A scintillating spy story set in scenic Switzerland
As much as I love World War II stories, I admit the popular narrative is getting a bit stale. Don’t get me wrong, everyone loves a good game of Wolfenstein when you need to just chill out while kicking Nazi ass, but when that becomes the only story told… over and over and over again… it gets old. Fast.
So when I saw Over The Alps, a beautifully illustrated visual novel about spies traipsing around Switzerland, it definitely caught my eye. Two riveting tales about Allied and Axis spies going toe to toe in neutral territory told through invisible ink on picturesque postcards, the premise was too good to pass up. And to hear that Jon Ingold of 80 Days, Harry Tuffs of Sunless Skies, and Katharine Neil of Astrologaster were involved — AND you can pet the dog? Sign. Me. Up!
Over The Alps is quaintly told through the lens of postcards that were stumbled upon after an evening of good wine and great conversation. Players are then given the pen, so to speak, and help craft the story told by British spies “Smith” and “Taylor.” Spanning practically the entirety of Switzerland — from Chiasso to Zurich and beyond — players direct this captivating tale of the secretive spy vs. spy action against all odds.
I have to speak about what jumped out right at me from the very beginning: the aesthetics. Having had the pleasure of briefly visiting Switzerland last year (we took a wrong turn heading to Lake Como in Italy), the feel of the gorgeous surrounds absolutely shines through despite the cartoonish color schemes. The visuals are like a delightful breath of fresh mountain air, filling your soul with beauty and peace. I couldn’t help but try to quickly skim through the postcards just to get back to the illustrations, a literal eye-gasm each time they appeared on screen.
That’s not to say the postcard mechanic in Over The Alps wasn’t fun — in fact, it was so utterly charming, I’m surprised it hasn’t been utilized like this before. Players are presented with a scenario with text setting up the choices that will become available in the form of different stamps. Each stamp means something that isn’t quite explained but is grasped through context clues — the man with a top hat stamp represented a more gentlemanly choice, the axe a more pushy, even violent choice, and the cat a more sly and oft beguiling option. Depending on your actions, certain stamps may appear over time, such as the gun stamp should you acquire one.
As much as I adored this mechanic, it could have used a little bit of an explanation in the form of a simple page “translating” stamps, and, to be honest, the choices you make don’t feel like they matter as it appears all roads lead to the same ending. Additionally, there’s some confusion with the police involvement — as players progress, their choices can sometimes mean clumsily leaving footprints or carefully creating diversions. This is added up later on the map screen, with the police either thwarted or hot on your tail. You’d think it’d be best to avoid the police altogether, but in many instances they were always right behind me but the story progressed as normal. It was confusing and a little hard to understand; I’m not sure if it weighed as much as intended.
Of course, players aren’t typically primarily interested in Over The Alps for the mechanics — they’re here for the story, and that’s where the game delivers in spades. Over The Alps features two scintillating spy stories now with one scheduled for release sometime in the future, both of which will have players on the edge of their seat and enthusiastically tapping stamps to progress as quickly as possible. Of the two, I believe the story featuring Smith is the strongest, but Agent Taylor’s tale is captivating in its own right. I had put the game down to go to bed but lay awake unable to sleep without continuing, which lead to an all-night gaming session finishing with the completion of both stories. I’d say the writing is the clear highlight of Over The Alps, which is no easy achievement considering those gorgeous graphics.
Over The Alps’ stories are wonderfully hefty — the developer boasts 65,000 words between the two — so players are definitely going to get their money’s worth when it comes to content. When it comes to closure, however, I would have preferred a little more assistance at the end. With no discernible save animations and no way to have multiple save states, it was impossible to quickly go back and rectify any mistakes. One frustrating moment was where I got all the way to the end and, due to joycon drift, accidentally chose the wrong stamp. This meant I had to sit through text I didn’t want (this was before I knew there was only one ending) with no way to go back and replay that section. If I want to work my way through all the acts to get back to that place, I will have to play the game all over again in its entirety. For someone who is short on time, this was a major letdown, and while I can appreciate the developer’s desire for us to enjoy the expertly crafted story, I just really would appreciate the ability to have at least one save slot for such instances.
Speaking of Switch issues, you may be forced to play this as a handheld instead of on your TV depending on the screen’s dimensions. Over The Alps works smoothly when it comes to the illustrated scenes and the postcards, but when it comes to the map, the police meter was cut off on my TV. At first I attempted to press every button on my controller to get it to somehow “come out from its hiding spot,” as if swiping it over would somehow make it usable, but to no avail. Once I used it in handheld mode there were no issues — just something to be aware of for those who prefer bigger screens.
Despite any issues encountered, Over The Alps is a must-have title for those who love visual novels, World War II games, or just want to be blown away by beautiful illustrations. It’s a work of art that deserves high praise for the aesthetics, story, and uniquely clever mechanic. For those who suffer from joycon drift and typically play on your TV, you may want to consider picking the game up on Apple Arcade or Steam; however, let me be clear — Switch or not, you should pick up this game if the aforementioned criteria apply to you.
Oozing with charm and personality, Over The Alps is a forgiving branching narrative that absolutely delivers on story and aesthetics. Despite the lack of endings and a confusing secondary mechanic that didn’t quite live up to its potential, Over The Alps is an electric spy vs. spy story that must be experienced. If you took one look at the visuals and thought it might be your game, I have some intel for you: it is. Run — don’t walk — to the nearest virtual gaming platform to pick up your copy of Over The Alps today.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC, Apple Arcade, Switch (reviewed); Developer: Stave Studios; Publisher: Stave Studios; Players: 1; Released: August 25, 2020; MSRP: $12.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Over The Alps provided by the publisher.