Thursday, June 20, 2024

Alkahest Introduces Fascinating Dungeonpunk Universe

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Visual novels have become my new (or renewed) favorite genre to play. Full of compelling characters and storytelling with multiple endings, they’re the best mix between reading and gaming for me. When I saw Alkahest was out, I played it right away and immediately fell in love!

From Lore City Workshop, a dungeonpunk imprint of Split Fate Studios (known for High Elo Girls) comes the first glimpse into a corrupt dungeonpunk world where theocracy reigns supreme, magic is innate to all but controlled by the ruling few, and the shadow market breeds opportunity for those who seek it. Sounds like a grand time to me.

Alkahest is named after the theorized “universal solvent,” which could dissolve any other substance including gold without messing up the substance’s properties, obviously very helpful for alchemy.

The game itself follows Mello Kurosol who must brew deadly potions for the malicious entity possessing Logan’s body before time runs out and Logan, Mello, and others will die. Uh oh.

By engaging not-Logan in conversation to figure out why Logan got captured and brewing potions to get out of this hostage situation, players can achieve one of six endings and learn about six truly diverse characters from different perspectives. Are these people friend or foe? Is everything you’ve known about Logan, your business partner, a lie? Why you and why tonight? These questions and much more are answered throughout one night as you try to negotiate and brew the required potions before the end.

Adding to the unique setting is a really fun alchemy mechanic where you literally have to choose ingredients properly to move ahead in the game and if you don’t well… more on that later.

Alkahest starts with the player as Stowen Fallax sitting across from his business partner and friend Logan, except something has possessed Logan’s body! We learn through conversation that Stowen is actually an alias for Mello Kurosol and to survive the night, Mello has to brew four specific potions per not-Logan’s requests.

Against heady art and music, the game unfolds over the course of one single night and within one location, the spell-chamber. It’s essentially a bottle episode-visual novel, though we are provided a glimpse at one major location outside, and a couple others based on the endings achieved (all of which are drawn in a distinct art style).

buildings against a blue sky and statue facing away from the viewer

As you move on through the game, not-Logan keeps a close eye on Mello as he tries to brew the proper potions that not-Logan wants, and if he gets them really bad things will happen. If he doesn’t get them, really bad things will happen. So it’s player’s choice of which bad things happen, really. Also there’s some vague sexual tension because everyone’s kind of gay in some capacity. I love the feeling of near death and also trying to save myself (or not…)

No seriously, it’s a really interesting perspective to play in a genre which is still generally known for the focus on main character(s) romancing their way through the story (even though there’s numerous subgenres)! Alkahest‘s focus on world-building and developing the characters, though you only get to spend time with not-Logan (and one other but that depends on the end you get), leaves me endless questions about the world but not like I’ve missed anything important while playing.

Even characters who you only see on screen for a minute or only referenced in text are fully fledged out through dialogue between Mello and not-Logan, laying the ground for a lot more exploration in other games and media. The character art from Joseph Byrne (also co-dev of Split Fate Studios) is absolutely superb and imbues so much character in just a face.

Enough is revealed about how the social hierarchy works, with councilors ruling over four districts which have become stratified by magic and purpose, and what else might be going on that the setting is fully established and makes players want to know more about the various power systems.

Since citizens are blessed with magic by some god (or gods?) there’s an immediate power struggle for who gets to learn how to use that magic and where. Fortunately there’s clear hints that while there may not be any rebellion brewing of the usual fantasy sort, there’s definitely people who are working together to make things better for everyone. This plot thread is always commendable and exciting to follow.

Bringing us back to that magic, there’s a lot more to Mello than just hidden away business partner to Logan and even though they weren’t able to finish learning magic for ~reasons~, the player must guide them through making the potions requested by not-Logan. Here is one of the absolute best parts of the game and what I messed up on purpose a few times just so I could see what might happen in Mello’s dialogue about different characters or the ingredients.

screenshot showing the plants and metals available for the minigame
Alchemy minigame.

By brewing the potions properly you’re able to prolong your life, yet get closer to ending others. If you don’t brew those potions well, your life is at risk so choose wisely which of any potions to misbrew on purpose or whether or not you’ll do what not-Logan says. This mini-game, which occurs for each of the four potions, also reveals the care put into creating a detailed world. Each of the seven plants has a description about how each works, what the plant is a bane for, and symptoms of raw ingestion.

For example, one is them is a perennial, native to the subtropics and if eaten raw can cause nausea, dehydration, and other problems. The team could have chosen to make the plants and seven metals (which also have descriptions) simple and undefined, only important to the game as far as getting to the next point. Instead, they must be combined in a specific way reflective of the characters the potions are for, which is so fascinating and requires you to pay attention to everything you’ve learned thus far.

However, if you haven’t been quite as inquisitive or have picked a specific dialogue choice, you might be completely out of luck even if you want to brew them all.

man with purple hair staring at player sitting at Alkahest table
Not-Logan stresses me out.

To be clear, Alkahest is an 18+ thriller visual novel about pushing your limits to gain freedom and there may be some aspects not suitable for all players. If you’d like, you can see the list of content warnings over at the Itch link. Additionally, the game is inclusive of ethnicities and sexualities with implications for more, but it is not a standard hero’s journey, so if you’re not into maybe dying, don’t do the thing.

However of all the short visual novels that I’ve played recently (which has been many), Alkahest completely rises above the rest in its diligent focus on world building and character development. The game leaves players wanting more and effectively caught in the setting of Lore City in just six hours! I read very fast so I was able to get five of the endings in four-ish hours and plan to go back to get the last ending soon.

Dani Dee has crafted a gorgeous world with realistic politics yet absolutely zero racism, which is absolutely my jam. While there is a clear hierarchy in this world, it has nothing to do with folks’ skin color, which makes the explicit inclusion of Black characters all the more successful. This game is absolutely worth it and you will finish with the music stuck in your head for days. Seriously.

Dee actually has a number of games in development (vampires?! sign me up!) with more in pre-production and I know I’ll pick each and every one up as they arrive.

You can grab Alkahest now for your own price.

Alkahest Team

Designer, Writer, Programmer: Dani Dee
Character and CG Artist: Joseph Byrne
Logo, Background, and Alchemy Artist: Mallory Johnson
Supplementary Background Artist (Skyline): Bailey Cooper
Supplementary CG Artist (Morrowland): Talia Mirai
GUI Artist: Re.Alice

Images courtesy of Split Fate Studios

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