By Marty Mulrooney
I Am Alive is a downloadable third-person survival adventure game developed for Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network by Ubisoft Shanghai. Originally developed by Darkworks between 2008 and 2010, Ubisoft Shanghai eventually stepped in to complete production, releasing the game in 2012. Taking place in the fictional American city of Haventon one year after a major disaster simply referred to as ‘The Event’ – a series of earthquakes that levelled buildings and covered the land in poisonous dust clouds – players take control of an unnamed male survivor as he fights to reunite with his wife and daughter.
I Am Alive, much like the desolate landscape it conveys, is heavily scarred by disaster and misfortune. After an unusually long gestation period and numerous delays, the title is finally ready for gamers to experience in 2012 – but has it been worth the wait? The answer is both yes and no. I Am Alive is a stylish budget title that has many great ideas, but often doesn’t quite manage to see them through.
The game begins with our unnamed hero finishing a long journey, before embarking on a new one that will take him to the heart of the decimated city of Haventon in search of his family. The first thing players will notice are the graphics. The art direction and overall design is solid, but the fidelity of the visuals is unusually murky, even for a budget downloadable release. It’s certainly in keeping with the depressing nature of the landscape and the dust clouds that block the sunlight above… however, the blurry grey visuals will do nothing to immediately endear players.
Those who preserve – aligning themselves with the protagonist’s plight – will soon forgive the visuals, or at least learn to look past them. The sense of scale is undeniably impressive and the gameplay mechanics intrigue from the outset. Scaling a bridge Nathan Drake style proves far more challenging than in most games of a similar ilk. A stamina bar depletes whenever the player climbs and this bar must be monitored constantly. Failure to do so will likely result in a plummet to the depths below, where only death awaits.
Therefore, players must find places to rest as they ascend to ensure that they reach their destination. Later on in the game, pitons come into play – metal spikes that can be used only once, allowing the player precious respite where there would usually be none. If this stamina bar runs out, it starts to deplete in size, decreasing its capacity. The only way to refill this bar (or restore its full capacity) is by eating and drinking scarce resources found whilst playing. There is also a separate health bar that must be monitored too. It sounds like too much work on paper – but when playing it adds a sense of urgency and perhaps most important of all, survival.
This sense of survival translates to the combat too, which works more like a series of puzzles than traditional gunplay. Aiming a weapon at certain enemies will freeze them in their tracks, making them back up. Perhaps you can use this to your advantage – kicking them into a fire or off a cliff. It’s often wise not to draw your weapon at all unless absolutely necessary – this also offers an advantage when an assailant draws close. A simple button press will make our hero cut their throat with his machete before drawing his weapon and pointing it at their buddies. It’s usually a good idea to kill the enemies who have guns first.
Aiming your gun shifts the view to a first person perspective – reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 2 – but this is by no means a first person shooter. Bullets are incredibly scarce and you will often find yourself with only one or two at a push. You’d better not pull the trigger when you’re out of ammo either – the enemies will know you’re defenceless and charge. The idea is a clever one, but the execution isn’t always as slick as it could have been. It doesn’t help that later in the game the enemies pour in thick and fast, pushing this occasionally wonky mechanic to its absolute limit.
Another element that comes into play later on is the idea of the dust clouds settling over the city. One section involves scaling a smashed up elevated railway to escape the poisonous dust clouds below. However, the player actually has to venture down there at times and much like climbing, these clouds will deplete stamina and eventually health. As the clock ticks down, the music heightens – it’s a clever way of adding urgency to the proceedings and helps to complete the illusion of a world that is never truly safe.
This far into the review without any real mention of the story – and with good reason. The narrative is the one area of the game that has obviously suffered from the game’s development hell and eventual budget release. The game is presented as if being watched on a recovered video camera, but the characters are never fleshed out enough to matter. A small girl named Mei is befriended and accompanies the hero, but their dialogue is limited and no real connection is made. With recent downloadable games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead featuring such strong central characters and relationships, the characters in I Am Alive feel all the more hollow and empty.
Yet I would still recommend I Am Alive. It’s the best type of failure possible – an enjoyable one. Scaling a crumbling skyscraper is a stomach-lurching, visceral experience that rivals any big budget release. It also makes you think long and hard about decisions that shouldn’t really matter – do you use your final bullet to free a woman handcuffed to a bench? There is a niggling feeling throughout that this could have been a superb big budget retail release – Naughty Dog certainly seem to be taking that route with their upcoming game The Last of Us. Instead, I Am Alive ended up as a small downloadable title crammed full of brilliant yet half-baked ideas. It’s fun – especially when you get your hands on a bow and arrow that will bring back fond memories of the original Thief – just don’t expect this apocalyptic world to be a particularly polished one.
7 OUT OF 10