Yes folks, I Am Alive is indeed alive. Originally announced back in 2008 as a new IP being led by the then uber-popular Jade Raymond, I Am Alive soon fell off the map, experiencing delay after delay, and soon was relegated to vapor-ware status; in spite of Ubisoft’s CEO Yves Guillemot coming out saying that the project was not dead, and was in the process of being completely re-engineered. That was not going to last though, as a trailer came out of no where last September that not only showed I Am Alive was still among the living, but was coming very soon, with the promise of a Winter launch. Another tidbit that came from the video? It was no longer a retail product, instead heading our way via Xbox LIVE Arcade and the Sony Entertainment Network (then known as PSN).
I Am Alive opens up with you attempting to cross a broken down bridge. Something has happened. We don’t know what it is exactly, but it was something apocalyptic, rendering the world as we know it a thing of the past. You are one of the survivors. The world in front of you is desolate, broken, and foreboding. Dilapidated cars and overgrown weeds litter the roadway. Crumbling structures are in various forms of disarray, with some more intact than others, and those still standing loom overhead in spooky, macabre poses. The only sound is the soft breeze and your own footsteps. It truly is an emotionally exhausting, depressing and bleak atmosphere to venture though.
"Given its turbulent development, I expected it to come in dead on arrival. Instead, I found it to be a solid survival game that, above anything else, kept my palms sweaty and my muscles tense."
Emotional. That is by far the key to I Am Alive. The environments, the landscape, the struggle to just stay alive, all play on our emotions like a harp from Hell (thank you Mr Cobblepot). Every move you make will take a toll on you. Looking around the post-apocalyptic world where the extreme lack of life drives the point home just how alone you really are. Even your movements will pull a response out from you. As an ordinary man, you have no super powers, no military training, no excuses what so ever to be able to handle anything more than the most mundane of tasks, and that is reflected in the gameplay. Just as in real life, climbing and running drains stamina. Drop your reserves too far and your overall capacity begins to plummet at an alarming rate. Once it’s gone, so are you. The tension that builds within as your character begins to run out of stamina while scaling the iron girders of what remains of the bridge leading into the city is palpable. Players will feel the stress with sweaty hands and an elevated heartbeat as that stamina meter ticks ever so closely to its end.
While it may not seem like it at first, the survivor isn’t actually alone. There are pockets of other citizens, although as you can imagine, with the destruction of the world, society has broken down completely. For every non-combative individual there are three more that want to kill you and loot your corpse. Survival does funny things to people, and the term every man for himself has never quite hit home as strongly as it does here. The goal is to meet up with your wife and child. You were on the other side of the country at the the time of the event, and it has taken roughly a year to make your way back here. As you navigate your way through the rubble en route to your apartment, you will come across other survivors. Some need help. Some are aggressive, but are just protecting their own, guarding their squatting grounds. As long as you stay away from them, they’ll leave you alone. Others won’t be quite so passive.
Adding another layer to the struggling survivor theme, the combat is a far cry from the typical game. Unlimited bullets? Not here. Fancy hand-to-hand combat? Nope. Weapons-based dances of death? Uh-uh. Everything here is much more subtle. Initially you aren’t armed at all. Soon a melee weapon is discovered, along with an empty pistol. As a foe approaches, several different scenarios may play out. If he is alone, you could just threaten him with the pistol, and back him near a cliff where you can kick him off the side (lots of earthquakes have struck the area following the event, so there are plenty of deep fissures and crevasses in the area). Or, you could simply hold your hands up and let him approach, then surprise him with your machete for an instant kill. Shooting the guy is an option, provided you have bullets, but more often than not, you will only have one on hand. If faced with a group of enemies, the dynamic changes a bit. The same methods apply, but should one or more of them be armed with a gun, tactical thinking becomes paramount. Which one you take out with which means of attack and in what order will spell certain death if you choose poorly.
As I noted, there are friendlies to be found as well, and often times they will need help. Should you have something they need, such as a bottle of water, a can of food, or a bottle of painkillers, you can help them out, though it will be at your own risk. Replenishment items such as those are difficult to come by, and giving one away to help someone out, while may feel morally right, could leave you in a very bad spot later in the game.
I Am Alive isn’t perfect though. Many times a wrong move resulted in death, forcing me to keep replaying until I nailed what needed to be done down to the letter. That was made even more strenuous with the continue system. It’s limited, though thankfully acquiring additional continues isn’t terribly difficult (they are awarded for many things, notably assisting survivors). And if I happen to mismanage my supplies even just a little bit - either by donating to the less fortunate or using too much, too early - the hardships later on can be incredibly frustrating. Additionally, finding your way around the environment can be an unnecessary challenge. The protagonist loves to draw all over his map, yet for some reason, he has little need to anoint it with survivor locations and such. Instead you have to hope you remember where they were, made even more difficult by the obscene dust that plagues the lower sections of the city. I completely understand where the developer was going with it, but the dust proved to be more irritating nuisance than an effective obstacle for our hero to traverse through.
Even without playing the game, one look at it would be enough to remind you that this is certainly not Kansas any more. Everything is presented in a muted and gritty style that echos the lonely existence of our protagonist. The ghostly ambiance is heavily peppered with the rubble of a once vibrant civilization not unlike our own, and you can’t help but envision what it used to be like before the unidentified event dropped its catastrophic might upon it. While nothing here could necessarily qualify as gory, the isolation alone brings the creepy level up to the same as that found in most survival horror titles. The haunting audio makes a fitting partner to the stark emotions the developers are trying to tap in to. The voice work is spot on, easily bringing the desperation that seeps out of everyone in this world like blood through an open wound.
I was a little surprised with how much I enjoyed I Am Alive. Given its turbulent development, I expected it to come in dead on arrival. Instead, I found it to be a solid survival game that, above anything else, kept my palms sweaty and my muscles tense. It won’t bring the “scares”, at least not in the typical sense (like Dead Space, Silent Hill, et all). The mechanics aren’t incredibly robust, but tweaked enough to give the game an interesting spin. Leaning on stamina instead of health provided a foundation that kept me on pins and needles. And while it isn’t lacking in frustrating design choices, the tactical combat and general tension overshadowed it. I Am Alive is worth the cost of admission, and stands as an example that even with a troubled development, a good game can come from the ashes with the proper support behind it.
Release date : 2012-03-07
Publisher : Ubisoft
Developer : Ubisoft Shanghai
Gameplay : Survival Horror
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