Acalius: Enemies of the Wild
Independent games, each made by a small number of keen enthusiasts, are now a solid component of the adventure game pantheon. Once upon a time they were a novelty, admired for simply being created. Now much more is expected of them.
As such, each new game is going to find it harder to get an uncritical audience. Players will still likely be a little more forgiving of a backyard endeavour than a major production, and probably more-so if the purchase price is modest. However, middling dollars for a short muddled romp simply won't cut it, however much love and attention has been lavished by the maker.
So where does Acalius: Enemies of the Wild, another of these independent outings, fit into the scheme of things?
Sergeant Eric Renfield is sent to planet Squal, largest planet in the Acalius galaxy, to investigate what has happened to a scientific team. Crash landing on a strange red road in a stark and seemingly barren world, he sets about exploring.
It's a slightly surreal environment, graphically simple yet able to convey a sense of oddness. I think that the simple graphic style of many of these independent games is best utilised by making the game scenes somewhat slightly off beat, and Acalius does that. Ambient sound is minimal but effective.
It's clear pretty quickly to Eric that all is not well (apart from crash landing that is). Items and notes will be found, destinations will open up, and Eric will move on.
Speaking of crashing, a big warning up front. If you use XP I found, and I am not alone, that playing this game in Win98 compatibility mode is far more stable. I had numerous crashes otherwise, despite disabling everything running in the background. I almost gave up, but checked around and found the compatibility suggestion. Once I changed I played the rest of the game with only one crash, compared to countless prior to that.
Initially Acalius is fairly linear as not many locations are open to you. Once you get access to more of them, however, which doesn't take too long, it's a reasonably open game. Lots of doodling, note taking and looking about.
The puzzles are a mixed bag. The first puzzle I located was a sound puzzle, which are not even remotely to my liking. But that is a matter of taste. It took me a while to appreciate it was in fact a sound puzzle, which is a good thing; working out the what and the why of a puzzle is an aspect I enjoy.
Many of the puzzles are inventory based, and it's a big inventory by the end. It would have been good to have labels in the inventory given the number of items, but most are recognisable. You can combine some items in the inventory, and the fact that you can drag them about inside the inventory is your clue. If you are in a position in the game world where an inventory item can be used, on most occasions simply clicking the correct one will cause it to be used. Sometimes the item will appear in the gameworld, which means you then have to do something further with it in the scene you are in. Right click brings up the inventory, and right click puts it away.
One more piece of advice. Don't fret if early on you pick up an item and, although it disappears from the game world, it doesn't appear in your inventory. It isn't needed.
What would have been better than inventory labels though, is a bit more definition as to the fact that you were actually faced with a puzzle. Most are fine, but some just don't give any indication that there is anything to do. You don't have an action hotspot, although for many other puzzles it's clear that you are at a spot where you have to do something. But why would I use a seemingly unrelated object in a particular spot if there is no indication — no clue, no hotspot, no musing, anything — to suggest I needed to do so? Simply being in a particular spot is no good unless something indicates that there is a further interaction that might be performed. It doesn't need to be a flashing light, but something has to point you to the fact that this is not just another game screen. Otherwise, it's just a lot of random clicking.
Right about now some readers are no doubt saying "yes, but perhaps you just missed the clue". I am always open to that possibility, but without giving things away, there is more than one instance in Acalius where I sincerely doubt that is the explanation.
In a few puzzles trial and error will likely be needed to get you through. Again, perhaps I missed some tell tale sign or clue, although I didn't gain any insights after checking a walkthrough. It's a matter of taste how you react to such solutions, but I did think the trial and error in one puzzle in particular was excessive; ie the best you can do from the clues is come up with a fairly lengthy string of possible answers, and then just try them all.
Finally, the logic for some solutions was a tad too opaque, all caveats again acknowledged.
There are though quite a few puzzles and conundrums in Acalius, and some are quite good. More than a couple are many layered, and you will have to gather the clues and recognise them as such. Codes and sequences are scattered throughout, and translation pages you find will help with the strange language. Note taking will help, as there are a lot of little in game notes to read and information to gather. There are also some puzzles that you won't see in other games, that's for sure. One is way too corny, but probably in keeping with the Ballad of Eric Renfield, which comes later on and which I thought was an absolute giggle.
I had a small glitch in one puzzle and, be warned, that some items will not be able to be collected until you achieve a certain trigger. Again, you won't know you can collect them until the trigger is reached so it pays to retrace your steps. I also found that some of the puzzles seemingly only respond to specific circumstances in the environment. It's hard to explain without giving things away, but suffice to say that you might have to undo some of your fiddling in order to make some puzzles work.
Eric will provide musings as he goes, and talks to himself (and to you) quite a bit, and he has some helpful things to say. It's the only major voice in the game, and is provided by John Bell who has done some other game voices (Scratches, Lifestream, 80 Days). I thought he did Eric credit.
Locations as they open up will be accessible through the screen on your ERV, Eric's mode of transport around Acalius. Simply click and go.
You save by finding an "options" item in the game world, and whilst Acalius isn't therefore save whenever and wherever you want, the items are plentiful and remain where you find them so a little backtracking is all that is needed. There also isn't a lot of need to save often (apart from a crash). There is only one save game slot (somewhat strangely the game asks you do you want to replace the previous game when you have no real option) but as there are no dead ends that I could find, one slot is enough although I know it will give some players minor palpitations.
The storyline was not terribly strong, and lurched around a bit, such that I wasn't really engaged with what was going on. I pretty much went along for the plot ride, and just watched it unfold. The ending suggests we could well see Eric again, provided you don't blow him up (I did) but you do get a second chance. There is some music in some locations, as well as some small animations and animated sequences here and there. I confess I jumped twice, and repeat that Eric's little song made me laugh. There are no subtitles.
My final overall impression of Acalius: Enemeies of the Wild was a mixed one. It was hard to overcome the feelings created by the crashing, but once I got that under control Acalius provided some reasonable adventure gaming. If Eric does indeed return, hopefully the makers will play to his strengths and tweak some of his weaknesses, and eliminate the stability problems altogether. If they do, I will certainly go round with Eric again.
You can purchase Acalius: Enemies of the Wild at the Arachnid Interactive Website.
Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2006.
All rights reserved.