Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Alkahest is a game that combines queerness with alchemy

Alkahest is a game that ticked off a lot of firsts for me. It’s the first game that I’ve played in a dungeonpunk setting, the first to make me want more games away from the ‘hero’s journey’ narrative, and the first that made alchemy feel incredibly intimate while also being full of palpable, queer, sexual tension. Yeah, that’s a lot to handle in the space of a single paragraph, but then again, Alkahest is a lot too.

It’s nighttime in Lore City and you’re in the shoes of protagonist Mello Kurosol, an alchemist with a shadowy past that runs a store alongside their business partner, Logan Apollo. Logan is a cheerful man who has his own demons, and at the start of the game, has been away on a business trip. When he returns however, demonic as his past and trauma may seem to the critical eye, the Logan that Mello sees is far from the one that they know. Immediately the game puts you in an impossible, and terrifying situation: your friend’s body is no longer his thanks to a dastardly creature – what can you do about it?

From the get-go, Alkahest establishes itself as a story-driven game that focuses more on the personal, intimate spaces between characters. There are many references to the outside world that isn’t Mello and Logan’s alchemy store, including several characters that, depending on your choices, feel just as significant as Mello and Logan themselves. Even so, the action – and tension – sits nicely in the space of a single room. It feels both intimidating and sensual, regardless if you decide to embrace the imposter in Logan’s body or shun them.

Though make no mistake, Alkahest doesn’t pussyfoot around about the seriousness of Logan’s body being possessed by a being that robs him of complete control. Any desire that you do end up feeling for the creature in the space of one night comes from it delving deep inside your soul and taking you apart, piece by piece. It isn’t Mello finding out something new or meaningful about themself, it’s about someone leading you down a route where self-destruction is the only outcome. It’s riveting, intoxicating, and messy, and as someone who loves messy, queer stories, I love that Alkahest doesn’t shy away from such sticky topics, but fully embraces them.

There’s no mistaking Alkahest’s intent to convey queerness in all shapes and sizes. The threat of danger is both thrilling and horrifying, especially considering Mello and Logan’s relationship with one another is just as complicated as the circumstances that players find themselves in. Yet Logan isn’t here, just someone else in his body, a situation that is strikingly similar to what an alkahest is: a universal solvent that’s capable of dissolving any other substance without altering or destroying its fundamental components. Logan’s being is slowly being destroyed, but his soul and body are still there, fighting to be free. It’s a relationship with a wedge in the middle, and one that feels unique to the story that Alkahest is trying to tell.

What’s fitting is that the combination of alchemy alongside a story as dark as this one, makes the former all that much more interesting. While you can listen to the creature that’s inhabited your friend’s body and create the right tonic to help exact the beast’s revenge on its enemies, you’re also able to completely circumvent its wishes in sly, subtle ways too. A right ingredient with the wrong intentions can mean everything in this game of life and death. Add the implicit sexuality that oozes with each interaction between Mello and this beast, and it’s a match made in the fun and darkest depths of hell.

Even if alchemy isn’t your thing, Alkahest more than holds enough world and narrative building that you’ll get lost in the outside world it offers. The difficulties of living under the thumb of mages and magic that only the powerful are allowed to wield are often alluded to in conversation, and while your main concern is surviving the night, it shows the masterful skill of Split Fate Studios to not only command your attention with what’s happening in front of you, but the lore and world that lies beyond.

There’s more than one ending to Alkahest, which might make a potential sequel feel a little out of place, but regardless of where Mello and Logan end up, there’s something special about the setting of Lore City. The creatures, the dangers, and the threat of a higher power that oozes just below the surface with each interaction between Mello and the creature is too enthralling not to want more of it.

You can play the full game of Alkahest over on itch.io, and I truly recommend you do. Alchemy has never been sexier.

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