted here feels like purely your own choice. The game's inns and campfire rest-spots are even kept sparse because experience and item drops are generous enough that you'll be topped off on health incredibly regularly.

Which is for the best, considering that not only are the game's dungeons satisfyingly large, but you might be asked to tread them a few times at once. A bit over an hour in, I was asked whether I wanted to “stay on the current story path” when presented with a dungeon switch. The game graciously didn't prevent me from forging on ahead, which I appreciated. But I get the feeling that this game benefits from playing its characters' stories round-robin, seeing exactly in what ways they overlap.

Early to the Party

All that said, Alterium Shift isn't without its stumbles, a lot of which can be chalked up to the game's Early Access status. I have a running tally of spelling and grammar errors in its text. It's fairly common to spot an outright bug, like an extra dialogue box or a scene that simply won't load. And some effects, like the shaking of an earthquake, feel jarring and unrefined.

It always helps to come in with leveled expectations, and I expect that many of these issues will be ironed out over the coming months. The fact that the game has had a patch update every single day since I started playing it bodes well, and I've already noticed a few script issues smoothed over.

But others seem more like a deliberate choice, like the occasional flavor text that crosses the line into overt sarcasm. It's such a shame to see these pop up, because the game otherwise shares quite openly in celebrating its aesthetics along with the player. A note that “no, player, you obviously need to check this other spot instead”? That feels less cheeky, and more like I'm being repremanded for my curiosity.

And some features feel missing as-of-yet, like how there's no ability to sort my increasingly-cluttered inventory or remap controls. Certain cutscenes feel awkward when my character's only attack pose faces right, and the battle cursor can be unclear when targeting your own party. Some modern conveniences like quest logs, area maps, and an enemy-scanning ability all seem unfortunately absent.

But that's just the state that it's in for now. The game still has some miles to go before its formal release, after all.

And as for features it has today: yes, you can pet the villagers' cats in Alterium Shift.

Alterium shift cat-petting feature
A necessary gameplay feature

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Alterium Shift is an open love letter to the turn-based video-game RPGs of the 1990s, delivered to their fans.

And if you're newer to the genre, hey – a more modern contender is hardly the worst place to start to understand why it's loved so deeply. You should feel equally at home here.

From spell to sidequest, it captures the spirit of those old adventures, how clever they felt and made us feel, and replicates it as earnestly as possible. It's still got a rough edge here and there, to be sure. But it thoroughly understands where its appeal comes from, and with time, Alterium Shift will only hone its ability to strike those same chords.

If you're prepared for some of the little hiccups and “To Be Continued” story that come with the Early Access badge, then Alterium Shift is an easy thumbs-up already; the best evidence in its favor is that I intend to dive right back in tomorrow and start playing the other two routes. But even if its rough spots leave you apprehensive, this is definitely one worth putting on your wish list for when it hits prime time.

We at Geek to Geek all have our eyes on this one, and hope it shapes up even better than it already is.

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