I’ve previously dealt with I Am Alive’s long winded history in our hands on preview
so I won’t bore you with those details again. Suffice to say the title has been in development for so long that there were doubts as to its actual existence and even greater worries about whether new developer Ubisoft Shanghai
would be able to get an all new game together in short order.
Well we can say definitively that I Am Alive
is finally here and players might be pleasantly surprised by what they’ll find when it hits XBLA on the 7th of March.
I Am Alive
tells the story of a nameless protagonist who is searching for his missing wife and child in the wake of a mysterious global ‘Event’ which left the world reeling. It’s taken him a year so make his way back to his home town of Haventon and his first stop is the family home. Finding it empty and with nothing to do on except a note left months before, he sets out on a desperate quest to find out if they are even still alive.
The story for I Am Alive
is chiefly told through interstitial scenes recorded on a camcorder. It’s our heroes confessional – talking to his family in the hope that at least the tape may make it to them. These videos are short and effective enough, though the format isn’t particularly engaging (and it seems chosen more to disguise the games appaling lip sync) and the game spends little enough time focussed on the story.
Instead, I Am Alive
is all about survival. This post apocalyptic world is a bleak place – in everything from the unrelentingly grey colour palate (a vestige of the dust which encompasses everything) to the interactions with other remaining humans. The game constantly warns you that going up against other survivors is a bad idea, giving you the option to act all peaceable and way away backwards from some encounters and avoid others altogether with stealth.
But, inevitably, you’ll soon find yourself in situtations where you are outnumbered five to one by enemies with better weapons and a vicious streak a mile wide. All they want to do is gut you and take your boots while you’re still steaming. All you have to do is stop them.
In another game, this would be a simple matter of a half dozen headshots and a cool flourish as you reload. Not so in I Am Alive
, which makes you work for every kill. You’ll start with an empty fun which can be used to bluff against enemies, giving you the chance to close in for a machete kill or a kick into a handy, bottomless pit. But some foes will get wise to your subterfuge, opting to rush you in a blur of deadly blades that kill you rather quickly and effectively.
Bullets are rare and sacred, leading to careful planning before you take on a group. Later you’ll earn a bow and arrow and each piece contributes something to the puzzle, making you an instant armchair tactician. A typical example will see you lure in an enemy by looking unkempt and innocuous before surprising him with a killing blow from a blade, nabbing a single bullet from his corpse and firing on the next foe before he can draw a bead, finishing with a life and death struggle, machete to machete, against the remaining survivors.
Exploration, too, is more complicated than the third person action norm. As an accomplished climber, our hero can clamber up and around pretty much anything. But the catch is that your stamina depletes with every second you dangle, leading to tension filled moments as you scale heights, hoping you won’t lose your grip. Grabbing some food from your pack can give you few extra previous seconds, as can engaging extreme effort – but it permanently depetes your stamina bar. You’ll also find items like pitons which give you a chance to rest and the grabbling hook which improves your speed and mobility.
These systems ensure that practically every moment in I Am Alive is both fraught with tension and resembles something of a puzzle. Navigation must be planned and executed carefully and each fight forces you to take into account your resources and abilities – plus your chances of not getting dead.
Though there’s a definite learning curve to the experience, it all works remarkably well once it hits its stride. In fact, you may find the tone too uniquely gruelling, longing for those few moments where you aren’t clinging to the edge of a building by your fingertips or searching for a chink in the armour of a heavyset brute bearing down on you with murder in their eyes. There are a few non murderous NPC’s in I Am Alive
, including a young child called Mei and her concerned carer, as well as an assortment of others who you can help for scraps of information and thanks, but for the most part it’s an alternatively lonely and terrifying experience.
I Am Alive’s
dreary colour scheme can also be a chore to sit through for long stretches, though it’s eased a little by the helpful splashes of colour which help to lead you through the levels. The levels themselves are (perhaps unavoidably) dull but also quite repetitive and bland. And while the central character model is decently animated, supporting players can be very basic. Still, the world is quite large and the climbing gives you plenty of freedom, making you almost forget the games downloadable roots.
I Am Alive
is better than we had any reason to expect, given its attenuated development cycle and sudden announcement as an XBLA/SEN title. The gameplay is solid and uniquely tension inducing, while the use of a limited number of retries forces players to focus more than they are used to. Difficulty is often high but rarely unfair and enemy encounters are suitably brutal. Against this impressive frame, it’s the story that comes off most wanting – with little engagement with the characters. The lack of a defining villain also leaves the enemies altogether anonymous, perhaps making it all the more disturbing when you ruthlessly slaughter them all.
Bold, bleak and occasionally brilliant – I Am Alive
is well worth checking out for the survival fanatics out there, though some may find the experience frustrating.
Available Wendesday the 7th of March on XBLA for 1200 MS Points (€14) and coming to SEN and PC soon.