Preview: Alterium Shift

16 Jul 2023

So there’s an interesting thing that happens for me a lot as a game reviewer: I am handed a game that I do not personally like very much while I also recognize that it’s not doing anything wrong. A recurring theme in several of my reviews is that you have to evaluate games based on what they are trying to achieve, not necessarily just whatever makes you happiest. Some people like different games than I do, after all.

Alterium Shift is… not such a game. In fact, there were places in its current early access where I found myself saying that objectively, this is kind of bad design and it’s mostly going to appeal to people who really happen to like this sort of game. And yet I feel like it… kind of rules? I am exactly that person. And fortunately, I don’t have to actually give this preview a numerical score, so I can feel free to just describe what the game is trying to do and then you can decide if it’s your bag.

Altered Caps Lock

At the start of Alterium Shift, you pick one of three characters to choose as your main – Pyra, who uses fire attacks and wields a spear, Atlas, who uses earth magic and wields a bow, or Sage, who uses spells of all elements. It is thusly impossible for you to figure out who the main character is, because none of them are using a sword. But this is also kind of the point, because the entire idea is that all three characters are novice heroes training under the legendary General Dolion who helped seal away the evil Dark Elves and…

Wait, are you already expecting the Dark Elves to turn out to not be the bad guys? Well, aren’t you proud of yourself for playing a JRPG-style quest before. Take half a holiday.

The game kicks off right before the characters have their final exam, but the result is that the characters all set off on stories that involve different dynamics rather than forming an immediate party. A far cry from the single story of select-a-character games like Star Ocean: The Second Story, this has more in common with games like Rudra no Hihou, where all three characters follow a different sequence of events and understanding the whole plot will require following Atlas on his journey, Pyra on hers, and Sage on theirs.

Now, the plot is… kind of generic in a lot of ways. But it’s generic in exactly the way you expect it to be, and it does give you a lot of space to characterize what each individual protagonist is like. Pyra is always going to be a straightforward leader, for example, but you can make her warmer or colder through her responses, more or less cooperative, and even choose whether she’s got a bit of an acerbic streak or a very convivial attitude. It won’t wildly alter the plot, but it will alter how it unfolds.

I like that. The whole experience as you move your way through broadly familiar tropes feels… cozy. It feels like a pretty decent PlayStation-era game that you find doesn’t have a great opening but it stays entertaining throughout. Some characters do grate a little bit – Sage, for example, is kind of insufferable – but none of it is so bad that you ever want to just throw the whole thing away. And if you can see the twists coming a mile off… isn’t that part of the fun? The story feels like it is, in many ways, a stage magician running through some very familiar tricks. Oh, sure, you know they’re tricks and how all of them work, but the magician isn’t acting like he’s doing something revolutionary and he’s got the patter down just right. It’s a warm sweater.

Reshaped Control

To look at the game, you might find yourself thinking of games like Secret of Mana and points related, but that’s inaccurate. In gameplay terms, it’s much more like Chrono Trigger, with enemies in the open world that show up and then transition into a separate battle screen. And that battle screen brings you into what is a pretty straightforward battle system that’ll be fairly comfortable to JRPG veterans.

Battle is broken up into several rounds, with each character’s action order visible at the top of the screen. A character’s turn order depends on their speed and can be altered, but no character can ever get more than one action in a round, so no one can outspeed the enemies and just unload without refrain. During each turn your characters can attack, use an item, defend, use a skill, or try to escape. Skills cost AE, which isn’t MP because it’s called AE, don’t you see that?

As AE is not particularly low to begin with, it refills each time you level up or at one of the game’s multiple rest points, and your basic attack is pretty basic, a lot of the actual gameplay is going to come down to your skills. Every character has a bespoke array of skills available to them, and characters can also generally build up their Burst meter to unleash even more powerful attacks once full. It is, again, a fairly basic foundation with some slight tweaks, like most skills having some extra riders on top of them like buffs, debuffs, and so forth.

What avoids this being tedious is that everything feels brisk, that enemy encounters and leveling is nicely paced, and the whole experience keeps up a lively pace. Levels and new abilities came fairly rapidly, and while bosses felt like fairly standard affairs most of the time, they were just involved enough that I didn’t feel my time wasted. A couple of rounds and enemies dropped, a few combats and the next level arrived. The comparison I made before still holds. The game may be familiar, but it doesn’t confuse “familiar” with “artless.”

Edited Function

Graphically, the game uses sprites for characters and flat textured blocks for most landmarks, maps, and so forth. It is a very distinctive style, and it honestly reminds me a bit of Xenogears without the jumping or camera rotation. (Or the same grace at cutscenes, but it’s not fair to compare to a masterful execution of the form.) It’s blocky, kind of archaic, and as I said earlier reminds me of PlayStation-era titles. I love it. Like, it is a collection of attributes that gives a distinct visual character to everything and is like some perfect combination of pixel art and Doomcute. Rarely have I seen a game not copying any other game’s visual style while also feeling like it kind of is.

The sound… well, here endeth my affection. The music isn’t bad, but it’s flatly forgettable, and the sound effects all feel a bit like they have that “stock noises from an asset pack” feel. It’s not a horrible thing, it’s just the least compelling aspect of the whole package. That being said, it’s not jarring or unpleasant in any fashion.

One thing that does show through is that game is, well… not finished. There are books and quests that are clearly marked as placeholders. There are some features the developers have already said will be coming in the future that are sorely needed. Navigation is a bit more cumbersome than it needs to be, for example. The game is in early access and being made by two people, so I am more than inclined to cut them some slack.

Improved Option

Over the years, many games have come along promising a nostalgic throwback to simpler times. Alterium Shift does this as well, and in some ways even in its current state that means a throwback to things that were, objectively, not always all that great. But – and this is key – Alterium Shift also recognizes what it’s doing. Rather than building a house upon pillars of sand, the game seems to be of the mind that putting itself upon a rock-solid foundation is the most important thing. If it can get the core experience right, it doesn’t have to provide wild novelty.

There’s always a degree of risk in that, but so far, this is the rare game that seems to be managing it. Everything here feels familiar in all the best ways. I kept finding myself thinking that this was all a bit simple or basic or overly straightforward, and then moments later I was of the mind that I didn’t care, because this actually rules. It’s like discovering a game I always just missed and finding out that yeah, it definitely is a game of older vintage… but it also has all of the stuff that made those games fun.

So there’s work to be done here. But if you want some lushly realized solid RPG fundamentals to chew through? Even now, Alterium Shift delivers. And if it keeps polishing up its finer details, this could be every bit as powerful as the game’s eponymous crystals.

Preview copy provided by Gravity Game Arise for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Gravity Game Arise.