Wot I Think: I Am Alive

By John Walker on September 12th, 2012 at 9:00 pm.

I Am Alive was never coming to PC. Then it came to PC. You can get it now from Ubi’s shop and Steam, for around £13. It’s the dark, gloomy tale of one man’s attempt to climb his way to his wife and daughter, and I’ve been playing it for ages. So now I can tell you Wot I Think.

I Am Alive is a cocktail of great ideas and wobbly delivery. It’s a game that constantly walks the line of being almost there, but always finds a way to put its foot down on the wrong side. I’ve simultaneously had a good time playing it, and always felt frustrated by its failings. It’s an odd place, and an interesting one.

Things are set in some manner of post-apocalyptic world, fallen cities clouded in heavy, poisonous dust. You are That Guy, trying to find his missing wife and daughter, while helping out anyone who doesn’t try to shoot at you along the way. It’s half climbing, half fighting, and almost always a washed out grey-tone world, with only hints of almost forgotten colour.

The tone is bleak. And the inspiration seems likely to be McCarthy’s The Road, from setting to enemies to scavenging to your incentive often being guarding a child. You have a gun, but bullets are incredibly rare. (I’ve never had more than five at once, and spend the majority of the time with one or none.) You have a knife, but combat is… we’ll get to that. Eventually you get a bow and arrow, but literally that, a bow with an arrow. It’s never meant to be third-person action, always aiming to keep you slow, encumbered, and struggling. Unfortunately, that’s an ethos that accidentally invades the act of playing, as well as the experience.

Everything you do is within the limits of your stamina – a bar that gradually degrades until you’re standing on a flat surface, above the thickest dust. Climbing uses it up pretty quickly, meaning scaling the conveniently pipey-and-raily- world requires management of this meter, also using inventory items that can boost it, and very rare items that let you rest mid-wall. And once you’re down on the street, that stamina is always dropping as the dust clogs your lungs, meaning running is deadly, and you’ll often need to find heights to climb to if you’re going to survive.

And all that’s great, in theory. Limitations are often the most important aspects of allowing fun – too much freedom and there’s no challenge, no incentive. But it’s safe to say they’ve gone way too far the other way here. All the way through it’s hard to shake the feeling that the game somewhat resents your playing it, and is going to spoil whatever it can.

When climbing, this comes down to some ludicrously over-restrictive choices, and some occasionally very shoddy mechanics. Everything is pre-ordained, with buttons/keys only working when the game decrees it should be so. So while on rare occasions there are multiple paths to take, you very much feel like you’re trying to drag yourself through the maze, waiting until you’re allowed to jump. In the game world there’s absolutely no consistency about what you can climb over or up, with ludicrous things like bin bags being impassable obstacles for a man who can scale up the sides of buildings. Taking the gaming phenomenon of locked doors to the next level, here your character can’t even try to open them – he’s entirely beholden to the shape the world is already in, unless something happens to as you to press X when you get near it. Such a prescribed and proscribed world is still often lots of fun to scale, but never feels free, and you certainly never get to feel inspired.

Combat, however, is where what would otherwise have been a decent fun game really falls to bits. The notions behind it are, again, interesting and worthwhile. The delivery is ridiculous. What’s good – and when it works properly it’s really good – is the idea that you’re not some super-ninja action hero, but rather a desperate guy with barely any bullets and a knife. So if there are three baddies coming toward you, and one of them is threatening you with a gun, it’s not a great plan to pull out your pistol and start trying to shoot everyone. Chances are there are more of them than you have bullets, let alone that they’ll have filled you with knives before you could do it.

So instead, let the guy the with the gun get too close, then surprise him with your knife and a slice to his throat. That done, the other two will panic and rush you, so now pull out your gun and point it at them. So long as neither can pick up the dropped gun of their fallen friend, you’ve got the upper hand now, and can shout at them to back up, perhaps even push them off the edge of a building or into a fire, and if they realise they’re done for, they could even surrender. Maybe there’s three of them still, and one decides to chance your not having any bullets (and you may not, of course – an empty gun is still an effective threat) – he might rush you. Have you a bullet, shooting him is going to send a very strong message to the other two, and they could give up.

That, in principle – and occasionally in practice – is a great and interesting idea. Sadly, most of the time it just doesn’t work.

Once you’re facing five or six enemies – and for some godforsaken reason the game thinks it’s clever to have some of them appear behind you – your options really are gone. And while you obviously should be able to end up in a messy knife fight to survive, this is actually impossible. Any time you fight one enemy on his own, you’ll end up in an identical QTE fight to wrestle against him and stab him. If there’s two of them, the other will interrupt this making it impossible. And it’s the only option. It’s just insane that you can’t stab or swing the knife at all, and it means guaranteed restarts until you can figure out a possible way to incapacitate them all.

And this is where the other big issue occurs. Replays. For some inexplicable reason it’s considered a novel idea to use old-school platform game rules here. You have a limited number of replays (earned by doing deeds for others, as it happens), after which you’ll be forced to start the entire level over. That’s annoying enough in a fast-paced platformer. In a snail-pace plod of a game, it’s agony. So almost immediately it’s only fun if you switch to the “Easy” mode, that lets you have infinite replays, while still maintaining the difficulty of the fights. Fine, except now the good deeding has no incentive at all, which breaks a big chunk of the game.

Where I Am Alive is at its best is in the exploration you’re allowed during some missions. Go off path, despite the game complaining at you for it, and you can find other citizens who need a hand, bonuses in hard-to-reach places (albeit extremely few – the game asks some interesting questions about whether off-road exploration should always end in a reward, as not doing it may be realistic, but it’s damned disappointing), and climb structures for fun. Sometimes the two correlate, and the mission means going past such places anyway – that’s how it should be all the time, obviously.

The bleakness actually works well, and the acting is top-notch. While it certainly doesn’t get close to recreating the atmosphere of McCarthy’s novel, it does a damned good job of making you care about little Mai. A nice refrain of video camera footage makes the storytelling interesting, and adds a good deal of humanness to it all. Indeed, there is much in the game to be lauded, and while the graphics are certainly held back by their console roots, the artistic design is often splendid. For once fogging in a game isn’t a get-out, but rather an aesthetic choice.

What you get is a sort of slo-mo Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time, if the Prince were a depressive and sand turned to dust. But something with a lot more feeling, though sadly a lot less slick. I love a lot of what I Am Alive wants to be, and I dearly wish it could have achieved that aim more frequently than it does.

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55 Comments »

  1. Laffles says:

    Weird, just finished the game and opened rps and this is here.

    I agree with all of your points. The games atmosphere is brilliant, I enjoyed it a lot and thought the gameworld was perfectly realised. But yeah, some really terrible gameplay mechanics.

    Still though, don’t regret buying it.

    • lessthandan says:

      Right, it’s a flawed game that tries some interesting new things. For $15 I think the price is right. Definitely a very intriguing game.

      • Spengbab says:

        Liked the setting, liked the characters, but once I had to fight 4 enemies regularly, it just became impossible. Rage-quit after 1 hour (When you need to reach the top of a building to get medicine for Mei).

        I get that combat isn’t the goal of the game, but these ridiculous restrictions just make it un-fun.

  2. Tom says:

    don’t regret buying it either.
    imagine how awesome this game could’ve been with the kind of budget studio’s throw at yet another shooter…

    also… i found a shotgun with 5 shells, and Adam Jensen in a wheelchair.

    liked it. a lot.

    • Bingo Bango says:

      Is that the shotgun you get from the old man that wants a bazillion items (including human flesh)? Or is there another way to get it?

      I thought it was interesting that Adam Jensen’s actor voiced the wheelchair chap, too. I liked to think it was in the Deus Ex universe, and without LIMB clinics all his augs fell apart and he couldn’t walk.

      • Tom says:

        yeah, you get from the hunchback fella.
        don’t think anyone knew they were eating human flesh.
        felt bad giving it to him, but i’d been an enthusiastic little scavenger… plenty to go around!

    • TechnicalBen says:

      I’m not sure if it needed a bigger budget, just more refined features. Although ACreed platforming might be beyond their budget, Alan Drake or Mario is not. So it needn’t be linear. The combat also would not need a massive budget, just a think about things… like “oh, the play gets stuck in unwinable battles, is that fun? No. Is it part of the story? Yes. Can we meet the player half way? Ok, we will let you try and run away, but you’ll probably fail. But this lets you keep the fun/story of desperation going.”

  3. Dark Acre Jack says:

    Worth mentioning this is a “budget-priced” title and the production quality feels like a full priced title.

    • bakaohki says:

      As far as I know the development fell apart and the studio wanted to scrap the project – I don’t really like buying stuff where the project ends up in pain and frustration… though I’m too lazy to look up the article on the interwebz, so I might be wrong, but I don’t think so.

      • The Random One says:

        I recall it being specifically developed to be an Xbox Live title with AAA graphics just to BLOW PEOPLE ‘S MINDS.

        • liquidsoap89 says:

          It was originally a full blown retail game for the consoles. Then it was forgotten about for around a year or so, before the developers finally came out and said it’s now a XBLA/PSN game. THEN they announced a PC version.

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      • Leiaz says:

        It was supposed to be a full price title : http://www.joystiq.com/game/i-am-alive
        I also think it was supposed to be more open. I remember being interested when it was first announced.

        I played the demo on PS3 and the actions felt too restricted. When climbing, the stamina doesn’t mean anything because it is impossible to pick a better or worse path anyway …

        It’s sad they couldn’t finish the first, more ambitious version.

  4. bakaohki says:

    I played with the demo on xbox: it could’ve been great. But really, it wasn’t :( I hoped they will listen to criticism and change some things with the PC version (difficulty, save points), but so far it seems to be a straight port, which is a shame.

  5. SirKicksalot says:

    I loved combat against multiple enemies. It’s a neat tactical challenge that only gets better as more enemy types, hazards and the bow are introduced.

    • codename_bloodfist says:

      The bow makes everything A LOT easier though. You can just keep shooting them, drawing the gun, picking up the arrow and shooting them again.

  6. beema says:

    So uh… no review as to the quality of the port? Graphics? Controls? UbiDRM? Anything? There was absolutely nothing I could glean from this review about the PC version. Come on…

    • Deadly Habit says:

      There’s no UbiDRM (thankfully). The graphics for being HD have some issues with poor textures in some places and the filmgrain effect and greyish/brown and bloom despite it being post apocalypse people either love or hate. Controls worked fine for me and as far as I can tell are fully remappable on mouse and keyboard though sometimes the camera movement seems a little jerky with the mouse, but I’ve read on the steam forum people are having issues getting their XBox 360 wireless controllers working properly.
      Overall I enjoyed the title and actually found the save system to work as it forces you to be more cautious otherwise you’ll be wasting all your retries and starting the level all over again. The combat I agree is flawed and can cause some cheap deaths. That and the game just kind of ends abruptly without resolving some key story points and the fate of some characters. Also it’s a relatively short title, took me 4 fours to complete first play through with I think 88% total completion of every side goal.
      I’d say if it looks interesting check out some gameplay vids of it and decide from there if it’s worth $15 to you.

      • zakihashi says:

        Like in every Ubisoft game Ubisoft screws up when it comes to the controller. And not just the Xbox 360 wireless controller. Wired controller works flawlessly, but then you move on to PS3 controllers via emu’s, Logitech and alll of these that can be emulated to a 360 controller. It’s due to the wireless controllers using some input I don’t remember right now, and the wired once using another method, which Ubisoft screws in EVERY game around. The big issue with this is, that even if you want a wired 360 controller, that sort of old tech simply isn’t sold in a lot of countries anymore.
        It works great with the wired tho, but anything else is kinda a lot of work to get working properly.

        • KenTWOu says:

          Wired controller works flawlessly, but then you move on to PS3 controllers via emu’s, Logitech and alll of these that can be emulated to a 360 controller…

          That’s why Logitech F series (F310/F510/F710) have special switch to select old DirectInput or new XInput (X-Box 360 compatible) mode.

        • CptPlanet says:

          what ken said, i really would only recommend x-input gamepads to play games on pc with which includes the microsoft and logitech as far as i know.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      I know, it’s almost as if someone’s just telling you wot they think about the game rather than reviewing it eh?

    • SelfEsteemFund says:

      I personally didn’t have any issue performance-wise however there are tonnes of people complaining on the steam & official forums about performance & various other issues, way more than usual. Graphics? Textures are far from detailed & the game kind of looks like when you set a game from 2006 to low quality, the world is 95% grey so don’t go in expecting any sort of colour. Controls are not what I’d describe as comfortable & basically not designed for pc at all however they’re remappable.. my biggest issue with the game which has made it pretty much unplayable is that the mouse is interpreted as an analog device and so there is a huge amount of mouse stuttering when looking around, an issue which many others also have along with console pads not working at all. Couple of other things, the game also features an ungodly amount of acceleration & has no fov option, on the bright side it has skippable cutscenes, yeah.. As always there are a few people out there with no problems at all but they’re definitely a serious minority in this case. DRM? Steam

      Basically a below average port & a gamble which probably (definitely) won’t receive post-launch support.

      • Deadly Habit says:

        pretty sure you can change the FOV in the config file, at least I saw the option in there while poking around, but didn’t test it.

        • SelfEsteemFund says:

          “I saw fov in a fiile so it must be configurable”

          • Henke says:

            Um, that’s not what he said. He said he saw the option and he’s guessing it’s configurable. He’s suggest a way that might help you out and in return you’re mocking him. Not sure if that was your intention with that post, SelfEsteemFund, but you’re coming across as an asshole right now.

      • Kaje says:

        Why does it matter what a game looks like?

        Fallout 2 – graphically dated, but arguably one of the greatest games ever created – even by today’s standards.

        Apologies if you’re not one of their fanbois but it’s not all about Call of Doody: Facewar, y’know.

        Hell, I’d much rather play something that looks like it was made in the 00s with amazing gameplay than something with mind-bending graphics that is as shallow as feck.

        Games can have dated or minimal graphics and still be better than anything a triple A studio will throw up.

        • njursten says:

          This is getting a bit old.

          Usually nice graphics don’t detract from the gameplay. Most of us don’t mind the game being pretty. It’s not an either-or thing, you know.

    • liquidsoap89 says:

      Maybe the port was good enough to not feel the need to complain about anything, but just bland enough to not have anything positive to say either.

    • sinister agent says:

      Honestly, why do you need every review to pat you on the back for having a PC? If someone whose opinion you value gives you their thoughts on the game, then what more do you need?

      • Ragnar says:

        I’m guessing he has a PC and the consoles, and wants to know which system he should buy the game for. If the port is good, then he’ll buy it for PC. If the port is bad, then he’ll pick it up for the consoles instead.

        Given that the quality of the port isn’t mentioned (aside from the console graphics being a limiting factor), one would assume that the game plays just fine on PC, but not necessarily any better than on the consoles.

        • grenadeh says:

          There’s no such thing as a good PC port. Port = Bad. No game has been made with regards to the difference between PCs and consoles, in many many years. The only games made to actually function as intended on PCs are RTS games like Total War, and occasional PC exclusives like Amnesia which are few and far between.

          Name one PC port that has ever been worth a damn.

  7. SkittleDiddler says:

    Why the F are there baby fingers wrapped around his neck in the third image? That’s creepy, and makes me want to not buy the game. Baby fingers are creepy.

  8. chesh says:

    This sounds like exactly the sort of failure I will absolutely pay full price for, play, and talk about to anyone who will listen to me, all in the hope that it gets enough buzz for someone to take the ideas and give them a better execution.

  9. Stromko says:

    I seriously considered buying this game as a statement since Ubi had finally publicly dropped their onerous DRM, but all the reviews made it clear that it wasn’t a game I’d enjoy.

    If they really want to repair their reputation and be seen as a company that gives one jot about their customers, it would really help to just strip that particularly poorly implemented, always-online DRM from all the games they’ve released that had it. Those games are old now, so they can’t be as concerned about piracy, surely, and it would convince a lot of people who hadn’t bought them before.

    It would be a win/win for customers and stockholders alike, the only problem is it sounds like they welded the always-on requirement straight into the spine of these games so it’s not like they can crack it out in a weekend.

    • grenadeh says:

      IDk about steam, which as an always online requirement for all games and is a piece of monkey shit, but I remember on XBLA you didn’t have to be online to play.

  10. 1Life0Continues says:

    I think it might be worth buying this game (on sale if you’re really struggling) just to give the concept some legs. The idea of a game where bluffing is a huge part of survival rather than just gunning down or running and hiding, is one I’d like to see taken further for sure. There’s something about it that while it’s probably not revolutionary, it does need to be explored more and given a better chance at becoming a valid and considered mechanic, because I’m of the opinion we need more of these kinds of mechanics.
    It’s unfortunate they pushed out what they did, because it’s obvious there was more planned than delivered, but I think if we take the hit to the pocket now, we could see it introduced more meaningfully and with a better budget and dev time in the future. Hell, people invest on the stockmarket for less.

  11. XSURVIVORX says:

    Just finished the game on survivor difficulty. Its was a great game with a good story and very challenging all for 14.99 It don’t get any better then that. YEAH BABY!

  12. sinister agent says:

    Played about three hours of this, and to be honest, there’s nothing I can add, John nailed it perfectly.

    Fixing the combat and stupid save system, and easing up on the ultra-linearity would have worked wonders. There really needs to be more survival-based games.

  13. andytizer says:

    The game itself has some problems with Xbox 360 wireless controllers, which can be fixed by using a 360 controller emulator. It also has encrypted settings and a number of performance issues on PC.

    If you discover a new fix for the game, please add it to: http://pcgamingwiki.com/wiki/I_Am_Alive – no account is required to edit.

    • Ragnar says:

      I thought the whole point of the Xbox 360 Controller for Windows was to give devs a standard to work with.

      My wireless 360 controller has been working flawlessly with every game I’ve tried ever since I got it back in 2009. And yet now, 3 years later, I need to use a 360 controller emulator to get my wireless 360 controller to work? Something is very wrong with this.

  14. anark10n says:

    *sees John Walker WIT*
    *quickly swallows lunch*
    *finishes off tea*
    *prepares sides for hurt*

    BRING IT!

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  16. Hidden_7 says:

    The thing I found about the game (and I’m only about half way through at this point, haven’t gotten the bow yet) is that the linear structure is at odds with the survivor mechanics, which ends up in a weird sort of experience where it actually ends up feeling like a puzzle game.

    Like, if the game were more open sandbox, the decision to climb a particular structure to look for supplies, weighed against the output of stamina it required would be an interesting one. As is, the stamina mechanic is usually used to dictate an optimal pace and route along a structure you must climb to proceede. It becomes about solving the room, Prince of Persia style. If the game were more of an open sandbox, then the desperate resource and deception based combat would make every group of enemies something to be feared and avoided, or maybe, if you had hoarded enough bullets, something to be warily engaged with on the promise of more resources. As it stands now you are forced into these combat situations, you can’t avoid them, so they are just a series of challenges where you need to figure out the correct solution to complete them. Bullets are not a resource to be cherished, they are a tool necessary to solve the puzzle.

    This game serves for me as the clearest possible example of how you can not have survival gameplay in a linear environment. It absolutely breaks it, turns it into something else. Because they’ve done such clever things with the survival mechanics, gotten them so solid, that if this doesn’t work as a survival game, then no linear game can.

    • sinister agent says:

      The thing I found about the game (and I’m only about half way through at this point, haven’t gotten the bow yet) is that the linear structure is at odds with the survivor mechanics, which ends up in a weird sort of experience where it actually ends up feeling like a puzzle game.

      Exactly the feeling I was getting. It’s a particularly strong feeling when it comes to combat – you have one bullet, and there are three guys, and there’s simply no way through other than to surprise attack one, shoot the second, and bluff the third. You could try running around slapstick chase circles to herd them somewhere, but then your stamina runs out and they just stab you anyway.

      It sort of works as a puzzle, but as you said, it’s at odds with other parts of the game, so doesn’t really come together right. It also makes some parts of it trial and error (like many puzzle games), which renders the “retry” system useless.

    • SirKicksalot says:

      It’s a hub world, but this only becomes obvious after you get the bow. You’ll get more gear that encourages exploration.

  17. grenadeh says:

    The only bad part of this game was that it ended. And that the title was irony – oh sorry spoilers. I truly enjoyed this game. It wasn’t just prince of persia meets Harrison Ford. You had to be good at climbing and also smart enough to enter combat situations or avoid them, and know how to manage items.
    I wanted badly for it to become a full game but with the ending, it won’t. I can see from someof the dumbass comments though that there’s a reason they released this as a 15 dollar game and it was only about 6 hours long – people are, as always, too stupid and chickenshit to buy a 15 dollar game. If you think you aren’t going to like the game, mind your own business and stfu – it’s not Ubi’s fault you don’t like their games, you’re just a lameass. Ubi makes nothing but good games. Their “reputation” is not tarnished by DRM: Other companies have far worse DRM.

    People that worry about DRM don’t purchase games. There’s a difference between rage at the Steam/XBLA/PSN/Wii user agreements – which explicitly say they are taking your money and they’ll let you play the games when and only when and where they say and you can fuck yourself otherwise – and rage at DRM that literally does not interfere at all with the gaming experience.

  18. grenadeh says:

    The part I find funny about this article is the crying about game mechanics and inconsistency about climbing. The things you can climb are clearly defined throughout the entirety of the game. And, if you’ve noticed, almost every game has random objects that have a strong force generator in the bottom of them, somehow. You can move a car but a waterbottle on the ground will make it flip over when you wreck into it, for example. The fact that the game industry has yet to get past gamebreaking things like that doesn’t excuse it happening, but its nothing to bitch about.

    I never had any problems when faced with 6 enemies at once on Xbox. I died a few times and I improvised and won. You can easily shoot 4 or even 6 of them without being murdered. You don’t fight that many enemies until the near end of the game anyway, at which point they literally start dropping enough bullets to feel like you might have a chance. You also have a bow, and the knife works.

  19. NothingFunny says:

    Thanks for the honest review. QTEs and no consistency even in control scheme is a big flaw for me – I’ll pass