Like most people, I didn’t get a holiday this year thanks to a certain pandemic doing the rounds – thankfully, Alba: A Wildlife Adventure more than makes up for it. After a couple of hours in its care-free company, I feel like I really have pitched up on a Mediterranian island for a couple of weeks of exploration in the sun. Not that ustwogames’ latest is entirely without drama; its heroine, Alba Singh, is an eco-conscious youngster who, with the help of her friend Inés, sets out to save a local nature reserve from being tarmacked over and turned into a hotel by greedy property developers.
The duo’s plan is simple: roam the island, doing good turns for the locals, who’ll often sign your ‘save the nature reserve’ petition in return. There are other things you can do, too: take photographs of local animals on your smartphone, or picking up litter and putting it back in bins, or using your set of tools to repair signs and benches around the neglected nature reserve. Those tasks might not sound like a great deal of fun in isolation, but what Alba does so brilliantly is depict the world from a child’s perspective. Before long, you’re excited to see a rare bird of prey and snapping a picture of it on your phone; fixing bird boxes and seeing the sparrows and finches turn them into little homes brings its own frisson of cheer.
There’s also some wonderful writing in Alba. When the island’s shifty mayor breaks the news of the hotel to a gathering of locals, there’s a believable range of reactions: while the grown-ups are ambivalent (“It’s a shame, but think of the job opportunities,” and so forth), the children are unshakeable in their belief that it’s an ecological catastrophe. There’s a sweetness, too, in Alba and Inés’s idealism: their faith that a few signatures on a petition here, a fixed-up bridge there will really make a difference as the builders and diggers start to roll into view.
Alba’s only a short game – you could speed through it in a couple of hours if you so wished – but it’s a considered kind of brevity. The island’s compact, but every inch of it is packed with things to do and low-poly detail, from the exquisitely observed movements of animals to the instantly recognisable Spanish houses and shop fronts. It’s such a pleasantly wrought setting that you’ll likely find yourself thoroughly enjoying what might seem like pointless busywork in other, bigger games: picking up litter has rarely felt as pleasing, or as soothing, as it does here.
Above all, Alba gives you a new perspective on everyday life. If you haven’t been birdwatching or exploring in woodland since you were a little kid, this is the kind of game capable of reigniting a childlike glee at the wonders of the natural world. When the end credits on Alba rolled, I really wasn’t ready to take the trip back to grey old reality.
The menagerie of animals flittering or scampering around are so much fun to find. I actually let out an embarrassing yelp of excitement when I spotted a rare owl in a tree – capturing all the wildlife on camera is a truly compulsive pastime. Gotta catch ‘em all.
An absolutely charming eco-fable that richly deserves your attention.
Genre: Nature-’em-up | Format: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Mac | Developer: ustwogames | Publisher: ustwogames | Price: £13.49 | Release date: 11 December