Everyone loves the Apocalypse.
Nearly everyone--from filmmakers and religious clergy to bored co-workers on a slow business day--has pondered what exactly the end of mankind’s days will look like. While other mediums have developed a wide rainbow spectrum of views on Armageddon, video games seem to take all their cues from Mad Max/Road Warrior view point. From the classic Fallout titles to last year’s Id soft’s Rage, video games seem to feel spiked plated armor and dune bugs will be all the craze once society crashes firmly into the ground. And you, my friend, will be an action star with a sawed-off shotgun in one hand while fist bumping a steampunk flavored sidekick with the other.
And everything will be awesome.
I Am Alive is a massive shock to the stagnate pool of post-apocalyptic video games. Not a single bleached mohawk as far as the eye can see; goofy radio DJs are missing on the airwaves of ruined city of Haventon. Nothing but desperate starving scavengers and shattered fixtures of the modern world past remains in the wake of the ambiguous day of reckoning know as The Event.
And everything is not awesome.
Returning from a year long trek across the continental United States in hopes of finding his missing wife and child, the unnamed protagonist returns to his changed hometown armed with the typical battery of survivalist tools (rope, backpack, handheld camera and, of course, a poorly stocked pistol) and pure determination. The streets of Haventon are now much dangerous with both roaming murderous street gangs and the actively crumbling infrastructure of the city. Of course, their is a handful of twists and formed alliances with the pleasant non-machete brandishing survivors of the city.
The overall story arch of I Am Alive is suitably minimalistic and drench in copious shades of ambiguity. “The Event”, the cataclysm response for all of the physical and social deconstruction, is only described to players through unreliable conversations in-game with the friendly portion of citizens in Haventon. Based on the frequency of earthquakes and deathly dirt storms, “The Event” seemed to be more along the lines of a more...ahmm...chilled “Day After Tomorrow” than any undead uprising or nuclear battle. I Am Alive also attempts to give the heart strings a strong tug here and there to decidedly mixed results. Ambiguity is fine and dandy, but it’s really hard to care about character’s who do not receive proper narrative build up.
Then there are odd touches that seem out of place in I Am Alive. For those not in the know, I Am Alive is the product of a very troubled nearly decade long development cycle. Much like Duke Nukem Forever, I Am Alive feels a bit tossed together from bits and pieces of previous builds. Toward the middle of the game, armored seven foot tall enemies become commonplace and strange Easter eggs involving a mutated man appear. Both sort of fly in the face of the grim realism the remaining 99% of the game attempts to portray. The ending follows thematic suit and is considerably downbeat. It does feel a little DLC bait-y, but I found it surprisingly risky and pretty brave on the behalf of the development staff.
The gameplay of I Am Alive is largely divided amongst two halves,each with their own twists on the shared conventions within their respective genres; parkor urban transversal and crowd control combat.
When tooling around Haventon, players may be forgiven for believing that they are playing a darker inFamous or some odd Apocalypse Creed spin off. The protagonist leaps, climbs and shimmy-s along edges with the best of the Nathan Drakes of the world. While Cole McGrath and nearly everyone in the Assassin Creed world are fatigue-less warriors of acrobats, I Am Alive aims for slight more realism in their approach. Players will constantly battle a burning stamina bar when performing an gymnastic effort including running. And trust me, you do not want to see what damage ledge to ledge jumping does to this fragile bar. Once the bar is depleted, the game enters a desperate struggle minigame where overall stamina capacity is being eliminated to prevent a deathly fall for a few precious seconds more. Stamina capacity can be refilled with select items, but they are appropriately scarce throughout the wasteland of Haventon. You better believe this makes some sections of the game an absolute cold sweat to get through. And the excellent pulse raising crescendo when the protagonist is quickly losing his grip only adds to the tension.
Combat in I Am Alive is likewise original in concept. Ammunition preservation is the name of the game. Most of my time spent with the title, I was lucky to have a single bullet in my clip. This makes the obvious “kill-em-all” approach to gang encounters very difficult. Instead, I Am Alive emphasis a mix of surprise tactics and intimidation as keys to survival. When confront by a group of ne'er do wells, the protagonist will throw his hands up in faux-surrender--just waiting for you to prompt him into a surprise machete attack on the nearest foe. After this, the remaining gang members will rush in for the kill. Things get hairy after that, as you alternate intimidating foes with your firearm (which may or may not have bullets) with the goal of backing them up into a convenient environmental hazard or slashing them in a “struggle kill” animation. This is where the gameplay shines. Many foes are smarter than the average gaming henchman will call your bullet-less bluff from time to time. The sense of something or anything going sideways is always present and matches the aforementioned intensity of the climbing sequence like for like.
Occasionally, a friendly citizen will need a helping hand. If you are so inclined, you can spare some of your items to get in the good graces of the victims you encounter. Doing so will net you additional retries from set checkpoints and a snipet of vague information regarding "The Event".
In concept, all of these unusually choices sound fantastic. In fact, they help connect gameplay to the theme of survival excellently. Everything feels like the last gasp of life or effort the protagonist has within him.
Execution of these concepts is another story. I Am Alive feels way too mechanical. Immersion in this desolate surrounding is cleaved into pieces by things like an omnipresent HUD and glowing neon arrows above the heads of pistol packing enemies. Even the intense parkour sequences are fractured by poor game design such as the ability to consume energy rich drinks or food while mid-climb. While I personally am tickled by the idea of my character stopping mid-ledge to down a Dr. Pepper, this ability wrecks some of the intensity that Ubisoft Shanghai were clearly setting up. Combat is not immune from these issues as backing an intimated for forty feet to ledge is both a lengthy pursuit and a really dumb break of reality.
The game is also not afraid to cling onto the player's hand for dear life. Items, though in small supply than most action/adventures titles, seem to be placed at perfect intervals. Jump snatched up some handgun rounds? Combat ahead. Lots of rest pitons and bottles of water? Length climb sequence full speed ahead. This problem exists even on "Survivor" difficulty, the hardest in-game setting.
It seems unfair to ding I Am Alive for contrivances nearly innate to video games, but something has to be said about the lack of effort in the user interface as a whole. The era of a gazillion colored bars clotting the screen up is ancient at this point with games like Dead Space and Fight Night finding ways to integrate necessary information for the player within a context suitable to the game environment. You will never get immersed into the world of I Am Alive and the experience suffers for it.
Voice acting is uniformly bad in I Am Alive. The gruff grumble of the main character ranges from half-hearted to barely audioable under batted breath. NPCs fair no better. The sparse orchestral stings during intense moments is great and adds some tingling impact to an otherwise oddly silent game. I encountered at least a dozen audio glitches in game; mostly speech drop out and delayed ambient sound effects.
Graphics The visuals in I Am Alive are a mixed bag. The use of color saturation while solitary roaming the crumbling streets helps nail loneliness and the numerous moral dichotomies of life post-Apocalypse. Color returns in full effect when in hope-filled environments with supporting NPCs. A simple and pretty unoriginal trick, but it’s effective enough. The frequent dust storms help mask a lot of I Am Alive’s major pop-in issues; though it does rub me the wrong way that a game in 2012 is using the same deceit as the original Silent Hill from nearly twenty years ago. Character models are fairly detailed but enemy designs repeat far too often. Animation can be a bit stiff on NPCs.
Framerate is solid as a rock; at least that’s good.
I Am Alive is way too showy in it's mechanics for true immersion. The pacing can be a bit slow to some, as the game emphasis stamina management. The initial few hours will lure you in with novel gameplay innovations and tweaks on contemporary formula, but I Am Alive definitely slogs in the middle. Navigation through the dusty barren streets of Haventon is mood building, but really unpleasant to actually play through.
I Am Alive is a game I want to love. Some excellent ideas are hidden within the clunky mechanical execution and poor game design choices. To some, experiencing a more grim interactive take on post-apocalyptic world might be enough to justify the fifteen dollar price tag on Xbox Live Arcade (and soon Playstation Network). There are certainly worse games selling on the digital marketplace for both systems and I Am Alive is eons better than the somewhat similar Amy released early this year. Still, you'll need pretty strong rose-tinted shades not to be absolutely disappointed in what I Am Alive could have been.