I cut my teeth on many of the first generation of survival horror games and for the most part I really enjoyed them. The first 3 Resident Evils are some of the most vivid gaming experiences I can remember and Silent Hill still rates up there as one of the most cerebral gaming experiences I had as a teenager. However I can’t say that the genre is one of my favorites owing mostly to the fact that horror, in general, tends to bore me (I feel asleep in The Grudge, for example). I Am Alive seemed like a fresh take on the genre from what little I had heard about it so I figured it was worth another shot.
I Am Alive puts you in control of a man named Adam who, after surviving the worldwide apocalyptic event that’s only referred to as “The Event”, has spent the past year trekking cross country to try and find his wife and daughter. The story begins with him just arriving outside the fictional town of Haventon where he begins filming his adventures, ostensibly so that if he doesn’t make it that someone might find the footage and deliver it to his wife and daughter. You then proceed to make your way through the town towards your old apartment and hopefully to be reunited with your family once again.
Graphically I Am Alive is quite desolate with a highly muted color palette that paints everything in varying shades of grey, brown and black. For a post apocalyptic setting its somewhat fitting but in terms of actual graphics it feels like its 1 or 2 years behind the current level I’ve come to expect from PS3 titles. This is probably a symptom of its long development cycle as it has been in production since 2008 and has changed developers from Darkworks to Ubisoft Shanghai in that time. It’s a shame as the plot gave them a really good excuse to use high-poly models for nearly everything whilst keeping the draw distances to a minimum, but I guess the models that ended up in the game were high poly back in 2008.
I Am Alive, like every game seems to do these days, combines several different distinct game mechanics in order to put an unique spin on the usual survival horror type game. Most notably is the addition of Assassin’s Creed style obstacle climbing which functions as both a tension device as well as for exploration. Unlike Assassin’s Creed (and almost any other game that has climbing in it) I Am Alive instead limits you to a short bursts of climbing and gives you tools to use that can extend that time period. As you progress further through the story the climbing puzzles become more complex as they add in additional moves and further restrictions on how your character moves about in the world.
The climbing works well enough and the limited amount of time adds both a strategic element as well as functioning as a tension/suspense builder. The controls for climbing are somewhat wonky however with Adam flailing wildly around obstacles if you don’t position the camera and movement sticks just right. Additionally whilst most of the climbing is contextually aware there are many points when its painfully not, such as when you’re climbing a ladder and you reach the top. Most games would just have your character vault up there but I Am Alive doesn’t, instead having you push X. This might sound like a minor nit pick (and I’m sure many will argue that awkward controls are a staple of survival horror) but it happens often enough that it’s a chore more than anything.
Inventory management is thankfully quite simple although I Am Alive does take the “survival” part of survival horror to whole new levels. Even though I’m a trained RPG’er who’s natural instinct is to seek out every nook and cranny that they can find I was often left coming up empty handed. It was frustrating at first but after a certain point, once I had figured out most of the other mechanics, I started to get into a situation like the one above where I pretty much had multiples of everything I could ever need. Mostly this was from abusing the checkpoint system which seems to have only been half thought out.
So for each section, when you’re playing in normal mode at least, you start off with 3 retries which allow you to restart when you get to a checkpoint. When you reach said checkpoints is not made obvious to you so sometimes you’ll lose a couple minutes and other times up to half an hour. However you can get extra retires by helping out other survivors, usually by giving them something from your inventory. In some sections this means that should you die there will be a survivor you can help right in front of you, effectively giving you unlimited retries at a particular section. It’s even funnier when I discovered that there was one place where I could get 2 retries per death, effectively giving me unlimited retries for not much effort. I didn’t do this intentionally at first but needless to say after repeating the section a couple times I had more retries than I needed for the rest of the game.
Combat, if you could call it that, is a strategic game of picking out who to kill first. There are a lot of people in the I Am Alive world and most of them are defending their territory in one way or another. If you don’t run or draw your weapon most won’t attack immediately with the more aggressive ones approaching you. This is usually the point where you machete them right in the throat and then proceed to threaten the rest of them with your gun, whether you have bullets or not. You’re also given the option to knock some of them out but the opportunity to do so isn’t always available.
Indeed whilst I Am Alive leads you to believe early on that you can usually resolve matters without having to massacre everyone you in fact have to kill basically anyone who threatens you bar the last person in the group. Even then they might not submit to you and will gladly attack you should you turn your back on them for even a second. They also don’t seem to take the bow seriously until you have it fully drawn which doesn’t add up when you can fire it in under a second. It’s made somewhat better by the fact you don’t have to aim as much (save for the body armored guys) but I still felt like the early game misled me as to what combat encounters would be like for the rest of the game.
Helping survivors usually provides you with a little bit of back story as to what happened during The Event or for the people you might be looking for. Unlike most post-apocalyptic games where characters are quite aware of what happened to wreck their world the people of I Am Alive don’t seem to know much about it, save for the fact that there were massive earthquakes and a dust cloud that came out of no where. Again it might seem like a small nit pick but the lack of back story makes it hard to understand the plight of the people who have chose to stay there, as many of them did.
It also makes it hard to enjoy the game when some sections are so poorly designed that it borders on frustration. Thanks to the dreary color palette visual cues are often lost in the background leaving you confused as to which direction you should take to progress the game. There was also one section (the beginning of the first night) where you simply can not see anything because there’s not enough light and your character doesn’t turn his flashlight on. Then after completing a combat section you’re teleported from wherever you were to another location, an extremely disorienting experience made worse by the fact that there’s no obvious clues as to how far its made you travel. I wish I could say that it was an isolated incident but I found myself on no less than 5 occasions looking up walk through guides to make sure my game hadn’t glitched out, because it certainly felt like it had.
I could forget all of this had the story been redeemable and unfortunately it wasn’t. The plot was uninspired to begin with but most of the interactions were straight out of the post-apocalyptic handbook with nothing to differentiate it from the crowd. Worst part about it, and I’m not sure if this is because Ubisoft just wanted to release it or they’re screaming HEY THERE WILL BE A SEQUEL, is that the story wraps up in such a way as to lead you to one conclusion but it’s not really explained how it got to that point. Whilst I wouldn’t ask them to change the ending like I would for Mass Effect 3 it is one point where I’d like some clarification on time between the end of the game and the supposed ending of the story, because otherwise there’s a major plot hole there.
I Am Alive is one of those games that obviously suffered from its long development time and change developers before it was finished. It’s a real shame as the game had a lot of potential to do some really inventive things with its novel combination of core game mechanics. Unfortunately it’s plagued with issues that detract from its survival horror roots, instead being a mostly tedious experience rather than a tense, gripping one. I don’t even think some DLC that explains the ending would change my mind on this one and I could only recommend this game to anyone who’s got 6 hours to kill and desperately needs a survival horror fix.
I Am Alive is available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 right now for $23.95 and 1200 Microsoft Points. Game was played on the PlayStation 3 in Normal Mode with a score of 85% and around 6 hours of total game time.