The setting of Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is Pina del Mar, a small Spanish island home to a wildlife reserve. The aim of the game is to keep it that way. The mayor—a loafing sort, with a bronzed pate and a pink jumper tied around his neck—is in cahoots with a shady businessman. We know that he is shady not just because of his shades, which compete with his moustache and his suit for sheer oiliness, but because at one point we see him clutching a briefcase with crisp bills peeking out from the brim. The plan: sweep away the wildlife reserve and make way for a luxury hotel resort—a steel-white monstrosity, the reserve of a life that’s anything but wild. Enter Alba Singh, an eleven-year-old girl with a smartphone, a smile, and a clipboard bearing a petition: the precise ingredients needed to stymie the churn of big business.
Such, at any rate, is the moral of Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, which is made by Ustwo Games—the studio behind Monument Valley and Assemble With Care. But the adventure, which is lit with dry citrus tones, refuses to sour; “Imagine all the good the luxury Hotel will do,” says Alba’s grandfather, squeezing potential sweetness from the predicament. “Tourism coming back, businesses reopening, new jobs… It’s going to revitalise the whole island.” Could it be? Might Alba ditch the backpack, don a sharp suit of her own, and thrill to the prospect of urban development? For a blasphemous moment, I envisioned Ustwo pitching the tale of a young tycoon in the making, showing up in coastal towns the world over, with a bursting briefcase and an appetite for economic boom—Alba: A Reviled Life Adventure.
Alas, it was not to be. Instead what we get is ornithology, a pursuit that Alba takes up with the aid of an app on her phone, and one that coaxes out all that is avian about her. As she holds the lens aloft, you swivel and peck at the world as if you were playing New Pokémon Snap, cataloguing each creature within her journal. And watch her break into a skip, as she runs, like a robin hopping across the ground, or spread her arms wide, as though the wind were liable to gust her Heavenwards. The last time an animation so perfectly captured the energy of children—boundless yet bundled in a delicate form—was in Rime, wherein another young soul clambered across a similar isle, through valleys of monuments, under a harsh sun. Pina del Mar is an open world, assembled with care, and, though it is strewn with things in need of repair, there is nothing harsh about it.
Alba is free to explore at her leisure, and, as she does, your eye is drawn to all that flits and scampers. After speaking to the local vet, she obtains a first-aid kit, the better to heal any animals that have lunched on spilled pesticide. She also borrows a tool kit, allowing her to mend bird feeders and even bridges. Imagine Untitled Goose Game playing out in reverse: tempers cooling, litter wafting back into bins, items returned to their owners, and an unflappable hero—enthralled not by honking chaos but by a passion for civic soothing. (If you wished to fill a weekend with equal helpings of cruelty and kindness, that would make for the perfect double bill.) Like her feathered counterpart, Alba expresses herself in action; when she is asked a question, she responds with a nod or a shake of the head, done with a waggle of the analogue stick. As a reward for cleaning up a plaza, she is gifted an ice cream, and each grinning crunch is governed by the press of a button, right down to the last nub of the cone. I melted.
The other—not to say more important—reward for her good will is a signature; gather fifty of these, and you halt the mayor’s plan. In this effort, Alba is joined by her friend Inés, whose mood is signalled by her mouth—a downwards-curving dash when troubled, and a beaming pothole when happy. This minimal style extends to Pina del Mar, as if the sun had baked the surfaces clean. If I didn’t feel the sugary twinge of sentiment in Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, it is down to this pastel starkness. In the same way that Untitled Goose Game presented us with an English village with the enamelling of context raked and smoothed away, and bid us to etch the detail of our memories onto the place, Pina del Mar revels in the specificity of blankness. Behold the sights and smells of a hundred Mediterranean holidays: the white plastic chairs, the beaches, and, in an outdoor café, the pots of bubbling paella. It’s exactly the kind of lounging hotspot which might tempt you to book into a hotel resort.
Developer: Ustwo Games
Publisher: Plug In Digital
Available on: Nintendo Switch [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Mobile, aXbox Series X / S
Release Date: June 9, 2021
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