I Am Alive Review

By Jake Gaskill - Posted Mar 07, 2012

I Am Alive, like its world-weary protagonist, has had a hard and troubled journey, and it shows. It's truly disappointing what I Am Alive ended up becoming, especially because it had so much potential

The Pros
  • Traversing devastated metropolises is always welcomed
  • Great sense of progression through grim world
The Cons
  • Looks and feels incomplete
  • Intimidation mechanic never really evolves
  • Is hamstrung by original concept's prospects

I Am Alive Review:

Like many of you, I have been waiting intently for Ubisoft Shanghai’s (originally from Darkworks before they left the project) post-apocalyptic survival platformer I Am Alive since it was first teased back at E3 2008. The idea of exploring an earthquake-devastated Chicago and doing the whole The Road sort of survival thing was super compelling and brimmed with gameplay potential. And then the game experienced a number of delays, popped up briefly a few years later, and then returned to hiding before finally emerging late last year as a downloadable game that would go on to miss its Winter 2011 target date and finally land on Xbox Live Arcade this week and PlayStation Network later this spring.

 

It's Finally Here, So Let's Get To It

In other words, I Am Alive, like its world-weary protagonist, has had a hard and troubled journey, and it shows. That isn’t to say that the final product is some kind of unplayable abomination that would have been better off never having been released and left to rot away in development limbo until some future generation of console came along to resurrect it. But it’s truly disappointing what I Am Alive ended up becoming, especially because it had so much potential, and rather than being able to capitalize on its grand vision the game clearly had in its previous iteration, it feels like a “cut our loses” sort of release.

I Am Alive tells the tale of a lone man who has, at long last, returned to the fictional metropolis of Haventon in search of his wife and daughter. During this final stretch of his trek, he must traverse a cityscape of wreckage and debris, deal with roving bands of thugs, help out other survivors, and avoid choking to death on the toxic fog that has enveloped the city. Fun stuff.

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Suspension of Disbelief

Among the first indicators of I Am Alive’s troubled past are the story setup and your starting inventory. The story takes place during the final five hours and 15 minutes (my playtime) of this guy’s year-long journey across the country to get back to his family. Yet when he arrives in town, he has zero supplies, a gun with no bullets, and a flashlight. He’s been traveling for a year and that’s all he has managed to accumulate/deem worthy enough to hold onto? Better still is the fact that he serendipitously comes into possession of his incalculably useful and lifesaving machete two seconds after encountering a padlocked chain link gate and being ambushed by a lone hoodlum who just so happens to be carrying the large knife. What are the odds, huh?

How this guy managed to survive this long without a machete or something similar is even more impressive than his having survived the “event,” as it is the most useful tool in the game and 100 percent essential to your success. Sure, there’s always a chance that he lost his own knife or it broke just prior to the events of the game, but without that context, the machete scene just comes off as incredibly “gamey” and, like a number of elements in I Am Alive, feels like a quick way to make up for some larger backstory that existed when the game was much larger. The same goes for the game world itself.

I Am Alive 

The Look and Feel of the Apocalypse

 

While the environmental devastation and the washed out visuals give the I Am Alive a grand scope, there are random graphical elements that look either unfinished or designed to cover up presentation gaps. For example, the skeletal remains (and even some cars) that you find all over the place that look like they were taken directly from a 3D modeling program and dropped right into the game without any retouching, detail work, lighting additions, or anything. It could be that this peculiar smoothness is meant to represent the effects of the “event” (settling ash, toxic gas, etc.) but that sounds more like an excuse than an honest reason.

The fact that the game is also one giant haze fest, with towering/toppled buildings looming in shadow in the distance as opposed to actually being visible suggests that a good deal of the effects in the game are meant to hide its limitations rather than highlight its vision. This idea certainly fits in the context of the story, but it ends up being more of a distraction than a mood setter. Speaking of distractions, there’s nothing pleasing about being told “It’s not time to go there yet” or “You’re going the wrong way” when you wander a little bit off the beaten path. It’s just another indicator that there’s a much more expansive experience beyond the confines of the world present in the game.

I Am Alive 

Climb A Little Higher

On the gameplay side of things, I Am Alive fairs a bit better. Because you have a stamina meter for climbing, you have to be a lot more strategic in your building traversal than you would in say an Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed. Regrettably, the stamina mechanic includes a Hitchcockian violin music cue whenever you exert yourself. It’s meant to build tension, but the fact that it kicks in almost as soon as you start climbing or running makes it incredibly annoying. Why it couldn’t just kick in when you reached the halfway point on the meter is beyond me.

The actual climbing works well enough but Nathan Drake won’t be sweating anytime soon. The game prevents you from walking off ledges and such, and you really have to go out of your way to jump to your death, aside from the sequences where you are sliding down the exteriors of toppled buildings and you have to roll yourself to grabable ledges; expect plenty of death falls there. When you find yourself in one of these scenarios or you’re scaling the side of a toppled skyscraper hundreds of feet above the city, I Am Alive is at its best because you feel that “needle in a haystack” sense of isolation and desperation that the game is built around.

I Am Alive 

When you aren’t maneuvering through dangling subway cars or collapsed bridges, you’ll be walking/running around dust filled streets, dilapidated office buildings, spooky subway stations inhabited by cannibals, a gang-infested hotel where unspeakable horrors are being carried out against female survivors, among other places. These settings feel appropriately grim, and the sense of progression from one area to the next is fantastic. By the time you reach the end of the game, you can’t believe how far you’ve traveled and the obstacles you’ve overcome along the way.

Throughout your journey, you’ll find other survivors in need of help (i.e. first aid kit, inhaler, bottle of wine, etc.), and you have to decide whether you want to part with your precious goods or keep them for your own use later. Helping out survivors earns you a little piece of backstory about the world as well as a replay, which is like a quick save checkpoint that keeps you from having to start over an entire chapter again should you die. You sort of feel bad when you don’t help them out, but there are plenty of other survivors that you encounter that don’t ask for your help (and need it just as bad), so if you do end up helping them, it’s more for the replay and its benefit to you, which sort of goes against the whole act of kindness idea.

 I Am Alive

Where Did These Armored Dudes Come From?

The biggest threat you face while exploring the city are the murderous goons that prowl the streets in search of people to terrorize. When confronted, you have a few options depending on how many and what caliber of enemy/enemies you’re facing. But basically, every encounter in the game plays out exactly the same way, with you surprising machete-ing the nearest enemy and then training your gun on his pals to keep them at bay long enough to either knock them out or shoot them (if you can spare the bullet, which oftentimes you can’t).

You can break this cycle by attacking enemies before they notice you, and this becomes much more manageable once you receive the bow and (retrievable) arrow, but it’s still not the smartest course of action. Later on, there are heavily armored dudes (why remains a mystery) who will walk calmly at you until you shoot them in the head. These tankish characters are another of the elements that feel like a remnant from a different game—not unlike the totally random and singularly mutated survivor who you can only catch a glimpse of if you stand at a particular spot along a particular collapsed road. I’m all for mystery, but not when it’s presented in one-off chunks that are never returned to or justified.
 I Am Alive

Does Anyone Have A Bullet?

Normally I wouldn’t spend so much time harping on the game for what it isn’t, but in this case, it feels like the game is being hamstrung from offstage by its original vision. There are tons of great ideas here, and when your breathlessly pulling yourself up the side of a skyscraper or picking off a would-be rapist with an arrow to the skull you see those great ideas peeking through, but they never come together in any cohesive way. In the end, the game feels more like a proof of concept experience than an actual game.

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