I Am Alive is a harrowing game. Everything from the stylised presentation and foreboding locales through to the experimental game mechanics have been designed with a single purpose in mind – to keep the gamer on edge with a strong sense of dread.
This becomes especially apparent as our displaced hero, Adam, journeys through the darkest reaches of Haventon, a city which has been rocked by a cataclysmic event and since left its citizens in a fight to survive. As intriguing as this premise may be, I Am Alive is often a harrowing experience for all the wrong reasons.
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Platform: Xbox LIVE Arcade (Reviewed), PlayStation Network
Genre: Survival Horror
Release: Xbox LIVE Arcade: (INT) March 7th 2012 / PlayStation Network: (EU) April 4th 2012, (NA) April 3rd 2012
Set one year after The Event, the game spins a tale which never truly fills in the blanks. The audience is given just enough information to understand what’s going on thanks to the drip-fed backstory, yet always kept in the dark regarding finer detail. This shouldn’t disappoint much as the story is still engaging thanks to the tight dialogue and suitably moody voice work; Adam sounds weary yet determined, and the supporting characters sound like they’re in no better shape themselves. The hero’s personal drive to reunite with his wife and child is also a relatable one, providing the game with a sense of realism that sets it apart from its world-saving contemporaries. In I Am Alive, you play a simple man looking to make his way through a shattered world.
With no law comes disorder, and so the most depraved aspects of human behaviour are revealed. Adam will be facing machete-wielding thugs from the outset, with the threat growing steadily more powerful and greater in number, eventually standing against multiple gun-toting foes and gangs complete with armoured leaders. In a world so devastated it’s a challenge to find supplies however, so where most games will have you emptying rounds into anyone with a pulse and a bad attitude, I Am Alive requires deft item management and careful consideration as to when and where to pull the trigger.
I Am Alive is unique in the combat department as it’s not afraid to put you at a clear disadvantage and expect you to achieve success on your own, even when you’re already running frighteningly low on items. Developers should be encouraged when it comes to injecting a game with a fresh playstyle, but the system featured in I Am Alive just doesn’t always work as it should. More often than not you’ll be confronted by up to five enemies whilst holding two bullets and a bow with a single arrow. How you tackle these tense standoffs is up to you, but it’s usually a case of getting lucky and fumbling your way to victory rather than succeeding through true decision making.
The same can be said of the climbing, which will no doubt evoke comparisons to the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted. Adam has the same ability as Nathan Drake but with one major alteration – his limited stamina bar means he won’t be able to hold on for long. This makes sense from a development perspective when aiming for realism, but Ubisoft Shanghai goes too far by actually reducing the energy available after what’s referred to as an ‘extreme effort’, where the player must hammer the right trigger in a feverish attempt to reach a resting point. Only certain supplies are capable of replenishing this bar, and as life and stamina remain unaltered between stages even on the default setting, the game comes across as miserly for the sake of it as opposed to genuinely challenging. There’s no on-screen mini-map either, so you’ll have to consult the main map should you get turned around or when the game offers little in the way of direction.
Climbing controls aren’t always as responsive as they should be, but it’s still enjoyable enough to scale buildings and slide down inclines for a speedy descent. Finding the correct path can be a chore though, and this is where the game causes its greatest headaches: I Am Alive offers limited retries that can either be discovered with some effort or awarded when a troubled citizen is saved and a health item is sacrificed. Where most titles reward persistence and personal improvement, Ubisoft Shanghai has decided to punish players for failing with a total loss of retries losing you a solid chunk of play time. Accessibility is not a selling point here despite the absorbing story, which will no doubt limit the game’s success in the long run.
Although it won’t be to everyone’s tastes, the drab shades of grey and atmospheric grain that permeate the world suit the proceedings to great effect. As Haventon suffers frequent aftershocks and major dust storms (the latter of which saps your stamina the longer you remain on the ground), there is at least a context for why the game looks the way it does – whether this is just an excuse for shoddy draw distances rather than an actual stylistic choice is up for debate. The lighting effects are at least impressive, coating the city with a glow by day and producing a downright unnerving atmosphere at night. By reimagining a project that was looking set to falter at retail, Ubisoft Shanghai has crafted a solid looking downloadable title, but one that won’t be making anyone’s ‘best graphics’ lists later in the year.
Only the most hardcore and forgiving of gamers need apply where I Am Alive is concerned. It may challenge some of the conventions that we’ve become accustomed to in recent years, but this doesn’t lift it above the heavy-hitting competition in any way. The stamina bar is a good idea marred by the need to increase it manually, while the combat – as tense and nerve-racking as it often is – becomes more problematic than it ought to be, and these issues are compounded by the inclusion of a pointless retry system. It may suit the game thematically in forcing the player to make hard choices regarding civilian assistance, but such a thing should never come at the cost of enjoyment. There are things to love and things to hate, and so I Am Alive stands as a mixed bag featuring good story-telling, interesting ideas and missed potential. If you do decide to give this one a shot, you’re at least going to remember it.
6.5 – Above Average. Fun but it is let down by some questionable design choices. While it has its own identity, it doesn’t go beyond its own limits.