Picked up by Ubisoft’s own internal studio over at Shanghai, I Am Alive has seen a rocky development path since being announced several years ago, but now in March 2012 has finally surfaced to see the light of day. The game is based on a catastrophic event which has left a fictitious US city in turmoil, filled with toxic dust, earthquakes, and destruction at every turn. You play as a no named character who like many others is trying to survive following the “event” which has led to a collapse of everything we hold true in our modern societies. His main quest seems to be to find his daughter Mary and his wife, however, as the game plays you find your character’s needs being placed on the sideline as he helps others in need. In fact, the main basis of the game seems to revolve around helping others and therefore looks like we could be all set for a sequel as the ending leaves you with more questions than answers.
Gameplay is an eclectic mix of styles ranging from Tomb Raider styled jumping, climbing and navigation, to some minor stealth and action. The main onus is firmly set within the boundaries of exploration and because there’s a foggy feel to the environments, means that looking beyond what’s immediately visible is always beckoning you to explore. You are rewarded for your efforts, because in the tiny nooks and crannies is where you’ll find lots of helpful items that not only aid your activities but help the 20 victims that need rescuing who are scattered across the city. For example, early on you’ll be required to find some smokes as a request for a dying man, but you’ll discover that the smokes are well hidden and you may not even find them until the end of the four to five hour game. There’s reason to help others because you’ll not only be rewarded with information regarding the possible whereabouts of your family but also are given an extra retry. Playing on the normal setting and you’re granted several retries once you hit checkpoints, so helping others might not necessarily be your calling especially as they are optional objectives and take away resources that could be used for yourself.
The onus on limited supplies is very much paramount to the suspenseful nature of the gameplay, where an over-abundance of items only really presents itself once you’ve perhaps beaten the game already. At first though, you’ll probably be using many of the healing and stamina replenishing items more than you’d like to as there’s a bit of learning as you navigate the treacherous locales. The climbing and stamina depletion feature provides most of the thrilling moments, and it’s here where there’s little time to dither as you scale buildings or move through toxic fog with your stamina bar reducing very quickly. Time is very much of the essence, and a bit of planning before you perform any actions is key. That said, if you’ve been thorough you can give yourself a little breathing room – meaning it pays off to look around rather than rush through the game.
The climbing itself is handled reasonably well, but as was in the preview build, there’s still a few fiddly moments when reaching the peak of a climb. In some cases a death or two might result due to the character not going in the direction you want him to which is a pain. Considering a major part of the gameplay’s tension is based around moving quickly up pipes, and buildings, it’s a shame when an error isn’t necessarily the player’s fault. The same can be said during the combat scenarios.
I Am Alive isn’t an action game even though it features a pistol and machete as the two main forms of attack. Combat is handled quite differently compared to your normal game and presents itself as logical puzzle solving exercises rather than traditional shootouts and melee attacking. You’re often down to only a few bullets, and when approached by the rogues of the city in packs of three or four, you mostly have a choice to lure them in close, take out the armed opponent first and then use your pistol to threaten the others – who subsequently back off when faced with a pistol in the face. Sadly you can’t disengage and run away, or tell your opponents to scram. Instead you can either get them to surrender (which is rare), or push them into fires or off ledges. The key element seems to be about taking out the biggest threat first, then using the remaining ammo you have to kill any other before melee attacking the last enemy. Things get a bit more interesting once you receive a bow and arrow – where the arrow can be reused as many times as you like as long as it’s retrieved. With the added potential of infinite ammo of the bow, you can really build up the ammo of your pistol if you’re smart. Towards the last moments of the game, there’s some excellent stealth based play with the bow, which does feel like a wasted opportunity as more of the game could have benefited from the stealth based gameplay.
On a negative note, there are some moments where death comes swift due to simply not being in the right position or the single use context sensitive X button fails to perform the desired action and locks you into a melee animation allowing your attackers to cut you to sheds. However, you learn from mistakes and put the knowledge into practice after using a retry.
I Am Alive is soaked in a dark and monochrome atmosphere even though there’s always a hint of colour. The game does a fine job of portraying a decaying and disaster stricken city, but is lacking in the sort of texture details you might expect. However, it’s obvious the approach is befitting for a download release on the XBLA, and works well in context as you’re not really meant to be looking at the finer details – it’s the whole picture that provides the ambience and it draws you in as much as any other game with more distracting details. The game does present some impressive scale at times, and when there’s extreme fog a la Silent Hill or you’re shrouded in darkness and using a flashlight, the claustrophobic effect is well realised.
Audio is key to the tension and being scored by Jeff Broadbent who displays a complete mastery of chilling sounds and emotive melodies means that you’re on edge throughout most of the game. The stamina bar is closely tied to grating sounds, warning you of impending doom as it builds until it reaches a peak and you’re either dead or have pulled yourself clear. It’s expertly crafted and one of the better uses of audio in video games simply because it’s tied to a key component of the gameplay. The voice acting is of a high standard also and you’ll probably easily spot the voice of Elias Toufexis from the recent Deus Ex Human Revolution when the time comes. The story is easy to digest and is told via narrative using a camcorder – it’s not intrusive and is paced fairly well which is a must for a game of this nature.
I Am Alive weighs in at around four to five hours play on a first attempt and offers a more challenging survival difficulty which provides less resources and no retry refills at checkpoints. This mode was easily beaten on a second play-through, but would no doubt extend the first play if chosen from the offset (highly recommended you do so). There are leaderboards so you can compare scores with friends and the wider field, but beyond this, once beaten there’s little incentive to return unless you’re going for all achievements.
I Am Alive is a captivating title that is perhaps let down by some awkward gameplay moments which might not be the fault of the player and more the game’s design. If you can ignore these minor irregularities you’ll find a compelling Tomb Raider style game that’s filled with its own distinct character based on a popular post apocalyptic theme. You’ll be drawn in from start to conclusion and possibly won’t want to take a break either. There’s some genuinely tense moments throughout, and with a chilling and well crafted soundtrack to drive the gameplay makes for an entertaining title that was worth waiting for. If you’re an action gamer then the door’s over there, but anyone else who’s after a more cerebral experience will find great pleasure in what’s on offer here. Well worth checking out if you’re a fan of Tomb Raider style exploration based gaming.