Review: Fresh from a downloadable resurrection, I AM ALIVE makes it through the dust to finally see a release. Should it have been swallowed up by the cracks or is this the survival miracle we’ve all been hoping for? Read on to find out…
I Am Alive is a game about surviving. It’s one of those rare post-apocalyptic stories that doesn’t focus on triumph over adversity, mankind coming together to rebuild, or the way the world turns out. Set in the aftermath of a series of devastating earthquakes, instead it aims to portray mankind at its most primal, and most brutal. It’s not a pleasant game.
It’s a game that wants you to know humanity is struggling, that a single big disaster would be enough to change the world, and could change it tomorrow. It repeatedly hammers home, with expert finesse, the depths people could sink to; it’s a dark and haunting portrayal of the apocalypse complemented by thoughtful game design and some excellent concepts. And it never misses a beat.
Separated from his family when the earthquakes hit, protagonist Adam has made his way back to the fictional city of Haventon in a quest to find his wife and young daughter. It’s on the outskirts of the city that you take control, guiding Adam over a vertigo-inducing broken suspension bridge, getting to grips with the game’s primary mechanic: climbing around unstable surfaces. Broken girders and eroding metal columns form your path, dangling high over a broiling, angry sea. Discarded trucks and buses sway nauseatingly as you grab, struggle, climb. It’s a lonely opener, and a perfect way to set the scene.
The world is sick and barely holding together, and Adam’s abilities reflect this perfectly. He’s no superman; he’ll tire, he’ll run out of stamina, he’ll start to flag. The game presents you with a stamina meter, which gradually depletes as you climb. When depleted, you’re able to struggle a little bit further, the stamina meter cap reducing as Adam pushes his body to the limit. Returning the stamina cap to its original point requires the use of items such as food cans and bottled water, and as all precious commodities should be in a world on the brink of collapse, these are few and far between.
Climbing controls can initially seem a tiny bit fussy, Adam’s movements somewhat twitchy and not always entirely precise. Rather than serving as an annoyance, though, this creates even more tension within the game. He’s no acrobat like Ezio, and Ubisoft Shanghai have played on the limitations of their engine to great advantage. The game knows exactly when it can afford to let you fumble, and presents a challenge without ever being unfair or awkward.
The city of Haventon is wrecked, as one might expect after numerous earthquakes, and a thick, oppressive cloud of dust lingers at ground level. Almost immediately the game teases you with the prospect of exploring, while enforcing severe (and logical) limits that prevent you from doing so. Thus you progress, and eventually your ability to survive improves. You can push a bit further into the dust cloud. You can brave that unknown encampment in the dark. You can cross that gap.
Adam’s struggle for survival becomes a necessity to adapt, and the combination of story requirements and game mechanics creates a remarkably natural experience. As you’re trying to survive, so is he. As you’re finally equipped to explore, so the plot requires you to. It may sound like an obvious thing in the world of videogames, but the focus on player adaptation with the presented tools as opposed to just arbitrary routes opening up is something I Am Alive nails so well, sitting up there with the likes of Demon’s Souls in terms of the game reflecting the way you’re conditioned to play.
Spread throughout Haventon are other survivors. Some are in need of aid. To help these people (of which there are 20) you have to give up precious supplies, creating a great risk/reward system. Helping people gives you a Retry, which stack up throughout the game. Retries, essentially lives that prevent you from having to restart an entire chapter, are perhaps the only aspect of I Am Alive that doesn’t quite fit with the natural feel of the rest of the game, but they’re used here to great effect nonetheless.
It’s a clever way of convincing you you’re on the brink of failure, without ever forcing you into the realms of annoyance or time-wasting. So helping people is rewarding yet risky, and not always possible. Sometimes you’ll be lacking in the necessary item, and be forced to walk away while a guy, whose leg has been crushed by debris, screams and begs you not to go.
I Am Alive is utterly, undeniably horrific. There are few games that hit this level of unsettling, while remaining so completely dignified about it. It’s never tawdry or gratuitous, and the darkness is largely implied through dialogue or suggestion rather than witnessed. It manages to be dreadfully unpleasant and thought-provoking, ‘grown-up’ rather than ‘adult’.
It’s gritty in all the right ways, reminiscent of The Road and Children of Men rather than any of its videogame peers. And, refreshingly, it stays this way throughout. There’s no silly twist, no unexpected mechanics, just an exploration of human unpleasantness and the concept of man versus nature.
Get your filthy hands off my desert
Of course, there’s man versus man as well. Combat here isn’t your typical shooting affair. You have a gun, but much like healing items, ammunition is severely limited to the point that you’ll frequently enter combat with a single bullet and a machete. Rather than taking on enemies directly, I Am Alive’s combat system allows you to take them by surprise and threaten them, tricking them into thinking your gun’s loaded or that you’re willing to give up that last precious bullet.
Each fight is almost like a puzzle in which you’re required to scope out the enemies, work out which ones should be dispatched first, which ones you can intimidate into surrendering, or sometimes deciding that avoiding conflict altogether is the only way forward, and taking the offered chance to back away. Some enemies pose no threat to you as long as you’re prepared to leave them alone, and not everyone pointing a gun at you is an enemy in the first place. Much like Adam, many of the people in I Am Alive just want to live.
The shift from retail game to downloadable title has done no harm. Ubi’s techniques for cutting down the file size – omitting textures from objects covered in dust and a grainy and dirty-looking graphical filter – all add to the atmosphere of destroyed civilisation rather than giving the impression of a budget or smaller title. It can be disarmingly good-looking at times because of this, rather than despite it. It’s visually and aurally minimalistic, haunting in all areas of its design in a way that conveys a perfect bleakness.
I Am Alive is one of those rare games that feels utterly believable. It can be gruelling at times, and it’s a game that focuses on getting its point across above all else, but it does that so incredibly well. It can be hard going, especially at first, but it’s justified and so perfectly apt. It’s truly refreshing to find a game so thoughtfully designed, that works so well as a coherent whole, and one that’s so comfortable with approaching taboo subjects without ever seeming like it’s trying to shock for the sake of it.
It’s not the longest game in the world, coming in at around five hours or so, although the gruelling Survivor difficulty and numerous NPCs to find and help give it a fair bit of replay value. Above all, though, it’s a wonderful, atmospheric example of just what can be done with the medium, and proof that even big publishers are still willing to release brave, intelligent videogames – and that they pay off.
I Am Alive is a dark, terrifying survival horror in the truest sense of the term. At times gruelling but always justified, it’s brave, memorable and utterly superb.
I Am Alive, by Ubisoft Shanghai, is out 07/03/12 for Xbox 360 (reviewed). A PS3 version is due to follow soon.