The post-apocalypse. Any number of games have used this setting over years. Some – such as the original Fallout- used it to paint a fantastical reminder that perhaps only the slimmest of divides separate men from wild beasts. Others – like Fallout’s sequels, Enslaved, and Dead Rising – have put a more humorous spin on the idea. Few games deal with the harsh reality of what could happen if society really did collapse. Namely that things would become difficult fast and people would probably get nasty. I Am Alive attempts to paint this more realistic picture and I think that it has mostly succeeded.
I Am Alive is the end product of a protracted development cycle that has seen the game change developers and become a download title rather than a full-blown retail disc. It casts the player as a man with no name who has finally made it back to his home town of Haverton almost exactly one year after a disaster known only as “the event.” From there he will engage in combat reminiscent of survival horror games of the past and climbing action that reminds one of Uncharted, just with a lot more pressure.
Combat in I Am Alive is closer to a puzzle than a straight action sequence. The enemy groups will generally come in groups of four or five and will always approach the player slowly. One man will come up to your character and threaten him – this is your opportunity to cut his throat out with your machete. From then you should shoot the enemy at the back with the gun, if you have time you dash to his body to pick up his precious ammo and then point it at the remaining goons. This should force them to stand down – you then have the choice to kill them or knock them out.
This sequence obviously gets mixed up as the game progresses, probably to a fault. The ridiculous riot gear enemies seem quite out of place in a world that seems to be striving for realism. Later on you get a silent bow and arrow that helps alleviate the issue of enemies coming in larger crowds. If you mess up be prepared to die or at the very least waste precious resources getting yourself back up to a decent level of health.
These resources can be found on your travels but will frequently crop up off the beaten track in the semi-open world of Haverton. Your character will be given a set objective but can opt to take to paths not explicitly related to his goal in order to explore. This is usually achieved by climbing and other acts of acrobatics which cost “stamina.” This gauge limit’s the amount of time your character can spend doing a strenuous activity and as it empties discordant strings pick up in the background and gain in intensity before you are forced to pump the right trigger in order to expend your maximum stamina. If this happens more resources go down the hatch. You do have access to the “piton” tool that allows you to take a rest on your climbs but they are extremely rare. The game’s longer climbs can really be nerve racking and I honestly felt real panic at a couple of points. The controls can be a bit over-precise but I was generally able to guide my character to where I wanted him to go. All of these feelings are ratcheted up in the game’s hardcore mode which makes precious life-preserving materials even harder to find.
Every action in I Am Alive requires deliberate interaction with the controls. For instance instead of simply pressing “up” on the d-pad if you are on a ledge you have to press “A” and up. Similarly to dash you need to pump the right-trigger. Some will hate it and decry it as old-fashioned but I think it adds to the feeling that your character is something approaching a regular human being. This is extenuated by the scarcity of resources, the fact that you will rarely have more than 2 bullets in your gun, and just how fragile you are.
If death occurs you will be thrown back to a checkpoint which will expend one of your “retry” tokens. If you manage to lose all of these tokens then you will be thrown back to the start of the last chapter. It is an unashamedly old-fashioned mechanic but it does create a reason for you not to die and this increases that atmosphere of tension and dread once again. It also encourages the player to take on dangerous missions to help stranded survivors. These missions definitely take you off the beaten track and into harms way but will reward you with a retry and a short snippet of story upon completion.
Not doing these missions has consequences and they are often really bad. I had to turn down a request a random survivor had for medicine because – frankly – I needed it for myself. I passed by the spot later with more than enough and decided to stop by and help. The woman had hung herself. I tried to help everyone I could after that. It was a jarring and really effective moment that I didn’t have to experience and takes me to my main gripe with the game.
The actual story of your nameless character coming back to Haverton and attempting to find his family is fine. It initially looks as if it will match up with the grim tone of the game but becomes pretty clear that the writer lost his nerve in favour of writing something a bit more happy. Considering how dark some moments in the periphery of the game can be, most of the main story feels extremely maudlin and unearned. I’m not saying it had to be incredibly grim but perhaps something a little less upbeat than everything working out in a super unlikely way over and over again would have been nice. It does deseve credit for the grim realities it does portray and it never comes across as a game that is trying to offend – rather it is just presenting some nasty realities of what can happen when people are pushed to the limit.
The game’s graphics also have their good and bad points. Most of the world is hidden beneath a story relevant dust cloud but when it isn’t present everything looks really grimy and low-quality. The backgrounds when you are above the level of the fog also look stunning but the action in the foreground looks even more rough contrasted against them. The animation is great but the character models look strange so it still feels as if something is off. The voice-acting is also poor, something that seems to be a common affliction in Ubisoft games.
I Am Alive is an interesting experiment for sure. I think that Ubisoft Shanghai have been successful but this game is very definitely not for everyone. The controls do feel stiff and deliberate which is going to turn many off, even if it is intentional. As will the harsher than normal death penalties. I found the game to be an interesting and enjoyable four hour journey through the hell of a believable post-apocalypse. At it’s reduced downloadable price it is a nice way to experience a game that does something different but that may not be for you.
I Am Alive will be available on the Xbox Live Marketplace for 1,200 points as part of the House Party Promotion from the seventh of March. A release for the PS3 is planned later.