Genre: Survival Horror
Release Date: April 04, 2012
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Rating: M for Mature (Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language)
Platform: Playstation 3, XBox 360
Guillaume Gouraud, founder of Darkworks, has hailed Ubisoft Shanghai’s I Am Alive as a return to a “more realistic approach to survival”. Originally scheduled for 2008, many awaited this title with bated breaths, being promised a gritty and serious post-apocalyptic survival game that forced its players to think through their actions. For the most part, I Am Alive gives exactly this experience. Just like its desaturated, depressed world, I Am Alive succeeds in delivering its message through its narrative; a meditation on a bleak post-society apocalyptic world in moral decay. However, experienced and well-versed gamers will have a feeling of déjà vu; much of the game’s mechanics are extremely reminiscent of other, much more well known games. At its best, I Am Alive breathes new life into tired game concepts. At its worst, the game becomes repetitive and detracts from its overall intended experience.
The game begins with our protagonist Adam entering the town of Haventon, ravaged into desolate ruins by something the game only refers to as “The Event.” As you lead him through his search for his wife and daughter, Adam comes across another little girl, Mei, and from that point on the game’s storyline follows the survivors’ journey through a hopeless world. If there is one criticism that is perfectly valid about this game, it is the charge that the game seems like an amalgam of popular titles thrown into one product. The story invites players to draw parallels with the bare bones plot of Fallout 3, though, I Am Alive‘s Haventon has none of the quirky charm of Fallout 3‘s Washington D.C. What I Am Alive lacks in dry sarcastic wit it makes up for in the little flourishes that happen in interactions between the player and various NPCs, both friendly and combative.
I Am Alive treats players with dignity for the decisions they make. Throughout the game there are various survivors that need your help. In exchange for goods, the game rewards players with extra retries. Death is all too common in the game, and on the Normal difficulty setting, players only get 3 retries before they must restart at a preset waypoint. At each waypoint, the game replenishes your three retries, but the hardest setting does not replenish these retries at any point. Because of this, the extra retries gained through saving people become an invaluable resource. The game also tabulates the victims rescued towards a leaderboard ranking after you complete your game, clearly indicating an expectation to save these poor, wayward souls. In helping these characters, though, you deprive yourself of healing items you desperately need. This adds another degree of difficulty to an already unforgiving game. Players will find themselves in situations where they are hanging on one point of life, and must judge whether or not giving up a health pack is worth the extra retry. This judgment call is where I Am Alive shines in its frank portrayal of morality in a post-apocalyptic world, where games such as Fallout 3 simply fall short.
For all of Fallout 3‘s fanfare of freedom of choice, many decisions in that game came down to taking the path of an altruistic Jesus Christ, or a sociopathic Ted Bundy. Even then, Fallout 3 calls you out for making the “terrible” decision. In I Am Alive, The game expects you to play hero to these characters, but also understands that you cannot help everyone. There are real consequences within the game for helping these characters, a nice touch that is simply absent in a multitude of games. Choosing to ignore these characters’ helpless pleas results in no tangible detriment, but somehow their cries resonate strongly when you’re given the complete freedom to walk away. During my playthrough, I met a survivor trapped underneath some rubble. I did not have the supplies to help him, so I walked away. He began cursing me, asking how I could leave him to die. He was right; I couldn’t leave him like that, but there was literally nothing I could do. Shook up by that one single event, I began to save an extra item for when I came across another survivor. Without explicitly telling the me how terrible of a person I was, I Am Alive confronted me with my decision without ever telling if it was the morally correct one (not to mention completely changing the way I played the game). These kinds of situations are found all throughout the game. These subtle, emotional flourishes keep the game afloat, and does so in a way that is more effective than Fallout 3‘s ham-handed portrayal of morality.
The second mechanic that players will immediately identify is the climbing sections. More players will compare I Am Alive to the Uncharted series than Fallout 3. If anything, it will be because I Am Alive plays almost exactly like Uncharted; in fact, the climbing sequences are a straight carbon copy of Uncharted. The platforming mechanics are simple and intuitive; players move Adam towards the direction they want to climb or jump with no real need for timing or attention to moving patterns. There is a difference between the two games that is not immediately clear, one that actually comes out in favor of I Am Alive. The Stamina meter turns the climbing sequences, which were monotonous (yet visually attractive in its lush scenery) in Uncharted, into tense sequences where players must manage their stamina meters with extreme precision. Players have various items that allow them to replenish their stamina meters during climbing sequences, but poor management and planning will deplete these resources quickly. What was in Uncharted an attractive way to get from point A to point B becomes a ridiculous struggle with death in I Am Alive. Every platform sequence has the potential for death if players do not plan accordingly. One single mistake will leave players with one less retry, a resource worth its weight in gold in the game. Simply put, I Am Alive surpasses Uncharted in its platforming mechanics, all with the simple addition of a Stamina bar.
If there is one place where the game does fail, it is how it deals with combat and combative player characters. There are no boss characters in the game, just three different types of enemies (one which only shows up once). Enemies are also governed by an AI that determines how aggressive they are. Pointing a gun at some enemies will force them to stop in their tracks, even if the gun isn’t loaded. Other well armored enemies will refuse to stop, forcing the player to fire. However, the combat essentially devolves into a game of resource management. The game no longer becomes a situation where you fight for your life, but makes you decide the best way to kill your opponents without ever firing a bullet. Stealth is rarely an option (which the tutorial lays out as the best option) as most of the time enemies get the drop on you. Later in the game Adam gains a shotgun, but even then it is no better than your regular pistol, not to mention that shotgun ammunition is extremely scarce (I didn’t find one single shotgun shell). This would be okay if it had some sort of notable functionality over the pistol, but most of the time the pistol simply made much more sense.
The combat seemed very reminiscent of the Resident Evil remake for the Gamecube. In both games, you must decide if engaging enemies with your guns is really a good idea, if it would be more economical to try to run. However, the depth of decision-making involved in the Resident Evil remake during combat simply dwarfs the shallow and counter-intuitive combat of I Am Alive. The Resident Evil remake punished players who improperly engaged zombies with Crimson Heads. If a player did not decapitate a zombie during combat or burn the corpse after, the zombie would later turn into a faster, more powerful monstrosity. Since players had to traverse through areas multiple times, this caused a real problem. Even though the game gave you access to better weapons, the ammunition for these guns were even more scarce than your normal weapons. Bosses almost always depleted your special weapons. Due to this, the Resident Evil remake was a harrowing game experience, forcing players to decide whether or not using a gun would be beneficial in the long run. None of this depth is found within the combat sequences of I Am Alive. What should have been a rich and rewarding experience every time Adam comes across a band of marauders becomes a boring, predictable, and unvaried chore. It is this point that prevents I Am Alive from being a truly great video game experience.
There are other nitpicks that I’m sure other reviewers have used to condemn this game. I Am Alive certainly looks like it was made in 2008, and especially compared to the much more gorgeous Uncharted series, I Am Alive’s visuals are a dark and gray banality that impeded rather than improve on the overall foreboding tone. There are valid narrative and gameplay reasons as to why Haventon looks dusty and ruined, but it makes navigating the world extremely frustrating and boring. The game’s length is almost offensively short; luckily, the game does give players goals outside of simply completing the game. The harder difficulty setting and the leaderboard system forces players to play a “perfect” game of I Am Alive, where all victims are rescued, creating a competition out of a single player game similar to the race to the “Big Boss” rank found in the Metal Gear Solid series. While these flaws hold back I Am Alive, the ambition present in the game is still there, and has a charm that other triple-A titles lack. For an extremely reasonable 14.99 USD, I Am Alive is something survival horror fans should not overlook, and will certainly tide us over until the other Cormac McCarthy inspired survival game, Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, is released to a starving public. What is yet to be seen, however, is if Naughty Dog will treat us with the same moral honesty and integrity that I Am Alive has, or if it will treat its players like irresponsible children, instructing us how to feel instead of leaving players to understand the ramifications of their actions.