Originally announced at E3 2008, I AM Alive showed promise on redefining what to expect in post-apocalyptic survival adventure games. After its original announcement, the game went on a hiatus. Originally under development by Darkworks from 2008 until 2010, Ubisoft Shanghai completed the title. With the news of the change in developer also came a slightly different direction in the title: a $15 (1200 MSP) price point and a different look for the protagonist. Now the question only remains if the game will deliver on the awesome amount of promise it had when initially announced.
While Adam, the playable character, is away from his wife and child located in the fictional city of Haventon, a tremendous earthquake known as ‘The Event’ has rocked practically the entire US to its core. After taking nearly a year of marching back to his home, Adam-unsurprisingly-finds it to be abandoned. As he attempts to follow any leads, he runs across a stranded little girl and decides to bring her back to her safe house. As Adam slowly begins to piece together clues of where his family might be, while also helping these friendly strangers, so does the player begin to face the most violent breed of enemies, when plunged into desperation: humanity.
As stated in the title, many themes mirror that of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” in the most nail-bitingly depressing ways. I AM Alive is able to capture a stark portrayal of the human condition from the very beginning. After successfully vaulting the challenges of getting into Haventon, you’ll be greeted with an implied rape scene in the middle of what used to be one of the busiest roads in this ravaged city. These disgusting portrayals only become worse as Adam is forced into a situation of protecting Mei, the young girl you find, from a group of deadbeats. As mentioned in the short descriptions above, it only takes a matter of seconds for any player to be impelled to drive forward for the sake of protecting an innocent life or just getting out of this hell entirely, rather than because an objective is pointed out on the map. Emotional drive is one of the core elements that keeps I AM Alive’s story above the typical post-apocalyptic situation.
The storytelling is presented in a piecemeal flashback presentation through the use of Adam’s camera. Each chapter is segmented with a brief overview of the current situation through the use of this device, which is later found to be a video diary of his past actions; he could be describing where his next objective is or giving a general “I love you” line to his wife and child, hoping for them to find this if he doesn’t make it. The only problem with this interesting storytelling nuance is a butting of heads during the final scenes of the game. While there’s an obvious reason for this series to continue, the final camera recording snippet gives the implication that the journey forward will be irrelevant anyway. It could be labeled by some as a grizzly fashion to excellently display that inevitable end we’ll all meet, but this confusing sacrifice of a self-contained story incommodes the player into believing the developer is unsure whether or not to continue the series. Despite this confusing narrative decision, I AM Alive’s grim portrayal of humanity sets an excellent precedent in displaying those demons inside all of us and how easily they can be set loose by one natural disaster.
From teetering buildings to dirty homeless people, I AM Alive is capable of producing exceptional scenes of artistic and technical mastery in the arcade price range-if somewhat inconsistently. Since ‘The Event’ rocked the city to its core, a dense cloud of dust has covered many of the structures in a greyish, soot-like color; much of the dust secluded in the open-ended area of the game still hangs in the air, slowly reducing your stamina. Considering how often indie titles utilize some of the most gaudy color palettes in any of today’s games, it may be tough for certain gamers to approach this style with the same verve as those other titles; at the same time, the atmosphere it’s trying to evoke calls for a bleaker-than-expected paint brush. While the environmental designs hold up well to tough scrutiny, details like character animations are supremely lackluster. Whether it’s gutting enemy combatants with your machete or climbing pipes of a skyscraper, every animation is going to feel recycled to some degree. While the art style and stiff animations may be off-putting at first sight, the details made to arouse a sense of loneliness outweigh these complaints.
One of the most important aspects to such a moody environment is the tailoring of sound to fit appropriately with the setting, which is something this game delivers in spades. The weakest aspect, though still exceptional, would be the voice acting. While the main and supporting characters aren’t always going to deliver perfectly-paced back-and-forth conversations that has started to become expected in this generation, the amount of succinct lines given are ample enough to draw you into this world. What truly excels in I AM Alive is the soundtrack that ranges from oppressive to tense-sometimes changing in an instant. The mixture of synthetic and organic compositions employed do a great job of keeping you engaged. Even the eerie silence while trekking the open area of Haventon makes this torn city feel like the ghost town it should. Overall, the sound design is probably not destined to win any accolades, or nominations for that matter, but attention to details in both the loud, unremitting moments and the quiet ones correctly imbue a depressing post-apocalyptic adventure.
In general, I AM Alive’s gameplay hits two targets in recurring fashion: the employment of interesting nuances and the lack of polish in said nuances. The main pull to I AM Alive is survival. Throughout the adventure, you’ll run into a handful of different items that affect your stamina bar, health bar, or both. Your health bar never regenerates on its own, so it’s vital to find certain items (generally food and first aid supplies) to replenish it. The stamina meter (which is interconnected with the health meter at the top of the screen) is a two-tiered system: the grey color that’s shaded in is your diminutive stamina which resurfaces back to full once you stop exerting energy while the grey outline is overall stamina that only starts to deplete once your diminutive stamina is completely empty. This causes many climbing situations to have a greater sense of urgency; and with a limited amount of supplies to choose from, these segments constantly encourage you to make decisions at a brisk pace. Besides a few responsiveness issues in the climbing, this risk/reward system is a fair challenge.
Like the climbing, combat sections also utilize an on-your-toes puzzle mechanic of taking down the king of the next fierce group and watching the pawns fall down with him. During each group encounter, Adam initially feigns intimidation by raising his hands; this lures one of the enemies over for a quick machete kill to the throat. Once enemies are in their alert phase, displaying your gun is necessary to force them to back away from you, even requiring you to fire if the situation isn’t handled with prompt timing. The jarring problem with all of these encounters is the inconsistent enemy AI in alert phase that will blindly attack whenever the pistol isn’t drawn. This faulty aspect makes retrying scenarios feel burdening to the player, rather than an entertaining old-school, trial-and-error approach.
Since the checkpoints are few and far between, a retry system is used to give more precedence on gameplay decisions. Extra retries are awarded both in seeking them out throughout the map (they look like a glowing box) and helping survivors in their time of need. With important resources being scarce, the decision to hand over a first aid kit in exchange for a retry and clues about where your family might be located can be fairly tough-especially when in dire straits.
Overall, the gameplay does tread a rocky slope in general. In one hand, there’s a constant flow of solid concepts in this five to six hour game while having a decent amount of replay value thanks to online leaderboards tracking the difficulty completed, survivors helped, etc.; on the other hand, poor handling of the AI and the a feeling of tedium towards the end harm what could’ve been an excellent, nuanced shooting/puzzle meta-structure.
I AM Alive is arguably one of the best mixed bags to become available for the XBLA market. While it has a staunchly-delivered narrative and interesting concepts to boot, the fumbles in core mechanics will make replaying certain sections feel like there’s only one way to advance, rather than giving adventurous new ways to surmount each engagement. Even then, there’s still that...pull in appreciating everything the game sets out to do in the wake of so many other “survival games" typically being more action-oriented. Ubisoft’s newest indie game isn’t exactly one known for its sheen, but enough plans drawn up under the hood will be pleasing to gamers looking for an austere depiction of human degradation.
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