I Am Alive's road to release was as troubled as the journey of its protagonist Adam. Originally announced at E3 back in 2008, the project was passed between numerous developers before settling in East Asia at Ubisoft Shanghai. During its transitional years the game's changed a lot, switching distribution platforms from physical to digital. But while there have been sweeping changes to the game’s scope, the intent to create a tense, survival experience remains. It's not always a success: there’s a wonderful game here screaming to escape, buried beneath layers of iffy execution and questionable design choices.
The narrative concerns itself with The Event. Very little is known about the occurrence itself, other than that it destroyed the fictional American town of Haverton, leaving its few remaining living inhabitants to survive. Adam is searching for his family, and must traverse the broken city looking for clues that will reunite him with his loved ones.
As the game’s title so effortlessly illustrates, survival is pivotal to everything in I Am Alive. The game is designed around the use of two status metres: stamina and health. The latter is self explanatory, but it’s the former that gives the title such a unique flavour. Almost everything you do requires physical energy, requiring you to be conscious of your status and manage your resources appropriately.
Cans of food, bottles of water and painkillers are all hidden around the world, but are in desperately short supply. Each substance has different properties too; some restore your health, some your stamina and others can be used for both. As you progress you’ll need to consider the opportune moment to utilise your resources, and, to add complexity to matters, you’ll also be presented with a number of moral quandaries.
As you traverse Haverton you’ll happen upon pleading survivors who require certain supplies to stay alive. Pledging your own priceless discoveries to their cause will reward you with more information about the Event itself but, given the rarity of such precious resources, you’re also given the option to walk away, keeping the important equipment for yourself. Considering the dire nature of the situation it seems like an easy decision to make, but hearing the screams of a dying child as you selfishly depart on your adventure with a stockpile of resources really hits hard and, while the cinematic presentation of these encounters could have been handled better, prompts an intriguing emotional response.
The supplies really are critical to survival too. Climbing is handled in a similar manner to Uncharted, but the key difference is that the more you ascend (or simply dangle idly on a cliff-face) the more stamina you’ll burn. Take too long and you’ll plunge to your death, so you need to be timely, plan out your moves in advance and take every opportunity for a break. Exert yourself and you’ll decrease the maximum length of your stamina bar, forcing you to consume precious supplies to recover.
It’s hard to shake the feeling of remorse when you eventually do concede and tuck into a discovered item. We played a vast majority of I Am Alive with just a quarter of our life bar filled, simply because we were reluctant to part with the medikit we found early on. The game makes you question every decision you make with regards to supplies, and that helps to accentuate the tense nature of the game’s atmosphere.
Not quite as successful, but no less ambitious, is the game’s combat. Encounters with hostile survivors play out like puzzles, allowing you to bluff with your equipment in order to progress. Occasionally you’ll be able to avoid combat by slowly and steadily avoiding antagonistic territory, but not everybody in Haverton is willing to be quite so accommodating.
You’ll spend the majority of the game armed with two weapons: a machete and a pistol. You’ll later happen upon a bow and arrow too, which is particularly handy because of the recoverable nature of its ammo. It’s because of the scarcity of ammo that you’ll spend a lot of I Am Alive without any bullets in your weapon, but simply drawing a pistol can be enough to force threats to surrender. Some will raise their hands allowing you to back them up towards ledges and fires, giving you the upper hand; others will assume you're bluffing and, if you wait too long, will attack you anyway.
It’s a really interesting dynamic that scales in complexity as you begin to encounter gangs. Draw your weapon on a group of enemies too quickly and you’ll be dead in seconds. So you need to play for time – raise your hands and back away while inspecting who are the threats in the group. You can then use your machete to get a quick kill, pick off armed soldiers with a pistol, and sprint for any dropped ammo in order to force the other foes to surrender. Dawdle and the AI will be quick to snatch up any dropped weapons for itself, putting you in a compromised position.
While it’s all undeniably clever, the combat can fall into trial and error trappings at times. You’ll need to approach some scenarios several times before you figure out the ideal way to progress, and it all ends up feeling a bit mechanical. There’s a wonderful idea at the core of the system, but Ubisoft Shanghai’s execution is far too rigid to make you feel like you are truly making spur of the moment decisions, which is clearly what was intended.
Trial and error would be fine if the game hadn’t opted for such a backwards checkpoint system. Again, trying to up the tension, I Am Alive restricts you to a finite number of retries. These can be collected by helping survivors or exploring the city but, should you run out, you’ll need to start a chapter from scratch. While the system undeniably makes you feel the weight of every decision you make, the net result is one of frustration rather than true tension. Restarting a chapter – some of which are long and tedious – just because you made a minor mistake in combat seems like an unfair punishment, and while we understand the intentions, it just doesn’t seem like a well conceived idea.
The game looks poor visually too. Despite being in development for roughly four years (probably five), it feels like a distinctly cheap presentation — perhaps underlined by the downloadable delivery mechanism. The attempt to create a unique visual style – focusing on a greyscale colour palette – gives the game a lifeless pallor. While we’re sure the developers would argue that’s part of the charm, it just doesn’t draw you in, looking muddy and blurry as a result. There’s a good sense of scale captured in some of the game’s environments, but the grainy image is sure to cement it as one of the poorer looking PlayStation Network titles of the year.
Worse still is the game’s desire to strip away your vision. When you’re on the low levels of Haverton, you’ll need to contend with a sand storm. But while this works similarly in practice to Silent Hill’s fog – meaning you’re never quite sure where you’re going – the result is simply frustrating. Staying in the sand storm reduces your stamina, but because you can’t see your destination, you’ll end up simply sprinting forward and hoping for the best. Of course, this is where the issues regarding I Am Alive’s limited retries begin to rear their unfortunate head once again.
As a result, the game starts to outstay its welcome. The campaign will take you just under five hours to complete on standard difficulty (there’s an additional survival mode which further limits supplies), but after the first couple of hours, the missions begin to rely on samey fetch quests. I Am Alive would probably have been more successful at half the length with an extra layer of polish.
Balancing tension and frustration is an age-old challenge for survival games, and unfortunately I Am Alive doesn’t quite succeed. The game has some brilliant, borderline genius ideas, but not all of them are fully realised. Drab visuals, repetition and a general lack of polish detract from the tense survival themes.
If you're longing for something different, and think you can overlook the game’s nagging faults, I Am Alive has more than enough intriguing concepts to make it worth your while. Just be prepared to grit your teeth through some of the game’s more maddening moments.