Why are there polar bears in Antarctica?
Genre: Strategy, Simulation
Developer: Every Single Soldier
Publisher: Every Single Soldier
Release date: 19 Mar, 2020
Videogames dealing with the race to the south pole are few and far between. This might in fact be the first, or at least the first one getting a wide release. In Terra Incognito – Antarctica 1911 you take control of the British expedition to the south pole, and lead by Robert Falcon Scott, as you race against the Norwegian expedition, lead by Roald Amundsen.
Terra Incognito is not a complex simulation, that accurately depicts the hardships that the Scott expedition faced during their time in Antarctica, instead it’s a somewhat abstract game, about managing time and resources and seeing just how far you can push your luck.
Story & Setting
Terra Incognito – Antarctica 1911 starts in the Antarctic summer of 1911, when two teams of explorers are racing to reach the south pole. Historically this did not end well for the British expedition, lead by Robert Scott, who sadly perished on their way back, after having reached the south pole over a month after the Norwegian expedition. An exceptionally cold summer hit, and nobody from the British expedition was able to make it back to safety. This game lets you change those tragic events, and make it so that the British expedition are not only able to make it back alive, but also reach the south pole first.
The game does take some artistic liberties with the setting and subject matter. For one there are polar bears roaming the area, where in reality those exist only on the other side of the planet. The British expedition also use dogs, where in reality they were using ponies (the Norwegians used dogs though). And the routes both teams take are the same here, which again is not historically accurate.
Graphics & sound
Terra Incognita is not a big-budget game, and that’s quite obvious from the get-go. The character models are pretty decent, although not outstanding, and the ground looks like it’s covered in compacted snow, which is what you would expect, it’s the Antarctic after all. But in motion it looks a bit rougher. There’s no proper turn animation for the characters, instead they just slide around on the spot, which would look a bit awkward on its own, but the characters drag sledges, and that makes the odd turning very noticeable. Even more noticeable is the pop-in, although this is not pop-in done for performance reasons, but gameplay reasons. To simulate that you’re going through mostly unknown territory you can only see unexplored terrain a short distance in front of you. As you make your way across the land, new ground will show up, but it just pops into existence a few meters ahead of you. There are also some glitchy animations, like when using the telescope to see further ahead, the character will sometimes still be playing its moving animation.
Hopefully you like Rule Britannia, because that’s the music that’s being played here. That song plays on repeat through the entire game, including on the main menu. You can turn it off, and play your own music instead. There’s also some voice acting, which adds a bit of character to the two main characters.
Terra Incognita is a somewhat abstract game. You’re controlling two characters, representing the British expedition, as they make their way across unexplored land. The trip to the south pole is split up into sections, and each section acts as a level. At the start of every level you have a know start point, a home base of some sort, and a known end-point, but everything in-between is unknown land.
A big part of the game is managing your two characters, and making sure that they’re both constantly doing something. You can directly control them, or tell them to go between points. Direct control is needed when making your way through the great unknown, but when just sending someone to gather supplies, it’s handy to let the computer handle that. Speaking of supplies, your characters need food to not starve to death and need to set up tents and use fuel to avoid freezing to death. These tents also act as supply depots, and you can store goods at them, and as you push forward, you’ll set up a chain of these tents, snaking your way towards the endpoint.
Getting from start to finish is of course not a straight path, and the further into the game you get, the more difficult the terrain becomes. There are spaces between the traversable land that you need to cross, or find a way around, and to do this you have ladders that you place on the ground. If it’s just a small gap, a single ladder might be enough to get across, but if the gap is bigger, you either need to use several or find an alternative route. And ladders take up room on your sled and weighing you down. In fact, all supplies weigh you down, and the more you have, the slower you’ll move. So judging how much you can safely bring is a key part of the game. Some things weigh more than others, with food being comparatively light, and tents being very heavy. There’s also a 2 ladder limit, so you can’t go out exploring, with a sled filled with ladders. And this is where your other character comes in handy, you can directly control one, while the other carries supplies forward. On some levels you have dogs that can also help with this process, making you move faster, but those dogs need to be taken care of, or they’ll die.
Then there are a few things that you can run into. Fishing spots and abandoned camps from past expeditions can give you some extra supplies, while a polar bear seems to have made its way to Antarctica just to cause trouble for you. These have a surprisingly small impact on the game. You also have to contend with bad weather, which will slow you down, and make the map nigh unreadable, which makes navigation harder. You have a weather forecast, so bad weather will never show up out of thin air, but a long stint of it can be quite disruptive, as it means you can’t transport as many goods, and if your tents are too far apart, bad weather might make it very dangerous to travel when the weather is turning worse.
I think the key to enjoying Terra Incognito – Antarctica 1911 is to go in with the right expectations. If you go in expecting this to be a realistic simulation, then you’ll likely be very disappointed. If you instead approach it as a more casual experience and treating it as a kind of time management game, then it becomes a lot more fun.
Terra Incognito is a bit visually rough, but the mechanics work well and feel coherent. The game is also not very hard to get into nor is it a particularly complex game. It might be a bit too easy though. During my first playthrough, I was able to make it to south pole well ahead of the Norwegian expedition, and once I felt like I had a good grasp of the mechanics, I did not feel like my characters were in any real danger either. The game might also get a bit repetitive on repeat playthroughs, as not much changes between levels, other than the weather getting worse, and there were more places where you needed ladders to cross, and of course, the polar bear shows up more often. But even with those gripes, I enjoyed myself. It’s not a masterpiece, and it’s probably a bit more “casual” than I would imagine that a lot of people interested in the theme would want, plus the liberties the developers took with the setting will bother some people, but as a game, it’s solid.