One year ago, an event happened. No information is given as to what that event was, other than it was bad. As in apocalyptically bad. Worse even than the release of another edition of the Jaded Eye podcast, if you can believe such a thing. Following this mysterious event, which kills a large percentage of the world’s population (again, just like our podcast does), earthquakes rip apart all the major cities. Our avatar in this bleak setting is Adam. Caught on the other side of the country to his wife Julie and daughter Mary, Adam has already spent a year walking across America to get back to his home – the city of Haventon. With no idea if his family are even alive, let alone safe, Adam makes a beeline for his apartment in the hopes of finding either them or some evidence as to where they might be. Along the way he meets desperate scavengers and violent hoodlums, warped psychopaths and innocent children, all trying to survive in the remains of the once-great city.
The player takes control of Adam as he arrives at the main bridge leading into the city. The bridge is barely standing, the majority of it torn away, and Adam must climb his way over what’s left of the supporting structure. It’s at this point I started to suspect that Adam must have spent most of the last year in the company of Nathan Drake, as his mountaineering skills are easily a match for Uncharted’s matinée idol. Initially free climbing, but later making use of pitons and grappling hooks, Adam is able to scale dramatic heights with ease: until he runs out of stamina, that is. A separate energy bar to health, stamina ticks down at an alarmingly quick rate as soon as Adam starts climbing, jumping or simply hanging – those who played Shadow of the Colossus will recognise the mechanic. Run out of stamina and the game allows a few extra seconds of climbing in return for sacrificing the maximum size of the stamina bar. Run out of extra time and Adam drops to his death – oddly, no matter what height he’s at and how ever close to the ground he is. I guess this stops you getting stuck on a ledge with no way to climb further, but it’s still kind of frustrating. Potentially far more annoying, though, is the fact that all the large climbs through the game cover far more distance than you can easily see from the starting point, making the start of a journey fraught with danger as you head off blind, hoping you have enough time to get to a safe spot. However, to their credit; the developers Ubisoft Shanghai seem to have paced things just correctly. More often than not, you seem to have sufficient supplies (at least on Normal difficulty) to recover from a mistake or two and the exhilaration of just making it to safety is hugely satisfying. An impressive soundtrack which ratchets up the tension as the stamina bar depletes is particularly critical in achieving this feeling.
The second major component of the gameplay, again like Uncharted (and admittedly, almost all 3rd person games these days) is combat. Here, however, I Am Alive’s survival horror inflections are on full display. Although the opponents are human, Adam is never equipped with more than a couple of bullets and attempting to take on multiple opponents in hand to hand combat is a guaranteed death, despite the meaty-looking hunting knife Adam finds early on. Instead, at the start of each encounter, the player needs to identify which adversaries carry guns to ensure they are shot first, providing the player with sufficient ammo to dispatch the rest. The first couple of encounters are generally thrilling, but the novelty quickly wares off as almost every confrontation plays out in the same way – Adam stumbles across a group and pretends to surrender. The first opponent to approach him is dispatched in a surprise attack, the second (with gun) is shot, Adam needs to then run and collect the dropped weapon, shooting all remaining opponents until only a single one is left, who can safely be engaged in close combat. Fortunately, the highly generous auto lock aiming makes shooting an easy task, so these encounters are not frustratingly difficult, only frustratingly repetitive. Occasionally, thick adversaries can be subdued with an empty gun – the idea being that they don’t know it’s empty and will surrender if you can remove the most dangerous/brave ones. It adds a small wrinkle to the proceedings, but I still felt the game was crying out for a few further variations to keep the interest and or variety.
One area where the game never fails to impress is in the world building. Utilising a colour scheme that’s almost black and white (actually grey and white), the apocalyptic environments are suitably dark and foreboding, while at times oddly beautiful. Technically it may not be spectacular, but artistically, it really hit a chord with me. At ground level, everything is initially bleak and colourless. Later in the game a heavy fog descends, reducing visibility to just a couple of metres and choking Adam if he spends too long in it. Climb up out of the mire, however, and you’re rewarded with a rare splash of colour as the sun peaks out; there are some genuinely impressive cityscape views on offer for the intrepid traveller. Even more affecting are the rare safe havens that Adam stumbles across. A full colour palette and another memorable score create a real feeling that you’ve found a small slice of humanity amid the wreckage.
A retry system that limits the number of restarts in a chapter is, on the face of it, a little annoying, but like so many other aspects of the game, proves itself worthwhile. Adding just the right level of tension without making the game over frustrating with replayed sections, the game feels like it’s been play-tested almost to perfection. In fact, in development for almost 4 years, I Am Alive was allegedly close to cancellation and rebuilt from the ground up several times. It’s a small miracle that the game made it to XLA & PSN at all. Oh yes, I forgot to mention – this is an Xbox Live Arcade / PlayStation Network game. Don’t let that fool you – it feels like a normal boxed game release. Well, that is to say a release from before the days that every full priced game required a tacked-on multiplayer component and day one DLC. Only the short completion time (circa 5 hours), limited range of environmental textures and a reduced amount of dialogue and cut scenes give away that this is not a boxed product. An atmospheric adventure-survival horror game which is only let down by repetitive combat and a somewhat disappointing denouement to the story. 2 parts Silent Hill to 1 part Uncharted, I Am Alive is little gem that’s well worth your time.
Far more mysterious than “the event” is why does everyone in Haventon have a hunting knife? Perhaps there was a Crocodile Dundee convention going on in the city?