I Am Alive [Preview] – Survival in a monochromatic world
Sometimes, long development times signify a developer (and sometimes publisher) with an eye on creating the very best game possible. The kind of game that will become a classic within its genre and one that will attract players with no experience of the game type just because of how many others are singing its praises.
Sometimes, long development times signify a developer (and sometimes publisher) in turmoil – confused about the direction of a project and constantly tweaking this, changing that and chopping bits off to fit the required mould.
I Am Alive seems to fall into the latter category, having been in development hell since at least 2008 – going from one developer to the next, switching from a boxed product to digital only and struggling to sell its premise to its prospective audience.
The twist here is that I Am Alive actually has some decent potential. Having played the first couple of hours, it’s clear that there are some good ideas. If elaborated upon and allowed to breathe within the design of the overall game, those good ideas could flower into something great.
As a premise, I Am Alive is hardly pushing the barrel out. Humankind has been brought to the point of extinction following ‘The Event’, an as yet unknown incident of apocalyptic prpportoins. Only small pockets of human life remain, all of them struggling to survive in the toxic fog that has enveloped the globe.
Within this high-concept setup, your viewpoint is distinctly personal – a lone man searching for his lost wife and child. The game begins with you entering the fictional American city of Haventon, having embarked on a multi-month walk there thanks to the lack of transport, and making your way to your apartment. Unsurprisingly, your family have long since packed up and gone.
And thus begins your journey following clues as you hunt down your loved ones.
The most striking thing about I Am Alive is its visuals, which are close to black and white in their portrayal of post-apocalyptic America. It’s a far cry from the usual brown and red sun-baked landscape that makes up the majority of games set in centres of life-turned-wasteland.
Monochrome palettes tend to create an atmosphere of loss and foreboding, and that’s precisely what is achieved here. Blacks, whites and greys combined with the heavy fog looks desolate and unforgiving with a subtle, downbeat musical score adding further to the sense of isolation and loss.
Think Silent Hill and multiply it a couple of times and you’ll be pretty close.
The barren landscape means that it’s the interactions between people that stick out. Our time so far has centred on aggressors keen on taking whatever resources you’ve got, the sick and dying and people requiring aid, those that want to simply be left alone and will fight for that right, and a lost child that you take under your wing and offer protection.
Unfriendly altercations are intense for a variety of reasons. Death is only one bullet or one stab/slice from a machete away, you’re usually outnumbered and your gun is low on ammo (usually one or zero bullets).
Different enemies react to you in different ways, some are incredibly aggressive and not afraid of having a gun pulled in their face. Others will back away at the slightest movement towards your weapons, allowing you to control them by telling them to back off or knock them unconscious with the butt of your pistol.
The best option is to avoid trouble altogether, by keeping an eye and ear out for human activity and finding a new route. If you do get into a scuffle you’ll need to identify anyone with a weapon and use the one bullet you’ve got to take them out first (you might get another by looting them for ammo later), followed by a machete slice to anyone else. Sometimes you might get lucky, a kill shot to one causing the others to panic and flee.
If Ubisoft Shanghai can provide enough interesting settings and stop things getting predictable, the way in which combat plays out has the potential to engage beyond the usual well-timed inputs and painstakingly mastered combos.
I Am Alive’s other major gameplay mechanic is the climbing system. Clearly someone is a fan of Uncharted because the protagonist here has a very similar set of tricks to a certain Nathan Drake – namely, those of a monkey. Jumps, shuffling along ledges, dropping from high, shimmying up drainpipes… it’s all here.
The unique element is a stamina bar, which plays into the whole survival-horror ‘thing’ of limiting a player’s resources and generally making life difficult. Long climbs (of which there are many) require frequent rests by climbing up and sitting on a ledge for a few moments while your stamina gauge fills back up.
If you’ve taken damage your stamina gauge will forever be below maximum until you use an item to regain your strength. Again, this being a survival game, such items are in short supply so the smart move is to avoid conflict where possible.
Further, retries are limited and they themselves require you to find items (camcorders instead of Resident Evil’s ink ribbons) to earn them. It’s a tough system that plays to a genre that has all but been wiped out with the survival genre’s metamorphosis into action game in recent years.
As I said before, I Am Alive will only work if the ideas can be elaborated further on in the game and the atmosphere can hit the peaks and troughs required for good pacing. The early going is good but unforgiving, which is a route likely to segregate the audience into those that will potentially love it, and those that will abhor it.