Every so often, I scroll down the ‘New Games’ section of the Xbox store. I’ll gravitate towards the games with the clearest, most interesting cover art or titles, and I’ll look at the trailers and screenshots. When I opened Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, I immediately said, ‘Oh my God. This is adorable. I need to show my girlfriend.’ The screenshots showed a very simple art style of bold, low-polygon blocks of colour that reminded me of the simple-but-effective style of The Falconeer. But this art style created a natural world that popped with its colours, and showed the player running around as a small girl taking pictures of nature. ‘A wildlife adventure’, I thought, and felt my heart soften at this cute premise. Giving this game a chance was perhaps the best limb I have ventured out on in a long time.
Story and Narrative
The game opens with the shot of a little ringed plover as it hops around on a beach. The camera then pans to where you can see a baby girl with her mouth wide open in amazement as she stares at the bird. The girl is at the beach with her grandparents, and her name is Alba. By chance, a lynx overlooks the beach that day, and Alba takes a photo of the magnificent feline with perhaps a bit of predestined luck.
Fast-forward to the modern-day, and Alba is a backpack-wearing, smartphone-wielding lover of nature. Together with your friend Inés, you team up to create the AIWRL (Alba and Inés Wildlife Rescue League), and vow to save all animals in danger, clean up the environment, and protect the island’s wildlife! Fortunately, it is Alba and Inés who are the ones determined enough to stop the plans of the Mayor and shady businessman, Paco, as they plan to build a hotel over the island’s nature reserve.
The game’s story takes place over a week as you try to collect 50 signatures for your petition to save the nature reserve. The characters you meet along the way are at times eccentric, always imbued with humorous charm, and mostly sympathetic to your cause. Most just need a reminder of what a little action can do to protect nature, and how much they admire the environment around them and its inhabitants. While it doesn’t ever feel like there’s real danger in Alba‘s story, there is a sombre segment at the end of the game that provides an emotional payoff to an otherwise sweet and endearing narrative. By the end of Alba, I felt thoroughly invested in its characters, and utterly bewitched by its charm.
In Alba, the directional pad is used as your inventory. You have a map of the island of Secarral, a clipboard to-do list, a wildlife guide, and a smartphone to take pictures of and catalogue the island’s animals. Most of the game feels like a more realistic, nature-oriented take on Pokémon, where you search the different ecosystems of the island – beaches, farmland, marshland – in search of animals to photograph and identify. Taking photographs of all sorts of animals from Eurasian sparrowhawks to European hares, Alba can then replace the faded photographs on old nature signs, so that birdwatchers and nature lovers can return and enjoy their search for the native wildlife. You can also pick up litter to help clean up the island, and convince animals to repopulate the neater areas.
One of the more meaningful and heart-rendering parts of the gameplay is helping animals in pain or in danger. Early on in the game, you help free a dolphin from a fishing net, but the island is full of birds trapped in plastic litter, squirrels sick from pesticides, and animals caught in toxic waste. It is so simple to walk up to these animals and press a button to heal them with medicine, or untangle them, that you never feel too distressed about the animals’ discomfort, though. All it takes is one girl with intent to make a positive impact on the lives of animals, and this message is incredibly empowering for any children who might play the game.
All of these actions help to restore the island and gather more signatures to prevent the building of the hotel on the nature reserve. You aren’t required to do everything, however – there are main objectives to do during the days, but tasks like restoring the nature boards and cataloguing all of the island’s inhabitants are completely up to you. With the gameplay being so simple and accessible, I strongly believe that children would have no problem picking this game up and learning a lot from it. The in-game wildlife guide is a real high point, with the animals being so clearly defined visually (with the help of the simple art style) and complemented by the sound they make, that I honestly feel like I can go out into my garden and name more species of bird than I could before playing the game.
While the gameplay is too simple to have any real rough edges, I did find that sometimes the camera wandered when I didn’t want it to – often tilting straight up when coming out of a cutscene – or objects in the environment popping in randomly if I turned too fast. However, I really can’t fault the game past those rare and minor annoyances. Instead, I was simply in awe at the convincing behaviours of each animal, and how they never seemed to be on a predictable looped path but truly living in the world around me.
Graphics and Visuals
As I’ve mentioned already, the simple art style of Alba benefits it in two ways: each animal is so clearly defined in their bold, low-polygon models, that they’re instantly recognisable, and the island is so colourful that Alba feels like a beautiful, meditative retreat to a Mediterranean island. The character models themselves are simply adorable, from the smile on Alba’s face to the expressions of every character you come across. It never really bothered me that the environment was without textures because everything was so crisp and clear in-game that I barely noticed. The team at ustwo games have mastered the technique in which they provide just enough to create an immersive, fleshed-out environment while letting the player’s imagination fill in the blanks. The minimalism of the visuals really helps refine the experience that Alba goes for: appreciating the simple beauty of nature.
Music and Audio
There are few games where I can put headphones in, close my eyes, and feel completely at peace. Such is the care that ustwo games put into the audio design. The harmony of birdsong, trickling water, and swaying grass was just like being outside and amidst nature. If I had played this game during lockdown, I would have yearned to be going outdoors wherever I could. Games, in general, have given us portals to places we would rather be instead of stuck inside our homes over the past year or so. But Alba is unique because for many people that environment might be right there in their garden. The care the developers took to ensure each animal had their own distinct call so that you can tell exactly which animals are near just by listening, is a feat that I can’t say about many games. The creation of such an immersive, living environment through the sound design alone is a colossal achievement for such a small, humble game like Alba.
Not only is the sound of nature the peaceful backdrop to Alba’s adventures, but ustwo games partnered with musician Lorena Álvarez to provide some of the most upbeat, cheerful music I’ve ever heard in a game. Not only does it complement the adorable, feel-good aesthetic of the game, but it is also infused with the sound of Spain and the happy strumming of guitars that feels so familiar throughout. In the later sombre section of the game I previously mentioned, there is a vocal track that embodies a dramatic shift from the music that comes before. It is poignant, sorrowful, and beautiful – a true marriage to the spirit of the game.
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is a game that affected me in the same way that The Witness affected me back in 2016. After completing the puzzle game by Thekla, Inc., I started to look at the real world around me as if someone had sculpted it in a game, and was amazed at the patterns made by branches in trees I saw every day. That may not have been what the developer intended me to come away with, but it was my response to a deeply contemplative game.
Similarly, I’ve come away from Alba with a newfound love of nature. It feels weird to say because I didn’t think that nature needed to be sold to people, but Alba has reminded me of the solace, peace, and beauty I find in nature – it has resold the outdoors to me. Since finishing Alba, I have picked up nature books that I never got round to reading before: The Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty, and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. My girlfriend and I spent a sunny day last week finding a tucked-away beach above a more popular coastal town, where we found sand martins nesting in the cliffs, darting in and out of the little holes in the granite. We’re now looking at local nature reserves near us, and planning more trips out to engage with nature – all because of Alba.
What I thought might be a linear, limited-in-scope but cute game, turned out to be an experience full of wonder. ustwo games’ achievement should not be underestimated: the creation of a vast, living island with animals that behave convincingly alongside each other is a phenomenal feat. I firmly believe Alba will be a delight to nature lovers, inspiring for those looking to reinvest in the outdoors, and educational to any children that soak in this heartwarming adventure. Now, it’s time to go and find that lynx! What was that rustling in that bush over there? Wait just a few more seconds for that perfect picture and … breathe.
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Reviewed on: Xbox Series X
Developer: ustwo games
Publisher: PID Games