Sunday, April 8, 2012

REVIEW - I Am Alive.

Oh Jesus.  Oh God, I killed that old woman.  She was just defending her home, but she pointed a gun at me!  What was I supposed to do?  People point guns at you, and then they shoot you with them - what did she think was going to happen?

Oh God I killed her.  Oh fuck.  

Wasted a bullet.  

"Survival horror" isn't a term we hear much, these days.  Born of old-school point-and-click adventure games, the genre saw its heyday on the PS2, where less-than-perfect tech could be effectively glossed over by way of artistry, and omnipresent fog legitimized a crappy draw distance.

I Am Alive brings to mind a few seminal works.  Silent Hill is the obvious frontrunner, thanks to the constant dust haze the game employs, while combat enjoys a bit of Far Cry 2's brutal connection to your hardware, and navigation borrows heavily from Uncharted. Yes, there is action - but I Am Alive is assuredly a survival game with numerous tips of the hat to the horror of its heritage.

Despite its (well below-average) production values and oppressive tone, this is the liveliest, most interesting addition to survival horror in years.  Its insight and contribution to the genre is greater than Siren's brilliant, failed curveball almost nine years ago.  

Before we move on, let us consider the survival horror genre, and why it barely exists on the current gen.  

Classically, these games are excruciating to play when compared to almost any other genre.  Your player character often handles like a tank, and most came to accept that a real sense of danger when dealing with enemies was a reasonable tradeoff for loose, unresponsive combat mechanics.

The only reason these games succeeded in the first place is that they offered up standard-setting atmosphere,  and classic point-and-click adventures were still fresh enough in the collective consciousness to make their tropes an acceptable foundation for a game.

When compared to anything else we could be playing these days, there's often little reason to convince ourselves a survival horror title is worth our time.

So what does I Am Alive bring to the table?  First of all, it rejects the classic video game definition of 'horror,' and offers a more interesting variation.

There are no creepy-crawlies, here.  There is no supernatural angle.  The game takes place in a world that we can instantly relate to, and insert ourselves into.  One year ago, "the event" wiped out most of North America's population, and seems to have been caused by a massive geologic catastrophe.

Dust and ash blankets a modern cityscape, everything is blurred and hazy, and aftershocks occasionally set skyscrapers all a-tremble.  Electricity is rare and the best food you'll find comes in a can.

Post-apocalyptic scenarios are all-too-common, these days.  From The Hunger Games to The Road to Fallout 3, a sense of foreboding about our collective future has set in - sweeping away the idealized future of Star Trek and its ilk.

I Am Alive leverages this sense of familiarity we already have with the horrors of day-to-day life after the end of days, and so offers up a world and atmosphere that is instantly relateable to the player, while still affecting and involving.

As you stroll through the haze of choking dust, the music is... beautiful.  There's something peaceful about it... but now the music changes... oh God.

Someone's out there in the dust.  Get ready.

Combat is lightning fast, just tricky enough to maintain a sense of trembling urgency, and it has nothing to do with button-mashing or combo memorization, thanks to its intimidation mechanics.  It's about sizing up a room and dealing with it in the blink of an eye, because - if you don't react instantly, or fail to keep your cool - you're dead.

Three enemies.  Two with guns.  One with a blade.

One approaches you.  Your hands are raised.  "I don't want any trouble," you insist - but he gets too close.  You lash out, cutting his throat.  Before the other pistol-wielding savage knows what's up, you've already notched an arrow and loosed it through his sternum.  The third sees the shape of things, and drops to his knees as you level a 9mm pistol at him.  "You don't have to do this, man," he tells you.

Crack him in the back of the head.  Breathe easy.  If any of that had gone wrong - even for a second - you'd be bleeding, needing to use up one of your ultra-rare first aid kits.  But it's okay.  They're dead - and you didn't even waste a round for your pistol.

"Please... please don't let me die like this," blubbers one as you retrieve your arrow from his chest, and pick up the single precious bullet he was threatening you with.  Kneel down.  Pull out your machete.  Finish the job.

It's grim, brutal, fast-paced and strategic.  When was the last time you heard that about a survival horror game?

Some have suggested that the lines drawn between the three enemy types - and the fact that you have to dispatch around 100 goons throughout the campaign - damage the story the game is telling.  As the enemies in this game often feel much realer than you're used to, I feel the theme of surviving - potentially at the cost of one's humanity - is well-served.

There's just something... moving about the way they cling to life after you deliver a mortal wound, and how their attitude will turn on a dime, from being ready to cut your throat to begging for their life.  It is kind of disappointing that they'll say "okay man, I give up" only to rush you if you lower your pistol - but if that were me, I'd rush the the guy who lowered his pistol, too.

There are three basic NPC types.  The aforementioned thugs looking to kill you for the precious fruit cocktail you found, unmolested, on the fifteenth floor of a nearby skyscraper, good people protecting their turf (and threatening you with machetes) and good people in need of assistance.

I Am Alive uses its characters to both redefine your expectations of what combat can be in a survival horror game, and provide the impetus for the genre's classic fetch quests.

There's an old, dying man, whose last wish is to smoke a cigarette.  You'll have to find some for him, if you want to cash those smokes in for a (highly valuable) retry.  A lady cradles her son's head on a bench, begging for a first aid kit.  An old woman on a stoop oh shit she's got a gun!



Elsewhere, I Am Alive does a wonderful job of exploiting the greatest strength of its genre - the atmosphere - and allowing it to inform design.

"Atmosphere" is just a handy word for the game world, and the feelings it inspires.  Navigation in survival horror has always been more about patience than pleasure, as you guide your ungainly ward with fumbly, unresponsive controls through haunting scenery.

I Am Alive, however, steps up, and proclaims that that one of the best ways to explore a virtual world - to further involve you in it - is through the time-honored mechanics of the platformer.  Genius!

It borrows liberally from Assassin's Creed and Uncharted's simplified toolbox - games in which platforming is generally quite rote, and easy-going - and turns it on its head via the addition of a stamina meter.

I cannot overstate the impact this has on the proceedings.

You've seen Ezio Auditore or Nathan Drake perform a climbing leap a million times - propelling themselves up two meters in feats of herculean strength - and it's easy to forget that that is phenomenally hard to do.  I Am Alive forces you to remember that.

As in Shadow of the Colossus, every similar leap instantly consumes a chunk of your stamina meter, and ever second spent climbing slowly drains it.  As your stamina falls, eerie violins fade in.

You might fall to your death, the game whispers.

You keep climbing.  To go down is suicide.  You look up, gauging your rout, and the violins rise in intensity.

Can't make it. Won't make it.  You're gonna' die, I Am Alive insists.

It's too far.  You can't see the next safe place to rest.  Does this fucking building ever end?

The violins reach a fever pitch - a trembling, insane sound straight out of The X-Files.  You're about to die.

Wham.  You fire a piton - a precious, rare piton - into the wall

You hang from it, and catch your breath.  The violins disappear, your stamina recharges, and you gaze up the wall.  You're planning your rout - 'cause two seconds lost here or an extraneous climbing leap there, and you're gonna' die.

It turns platforming into a survival horror experience.  Yum!

There is a very great deal to love here, and where it fumbles it is either in keeping with its genre or the result of its unfortunate gestation period.  Graphics are atrocious.  Voice work and music is good.  Gameplay is original and interesting - and gameplay that addresses the many unfortunate tropes the survival horror genre is heir to is a delicious thing.

Its choking haze of dust instantly recalls the iconic fog of Silent Hill, the platforming riffs horror with Uncharted's mechanics, the combat is incredibly original - and this, combined with the moving desperation of its NPCs, the voice work, the weighty animation..?

What can I say?  There's nothing else like this.

Ignoring the failings of its unfortunately one-note engine (it does dust haze really well - and nothing else), I Am Alive is the most interesting thing to happen to survival horror in almost a decade. 

  • the best combat I've ever seen in a survival horror game - vicious and tactical, always high-risk, never allowing you to feel overpowered
  • many interesting and affecting story moment
  • there's something so awful and human in the way a shot enemy will take a few dazed steps before collapsing, or beg for their life
  • takes Uncharted's simple platforming and turns it into a survival experience (!)
  • Retains some of the more comfortable tropes of the survival horror genre - little fetch quests for inane objects - but here it allows the game to explore ancillary characters, and humanity's desperate bid for survival.  Nice. 
  • I love how the game takes place almost entirely in about three square blocks - you zig-zag back and forth, clambering through ruins, meeting people along the way, and perhaps remembering to help them later.
  • a great value for the money
  • I can't remember the last time a survival game really felt like such a desperate, grim bid for survival
  • makes Amy look even more awful in comparison
  • Mai
  • descending into the toxic dust at street level is always a tense, desperate experience
  • survival horror that doesn't rely on a supernatural element
  • great use of music
  • the most interesting thing to happen to survival horror on consoles since Siren

  • astoundingly bad graphics
  • some of the animations feel a bit off - the running jump in particular
  • using up retries is always a short load, but reloading a whole chapter takes a while
  • neither the combat nor the platforming are as capable or comfortable as they are in dedicated action games

The most interesting thing to happen to survival horror on consoles since Siren.


  1. You see, while most critics all but dismissed this little gem off of what you also took note of (it's graphics and shoe string budget)

    you choose to see the best in what it brought as a new gaming experience.

    I had a really good feeling about this game and I'm glad someone else did too.

    Now about The Raid, glad to see we can add your voice to it's choir of praises.

  2. good review, i really enjoyed this game! well worth $15.