2020 has been a garbage fire of a year for this planet’s climate, with massive bushfires ravaging Australia in the first few months of the year, and then California this summer. With the report just this week that November was the hottest on record, it’s likely that 2021 and beyond will see that garbage fire continue to burn unless we do something about it.
That is something that our protagonist Alba would no doubt like to avoid at all costs. The wider fight against climate change might not yet be on the mind of our 11-year-old heroine, but a wildlife adventure that’s much closer to home and her heart very much is.
As Alba – in this case meaning dawn in Spanish, as opposed to meaning Scotland in Scottish – visits her grandparents on the island of Pinar del Mar in the Mediterranean you get to soak in this idyllic setting. With everything from sandy beaches and rice paddies to a nature park and a castle on the hill, the island has it all. The nature park, in particular, is one of Alba’s favourite places.
Sadly, the park has fallen into disrepair, along with much of the rest of the island. Much to her annoyance and that of her best friend, Inés, the mayor has plans for the nature reserve, and they don’t involve sprucing it up.
Instead, he plans to bulldoze the park and build a ginormous luxury hotel.
Although the mayor’s announcement initially puts the residents on the back foot, you quickly see them wrestle with the dilemma of trading something they love for the promise of jobs and a boost to the local economy.
But you’re an 11-year-old. You don’t give a hoot about jobs and the economy. You just care about the park, the island and its animals, and since your grandparents have just given you a map, guide and a smartphone — equipped with a Pokédex-style app that lets you identify the wildlife around you — your mission is to show everyone what they’ll be missing if they follow through with the mayor’s plan.
You embark on an adventure to photograph, scan and document the 62 species of birds and mammals (plus one reptile), spread across the island’s eight distinct biomes, each with its own unique endemic life. As you show just how diverse the island is, you open the eyes of the islanders to the just how precious what they have is.
This is the crux of the game: walking around, taking photos and trying to document everything you can. Fortunately, the island is pretty densely packed, and you can walk from one side to the other in just a few minutes — which is pretty impressive considering the land speed of a typical 11-year-old.
This all means that you can pretty much 100% the game in a mere three hours. That said, this isn’t a game you’re going to forget any time soon. Alba is the kind of game that sticks with you.
It has to be said: this game is ludicrously cute. It has all the good feels, and the way that Alba skips around the island is as heart-warming as it gets. Despite its small size, the island also feels genuine. From the graffiti to the posters adorning the buildings in the town, Pinar del Mar feels like a lived-in place.
It’s also stunning to look at and capture. The camera’s autofocus works as you’d hope, generating the right kind of bokeh that you’d expect as you view the world through a camera lens. I often found myself stopping to snap a sunset as I skipped down the road, just like I would if I saw it in real life.
Alba doesn’t just take photos. She also helps sick animals, builds bird boxes, cleans up the trash littered around the island and repairs the local tourism boards. Once you’ve photographed a given species, you can print new signs for the wildlife information boards, further restoring the island to its former glory.
The more you clean up Pinar del Mar, the more likely the animals are to come out, helping further your quest to snap ‘em all.
In short, you’re basically a one-woman town hall who puts everyone else to shame with how useless they are.
As exemplary as this game is, it’s not all gravy and there are some real quality of life improvements that could be made. First and foremost, when Alba pulls out her phone to take a photo, she plants her feet like Claire Redfield, and nothing short of Nemesis is going to make her move until she puts her phone away.
This lets the game down slightly. The inability to strafe half an inch to the left while taking a photo through a fence is frustrating as all hell. It only gets worse when taking a photo of something fast-moving, like a gecko or a bird that’s darting around above your head.
Additionally, there are a couple of bugs here that could be ironed out. I’ve seen people staring through binoculars at a brick wall in front of their face and I’ve had the game freeze twice when accidentally nudging the mouse while using a gamepad. Neither is ultimately game breaking, but both are eyebrow raisers nonetheless.
Though this does bring me to the last thing that disappointed me about the game: a lack of actual bugs and the things that eat them. The island is suspiciously void of anything smaller than a gecko, and the gecko is the only reptile you see. Speaking to the devs, it turns out that the game was originally focused on bird watching, and evolved to include mammals, but going into macro photography and bug hunting was simply outside the scope of this game.
This all said, I would like to end with a point of genuine admiration. It needs to be said that the studio behind this game is putting its money where its mouth is. Despite being a small south-London indie dev, ustwo is donating money to Ecologi with each copy sold and each unique user on Apple Arcade, as part of project to plant one million trees.