2023 is shaping up to be a great year for throwback JRPGs. We ended last year with Chained Echoes and we're all looking forward to Sea of Stars, but there's a lot of time in between those two. I reviewed 8-Bit Adventures 2 earlier this year, and now we have Alterium Shift, another entrant into the old-school JRPG market.
Alterium Shift certainly has the charm one wants from such a game, though it comes packaged with that distinctive Early Access roughness. Will time be enough to throw some polish on this unfinished diamond?
Alteria is a world divided. In the not-so-distant past, dark elves - who had previously kept to themselves, showing little interest in the world outside - launched a sudden attack on the realm of humans. During the war, human alchemists mastered the arcane powers of Alterium, and it was this development that allowed the combined human forces to repel the dark elves, who seemingly vanished outright after their defeat.
A generation later, General Dolion - hero of the war - has undertaken a campaign to find young warriors who are attuned to Alterium. He has found three: the headstrong spear master Pyra, the compassionate, self-doubting archer Atlas, and the puckish, egotistical sorcerer Sage. The three of them are preparing for their last test before heading out into the world at large.
What none of them know is what, exactly, Dolion is testing. One of the three is about to learn of the existence of a second, parallel realm - and end up stranded there, left to make it home with only their wits and the ill-understood power to move between dimensions.
Alterium Shift is a throwback JRPG with design principles inspired by games of the late 90s. This is immediately clear from the graphics, which feature the mixed assets (2D sprites for most of the characters and enemies, polygonal models for backgrounds and some bosses) that were frequently used on the PSX, as well as some Chrono Trigger-inspired character animations.
Gameplay-wise, it's pretty standard for such games as well - turn-based combat with standard attacks and special moves that consume a limited bar. It does feature a few modern indie RPG staples such as staggered turn order and limit breaks, but other than that it's about what you'd expect from a JRPG released circa 1996.
Most of the innovation comes with character selection. The player picks from one of the three warriors, each of whom has a separate campaign with minor branches and a unique out-of-combat ability used to navigate the world and complete puzzles. This adds some replay value, which is much needed as the individual campaigns are quite short and easy, typically running just a few hours each.
Alterium Shift is likely to get longer and more substantial as it navigates through Early Access.
Many of the games I review are Early Access titles and I usually don't mention it, but I'm making an exception here as Alterium Shift seems to be at an earlier level of development than most of them. Per the remarks on the Steam page, only about half of the planned content has been implemented so far, which would explain some of the sparseness on display. The good news is that updates are coming out at a steady clip, with new content getting patched in even as I was writing this review.
As it stands, Alterium Shift is a game with a lot of potential, but most of that potential has yet to be realized. If you are a serious fan of old-school RPGs then it still might be worth picking up now, but others might be better served by keeping an eye on it for a few months to see what the developers do to sand over the rough spots.
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