Xbox Live Arcade Title
Thanks to Ubisoft for providing a copy of I Am Alive for review.
Fear, mistrust and a sense of impending doom, that any moment could be your last. These are themes found spread far and wide in almost all post apocalyptic fiction, not least of all in I Am Alive, Ubisoft’s little side project for both Xbox Live Arcade and PSN as they attempt to branch out a little more into the Survival Horror genre. Unfortunately for gamers, I Am Alive also incorporates some of the more unwanted traits from its post apocalyptic setting. Frustration, futility and a whole mess of issues that make less sense than the average LOST episode…
The game takes place almost a year after “The Event”, a catastrophe that took place leading up to massive earthquakes worldwide, the collapse of civilization and massive dust storms forming to engulf the few survivors left. The player takes on the role of Adam, a survivor who’s travelled from America’s west coast all the way over to the fictional east coast city of Haventon in order to reunite himself with his wife and daughter.
Building on the success of the Assassin’s Creed climbing mechanics, which unfortunately don’t look as fluid and refined in I Am Alive, the game incorporates it heavily adding a stamina meter as well as various sliding and rolling mechanics too. The pretence for this is that Adam is a climber, able to quickly shimmy up pipes and along overhangs but ultimately unable to scale buildings like Ezio of the AC universe. While this makes for some interesting gameplay, especially with the added stamina bar meaning Adam will either have to deftly eat or drink something to regain his stamina, place a piton to rest or just eventually fall from exhaustion. Resource management is key here, if you don’t have enough stamina to make the climb you must resort to button mashing the right trigger to perform the great feat it takes to climb that extra inch. Fail, and it’s all over.
This is both I Am Alive’s strong point and it’s greatest failing. Resources are scarce, as they should be in a post apocalyptic world, but while this sense of realism certainly makes the game a bit more immersive it ultimately falls short in a gameplay sense. Don’t have enough stamina refill items? Best hope you like replaying the entire mission from the start in order to skimp and save all those items for when you really need them. While that in itself is a bother, especially when missions are set quite far apart, when it really starts to hurt is when you complete a mission with not enough items and have to start the entire game, again… Example, Adam has just climbed a skyscraper that is only half built, with scaffolding and construction equipment littering the site. At the top is a crate of medicine he needs for a little girl. Once he’s climbed down, he’s exhausted and by this time I was nearly out of items. Low and behold however I was forced to climb down into the toxic dust storm below, which drains your stamina at a pretty fast rate and once that’s gone, causes you to lose health too. This, coupled with the fact that as your stamina drains it’ll also make your overall capacity smaller, meaning even less energy once you do find a safe spot to rest.
With nearly all of the safe areas out of reach without items and with no stamina to climb when I eventually reach the safety of the rooftops, I’m screwed. Oh well, back to the beginning then… This is I Am Alive’s downfall. Before that point I was pleased with my experience which was, while extremely linear, still rather interesting. While I’m all for punishing players for not thinking ahead, making them play through the last 2 hours again just because of a few mistakes is just too much. Another interesting factor is that of other, non-hostile survivors. Occasionally you’ll meet someone who doesn’t want to kill you, steal your food and wear your skin and instead be presented with a dilemma. Do you save the dying old man by giving him your probably life saving inhaler? Or keep your supplies and leave him to rot. Generally, your choices mean the difference between having a warm fuzzy feeling and a few extra points on your score for saving a fellow human being but ultimately it usually leads to your death. When you’re hanging from a twenty story building by a fragile pipe, gasping for air, you’ll most likely be cursing that old man for stealing your salvation. It’s an interesting system and definitely helps to separate the saviours from the heartless, adding another layer to the gameplay entirely.
On that note however, the overall gameplay is pretty innovative in how it handles the setting. While as mentioned the stamina system is a little too unforgiving, the combat however redeems it slightly. The various survivors dotted around the world, many of them mostly aggressive towards you, all have very human qualities. In this game, even an empty gun is a potent weapon. Aim a gun, empty or loaded at someone and they’ll most likely back off unless they’re bat shit insane or have bigger balls than Duke Nukem. Eventually they’ll realise you’re bluffing though but in those few seconds of fear you’ll have enough time to close in and either knock them into a hazard, such as a fire or off a ledge, or to get up close for some stabby stabby action with your trusty machete. It works well, mixing a bit of poker style bluffing and fast paced action to the mix. It’s a shame that past that initial appeal of realism, the combat system is actually quite limited. Most of the time you’ll either be shooting people with your gun or bow and arrow before they can pop off a shot or you’ll be button mashing to win a knife fight with some street thug.
With this essentially being a roller coaster of good and bad design choices I would however like to step back and praise the overall art design which is in fact fantastic. It’s gritty, realistic and just adds heaps of atmospheric immersion to the game. One downside is that the colour palette looks like it was taken from a mud puddle with some old timey black and white effects thrown into the mix whenever Adam decides to have an asthma attack or loses just a bit too much blood than the average tin of soup can help him replace. On top of this the audio work is, in most places, solid. With the exception of the occasionally badly delivered line by Adam, which isn’t helped by the fact that the facial animations rival that of a Thunderbirds character rather than anything we’ve seen in recent years, other than that the voice acting is fairly well done with even the child characters making a good performance.
I Am Alive is a tough game to review for me. At its heart, it’s within a genre I love and something I really wanted to be good. While there are many good design points, such as the advanced AI taking heed of weapons and their own strength, as well as what is generally a good survival mechanic in terms of the stamina bar, the bad points unfortunately outweigh the good for me. The difficulty is too harsh, even on the lowest setting making you start again for even minor oversights. The game is also a bit too linear with paths of rubble any old age pensioner would have no trouble climbing over presenting a massive invisible wall for a seasoned climber in his mid 30’s. While there can be no denying that I Am Alive is a step in the right direction in some respects, not to mention a damn immersive game, there are some cases where even an interesting storyline and atmosphere cannot outweigh the thing that matters most to gamers, the gameplay.
For those in search of an unforgiving, immensely challenging survival thriller with the patience of a shaolin monk, you’ll find plenty to love with I Am Alive but as it stands those looking for a slightly more casual story driven experience might want to look elsewhere…
+ Immersive World.
+ Good Combat AI.
+ Believable Characters.
– Unforgiving Difficulty.
– Poor Facial Animations.
– Very Linear World.
Rigid facial animations and a drab colour palette bring down the otherwise great art design and impressive graphics for an Arcade title.
Generally fantastic voice acting and sound effects adds a lot to the atmosphere of the world.
While not overly original the storyline is engaging enough to keep you hooked if the gameplay doesn’t put you off too much.
Frustrating stamina management, linear level progression, high difficulty and slightly dodgy combat system makes it hard to love the climbing mechanics and usually smart AI.
A rather short campaign that can be replayed for different high scores but again, the gameplay will be the decider.
The Verdict: 7
If you can get past the frustrating difficulty and strange gameplay mechanics I Am Alive is a great experience. That in itself makes it worth a look, just don’t expect to have an easy time doing so…