You’re walking down the deserted street of a ravaged city, a fog of grey dust surrounding you so thickly you struggle to breathe. You can barely make out the hazy outline of objects just ten feet in front of you as you stumble between derelict cars and huge fissures in the road. A figure appears in a doorway and it stands, spotting you. It raises what might be handgun and points it at you, shouting something indistinct. You pull your handgun out and take aim, knowing that you’ve only one bullet left with little hope of ever finding another. The figure shouts again and takes a step forward. Your pulse races, muscles clenching and after less than a second’s thought you fire.
The figure cries out and stumbles backwards, hitting the door and crumbling to the ground. You stand frozen, breathing heavily as the figure slumps into a motionless heap. You walk towards it warily, empty gun still raised. As you approach the darkened doorway you see the face of your victim; a woman, old and frail, eyes open and unblinking as blood pools beneath her head. She is dead. Her fingers are curled around a steel pipe: not a gun or even a knife, just a piece of old piping. She was just trying to protect herself like you were. She was scared and alone and you killed her. But you didn’t know that and you couldn’t take the chance. You had to do it. You had to.
I Am Alive is a game about survival in a pitiless and desolate world. An unexplained catastrophe has struck America (and presumably the whole world) and left it a devastated wasteland covered in a toxic cloud of grey dust. Skyscrapers lie in ruin, collapsed against each other. Roads are gouged in two, houses and cars abandoned. It’s one year after the “Event” and already there is no society, government or law and a dwindling supply of food, water and hope.
You play as a man separated from his family when The Event happened. He was just a four hour plane ride away but after The Event it has taken him a year to make his way back to Haventon, the city where they lived. He carries with him the slim hope that somehow his wife and daughter are still alive and at their family home. He also carries an unloaded pistol and a meagre collection of food and supplies.
The gameplay is a mixture of climbing, platforming, and gun and melee combat all choked in a Silent Hill-esque atmosphere of dread and loneliness. You are able to clamber up walls and fences much in the same manner as Drake from Uncharted or the Prince of Persia but in I Am Alive you have a rechargeable stamina bar to worry about. As you climb your stamina reduces and if it runs out completely the actual bar length will start to go down meaning even if you get back on solid ground your stamina is permanently truncated unless you use an item to replenish it. This system adds an impressive sense of panic and tension to the climbing sections. Having to scale the face of an abandoned skyscraper and suddenly realising you’re not quite sure where to go next is given a palpable sense of fear as the stamina bar depletes and the discordant warning music gets louder.
There are people sparsely littered around the ruins of the city. Some of them are just trying to scratch out survival by keeping themselves hidden and safe but many have formed roaming gangs that stalk the streets and buildings and take supplies (and people) by force. These savages are the real threat. You aren’t a macho man or superhero but just an ordinary Joe trying to stay alive so encounters with the gangs are always fraught with danger. If you’re lucky enough to have a bullet you might be able kill their leader and frighten the others into obeying your commands. Even if you don’t have any bullets they don’t know that. One of the best ideas in the game is the ability to bluff; pointing an unloaded gun at would-be attackers and hoping they’ll back down long enough for you to gain the upper hand. Pulling an unloaded gun on someone who also has a gun is not so clever though. They won’t hesitate if their clip isn’t empty.
These frantic encounters with violent survivors can either be tense, exciting standoffs or exercises in blood boiling frustration. When it all goes to plan and you manage to bluff them into submission or adeptly prioritise the biggest threats and dispatch them with brutal efficiency it feels like a real triumph. But when it goes wrong and you panic and accidentally waste your only bullet by shooting the wrong man (i.e. the one who didn’t have the gun) the game usually punishes you with merciless death with little hope of fighting back. In these moments the game can seem unfair and all too quick to crush you.
As frustrating as it was sometimes, I thought the difficult and uncompromising approach to combat really gelled with the thick atmosphere of hopelessness. Everything about the world is harsh and dangerous and the idea that you can die quickly at any moment keeps the sense of dread high. It’s no Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy in terms of hardcore difficulty but I Am Alive certainly makes your journey through its apocalyptic hell suitably difficult and in keeping with the cruel reality of life after The Event.
When played on Normal difficultly you get a number of retries per chapter that put you back at the last checkpoint (which is usually just before the place you died) and when they’re gone you’re forced to repeat the chapter from scratch. The system is harsh but fair because you’ll usually have a few attempts in reserve and only on one occasion did I mess up enough to have to do a chapter restart. It pissed me off but it was my own fault and a fair punishment for so many consecutive failures at dealing with the gang of vicious bastards blocking my way.
You can boost your chances by helping out the non-violent survivors you sometimes stumble across. Often they are in dire straits and need you to sacrifice one of you precious items to help them but making the sacrifice gets you another Retry and often some more information that may help you find your family. One particular survivor best summed up the game’s mood – it was a young woman who desperately needed a health pack from me but I had none to give. A few hours later the plot required me to return to the same area from a different direction so I took the chance to go back to check on her with health pack in tow. I got to hang on to it though because this time I was greeted by her limp body dangling from a makeshift noose.
If you’ve read or seen The Road the aesthetic and general tone of the game will be very familiar. It’s certainly not an original vision of hell on Earth but as a setting for a survival game it doesn’t need to be groundbreaking, just effective. And on that score it certainly is. As I mentioned the city of Haventon is covered in grey dust that washes out the colour. The game is practically in black and white most of the time but on the few occasions where you get inside and completely escape the dust the sudden resurgence of colour is a welcome relief. It never lasts though and you always have to go back outside into the bleak and barren city.
Far more than being just a visual choice the dust cloud is noxious and any attempt to walk though it slowly drains your stamina and then health leading to death. When exploring the city at street level you have to move purposefully and constantly look for ways of getting above the cloud to restore your stamina. This keeps the danger level high and makes exploring the relatively small city constantly treacherous. The fog makes navigation difficult and it’s easy to lose your bearings and panic but this is a bad idea as running just makes your stamina deplete faster. Your back is always against the wall even when just trying to make it from A to B (an idea that most apocalyptic tales like to extol) and in I Am Alive it works exceptionally well at keeping your situation dire.
I really enjoyed I Am Alive but I have to be honest and say that the game’s atmosphere alone would have sold it for me even if the actual game itself was a steaming turd (which it isn’t). It’s not a game without flaws but none of them are deal breakers and, for me, none stand a chance against the sheer experience of it all.
That being said, sometimes the controls in the climbing sections don’t feel like they respond quick enough, especially when your stamina is reaching critical levels. There was the odd time I wasn’t able to get my character to recognise climbable areas fast enough and that could be frustrating. It was never a major problem though and only once or twice did it have me swearing at the screen.
I do wish they would have implemented some kind of system for talking or bargaining your way out of trouble, especially for the occasions when you end up in violent confrontation with other survivors who are clearly just scared and trying to protect themselves. You can just walk away from them but if you accidentally pull your gun or get too close they will attack. It would have been nice to have an option other than bloodshed but then any time I did have to murder someone who didn’t really seem to deserve it there was an added sense of weight to the horror of the world and reminder that ultimately it was either them or me.
I found the traversal of the crumbling city and the constant hopelessness always engrossing. The bleakness and inhumanity never lets up and certainly doesn’t cop out when it comes to the ending. The relentlessly oppressive atmosphere will likely not be to everyone’s taste though – light hearted family friendly hilarity this ain’t. However, if you enjoy the Silent Hill games or apocalyptic fiction then you’ll probably get a lot out of I Am Alive’s evocatively realised vision of the end of the world.
7 / 10
Xbox Live Arcade version played. (PlayStation Network version due for release in the Spring.)
Price: 1200 Microsoft Points/£10.20
Release Date: 7th March 2012