I Am Alive: Review

There are some bloody spectacular moments in I Am Alive, Ubisoft Shanghai’s post-apocalyptic game du jour.

Truly, there are: the opening minutes of the game find you crawling over the bent, twisted remains of a bridge destroyed by The Event, a mysterious happening that left the United States a smoking wreck, and your first dabbles with the game’s combat (or, indeed, non-combat) system feel pretty damn exciting. All these little things, these little subversions of mainstream gaming’s conventions, combined with the fact that this is a PSN/XBLA download-only title, make it feel like a hidden gem of an indie movie, produced by an exciting new director who’s managed to wring tremendous things from a tiny budget.

Dizzy heights.

Dizzy heights.

Unfortunately there are also moments in the game that make it feel like something Ubisoft didn’t feel justified a boxed release and the price point that would go with it; a project that never quite reached its potential and was pushed out while still a little unfinished to avoid it being a complete financial loss.

I Am Alive tries to do an awful lot: it wants to be a gritty tale of survival combined with a heartbreaking story of lost love and a study on the psychology of desperate folks doing desperate things to protect their turf… and it sort of succeeds in all of these things. You play as Adam, a man who has walked from one side of the USA’s still burning corpse to the other in order to find his wife and daughter, and the game chronicles both his arrival back home and the events which unfold over the next few hours.

The game is stacked at the front end: its first minutes see you backing away from a man who is better armed than you, taking out a small mob of men who try to stop you from advancing, and potentially being shot dead by an old woman literally around the corner from your front door (which I could be tempted to describe as a stark lesson in the importance of neighbourly relations and loving your fellow man, if I were a little more prone to such faux-intellectual gamewankery). The game bubbles in the opening chapter and the world it creates is inhospitable, needy and fragile – it’s a place that makes you want to turn every corner with your pistol drawn, despite the fact that doing so is EXACTLY the wrong thing to do.

After an hour or so the game becomes a little more transparent and seems to run out of ideas somewhat: climb the thing, systematically take out the men trying to stop you from climbing up/going through/doing the thing you’ve been asked to do, then turn back round and head back the way you came. In truth all of these things mentioned are quite exciting but the fun unfortunately runs a little bit dry a little too quickly.

Take the combat, for example: the first few times you slice a man’s throat before using your one remaining bullet (the scarcity of ammo in the game is one thing it does extremely well) to take out his friend and then threatening their accomplice into submission with your empty sidearm are great, but after a while these conflicts begin to descend into the uncanny valley and you can practically see the code running in the background. For example, point your pistol at an enemy and he’ll raise his hands in fear, but point a bow at him at the same range and he will continue to progress towards you as if having a pointy stick fired at your face at speed is nothing to be concerned about. Once you realise this the combat simply becomes a case of kiting enemies into a line and quickly switching between tools. Why the game doesn’t allow you to use an enemy as a shield is a mystery, quite frankly, and it’s omissions like this that litter the game throughout.

Regardless Haventon is a pretty place to look at: it might be as grey as the Iron Lady’s soul but the game’s graphical fidelity is high, and the town looks like a fairly accurate representation of most large American settlements.

Until the dust descends, that is.

I Am Alive - From Dust Leftovers

I think we know where Ubisoft put all the leftovers from "From Dust".

A short time into your journey through Haventon (and before you get an opportunity to see the vast majority of the city) a thick cloud of dust descends onto the streets: a thick smog that can strike a man down should he spend too long out in it, and which also helps to mitigate the twin horrors of draw distance and texture quality.

The dust gives the game character: it’s a defining part of the game’s aesthetic and feel (especially when you peer through the gloom and see… something crawling through the remains of the city – another one of those great moments I alluded to earlier). But, unfortunately, it also kills it. Great exploration games allow you to quickly learn to navigate your way around their spaces with easy to remember visual cues and striking imagery (or, at least, offer you an on-screen map) whereas I Am Alive blinds you, then makes you rely on a map that you can’t guarantee the accuracy of until you visit an area and discover for yourself whether it’s really impassable or not.

You can climb to a point above the dust cloud, that much is true (in fact you must do so in order to progress), but when you’re looking for something to climb up with limited time to do so and suffering severely impaired version you can’t help but feel like all the fun’s been sucked out of the game.

The dust is one of the main elements which betrays the game, a result of a tortured development cycle that saw it passed from one company to another. It is, it must be said, a large part of the game, but the suddenness with which it descends onto the city and the way in which the gasmask that you find to help Adam deal with the dust’s harmful effects also muffles his narration – which, firstly, suggests that Adam talks to himself an awful lot and, secondly, means that you are often left with no idea why the game has just taken control from you and zoomed in on something – suggests to me that the dustcloud was added later on during development. Watch the video from the game’s original announcement: the post-Event world shown there is blue-skied and sunny. The only dust seen is kicked up during The Event itself; dust which has settled six days later, never mind the year or so it’s been since Adam last saw Haventon.

There’s one final thing I would like to discuss, and it is this: the game’s half-arsed inclusion of a lives system. You can gain retries by helping people out, or finding them lying around as collectibles, and lose them by dying, but if you have less than the three retries the game deems necessary at the end of each chapter you are given the deficit back.

This is fine on the face of it but helping the people of Haventon rewards you with additional retries, and the chapter points are so regular that it’s never a huge problem to retrace your steps if you do burn through all your retries (which is something that happened to me only once). This means that the survivors are nothing more than a drain on resources: use one of your precious bullets or a bottle of wine (which is actually no great sacrifice as I never found a need for these) to save a woman from an attacker or quench a dying woman’s thirst and what do you receive? Something that the game gives you more frequently than the item you’ve just used. In terms of the game’s meta-economy, it’s like spending a pound to get seventy five pence back. Yes, I’m sure protecting those survivors gives you a better score at the end of the game, but at five or six hours long I’m not sure how many more times I’d want to go through the game’s story to try and improve this rating and, as such, the Adam I played was a stone-cold badass who wasn’t interested in helping anyone – and why should he be? Ammunition is scarce and if I were him I’d rather that bullet save my own life than the life of a stranger. But maybe that’s just me revealing myself as the sociopath I am.

So there you have it. I Am Alive is a reasonable game, it has to be said. Don’t let my overly negative nitpicking put you off buying this title; it’s probably worth the twelve pounds you’ll spend on it, despite its flaws. I certainly don’t regret my time in, above and underneath Haventon. I love how the story starts and ends – it feels like a small part of a far bigger fiction (those who have read Richard Starkings’ Elephantmen or Garth Ennis’s fantastic creation Crossed will likely know what I’m talking about) and it creates an excellent setting for future dips into the post-Event world. I only hope that any further delves into this series are a little more polished. Post-apocalyptica is all the rage at the moment and, as one of the few games that has entered this genre without a single reanimated corpse in sight, I Am Alive should receive credit.