Game Review: I Am Alive
Post-apocalyptic scenarios provide rich pickings for entertainment and the arts. Whether it’s books like The Road, films like Mad Max or games like the Fallout series, the possibilities for exploring drama and desperation in worlds that have been stripped of law, order and civilization are seemingly endless.
Like many of the best works within this sub-genre, I Am Alive is an experience that explains almost nothing at the outset and simply lets its bleak, shattered vision of society gone to hell do the talking. As you scour its deserted streets, collapsed buildings and dark tunnels, the sky as grey and alien as the barren world below, the stories of both individual struggles for survival and the wider battle for humanity are played out before your very eyes, whether in brief individual encounters, messages scrawled on walls, or the stark solemnity of forgotten corpses.
You play Adam, a man returning to his ruined home city nearly a year after a cataclysmic happening referred to only as ‘the event’. Amid the bleak chaos of piled rubble, shattered architecture and thick fog, Adam sets out in search of his wife and daughter, meeting fellow survivors – both friendly and hostile – along the way.
Regardless of its mysterious and moody presentation, the most intriguing thing about I Am Alive is undoubtedly the two novel and intriguing mechanics that drive its core experience. It may appear to be your standard third-person action-adventure in an aesthetic sense, but its ideas are atypical to say the least.
The combat system aims to be an intelligent, considered one. You’ll encounter gangs of thugs or dangerous desperates along the way, but there’s limited ammunition available (indeed, at the very outset of the game you lack bullets completely), and so rushing in guns blazing is rarely an option. Instead, you’ll be expected to manipulate your adversaries: bluffing enemies by threatening them with an empty gun for instance, or playing ‘victim’ to armed opponents until they come close enough to kill with a surprise attack. You can also take out the stronger members in a group and force the remaining men to surrender, or – when possible – simply back away from confrontations altogether. The idea is that each enemy encounter will be slightly different and pose a variety of possible actions, with the decision of how best to handle each situation crucial to success. Using brute force will sometimes get you killed, while quick-thinking or wily cunning can save the day.
The other slightly unusual twist is the way in which you explore the city through climbing. Large portions of the game involve negotiating obstacles, tenements and even towering skyscrapers by scaling walls and shuffling along rooftops, which Adam is impressively adept at. Fittingly for a Ubisoft game, it immediately puts you in mind of the Assassin’s Creed series, due to both the character animations and the audacious, death-defying heights you will scale. Unlike the effortless scrambling of Ezio however, our protagonist here is no superman, and cannot simply clamber up buildings and obstacles with impunity. Instead, a stamina bar comes heavily into play, depleting steadily with every drainpipe you scrabble up or ledge you shimmy along, and if this empties completely you’ll have to hammer a button to try and reach safety in time – or plummet to your death.
As your stamina bar drains, nerve-wracking music builds to a crescendo, and the tension and anxiety of these situations can often be quite powerful – especially as the slightest mis-judgement will result in a semi-permanent depletion to your stamina bar at best, and your untimely demise at worst. Certain moments where you are climbing high above the city, desperately searching for a ledge before your stamina runs out, are genuinely gripping – even breathtaking – in their sense of scale and drama.
Stamina is also reduced by exposure to the toxic dust that covers the lower city streets, again ultimately resulting in death, so finding safe havens or locating objects to counteract these effects is a must. Stamina and health can be replenished with pick-ups, and useful tools – including a grappling-hook and gas mask – come into play to aid your progress.
You’ll need every bit of help you can find too, for the consequences of repeated failure can be significant. When you die, rather than simply allowing you to restart from the last checkpoint an infinite number of times, you have a limited number of ‘retries’ which you must spend in order to do this. Run out of retries, and death results in you being sent back to your last save, which is typically the beginning of the current ‘episode’.
Extra retries can be picked up as collectibles, or gifted a reward for helping survivors along the way, but the system is a potential recipe for frustration. It’s hardly on a par with Dark Souls, but there are certain times where blind experimentation with hostile encounters and complex climbing routes is necessary, and a few unfortunate deaths can lead to an infuriating chunk of lost progress. Though the ‘retry’ system helps heighten the sense of trepidation, and assigns meaningful cost to your errors, it also occasionally punishes the player for mistakes that are not entirely their fault. As soon as you pick up the grappling hook, for example, a single mis-timed jump while you’re first learning to use it can send you tumbling to your death: and if you’re out of retries, you’ll be sent back to the beginning of a particularly challenging stretch.
This issue is exacerbated just over half-way through the 6-7 hour campaign, when Adam is compelled to search a series of locations populated by numerous aggressive and well-armed heavies. Where previously confrontations had been occasional, interesting stand-offs interspersed between the audacious climbing sections, they suddenly become frequent, frantic and deadly. The game regularly begins to throw groups of four or five men at you at a time – usually arming at least one with a gun – and, to complicate matters further, it also introduces armoured opponents who are unafraid of a pointed gun and can only be killed through precision-aiming. Given that precision-aiming proves awkward to use and just one missed bullet usually spells disaster, enemy encounters can become intensely annoying.
They also lose their sense of originality and impact, and it is perhaps this return to a more formulaic feel that is ultimately more problematic. Though the locales in question (including a derelict hotel and a desolate ship reminiscent of The Day After Tomorrow) are impressively atmospheric and moody, the shift to a more conventional third-person action experience is a little jarring, and swapping the open exploration of the ruined city for more conventional run-ins in claustrophobic rooms and corridors is somewhat disappointing.
This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if you could sneak past these confrontations altogether, but stealth plays surprisingly little role here – and that feels like a huge missed-opportunity. Your route through these areas is often relatively linear, and though you can crouch into cover and move around a room for a while without being seen, you almost inevitably have to reveal yourself to progress.
That said, the upside of this is that the sheer intensity of I Am Alive is well-maintained throughout, and both the scarcity of resources and vulnerability of your character add to the sense that you truly are fighting for survival in a hostile world, which is ultimately what this game is all about.
It also boasts mightily impressive production values for a downloadable title, which perhaps isn’t surprising when you consider it was originally intended to be a full retail release. The now defunct Darkworks spent several years on the game before the project was handed to Ubisoft Shanghai for completion, and the results are definitely a lot more refined and successful than such a difficult genesis may suggest.
I Am Alive may be let down by frustrating passages of play, and the cracks that appear in its initially refreshing combat system, but its stark post-apocalyptic world and occasionally breathtaking climbing sections boast real dramatic impact.
FMV Rating: ***
I Am Alive is available to download for 1200 MS points on Xbox Live or $14.99 on the PlayStation Network.