The Alone in the Dark series has had a long and rich existence as a video game, and has also been one of the few licenses to receive a movie adaptation (although many would argue the movie wasn’t the pinnacle of the series’ achievements). It’s now 2008 and Eden games with Atari has brought the adventure into the modern age, with the original character from the first game, Edward Carnby making a rather strange return, despite being old enough to be worm food. Set in a modern day New York City and predominantly around the city’s Central Park area, Alone in the Dark 5 or as the game simply refers to itself as, Alone in the Dark offers another slice of action adventuring for today’s gamers. There’s no real need to have played past games in the series, as the action and story unfolds before you in such a way that this is a fresh gaming experience, and a distinct departure from the old school adventure games from the Playstation era.
Alone in the Dark introduces the player the various game mechanics during the opening chapters, and let’s be clear from the offset, that unlike other games, you are able to skip sequences that you are finding a little too difficult or frustrating. The way this works is the game is divided into episodes, like an ongoing TV series presented in a DVD type format. This means that not only are you able to rewind and replay episodes at your leisure (without losing your overall progress), but also you are able to fast forward, as long as you have completed the requirement to do so. This is a novel approach to gaming, but the developers have quoted figures which say the majority of gamers don’t actually complete the games they play. Eden’s reasoning being that a skip feature will increase the numbers of people who will beat their game. I’m not totally convinced, because the game itself presents various game killing scenarios that potentially could turn off gamers from the very first moment they play the game.
The opening scenes act as a tutorial of sorts where your actions are explained via an on screen prompt which shows what you need to do. The basics of movement, using items as melee weapons and an introduction to the game’s impressive fire physics and interaction with the environment are the first ports of call. It’s all very straight forward stuff, and this is without a single living enemy in sight. In fact the opening of the game has you pretty much fighting with the environment as the building you are in crumbles around you. It’s all very tense stuff – or should be except the dreaded trial and error gameplay rears its ugly head, as well as no penalty if you accidentally die. For me, early on in the crumbling building scenario I was required to smash open a wooden door with a fire extinguisher. Using the extinguisher as a impromptu battering ram. In theory the idea is sound, and beats having to backtrack and find some obscure key hidden away somewhere. The real stickler here is that the control method for using melee weapons is totally broken. You can press the LT to lock on to enemies (not doors) and then use the right thumbstick to perform swinging actions, in a similar manner to the Xbox game Fahrenheit. The viewpoint switches to a third person viewpoint automatically when you use a melee weapon, yet the movement of the character is way too stiff and makes fighting enemies or doors, a cumbersome effort rather than fluid.
There’s lot of melee weapons lying around to pick up and use, and I guess what is really neat is being able to set fire to items and then temporarily being able to use them against foes that are only killed by fire. The problem here is that you need to press the A button to run, yet use your right thumb to swing the weapon. Therefore, it’s very hard to run and attack at the same time – naturally, the enemies like to run away from you when you are wielding a fire based weapon. I think frustrating is the word I would use to describe these moments.
Alone in the Dark offers some shining moments of inspiration, and these come in the items management that are synonymous with adventure games of this ilk. Here you can pick up items such as first aid sprays, flammable liquids and mosquito sprays etc and then combine them with other items to create makeshift weapons. For example, a bandage combined with a bottle of spirits, fused with some sticky tape becomes a sticky Molotov Cocktail. It’s actually very neat the ways in which you can create stuff and then use them on enemies. Even though this is merely an evolution from the old school inventory systems which offered similar mechanics. In terms of combat, the game does not pause when you are in the inventory screen and therefore you really have to keep well stocked on weapons combinations prior to engaging enemies. The actual hunting for items is handled pretty well and what’s more you’ll find stuff in lockers and even in the many cars that litter the park.
Luckily, you are able to use firearms (although I only discovered two pistols throughout the entire game) to dish out some punishment. When you wish to shoot, the view has to be changed to first person (pressing a button to do so) there’s no third person lock on with the guns and this makes gun combat equally as frustrating as the melee combat. The first person aiming has some sort of unchangeable auto aim enabled, but this seems marred by some horrendous hit detection. You’re supposed to shoot fissures which appear on weakened enemies with fire based bullets, if you are going for the kill, except, I found the aiming to disregard this, in the enemy’s favour. I’d shoot a fissure and nothing would happen for several direct hits. In all honesty the gun combat is a lot better than the melee and to a degree I felt like the developers should have just left the game in first person mode (other than during cinematic moments). The constant switching between views is lackluster and not something gamers should be expected to wrestle with as it really does detract from the playing experience, even more so when the camera view decides to switch on its own from time to time.
Alone in the Dark offers a free-roaming portion of the game where rather than go from A to B like the rest of the game, you are able to hunt out Evil Roots that litter the park. I actually found this to be the best part of the game, as you hunt for supplies, drive cars and then work out how to destroy the roots. Sadly, the car driving is another area that feels broken and should have been polished. With Eden Games’ successful Test Drive series under their belts it seems a shame that the driving mechanics are very poor indeed. The cars seems to slide all over the place as there feels to be no traction at all. There are also two sections in the game where driving is forced upon you in a timed sequence. These are probably the worst parts of the gaming experience as once again it’s a trail and error affair, although this time fused with inexplicably bad driving mechanics and game physics. It’s possible to bump into a lamppost at 5 mph and actually die from this! After several attempts at these moments – remembering that there’s no checkpoints and so if fail you restart the whole section again; I can see why the skip feature was added, perhaps this is an admission from the developers that some parts of the game are as frustratingly bad to warrant the majority of gamers skipping the section and moving on?
For the most part Alone in the Dark looks impressive, especially when wandering around the spooky fog ridden park at night time, or enclosed in a dark corridor with only a flashlight to keep you from being engulfed by the darkness. There’s some decent lighting and of course the realistic fire burning items is mightily impressive feat on a technical level. However it’s not all peachy, as there are some totally broken physics which create some game breaking bugs and glitches that should not have been allowed to pass the QA stage of the game’s development. There’s glaring issues that even the game testers seemed to ignore – perhaps Atari are to blame for speeding up development when really the game required another six months worth of polishing? Gamers are going to notice these issues, it’s not something to be ignored when things don’t work out as you expect them to. It’s mind boggling to see that Atari has ignored these errors and allowed the game to be sold in its current form. Despite having some glimmers of excellence aesthetically, the unpolished nature of other aspects of the game really dampens the experience. Poor camera work, generic enemies, fiddly controls and lots of glitches that will leave you scratching your head in disbelief, is what you can expect to be presented with throughout your playtime.
The sound is overall reasonable, except the volume is set way lower than most games, and so you’ll have turn up your TV way more than normal. This isn’t such a problem but it highlights the fact that sound is sparse. Yes we have the Bulgarian choir during cinematic moments, but for me at least, what could have been a unique aural addition to the gameplay began to grate after a while, as the music score remained consistently similar throughout. The acting also delves into the domain of hammy, and to be honest, I felt little regard for any of the game’s characters or to a bigger degree, the game’s story as a result.
Alone in the Dark offers a lot of potential for replay value, but this is totally wasted because once you beat the game, there’s no incentive to try again. No unlocked bonus modes to mess around with, and the only option you are left with is hunting down roots you might have ignored the first time round. With its reliance on puzzle solving, once you’ve navigated an area, there’s no real deviation and so subsequent plays are going to yield the same results. The game can be beaten in a rental period and with nothing extra to play with upon game completion, means that gamers will complete the game and never look back. I got all but a few of the game’s achievements on one play through.
I’ve been looking forward to Alone in the Dark for a long time, and on paper the game’s ideas sound very promising indeed. Having now played and beaten the game, there are some pure moments of excitement and some real intuitive gameplay ideas and scenarios that will have you sit back and say “wow, that was quite clever”. However these moments of grandeur are somewhat washed away when it comes to the cumbersome controls, which you are forced to get used to with an almost like it or lump it approach. Fans of the series and those of you who aren’t inclined to head for the skip feature in the store prior to purchasing, will undoubtedly enjoy the good parts of the game for what they offer, but will still be shocked at the game’s overall lack of polish. Sadly it’s this that will be more shocking that any of the game’s enemies or dramatic moments. Alone in the Dark games have always played second fiddle to the Resident Evil games, and sadly this latest game looks like it will follow suit. If you lack patience and lateral thinking skills then avoid because you’ll end up being frustrated beyond comprehension. If you like the old school type adventuring, then this will most certainly have some appeal as you’ll also be fully used to clunky controls and horrid dialog. It’s a shame there isn’t more to do once the game has been beaten. Alone in the Dark is a good game, which falls short of being great based on the severe lack of polish. Let’s hope Atari afford Eden, more time to develop the game if there is to be another in the series.