Reviews// I Am Alive

Posted 6 Mar 2012 17:00 by
I went to Go Ape once. It's a tree-top assault course. I thought it was going to be a high-adrenaline, fast-moving, seat-of-your-pants sort of thing. It was actually a slow, plodding and quite stressful hour spent being surprised at just how far away the ground can seem without the use of a flying machine. It was definitely a challenge, and I like a physical challenge, but at the end I felt that it was a bit of a stretch to say I enjoyed it. That's pretty much the sensation I'm left with having played I Am Alive.

Set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, the game follows a Man (it's unfashionable to name your post-apocalyptic protagonists in our post-The Road world) looking for his family. After a year crossing America he arrives in his home city, only to get caught up in the plight of a young girl called Mei.

So we're clear: this is not a world suffering from an alien attack or a magical attack or any of the glamorous kinds of apocalypses. It's a world with a bad case of unnamed-but-probably-a-catclysmic-earthquake apocalypse (it's also not fashionable to name your apocalypse in our post-The Road world). It's a world of muted colour schemes and collapsed buildings in which the greatest threat is Other People. It's a world in which 9/11 looms far larger than Independence Day.

So, I Am Alive is not about shooting aliens with guns. It's about survival. In fact, although the most technically-correct genre label for the game is 'platformer', it's fans of survival horror who will get the most out of it.

The game is centred around climbing and confrontations with other resource-starved survivors. While this might be a Ubisoft game, however, don't expect climbing to feel even remotely like it does in Assassin's Creed. Rather than flowing musically across rooftops with precision, speed and grace, you'll be fighting hard for every handhold and constantly battling the clock as your stamina drains.

The stamina bar sits next to your health bar and dominates I Am Alive. Any exertion (particularly climbing) will cause it to deplete, and if it empties before you can either have a rest or shove some food and drink down your gullet, its capacity will diminish too. Once that hits zero, you're cannibal meat.

The result is climbing that is slow, tense and at times excruciating. This is not, in itself, a bad thing (although it won't be to everybody's taste). There are, however, a couple of missed tricks here. For one, the climbing is basically linear. Occasionally you might have a minor decision to make, but for the most part in any given situation you have one course of action that's reasonably available to you. It would be much more satisfying to pick your own route and be successful, but that's just not an option.

Controls that aren't a bit on the gloopy side would be nice, too. The controls aren't horrible, but changing direction when you're climbing can often take more than one attempt. In a game in which time is crucial, this doesn't make for happy, smiley times.

Linearity is not just an issue for climbing. As I mentioned in my preview, I Am Alive is a very linear game all round. You might, looking at the map, think there's a big old city to explore, but it quickly becomes apparent that various barricades and obstacles mean that in reality you're going one way and one way only. I don't have a massive problem with linear games. In shooters, for example, it's often appropriate to funnel players in one direction so they can experience a spectacular set-piece. Survival, though, is about more than successfully scaling the side of a building or stabbing someone in the face. It's about planning and strategy.

There is a nod to this in I Am Alive. There's a spot of resource management, as different items have different effects on your health and stamina. Your health might be down after you've taken a stabbing, for example, but you don't want to use your can of food to give it a boost as this will also boost your stamina, so you'd rather save it. Painkillers it is, then. The assorted food and medicine at your disposal are just found scattered around the environment, though, and there's no chance of you missing the smattering of weapons and tools on offer.

As with climbing, combat is built around the build up and release of tension. You have at your disposal a gun (that very rarely has more than a bullet or two in it), a machete and, a bit later on, a bow and arrow. More often than not you'll need to lull enemies into a false sense of security, surprise one of them by slitting his throat, pick out any others with guns and then shoot them if possible before going to town on any stragglers with your machete. It's very tense stuff and, while you don't have to be a crack shot, requires a cool head and quick decision-making.

You'll have to do a fair bit of killing, too. Despite taking a realistic approach, Ubisoft Shanghai required me to murder a good 50 or more fellow survivors in order to complete I Am Alive.

While there are most certainly missed opportunities (and potentially unmet expectations for some players), it's perhaps a bit unfair to spend too much time dwelling on what I Am Alive is not. What I Am Alive does well is offer up a slice of gaming with bleak aesthetics you won't find elsewhere. It's certainly an experience all its own, blending survival with platforming mechanics into a very tense package. Just make sure you know what you're getting going in and don't be expecting fast-paced action that'll get the old adrenal glands pumping.

Pros:

+ Interesting aesthetics.
+ Well-executed combat.
+ Actual individuality!

Cons:

- Very linear.
- Occasionally shonky controls.
- Lack of strategic play.


SPOnG Score: 7/10
Companies:
Games: I Am Alive

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