As any fan of a good murder mystery will tell you, there's nothing more satisfying than a surprising reveal and a shocking payoff. Unfortunately, there's a disastrous corollary to this tenet: A bad ending insults the reader and renders the plot that came before it hollow and insincere. Though point-and-click adventure game Alter Ego tries to involve you in its story with a few gruesome crimes, the crime that will strike you as most hideous is its own storytelling offenses. After an excruciatingly slow start, the tale seems like it might finally come together, only to pull the rug from underneath you with an ending so abrupt and incomplete you feel as if you just read a novel with the final two chapters ripped out of it. The end result is a story that makes the average episode of Scooby-Doo look like a sophisticated whodunit and will have you throwing your hands up in the air in disgust. Alter Ego's easy and unremarkable puzzles, which can be solved with a bunch of random clicking, offer no relief and make for a soggy and unfinished adventure that even genre fans should avoid.
You play as two different characters throughout the course of this "mystery." Timothy Moor is an Irish thief joining a fellow crook on a heist that will pay their way to the United States. Detective Briscol is a by-the-book investigator new to the town of Plymouth, England, where the funeral of a suspected murderer hasn't ended the chain of murders terrorizing the populace. Alternating between the two, you slog through cemeteries, laundries, and sewers, combining inventory items and clicking on environmental objects to progress the story. And it is quite a sluggish story. As Moor, you spend most of the game totally unaware that a mystery even exists, sneaking into mansions and inspecting crossbows. As Briscol, you talk to a few suspects and investigate the crime scene, which is boring, but at least it tantalizes you with a few choice tangents. What secrets does a reclusive grandmother harbor? What goodies might be hidden in the trunk in Briscol's office? Who really was this man known by locals as the White Beast?
Alter Ego regrettably does nothing to resolve such lingering questions. The paths of the two characters don't even cross until two-thirds of the way through the game, thus failing to capitalize on the potential of a story told from two angles. The events just prior to the crossing of these paths, including a sequence that plunges you into total darkness, seem to hint that something exciting is finally about to happen after hours of busywork. Instead, the simple puzzles get even simpler, you only control a single character, and important facets of the mystery get either completely cast aside or explained away in a bit of hasty dialogue. Where there should have been a climax, there is a 15-second speech that clarifies precious little; where there should have been a conclusion, there is instead a final cutscene that might be trying to set up a sequel but instead makes the entire game feel like a pointless endeavor in which you learned and accomplished absolutely nothing. This is storytelling at its most putrid, and it is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who sticks with this murder mystery hoping for closure.
Furthermore, Alter Ego fails to communicate much suspense, but at least there are sparks of personality. Briscol's temper occasionally erupts, and his anger is used to good effect in a few scenes within a church. Moor's brogue lends him some charm, even though the actor playing the thief is too laid-back during times he should be communicating terror or annoyance. But the environments, while attractive, aren't atmospheric enough to encourage tension. The cemetery looks nice, but there are precious few animations within the environments, the lighting is often flat, and character models tend to get swallowed up by the shadows. More of the failure to provoke suspense comes from the meager sound design. Silence can be suspenseful, of course, but Alter Ego isn't creepily quiet--it's just plain quiet. Moody music and sound effects might have helped draw the player in where the story fails, but the stillness isn't scary. Rather, it's just another thin element that makes this adventure seem unfinished.
Where the story is rancid, the puzzles are merely boring. None of them require brainpower. There are no environmental tests of logic, no clever solutions to multitiered problems, and no need to pay close attention to subtle clues. If you aren't sure of what you need to do, just click on everything until something happens. This is especially disappointing considering you fill the shoes of a detective. Numerous adventure games, from Still Life to the recent string of Sherlock Holmes games, have implemented smart mechanics that simulate crime scene inspection and evidence examination. In Alter Ego, playing as Detective Briscol is just like playing as Moor. Sure, you get a pair of tweezers, a brush, and a magnifying glass, but they are used sparingly and only in very obvious ways. Briscol's journal is nothing but a repository of images to click on; not a gameplay addition as it is in other mystery adventures. Furthermore, several objects or elements you can interact with foreshadow future solutions that never come. You click on an exit that implies you might be able to explore a rich dowager's manor--but it never happens. You click on a safe that holds a pistol, but you never retrieve and use the pistol. And, again, you come away with the sense that Alter Ego was envisioned as a longer game but, sadly, was never completed.
There are countless old point-and-click games that surpass Alter Ego in almost every manner, from puzzles to characters. This is not just a testament to the quality of those games but to the failure of Alter Ego to deliver an adventure worth taking. Even if the meandering mystery draws you in, the game's appalling attempt to wrap up the story in a manner of seconds, as well as its total failure to bring any sense of closure, may very well drive you to drink. And if you play these kinds of games hoping for some brain-twisting puzzles to test your wits, you'll be sorely disappointed by the cliched click-everywhere tasks that never require so much as a single brain cell. So whether you come for the story or for the conundrums, Alter Ego is certain to let you down.