Ubisoft Shanghai took 6 years to develop their new download-only title, I Am Alive. This seems like an awfully long time, and undoubtedly raises some issues; a development time this long can often cause a project to become unfocused and muddled. This might account for why I Am Alive feels so much like a missed opportunity, and why it simply doesn’t live up to the hype.
I Am Alive had the chance to stand out amongst the many other post-apocalyptic titles that crowd our shelves; it’s substantially darker, more brooding and more stylised than games such as id Software’s 2011 title Rage. On paper I Am Alive looks like an intriguing gem of a game, and it really should have been- especially with a concept that’s fresh and familiar at the same time. Unfortunately what the game promises with its ideas and what it delivers in terms of gameplay are vastly different.
I Am Alive’s story is a simple one, but one that allows a certain level of emotional depth. The game is set one year after the ominously named ‘event’; although we’re not given much information about this event we are told that it effectively caused the end of civilisation, and continues to have repercussions in the form of various natural disasters such as frequent earthquakes. The game follows the story of an unnamed protagonist searching for his daughter and wife in his hometown of Haventon, and is framed using the pretence that this character is leaving video messages for his wife to find.
The story does capture the heart of the player, and it’s hard not to be drawn in to such an intimate struggle, especially one that is as astoundingly depressing as I Am Alive. Unfortunately however, the game’s emotional tension begins to slacken as the player is distracted from the main story and forced to run fairly banal fetch and carry missions, seemingly forgetting what you’re actually there to do.
I Am Alive is fundamentally a 3rd person survival/action adventure game, and its influences clearly run far and wide across the spectrum of modern gaming. Much of its climbing mechanics seem to echo games such as Assassin’s Creed, unfortunately the finicky controls are also reminiscent of the first game in ubisoft’s aforementioned series. Too many times I’d struggle to climb up or down because the game wouldn’t respond properly, hopping either side of a pipe for instance, rather than descending it.
Many of I Am Alive’s mechanics were clearly designed to build tension and keep the player sharply focused and on the edge of their seat. Climbing scaffolding and abandoned buildings is given a sense of urgency with the use of a stamina bar that runs out if you take too long, causing you to plummet back to earth. This is coupled with a subtle soundtrack that can swell at just the right moment, and these together certainly provide a suitably tense atmosphere. The brief moments of combat are equally nerve-wracking as you have to quickly assess your situation and choose the best course of action. You can intimidate other hostile survivors with your gun, but bullets are sparse so actually firing it is a last resort- instead you have to use your wits to bait and trick enemies. These elements of the game are great and really build a strong sense of atmosphere, giving I Am Alive’s world a great deal of character. Throughout the game you also interact with non-hostile characters, usually injured civilians who plead for your assistance. First Aid Kits are as rare as ammo in this game, so weighing up whether or not to save a stranger is a tough decision- especially when faced with the prospect that if you do save them, they may offer some insight into the event that caused this whole mess in the first place.
My gameplay niggles really come down to the fact that often the controls feel clunky and dated, lots of things that I Am Alive does have been done far better by games released during its tortuous development period, and I feel it could’ve benefited a great deal by simply noticing them. Another flaw in I Am Alive’s gameplay is the way it deals with failure, specifically when you revisit the same section of the game for the 2nd or 3rd time, the tension is almost entirely evaporated from the situation.
The game’s visuals are a fairly mixed bag, on the one hand they establish an atmosphere that definitely captures the tone of the game, but on the other hand they do seem dated, and there are only so many shades of grey you can use in a game. That first comment really refers to the art style of the game, from its ash covered buildings to its burnt out school buses- I Am Alive certainly looks the part, and the art adds a great deal to its sombre nature. This is undermined however by that fact that I Am Alive’s graphics are fairly sub-standard, with simple textures and a lack of detail in character models and inanimate objects.
Overall I Am Alive is not a total failure, and does manage to create an engaging and interesting story whilst maintaining a tense and, frankly, depressing atmosphere. The game was ambitious, not technically, but in terms of the way it tries to make an entertaining experience out something that actually is quite harrowing. Unfortunately it misses this by some distance, and I felt the final product was fragmented, it doesn’t all quite fit together like it should- which is detrimental for a game that wishes to create a cohesive experience. 6.5/10