Title: Alterium Shift
Developer: Draltzy Games (Developer); Gravity Game Arise Co. (Publisher)
Release Date: July 6, 2023 (Early Access); the complete game is expected to be finished late 2023 or early 2024.
Reviewed on: PC via Steam Price: $19.99 (Early Access price; this will increase upon full release)
Alterium Shift is a classically styled game that takes after the JRPGs of the 16-bit era. Minus the 3D effects throughout the environments and boss encounters, it would comfortably fit alongside other games on the Super Nintendo. It’s impressive that this is the work of only two developers.
The game places great emphasis on the difference a point of view makes, offering three different playthroughs that put each of the main party members at the center of the story. When Boss Rush Network received a number of review copies there was only one thing to do…I teamed up with Block’s Gaming Reviews, Mary Helen Norris, and Sam Reader to cover each of the game’s three main paths: Pyra the warrior, Sage the mage, and Atlas the archer.
Alterium Shift is currently in early access. At time of writing, it offers about five hours of gameplay per storyline. It is expected to release by the end of 2023 or at the beginning of early 2024, with roughly 15 hours of gameplay for each character. The game is expected to launch on all major platforms.
While I will at times quote the other reviewers directly, the bulk of this review is collated from four sets of thoughts. This review would not have been possible without their insight, their experience, and their opinions. Alterium Shift is right, the point of view makes all the difference.
Disclosure: Boss Rush Network received review codes for the PC version of Alterium Shift. Neither Draltzy Games LLC nor Gravity Game Arise Co. made any stipulations upon this review, nor did they or any representatives read it prior to publication.
Decades ago, the world was locked in war with the Dark Elves. Now, as one of the youths taught by the general who ended that war, you enter a world beset by Dark Elf assassins, strange magic that rips you away to another land, and the threat of another war.
Alterium Shift offers clean, classic JRPG gameplay that echoes the Super Nintendo era. Your characters stand in a row, and are allowed one action each per turn, whether that be a simple attack, magic, using an item, or blocking. Through the game you’ll take on animals, bandits, and monsters that fill the screen.
As Sam noted, the game offers a beautiful open world to explore once the game gets out of the exposition phase. Alterium Shift offers an incredibly fast time from exposition phase to player-driven narrative, which means you get right into the action with your chosen character.
Each of us walked away with a different opinion about the combat. It seems that your experience is sharply defined by the character you choose. I played as Pyra, Block played as Sage, and Mary Helen and Sam both played as Atlas.
While combat has some interesting ideas, they’re under-utilized. The charge mechanic, for example, should offer a combination of risk and reward.
Pyra is built toward physical and fire damage. She has no access to healing, buffing, or the other elements. Because of that, playing her is a game of managing the tools you do have. Once the Hermit temporarily joins her, the number of elements the player has access to remains limited. This management of limited resources is interesting and fun, and it’s a shame that it will probably fade once Sage joins her party at the end of Act 2.
“Combat is overly simple turn-based,” Block said. “Many abilities feel redundant or unnecessary. Why use a weak ice attack that costs 8 MP when I can do a stronger ice attack for only 10 MP?
“The key to victory is usually finding the element the enemy is weakest against, and exploiting it. With the character Sage, you will want to rely on magic almost exclusively as their physical attack is next to worthless. They quickly have access to all elements of magic.
“Sage has an ability from the beginning that allows you to replenish magic during your turn. This limits the difficulty and strategy, as you can just use your best spells, replenish magic when needed, and keep going, caring little about conserving your MP.
“Sage does lack buffing or healing spells, at least early on.”
Sam felt, “Combat lacks meaningful tactical choices and quickly gets repetitive fast. When playing Atlas, your first move will always be Evasion followed by alternating Attack, Volley, and occasionally Heal. Large sections of the game are spent with only a single person in your party, making all these glaring flaws especially obvious.”
Mary Helen, however, said, “I love the variety of options presented and that it adds to it as you get further into the game as to not overload you at first with all the options. Unlocking these abilities is a story mechanic which helps players to engrave in the narrative.”
On a related note, it’s far too easy to get over-leveled just by exploring and visiting the optional town/quest hub. The level balancing is precarious. Just by exploring the opening area and pushing to an optional town, I was five or more levels above most encounters through the rest of the game, easily plowing forward without resistance. This is something the developers very much need to address before the game leaves early access.
Dungeons are the high point of the Alterium Shift. Block found they were well laid-out, “with many branching paths, thoughtful puzzles, and treasure evenly laid out.”
The puzzle dungeon at the end of act 2 is excellent. While I had over-leveled past the encounters, I enjoyed observing the water level and redirecting the flow to navigate. I enjoy that the player needs to slowly build up more and more of a supply of water to use in the puzzles.
The open world can be confusing to navigate. Not only do many screens within a biome look similar, they lack distinct features and rarely have a clear end-of-area border to mark the entrance to another screen.
This is particularly frustrating when you reach the desert in Act 2; you need to navigate back and forth across a wide area which will make the characters faint if on foot. The transitions between screens are difficult to spot, and if you back away to return to the previous screen it will return you to a pre-determined entrance zone. It is easy to become deeply lost.
Bouncing between the light and dark world to navigate past blockades is fun, but suffers from the above issues to varying degrees.
Block felt that side quests seemed to be diverse in their offerings, but weren’t easily tracked. Some of the most interesting side quests are locked away in a beachside town that you have no reason to visit, and can easily miss.
Sam felt the puzzles were refreshingly straightforward at first, but quickly become repetitive (Atlas’ bow puzzles boil down to “go here shoot this”). The long-range puzzles (especially in Atlas’ sections) mean a lot of backtracking to find the switch you just activated.
The map cannot be scrolled past the immediate area, which makes it difficult to judge where some areas are in relation to others (this is made more apparent with how some story events will move you to another side of the map). It could also be made more apparent that there is a map, as some of our reviewers missed it.
It’s best to discuss each character and their story in their own section.
Pyra is a dynamic, interesting character: stoic, harsh, and dedicated. She will break down doors that get in her way, and the player is sometimes given the chance to power past genre conventions as she walks the most direct line to her goal. Alterium Shift struggles with most of its meta approach, as we’ll discuss in a few paragraphs, but it often shines with Pyra.
Some RPGs give you total control of your character. Others, like most JRPGs, have you embody a set role. With Pyra, the developers do a great job giving you options for her dialogue and actions that are all believable for her. She can go along with an unjust punishment, showing her determination, or she can use craft and her harsh nature to avoid or stop it. She has fewer chances to shine in Act 2, and I hope such moments where she can dominate the narrative with her point of view continue; those are my favorite moments in the game.
Unfortunately, the Pyra “punishment arc” doesn’t work. She will be disciplined regardless of your actions. Pyra will be considered a failure regardless of if she is a leader to her team or not; she will be considered a failure whether or not you reach the unbeatable boss’ instakill attack and perfect the written test. If you do as well as you can possibly do—only arriving two minutes late for the test with the full party behind you, losing to an unwinnable fight after eleven rounds of combat, and acing the test—she is still marked as if she was a failure in every regard. It feels bad. It makes your teacher feel like a fool. The downright hateful attitude of the mayor, who gives you the most menial tasks he can think of in punishment, feels wildly misplaced in either case. Does taking abuse from a number of NPCs really teach Pyra how to follow? Does that, in turn, truly teach her to lead?
While the recent patches helped, as they mercifully give Pyra the chance to avoid meaningless abuse and resist handing Sage most of her items, it still doesn’t quite land. At minimum, it requires a character to acknowledge how little good these punishments do and how little there is for Pyra to learn from people being nasty to her.
While recent patches have adjusted Sage in Pyra’s route, they still often come off as unendurably cruel and self-interested. We require more of a look at who Sage really is, even this early, or some kind of change of approach. It still doesn’t work.
The game’s tone is all over the place. I want to take it seriously, but there are too many jokes that interrupt or shatter the setting. There are some well-placed jokes, but too many are too broad or (like the tombstone puns) make it impossible to take this world seriously. It is bad enough when Haunted Mansion-style puns are outside of a human village, but it dynamites the immersion to place one outside of a Dark Elf town when we’ve seen they have a very different style of names.
“Sage is a non-binary magic user who is portrayed as a smart-ass,” Block wrote, “caring little for their studies, and is extremely selfish. They are a fan of puns, and making a joke of every situation. They bully their younger classmates, as well as many in the village.
“Players can choose to show more compassion, or to lean into this initial character behavior; developers promise that choices will have a larger impact on the story in the finished game, with NPCs remembering what you say to them and how you behave, but I’m not sure I fully trust that.
“The game has some humorous moments right from the get go, being a borderline parody of the genre with multiple fourth-wall breaking moments. This becomes much less frequent after the opening though, creating an uneven experience—do I take this story seriously, or not? Do I care for these characters as I would in a drama, or a comedy?”
“Nonlinear choices in an overall linear story mean I frequently felt that my choices were ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things,” Sam wrote. “Atlas is a moody, introspective ranger who adventures through the forest with a mentor figure but otherwise seems like a blank slate. Sly references, side-jokes, and fourth-wall breaks make it seem like there’s more to the story, but it never delivers on that subversion in any kind of meaningful way. [There is an] overall lack of weight to the story—we get to know these people, but there’s no real reason to care about any of them outside a brief introduction and some broad strokes of personality.”
Mary Helen felt she wasn’t given enough to get invested in Atlas. “Using his dad as part of his arc is an interesting angle, but the demo didn’t give me enough about him.”
Art Design & Graphics
The game features 2D sprites in a 3D world, similar to Octopath Traveler, but the world has a more “natural” feel. Octopath Traveler is essentially 3D mimicking a pixelated look, whereas this game feels like a true 16-bit title with a 3D effect. Block was reminded of Chrono Trigger, Star Ocean: The Second Story, and Breath of Fire.
Sam felt there was lovely variance in environment between areas of the map, even if there’s not as much variance within areas on the map
“Bosses are often a fully 3D rendered beast,” according to Block, “which makes them stand-out and appear intimidating, but they lack a death animation, and simply disappear when defeated, without even so much as an explosion.” The 2.5d elements are handled well, but are a little too rare outside of environments.
I felt the game was, for lack of a better term, too “zoomed in.” At full screen, it gave me a sensation that bordered on seasickness. I needed to reduce the window size to play comfortably.
Music & Sound
The music was excellent, and the sound design was good. Sam credited it as a “gorgeous soundtrack,” and Block was reminded of Wild Arms with an exciting, epic, and adventurous soundtrack. They felt monsters and abilities could have used more unique sound effects.
Block, Mary Helen, and I experienced no serious issues, and the game ran smoothly. I found that occasionally the autosave stopped working.
Sam, however, experienced extensive issues. “Alterium Shift locked up multiple times during my playthrough, even when altering the hardware settings. [There was an] unusual bug in Atlas’ sections where he fired textures instead of arrows for environmental puzzles.”
Alterium Shift is, above all else, more than competent. It’s very good. It is enjoyable to play, the environments are gorgeous, and the puzzle dungeon will stay with me. If you enjoy this genre, it’s worth playing.
The game’s problem is that it does a poor job presenting its unique features. The charge mechanic is poorly explained, and sometimes feels as though it does very little. The light vs. dark world navigation is fun, but dragged down by the map issues. The 3D elements are beautiful, but rarely appear outside of the environment. The impact of player choice is unclear. Worst of all, for me, the game’s tone is inconsistent. Any time I would get sucked into the story, something too goofy would cross my path.
This could become an excellent game, but the focus is off. There are things I genuinely love about it. It needs refinement, and concentration, which I hope it will get as the game is in early access and the developers are willing to make changes, as recent patches have shown.
Block’s Gaming Reviews
Alterium Shift has some good ideas, and the heart is in the right place, but even as an early access title, there needs to be some significant polish done in both making the game a finished product, and creating something that truly stands out from the pack. The graphics are nice, the writing is well done, the music is solid, and the combat is functional, but in no area does it really excel. In a crowded indie RPG market, most all of which taking inspiration from the same classic games (Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, etc), Alterium Shift offers little argument on why gamers should invest in its tale over all the others. I would suggest leaning in towards the humor, the absurd, and the almost parody elements that are introduced and then dropped in the early goings, if only so that Alterium Shift can separate itself from the pack, or else get lost in the shuffle.
Mary Helen Norris
One of my favorite things about this game is the fact that there are three different paths to explore. While I chose to follow Atlas’ path, I’m excited to go back and explore the other two. Alterium Shift has unique aspects to its premise and already I can tell that things aren’t quite what they seem. The turn-based JRPG gameplay is very familiar for me as a Pokémon fan. Combined with the lore, this sets itself up to be a promising gaming.
In the midst of a JRPG renaissance, a game that goes this far back to basics is guaranteed to get swallowed up. Especially in this year, when we’ve already had numerous smash hit games (Chained Echoes, Sea of Stars, Octopath Traveler II, multiple Atelier games, etc.), a game needs to do more work to impress audiences and build on the existing successes as opposed to maintaining a base layer of nostalgia, as we’re already getting that everywhere else.
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