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.