I Am Alive is lucky to be alive itself. Originally announced in 2008, it was to be a survival game that would pit its lead – known at that time only as Adam – against something more frightening then monsters or ghosts; other people.
Intended as a full disk release from Ubisoft, and in production right after Assassin’s Creed, it soon disappeared and became something of a myth. Eventually its original developers left the project and it was handed to Ubisoft Shanghai to complete.
It finally re-emerged this week as an Xbox LIVE (and later PSN) download title. The story is much the same as before, with you taking the role of a lone survivor heading back home to reunite with his lost wife and daughter. The world has been hit by something known simply as “the event” and has been left entirely in tatters. To make matters worse, food and water are scarce and the land is still hit with constant aftershocks.
I Am Alive is of the parkour-platformer mould where you traverse a dangerous, ruined environment. The twist to the gameplay is health and stamina management; climb or exert yourself for an extended amount of time and your stamina goes down. If you just happen to be clinging onto the side of a building when that happens, it’s not going to be long before you’re taking a deadly tumble. Finding food, water and other provisions will help recover your health and stamina, but good management of your actions is important if you are to survive.
On top of this are later sections involving a toxic dust that has been left in the wake of “the event”. Whole areas of the city are filled with a thick mist that, when exposed to it, will slowly reduce your stamina. Once depleted, and if still within the clouds of dust, your health starts to suffer and very quickly you die.
The mist rapidly becomes one of the game’s biggest problems as its visual representation is a mix of heavy handed techniques. I Am Alive is a very grey game, almost every area is devoid of any colour at all. At a glance you would be mistaken for thinking it was entirely black and white. The screen has a constant grainy filter applied, while the world is filled with a very thick fog. In small doses this is fine, but once you get to areas set at night or in blacked out rooms, it becomes very hard to navigate exactly where you are or where you’re supposed to go. Factor into this the use of an invisible H.U.D. and you end up with a game that is near unplayable in some spots, with the screen edges filled with a red haze and blood splatters. This wouldn’t be so bad if the H.U.D. used this for very short spurts, but instead it continues for as long as your health is lowered.
This problem also extends to one of the worst features of the games; its soundtrack. Featuring what is supposed to be a tension building atmospheric audio that plays during low stamina and health, it appears when your health is depleted by half. Can’t find health or stamina items for a while? Then be prepared to put up with the headache inducing “survival horror” track that plays way too loud, and way too often.
I Am Alive is a game that acts like it wants you to go off the beaten path and find supplies or people to interact with, yet during almost every instance of exploration it punishes. Spend too long in the impossible to navigate mist and your health suffers. Explore where climbing is of extra exertion on your stamina and more often than not you fall. Expel a large amount of stamina and health in the hope you’ll find a tomato to help a fellow survivor and instead find yourself surrounded by a gang with nearly no health and no chance of survival.
Speaking of other people, this aspect is actually where the soul of the game lies. Scattered around the world are different survivors – some have banded together to form small groups and some are hurt or trapped. It’s with a group of these people that our lead character gets tied up and it’s their plight the game wants to tell you about. Our now nameless hero is no longer the focus for the story, but is in fact a conduit for the family you meet and which the game wants you to feel for. This is an odd choice that appears to have been made in the move from developers Darkworks to Ubisoft Shanghai, as the lead characters back story and both the opening and end hinge on what happens.
The family you spend time with are the reason for your actions but their existence detracts from the initial connection you’re supposed to feel for the lead character’s story. In the end it feels like it has a detrimental effect to the overall narrative, made even worse when the game comes to its, frankly, sudden and empty end.
Instead, you find yourself more affected by the other people in need of food and supplies. You might come across someone whose been wounded and hand them a first aid kit to help them out. Later you might come across another, this time trapped under a boulder. If you had kept your first aid kit you could have helped them and suddenly the game does something unintended and unexpected – it causes you to feel guilty. You have to make a moral choice more potent then those normally found in interactive entertainment; leave the victim, and you might not be able to come back in time. Choose to walk away and you hear the fear and despair in their voice as they call out to you.
Of course, there are those who not only do not need your assistance, but have formed gangs to survive. Some will just threaten you with a gun and can be quietly moved past with only a few quietly spoken words. Others are more likely to confront you, giving the game a tactical play that requires you to out-think your fellow survivors.
Thought these more aggressive encounters are pretty shallow and always end the same way. The game lacks the depth to allow for defusing the situations you’re in and eventually degrades into a `tackle the big bad guy first` style affair. More troubling is the problems with both the quality of the visuals and the camera; making out exactly what sort of threat the people around you present is sometimes impossible with them obscured by mist and out of view.
As a result of its issues I Am Alive ultimately feels rushed and empty at its end. Weak visuals and a soulless story detract from what is fundamentally a thrilling concept, but the implementation leaves you feeling frustrated and ultimately disappointed about what the game could have been.