By Adam Smith on November 4th, 2011 at 11:59 am.
Afterfall: InSanity is an independently developed, Unreal powered third person action-horror game. It’s available to preorder for a mere $1 at the moment, but unless 9,980,000 more copies are sold before release on November 25th you’ll rather dubiously end up paying the full amount of $33.90. I’m not making that massive figure up by the way, though I am rounding it to the nearest 10,000. The $1 will go to charity at least. So, fancy donating some money? Good on you. There’s loads of charities out there. But I’m here to tell you about the game.
AfterFall: InSanity has an interesting background. Originally, the Polish team behind it were working on a Fallout-esque RPG set in the AfterFALL world they have created, which involves an imagined future based upon an alternate past.
Every alternate history has that point at which that story’s timeline and our own diverges. Let us imagine that the Second World War had ended differently than the way we’d been taught in school. In the final moments of the war, Hitler managed to create his Wunderwaffe – a team of Nazi physicists finished the German a-bomb project.
Thanks to the Wunderwaffe, every nation in the world is plunged into a global cold war until 2011 when German scientists unleash a new kind of bomb. Automated systems respond until the whole world is burning and the last remnants of humanity hide in underground Vaults. Or Shelters.
INSanity begins in one such Shelter, placing the player in the footwear of Albert Tokaj, a psychiatrist and pharmacologist whose main duties involve dealing with outbreaks of Confinement Syndrome. People trapped underground, with no hope of seeing sun or sky again, tend to go a bit mad, y’see. Albert’s a true professional and within fifteen minutes of the game starting he has fallen to sleep during a session and referred to a patient in need as a ‘nutjob’. Fair enough really, as it’s strongly implied that psychiatrist or not, Albert is going stark raving bonkers himself. This is a horror game after all.
Except it’s not. Not really. There are monsters and madmen, darkness and delirium, but there’s nothing particularly frightening. The game’s closest counterpart is Dead Space, which it appears to be emulating in so many ways, but it only serves to remind how well Dead Space used its bag of tricks. Strong sound design is one of the greatest weapons in the horrifier’s arsenal and Dead Space was superb in that respect, with every clank and snarl creating a sense of place. A sense of a place absolutely dripping with dread. InSanity isn’t successful in this regard. Not only are the shouts of assailants too repetitive and verging on the comical, they simply don’t sound believable.
It’s a problem throughout what I’ve played of the game, covering the first four hours or so. It’s quite good fun exploring the Shelter during the opening minutes, visiting the bar and watching cute little robots cleaning the floors. People go about their lives, which mostly involves dancing around tables and punching vending machines. The sense of calm before the storm is effective and I was looking forward to seeing everything go horribly wrong. Except it doesn’t. At least not as far as I’ve played.
Remember the hyperactive trailer that made Alec grumpy? The game is fourteen times less hyperactive than that trailer and considerably less gory. It’s actually fairly plodding, which made me rather grumpy for entirely different reasons.
As soon as Confinement Syndrome becomes something more sinister and underground madness (distinct from space madness) really kicks in, the action shifts to the lower levels of the Shelter. Unfortunately, the lower levels are a series of corridors and maintenance rooms, most of which are almost identical to one another. Not only does this mean I didn’t experience the enjoyment of seeing the sorry remnants of civilisation torn apart, I also found myself separated from the more interesting environments above and stuck in valve-turning, reactor-fixing drudgery. It was a common complaint of Dead Space that Isaac often felt like little more than the handyman he was, being directed from one end of the ship to another to fix malfunctioning boilers. InSaniTY follows that template so it’s vital that what happens in between is enthralling.
Sadly, it isn’t. The combat is simple, with the flailing of melee weapons and the shooting of guns both in place but with neither causing much of a thrill. There are plenty of weapons to pick up, from wrenches and stun batons to broken pieces of machinery, but within moments of combat rearing its head for the first time I had grabbed a fire axe. I haven’t found a better weapon yet and it doesn’t seem to break, no matter how many brain-boxes I hack to bits with it, so the variety seems superfluous. I have used guns as well but an assault rifle is as nothing compared to my axe.
When shooting first becomes an option, there’s an introduction to the FearLock feature, which is a direct simulation of the terror that Albert is feeling. Enemies, horrific sights and injuries cause him to become more afraid, which makes his hands shake, reducing accuracy at range, but also fills him with adrenalin and makes him better at lopping things to bits with an axe. It’s a decent idea, except that it’s hard to tell how much impact it actually has and it ended up encouraging me to ignore guns almost completely since when I was really scared I could decapitate a mutant with two good swings. Fear is strength.
The main problem with combat is the enemies, which range in size and grotesqueness but all behave in an almost identical fashion. They run at you, then jump back slightly anticipating a swing of the axe, which is wise as I am rarely not swinging my axe. Then they attack. I dodge and then chop them into messes. Job done. Which is to say the combat lacks variety, although there is a certain visceral pleasure to it at times.
The overall feeling I’m left with is that this is an independent developer who have reached too high. It’s an attractive game at times but it’s lacking polish, and (so far) variety in environment and action. Polish isn’t the most important thing in the world but it does matter when the creation of a certain mood is clearly high on the agenda. It has to be said, the mood is mostly lacking. It’s an action-horror game with passable action and no real horror.
Maybe as things open up there will be a deeper exploration of Albert’s own collapsing sanity, which would be welcome, but the opening chapters are a slog. If I tell you that there is a quick time event to enter a code, with not even an animation to show fingers desperately dancing across keys as sweat drips from a pharmacological brow, would you think that was fun? That’s not fun.
For a dollar though? A dollar that goes to Amnesty? It might be worthwhile if that were to happen. Maybe it’ll even be loads of fun once you reach the surface (I’ve seen it in screenshots and trailers!). Aiming for ten million preorders before taking any of the money was perhaps slightly ambitious and it’s one of the stranger sales schemes I’ve ever seen. Shame this one is attempting to be deceptive as well and seems little more than a marketing ploy. That’s a shame in a world where most games are not only becoming free but are actually the heads of major charities. Frozen Synapse was last seen working for Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Congo. True story.
It’s an ambitious game, certainly, but I’d much rather have explored this world in an isometric RPG as first planned. Do you know what that RPG was going to be called? Bourgeoisie: Pearl of the Wastelands. That’d be worth a dollar for its name alone and it is the literal opposite of the name AFTERfall: insaNITY, which could be either a black metal band/album or a blood-soaked computer game. Bourgeoisie: Pearl of the Wastelands would either be a fascinating and possibly flawed computer game, or the greatest train in the history of steam.