There’s been this trend in the gaming world to praise minimalistic games for their innovation, beauty, and guts to not be as bad as mainstream games in their monetization — especially if they’re indies.
I haven’t been a hardcore gamer since the early 2010s, mostly because I’ve been put off by the direction games have taken — call me crazy, but when I spend $60 on a video game, I expect a complete experience, and I understand that free-to-play games need to make their money somewhere, but if that somewhere is by making a game thoroughly unenjoyable in service of pressuring you to spend real money on it, then you’ve just made a bad game.
As such, when I look at a smartphone game like “Alto’s Odyssey”, which has had critics through the roof (it has an 88 percent on Metacritic and a 4.4/5 on the Apple Store, with some proclaiming it to be the best endless runner of all time), I come in with the same high expectations I had for games ten years ago, before microtransactions and freemium games lowered what people expected to get out of their games. I don’t give game breaking and distracting elements like over monetization a free pass, even if a game must rely off this revenue in place of money up front. A good game must first and foremost be a good game, no nonsense. Period.
With that being said, I have been enjoying “Alto’s Odyssey.” It plays just as well as a demo of a Nintendo DS game of old. It has good mechanics that could be tighter, noting that it is limited by the fact that the game’s only controls is the smartphone screen itself (you can control when your character jumps/grinds/flips). Alto is an endless runner, but it doesn’t feel like one as instead of a 3D “Temple Run” ripoff, it’s a sandboarding sidescroller in which you must navigate the terrain of an endless desert. Its procedurally-generated environments also almost resemble those of levels created by humans, though they fall a little short as the game will constantly throw obstacles impossible to clear, a flaw that’s hard to ditch when you’re not creating every level by hand.
The game’s sound design and art direction are absolutely beautiful, and are easily the best parts of the game. The game keeps it interesting by introducing different biomes with different terrain that you’ll phase in and out of almost randomly, and there is a very well executed day/night element to the game that adds to its changing landscape. So much thought and care went into the world of Alto, and if you look closely, you might see some semblance of a story in its world, which I desperately wanted to see more of. Instead, the game gives you menial tasks to unlock characters — which you can pay to skip with in-game currency — tasks such as: do a backflip, break three vines, scare 30 birds, etc.
It’s ironic that the game starts you with the titular Alto, who has no story to tell and the game gives you very little reason to stick with him once you unlock other playable characters like Maya, who excels in flips and acrobatics, and Paz, who struggles with backflips and jumps but builds a lot of momentum. Alto is not very important in his own game.
What is Alto’s story? I understand that this is an endless runner game that, while not as in your face about its status as an endless money maker as other titles, still exists as an endless ATM for its developers, but the game’s characters and world are presented so well that they’re just begging to have their stories told. This is an endless runner that feels like it should have been more than just an endless runner.
Adding such story elements would have kept me invested longer and would elevate Alto above the tedium that is virtually every other smartphone game that seeks to give you another chore in your life by playing it, rather than an imaginative, fun game that will help you escape the tedium of the real world. In my opinion, it’s the game’s biggest missed opportunity.
It reminds me of a meme I saw on social media the other day, that stated “20 years ago, the internet was an escape from the real world. Today the real world is an escape from the internet.” The same I think is true of games these days. I can’t remember the last time I legitimately enjoyed a game, unless it was on console. I’ve never had the equivalent experience on mobile, but I think mobile still has the potential to capture the magic video games should, especially considering what Nintendo and Sony have been able to do on their handholds in the last two decades, and Alto stands precariously close to the precipice of being not only a good smartphone game, but a good game in general.
For a smartphone game, Alto is above average. It’ll keep you entertained for a week or two — it might even engross you during your first playthrough. But the game is no “Journey”, and beneath its shiny graphics and calming music is no substance. As a game, it struggles to compete with what you can get on other platforms, especially handhelds, where gorgeous, simplistic graphics are routinely paired with powerful storytelling.
I’m going to deduct a whole point from its score for its obnoxious monetization, which includes unskippable, thirty second ads. Due to its imperfect game design that comes off as a little rough around the edges and OK controls, you’ll find yourself dying often at no fault of your own (it might be that a gorge is too wide for you character to possibly clear, a balloon line that is impossibly out of reach). Thankfully, you can revive yourself by watching ads, which I’m fine with. What I’m not fine with is the fact that choosing not to watch an ad and start over fresh also triggers ads, which you can pay real money to remove, but it completely undermines the value of the revive ads. And the developers did not balance this out by making the regular death ads be skippable and the non-death ads be skippable — they are completely random in both cases.
This is what I call competing monetization strategies, and games need to stop using them. When you assign an inherent value in your game for ad watching, you cannot add random ads of equivalent length and content that appear for no reward. It completely takes away the incentive to tolerate the non-valued ads, and will make your players less likely to voluntarily sit through the valued ads. Pick one model and stick to it. More than once, I closed “Alto’s Odyssey” because a non-valued, unskippable ad popped up, as it was quicker for me to reboot the game than to sit through the ad.
“Alto’s Odyssey” is a fine distraction, but I wouldn’t spend real money on it.
“Alto’s Odyssey” gets a 7.5/10