Toxic dust hugs the bowels of the city, and walking through it sees strange shapes take the form of abandoned life – ruined landmarks, rusting vehicles near rotting bodies, and buildings crumbling into the ground. Hearing a woman call for help, perhaps you move toward the sound hoping to find another survivor, only to suddenly find three ominous figures emerging from the shadows with sharp blades glistening in their hands.
Holding your own hands out defensively, the figures taunt you while closing in, offering only a few choice seconds to decide which target is worth the solitary bullet in your pistol.
So what are you going to do, Mr. Would-Be Hero?
Perhaps taking down the toughest of the bunch will cause the other two to surrender, though they might suspect you have no more bullets and rush in for the kill. Or maybe you’ll accidentally pull the trigger and give the game away with the hollow click of an empty chamber. Recurring combat situations constitute a tense game of poker in the post-apocalyptic streets, where roving gangs guard their territory like hungry dogs.
With an emphasis on survival, players are never allowed to feel confident, twisting the notion that finding survivors offers a sight for sore eyes in the grey and lonely world on display. Having more than a single bullet occasionally allows one to feel like a millionaire, but the only reliable rule is that shooting an attacker who also has a gun will, at the very least, allow you to claim another shell from that weapon.
Players can often wait for an attacker to approach with a confident grin before using their machete for a sneak attack throat slice, which helps even the odds before falling into another game of gun bluff. Of course, thugs armed with guns will shoot without question, and every encounter becomes something of a puzzle rather than a traditional test of marksmanship.
Drawing the pistol allows players to auto-target enemies, demanding that they back off. Some of them will and some of them won’t, and eliminating those that challenge you is essential to survival. With bullets at a scarce premium, everyone becomes a waste of ammo.
This game within a game commands attention, because it’s such a constantly changing variable and unique examination of the realities of the situation that the developers are able to simply pepper the game with groups of villains to break up the fetch questing nature of the story. And this game of chance that leaves players sniffing out the toughest in the bunch rarely wears thin throughout the five hour experience.
Acrobatic climbing serves as a counterpart to combat, whether players are scaling buildings to reach a goal, or simply attempting to escape the deadly dust of the streets that constantly drains stamina. But fleeing the tension of the street doesn’t offer such a free breath of air, with the stamina gauge ensuring that players remain ever mindful of their limitations.
Stamina and health are represented by a straightforward bar at the top of the screen, with exertive acts temporally draining stamina. While standing or walking on solid ground will allow stamina to recover, exhaustive acts will shorten the bar and require players to use supplies to stretch it out again. The toxic plume of the street will also drain the bar, and reaching higher ground is the only means of recovery. This means that climbing requires players to find the shortest routes possible, constantly in need of a safe break point to recover or risk falling to their death. It also means that scaling halfway up a building with only half a stamina bar can quickly spell disaster, but supplies are never as scarce as people on the street might have you believe.
The game also offers players climbing pitons, which can be used in the middle of a climb to create a recovery point for stamina and offer a moment to strategize during longer climbs. Players will eventually receive a grappling hook as well, though this provides a means of traveling backwards after reaching a goal rather than offering any really fresh opportunities to explore the collapsing infrastructure.
Climbing through this crumbling urban play park offers the chance to scale at least one immense structure though, a skyscraper where players will crawl through hallways and then pop outside to use railings and ledges to climb ever hire before reaching the top. And then when you reach a floor and find thugs looking for a fight, the two halves come together rather splendidly.
The dense fog of the city reminds me of Silent Hill, but leaves me stunned at how many ideas are being turned over for a new spin here – not dramatically mind you, but with enough of a tweak to create a game not easily compared to any other release in recent memory. With that said, be aware that there are many problems at work in the stitching that salvages this game for digital distribution – from graphical hiccups to at least one checkpoint error that set me back further than I’d have liked when so close to the end of the game.
Most issues are far from game breaking, but certainly undermine the atmosphere with the lack of polish that often finds you somehow climbing onto an object while slightly next to it. The tricky bit of complaining here is that the elements worth attention outshine the most polished efforts of more standard releases on the platform.
I Am Alive is the story of a man simply looking for his family after a catastrophic event, documenting his search with a camcorder diary to leave a record behind should he fail. It never quite has the time or depth to capture the desperation of his search, but achieves an entirely different emotional range in the events that delay that quest. As players are given the chance to help some survivors cling to an idea of life, and as they move from the cold streets to the warming fires, there’s an unsettling achievement that is at times earnestly chilling.
Not every survivor of “The Event” that has devastated this world is looking for a fight. Some people huddle by fires and take aim to simply protect themselves, while others are looking for some shred of kindness in a world degrading into animalistic survival. This is where the game falls short of reaching greater heights though, offering zero long term investment with that world or the people still inhabiting it.
Players can help stray survivors to earn a retry point, which are admittedly useful but also a bit of a bribe for forcing acts of kindness. Helping survivors will cause them to babble on a bit about life, but ultimately devolve into a quick “hello” and “goodbye” that falls far short of establishing any emotional bonds with players. This isn’t necessarily the worst complaint, given that I wanted to invest more of myself in the atmosphere of that world, but is also why the environment feels plenty flat, offering little to explore in the piles of rubble and making most objects equivalent to bags of cement for all the interaction available.
And yet there’s an incredible atmosphere that grabs at the dog eared paperback feel of the content. The desperate fight for supplies to sustain life never really takes shape to get the point across, and yet a great deal is offered with quick flashes and hints, from strange meat that suggests acts of cannibalism to a hotel where women are forced into sexual submission for a ruling gang.
A pile of bones or hanging corpse in certain areas can suggest so much about the men you encounter nearby, that it drives a desire to cut them down and subtlety draws out connections with the player that the forced moments of narrative can’t hope to accomplish.
The game still sinks into a series of chapter based fetch missions, where players are dispatched to achieve “x” or “y” in order to reach an ending that doesn’t really fire on all cylinders. Ubisoft’s cinematic story sequences, which are told through camcorder recordings meant to reach a solemn and thought provoking ending don’t achieve a fraction of what simply exploring the world within does.
I’m left with a mixed appraisal given that the short ride and limited replay value hardly prioritizes the purchase – but I Am Alive is simply so damn interesting at times that everyone with a controller needs to take a walk through the streets of this devastated world. If you’re interested and willing to wander around those ruined streets, there are plenty of ideas to chew on in the play, along with a fantastic amount of potential to build a nightmarish dream on.
Ubisoft Shanghai, Darkworks
Xbox 360 (Xbox LIVE Arcade), PlayStation 3 (PlayStation Network)
March 7, 2012 Xbox LIVE Arcade / April 4th, 2012 PlayStation Network
1200 Microsoft Points
*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review