Alba: A Wildlife Adventure Review: The Best Family Game of 2021

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure wonderfully recontextualizes the video game sandbox as a wholesome call to action.

With morality shaded in gray and an arsenal of weapons under their rule-of-cool attire, the anti-heroes at the center of most video games today heed the call only because they're forced to by some catalyzing betrayal or tragedy. Then, they strike down their enemies with a similar penchant for violence.

Alba isn't like other video game heroes. For one, she's a young girl, not a grizzled half-tuck with a skill tree full of throat punches. All Alba has is a smartphone, a notebook, and a map. She's no reluctant hero either, because more than anything, what Alba has is a fierce determination to do right by her community and environment.

Her indefatigable spirit is as contagious as her ever-present smile, and it's this call to action that makes Alba: A Wildlife Adventure the best family game of the year.

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure Review: The Best Family Game of 2021

Alba is everything most sandboxes aren't, and that begins with its modest size. As Alba, you can walk, skip, and stroll across the perimeter of Pinar Del Mar in about seven minutes. This isn't a sandbox meant to occupy your every waking hour for weeks on end, though it is quite an enjoyable game that shows you what to do, then lets you do it at your own pace.

Alba is still a game that could take you weeks to play, but probably only because you've fallen for its photo mode, which doubles as the main gameplay mechanic. Imbued with a penchant for birdwatching by her abuelo, Alba spends her vacation with her grandparents snapping photos of local animals, cleaning up the nature reserve, and petitioning the mayor to tear up his deal with a shady land developer who wants to build a mega-hotel amid the close-knit island community.

Over the course of about an in-game week, Alba must use her eternally burning fire inside to bring about a similar passion from others before it's too late to protect the island's natural appeal. For some, it will be Alba's healing of sick birds and squirrels that drives them to sign her petition. For others, it may be her charming photos of eagles, dolphins, and dogs. With each person, the message is clear: look what we may lose if we don't protect it.

Each good deed is gamified, but just barely. To pick up trash, pet the dog, and heal an injured animal, it's always the same one-button prompt, which, while simple to a seasoned player, makes Alba incredibly inviting to inexperienced or younger adventurers.

In that context, there's really nothing like this game. It gives players an open-world manageable in size filled with community service as the motivator. In a world where wholesome games have carved out their own niche, Alba is among the few that truly embodies the spirit of doing something for the right reasons and in the right way.

The music and art of Alba complete the game's spell. An original score by Lorena Álvarez captures the spirited but breezy atmosphere of the game, while the simple environments still provide a dazzling vista no matter where Alba points her camera. Though there's no voice acting, Alba can talk to whomever she wants and will usually get a few lines of dialogue from them each in-game day. As a day's main quest is completed, characters will signal that you can head home to advance time, but there's no penalty for not doing so. 

Alba never pressures players to keep moving, and even if you do want to rush through the three-hour story to see how it ends, the game smartly lets you loose on the island for the final day before you head home, which becomes an endless mode where you can take all the pictures and greet all the friends you want.

More than any other game I've played, Alba captures the magical optimism of childhood. Adults can be cynical, weathered by jobs and bills, but for Alba, like for a lot of children, the world is still full of wonder, and she feels big and brave enough to change it for the better. The most wonderful part of Alba: no one tells her she can't — and so she does.

I loved this game so much when I first played it on Apple Arcade last December (it even made my top 20 games that flew under the radar list), and it's mostly just as lovely now that it's on consoles. However, it's worth mentioning that those not playing on iOS (or presumably Switch), will lose just a bit of the game's charm in two ways. For one, the photo mini-game tracks your real-life movement on iPhones and that's lacking on consoles.

Related to that, the save and share features of the in-game photography seem to do nothing, at least on the Xbox version I played. On iOS, you can save lovely galleries of your pictures, but right now, it simply doesn't work on consoles, best I can tell, even though the options are still there.

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure Review — The Bottom Line

Pros

  • An adorable story told with a ton of heart
  • Memorable characters all over town
  • Photo mode takes center stage as its own integral story mechanic
  • Audiovisual design that is both breezy and beautiful
  • Relaxed, easy to learn mechanics

Cons

  • Photo saving and sharing buttons seem not to have made the jump from mobile to console

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is blatantly and immediately adorable, but as the brief story unfolds, it reveals a much greater purpose: a call to action from its players. The people of Pinar Del Mar don't patronize Alba, they support her earnestly, lift her up as she, in return, lifts them up. Alba believes she can, so she does. It's the sort of children's — especially young girls' — empowerment story video games have seemingly never done before but now so obviously needed.

It's a story not just of passive admiration but impassioned activism. Alba is an exemplar of the game's core tenet: we are the heroes we're waiting for.

[Note: Ustwo provided the copy of Alba: A Wildlife Adventure used for this review.]

Our Rating
9
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure wonderfully recontextualizes the video game sandbox as a wholesome call to action.
Reviewed On: Series X

Contributor

Mark is a dad, husband, bicyclist, animal rights activist, and a gamer, of course. You can find him on all platforms covering co-op, indies, horror, battle royale, or whatever else he's obsessing over right now. In addition to GameSkinny, he's been published on GameSpot, IGN, GamesRadar, EGM, Escapist, Official Xbox Magazine, and a bunch of other great outlets.

Published Jul. 1st 2021

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