Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Slowly, Carefully, Back Away: I Am Alive Review

After an incredibly long and troubled development cycle, I Am Alive is finally here. Was it worth the wait?  Rock digs in to see what's what, and surprises himself along the way.

I think it will surprise nobody to hear that I'm a huge fan of games set in the post apocalypse. From Metro 2033 to Fallout Triple, to Enslaved, to the Stalker series, and finally to I Am Alive, I just can't seem to get enough of the destruction of civilization.  I really don't know why, but I just love a setting that shows humanity's struggle against a world destroyed.  So it's only natural that I Am Alive caught my eye early on. With its exaggerated  gritty style,  intense platforming, and new take on combat, I Am Alive offered a very unique experience that I couldn't pass up.

The dust conveniently (and convincingly) hides a poor draw distance

Taking place one year after the unexplained "Event", I Am Alive follows an unnamed man as he returns to his home city of Haventon, on a mission to find his wife and daughter.  That's about all the explanation you're given, and that's ok; the simplicity of the story works well, further allowing you to soak in the atmosphere that's been created here.  And oh golly is there atmosphere!  The city is just an absolute mess, almost totally ravaged by whatever cataclysm came through.  Everywhere you look, your eyes will be filled with fallen-down skyscrapers, abandoned husks of cars, and garbage and other debris for as far as the eye can see. Truly, one of the greatest strengths of I Am Alive is the way in which this bleak, harrowing world is displayed, with its washed out colors  coated in grit and grime, toxic dust and haze. To my eyes, this is the most realistic and compelling depiction of what the world would look like should calamity sweep through it. I'm not really much of a graphics whore, but it should at least be mentioned that the game looks a bit crap, especially if you get a good look at the main character's face.  Most of the graphical shabbiness is well hidden by the fact that the city is, well, shabby, so I suppose that works well.  The lighting is phenomenal, though, especially in outdoor areas where you can see sun beams trying to pierce through the fog.  Very nice.

The destroyed city is a debris-choked wonder

Much of the game is made up of exploring the ruined city, occasionally finding useful items like stamina-restoring beverages or food. Many times, you're faced with some manner of platforming section, and it's here that the game creates some truly effective tension.  Very reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus, the main character has limited stamina that's constantly consumed while climbing. This leads to some nail biting moments, with you desperately looking for a ledge or other spot to rest on.  The tension is ratcheted up further by the fact that as your stamina drains further, some great pulse-pounding music kicks in and really brings the fear of falling to the forefront. My only real gripe here is that the climbing can occasionally be a bit clumsy, with the character often overshooting his climbing objective, the next of which is not always made immediately clear, leading to more than a few frustrating deaths because you simply didn't know where to go next.

The man's climbing abilities are pretty impressive, until you need him to be precise...

Speaking of clunky mechanics, let's talk about the combat, shall we?  In a world where  every last resource is precious, you'll have occasional run-ins with people who want what you've got, and will kill to get it.  Combat mostly revolves around intimidation, where you aim your pistol at foes and order them to back away.  They'll usually comply, until they decide you won't shoot and try to rush you.  And this is where things break down, because you've got two choices at this point- you can shoot, using one of your precious few bullets, or you can let the baddies get close, enabling a quick time event wherein you stab them with your machete.  And this sucks for one main reason- that if you're dealing with more than one enemy, there's no way you're going to be able to finish the kill animation on one guy before his buddy runs up and hits you.  You see, it seems that in the post apocalypse, our hero forgot how to just swing a damn machete at fools, and can only use the weapon in the aforementioned too long QTE.  This leads to the most controller-spikingly frustrating portions of the game, especially later on, when you'll encounter larger numbers of enemies, some with armor or guns of their own. There are occasionally pits or fires that you can kick dudes into, but it's a trick that doesn't always work and only helps the situation in a small way. I can accept when I'm bad at a game like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden because I know that the failing is on my part, that the mechanics are totally sound and that I'm just not good enough.  But when I'm constantly dying because of a game's clunky, fucked up mechanics, well that's just a whole other level of infuriating.

Not pictured: the countless retries you'll use on almost every encounter

I Am Alive is such an alluring monster to me. It provides an incredible atmosphere with a convincing, desolate world that immediately reminds me of The Road, one of my favorite novels/movies. I really wanted to love this game. Sadly, the world could be a lot more fun to explore and the combat system is a nightmare.  Oh and the end is a huge "What the fuck?" that totally fails to make the journey worth it. A lot of this is probably due to the fact that I Am Alive has been in development since 2008, with dev duties switching from Darkworks to Ubisoft Shanghai in 2010, with most of the work up to that point being scrapped entirely.  It certainly seems as though the game suffered from a too-long, confused development cycle that ends with a game that comes off feeling irredeemably clumsy and broken. 

Verdict: 2/5


Why does Rock love the post apocalypse so?



  1. Take that, I Am Alive! Our lowest scoring game yet. Well, Duke Nukem Forever didn't have a score. So I guess that's a formality.

    1. I might be willing to bet money another certain game that came out recently will score similarly....but I'm not gonna name names yet...