I Am Alive review (XBLA)
I Am Alive was developed by Ubisoft Shanghai and produced by Ubisoft. It was released on March 7, 2012 for 1200 MSP.
It’s two hours before any act of kindness befalls Adam, I Am Alive’s gravelly protagonist. Two strangers sheltering from the callous outdoors offer him some meat. It’s cooked, Adam’s nursing wounds, and his is a world in which food is hard come by. The men huddle around a fire in full blaze and in a city ravaged by earthquakes and shrouded by a plume of killer-dust, the scene in the gloomy subway is about the most heartening yet. Adam scoffs the meat down and sets off again. Perhaps there is good still in this most ruthless of worlds. And then you stumble upon the cage; a 4×3 foot coop home to a human skeleton and some leftover slabs of meat. Damnit.
Like so much of I Am Alive, it’s a scene anchored in Cormac McCarthy’s comfortless classic The Road, but Ubisoft could hardly have chosen a more worthy inspiration for its bleak survival horror.
Here’s what we liked:
The apocalypse – Adam’s tale takes place in the wake of a cataclysmic incident known as The Event. While that sounds more hipster nightclub than doomsday scenario, it has had devastating consequences. Earthquakes ransack the fictional city of Haventon and civilization has plummeted right down into the murky abyss. Haventon is a ruthless and uncaring place, painted in greys and browns and home almost exclusively to the depraved and the derelict — Ubisoft don’t hold back on the horror — and it’s through all this that I Am Alive feels compelling and fresh. Its apocalyptic world is a far cry from Fallout 3’s D.C. Wastelands or Enslaved’s beautiful apocalyptic backdrop and the bleak setting is I Am Alive‘s greatest asset.
“Combat” – Combat scenarios are uncommon at first but become more prevalent as Adam progresses. Stumbling upon a single bullet in Haventon is reason enough to make merry – there’s only three or four clips worth of ammunition sprinkled throughout the city and it’s rare you’ll have more than a bullet or two at a time. With such a short supply of ammo, knowing when to fight, when to run, when to bluff and when to sneak up and slash someone’s throat with a machete is integral to surviving. The puzzle-like combat harks back to the days of true survival horror and it’s great, at first anyway.
It’s a pity more wasn’t made of the basic stealth mechanic because combat quickly falls into a groove: sly machete kill, shoot one guy, force the other to surrender, whack him about the head. Fortunately, later in the game the pistol is supplemented with a bow and arrow which opens up a new avenue of combat possibilities.
Platforming – Much like Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, Adam can scale walls and leap ravines. True to the tone of the game however, he’s forced to take a breather every now and then; his efforts dominated by a declining stamina bar. Let it reach zero and he’ll take a plunge. This forges a tension entirely absent in something like Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed, true to I Am Alive’s unforgiving atmosphere.
Moral quandary – At its heart, I Am Alive is a game about the loss of humanity. Despite the inclusion of characters that require the player’s assistance in various ways, Haverton is a suffocating and lonely place and your time spent in their company is minimal. Nobody is ever really helping you and if you choose to assist the sick or the captured (outside of the enforced story), it’s always at your own expense. Health items are at a premium and sacrificing these to save the lives of strangers becomes a tougher call as the game progresses, tougher still when ammunition is required to do so. One woman puts on her most seductive voice, attempting to convince the player that she can make it worth their while to set her free. Is her life worth the last bullet though? Probably not.
Here’s what we didn’t like:
Fastidious survivors and inconsistencies – To rescue the woman mentioned above you have to shoot her handcuffs, but there are several points prior to that in which you use your machete to cut through metal chains. Not allowed here. The lack of consistency is enough to shatter the believability of the world.
In similarly ridiculous fashion, the AI characters you can aid all demand specific items; a bottle of wine, some rat meat, a tomato or a cigarette to name a few. They’ll flat out refuse water if they want wine, scoff at meat if they want tomatoes and hang themselves if you don’t cough up a tin can of food. These are people caught in their death throes acting like spoiled children at Pizza Hut. Like the inconsistencies, this threatens to tear the whole atmosphere to shreds.
So much dust – The streets act as a quasi-hub that you return to after bouts in the subways and buildings. They’re shrouded in thick dust which drains Adam’s stamina and prevents you from being able to see more than a few feet ahead (more a narrative excuse for not having to worry about draw distances). Down on the city streets there are so many stray bottles of water and conveniently placed cans of food to counter Adam’s declining stamina and health that it’s possible to rack up a hefty backpack full of supplies. It doesn’t make sense that there’s so much aid suddenly, and being timed and near blinded is irritating.
Checkpoints and retries – While it echoes the game’s ruthless aesthetic, a checkpoint system that has you restarting entire levels if you’re caught without a retry is incredibly annoying. Rescue survivors and you’re rewarded with a retry, but there should be no benefit to helping other human beings. The ‘should I/shouldn’t I’ quandary is completely undermined. I Am Alive isn’t a sympathetic or charitable game; cruelty is part of the appeal but sacrificing some supplies isn’t such a tough call knowing you’re going to be rewarded. It’s possible to lose 30-40 minutes of progress and replacing the current mechanic with a slightly friendlier checkpoint system wouldn’t have undone the game’s grounding in real survival horror.
Minor niggles – Ubisoft also renege on tacky game-conventions when it ought to stick to its guns and embrace the fact that I Am Alive does well enough without them. Quick time events, armored enemies and a needless score system fly in the face of the discouraging atmosphere and survival-horror gameplay.
Fortunately there’s enough of the good stuff to counter the inanities. The survival horror genre has morphed drastically over the past decade into something more concerned with quick chills and cinematic pep. I Am Alive bucks that trend with some verve. It doesn’t always work, and it’s peppered with absurdities, but look beyond that and Ubisoft’s long-awaited survival-horror proves absorbing and harrowing in equal measure.
Score: Buy It!