In Alba: A Wildlife Adventure‘s opening minutes, we’re greeted by a Little Ringed Plover flying across town till it reaches a calm beach. It gathers around a flock of Mediterranean Gulls as our grandma stands back, calmly enjoying their presence. Soon after, the controls are handed over to us – little baby Alba.
We run towards our Grandma who calls for us, teasing us for “Always chasing birds”. Not long after Grandpa comes along after being distracted by a potential Glossy Ibis sighting. A shared love for animals running in the family. As the little photographer for the day, grandpa hands us his phone to take a shot of the adorable old couple.
Though our first photo came out a little…less focused, we happened upon a chance sighting of the rare Iberian Lynx. The King Of The Forest right in the palm of our hands, at least a blurry photo of it.
Fast forward 10 years later, Alba’s story begins in earnest as we hone our skills for animal welfare and identification – sending us on a relaxing journey of capturing nature in its original (digital) habitat. A wide-eyed introduction to my favourite game of 2021.
Released on 11 December 2020, I’d like to believe that it dropped late enough in the year for me to still shoehorn it into my 2021 accolades. Before I triple down on my love for this game, I’d like to note that I didn’t really have time (nor the equipment) to really enjoy newer titles. However, Alba‘s brilliance has never left me since I first completion of its 2.5-hour campaign. A brief yet infinitely memorable experience that I jump back into every now and then.
Made by the developers of the equally brilliant iOS-only Monument Valley series, UsTwo Games had already excelled at crafting experiences that were heavy on atmosphere and light on challenges. Alba is no different and their mastery over immersive atmosphere is one of the two reasons it holds a special place in my heart.
There are 10 areas in the game, each of them with its own charms and landmarks.
There’s the Town with its quaint laziness permeating throughout its residents and exterior. Rubbish lie around every corner (which we pick up!) and the townsfolk are more than willing to pause their day to have a brief chat. The Castle is another standout we endure a long trek up a hill before being greeted by long-abandoned ruins that tower over Pinar Del Mar. Its 16th-century charm hiding a wealth of secrets, which is why we instantly come across a pair of archaeologists (who asks us for our help to find artifacts, because this is still a video game).
My favourite, though, has to be the Nature Reserve, which also serves as the goal for our titular adventurer as we go around restoring the downtrodden area back to its former glory. How do we do that you might ask? Well, it’s tough to describe it briefly without giving the whole game away but it does involve A LOT of photos being taken, of animals specifically.
The core gameplay loop revolves around us taking pictures, Pokémon Snap style, of every living being we see aside from humans. Building on Alba’s love for animals, the photos are added to the glossary of our Wildlife App. There’s no timer or limit as to how many pictures we can take in a single day. Everything is left up to our own leisure and the entire island serves as an avenue to explore and relax.
No animal is too difficult to capture and we’re essentially free to get all of them on our first two days (aside from those locked out for story purposes). So like any sane person would, I ran across the entire stretch of the island the moment I was able to. Trekking through the dank Building Site, carefully navigating the humungous Rice Fields, or chilling in an abandoned house next to the Terraces, it was like a slice of island life served up to me on a tranquil platter.
Alba never asks too much from its players and being someone who likes my recreational times to be stress-free, this game filled a hole I didn’t realise I had. Sure, there are farming and life sims like Stardew Valley or The Sims 4 that I also love but they often come with a loose time-sensitive goal in mind. Then slowly but surely, I’ll end up fitting in as many side-tasks to do as possible before the main one is up. Alba’s simplicity helps to create a comfortable and controlled experience.
Oh but Turntable Thoughts is a music blog, so how can I talk about Alba without mentioning its gorgeous soundtrack? Helmed by Spain’s Lorena Álvarez, my enjoyment of the island of Pinar Del Mar is directly related to how much I love its music. There’s no drums or bass to be heard, only the delightful sounds of her guitar playing backed by a soothing string section. In between, we hear hints of flutes, quiet humming, vivid percussions and more little details that add a sense of wonder to the album.
As we hop through UsTwo’s beautifully handcrafted world, Lorena’s music is a warm accompaniment to a surprisingly solitary journey. There are no companions to speak of nor are there any NPCs who go out of their way to interact with you. The island simply exists and we are the sole force that walks along its pathways. Thus the cheerfully bright music elicits a childlike fascination as we traverse.
To the adults on Pinar Del Mar, the island is simply a place they call home and one that isn’t worth going crazy about. However as Alba, every new area uncovered is a brand new adventure and each track that backs us along this journey is made even more epic and astounding because of it.
Simply put, the world of Alba: A Wildlife Adventure wouldn’t nearly be as good without its music. Vice versa, Lorena’s soundtrack wouldn’t have left such a deep impression on me if I had never had the opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of the island.
It may be lacking in challenge, secrets or even an overall sense of progression. However, in a year where life still feels completely out of our control, having a video game that invites you to stop and stare is one that I sorely needed. It’s also one that will stick with me forever and always.