I Am Alive. Am I Satisfied?
You might recognize I Am Alive as that game that came out on consoles and was withheld on PC and when PC gamers complained the developer accused them of “bitching” and then suddenly it was announced that it would be released on PC and then even more suddenly it was out a week before its release date. Or you might not. Either way, what a wild, wild ride. But does the game itself live up to its insane and wonderful origin story? Find out below.
I’d like to say right off that I Am Alive is one tough cookie to review. On the one hand, I enjoyed 100% of my time with it; and on the other, it’s a deeply flawed game that I can’t see myself recommending unless it goes on sale or if your backlog doesn’t contain anything else that interests you.
Which is a shame, because I really did love my time with it. Everything it does well, it does absurdly well, to the point I found myself wishing other developers would plagiarize a few significant paragraphs from its design book. I’d even like to play it through one more time, though that’ll be a bittersweet reunion if I ever get around to it. I’ll explain what I mean by that later.
So let’s look first at what it does well.
For starters, it takes place in possibly one of gaming’s few plausible post-disaster zones. The “Event” that took place a year earlier shattered society with continuous earthquakes and the criminal activity one expects when healthy living dissolves into starvation and fear. The developers did an outstanding job of making the city of Haventon feel like a legitimately broken place: skyscrapers lean on one another, great fissures crisscross city blocks, twisted metal and concrete punctuates every intersection, and the inhabitants are hungry and paranoid. It looks like a titan burst out of its center and decided to carve it up with a pizza slicer, then belched out a cloud of premium aluminum-‘n’-asbestos blend for all to enjoy.
I’m not even joking about the toxic gas cloud, which is one the best limiting features of a game world hub I’ve ever seen. Haventon is choked by that cloud. Many of the people you’ll meet are plagued by a violent cough courtesy of the dust, and if you spend too much time wandering around in it, you’ll run out of breath and eventually suffocate. The upside is that it’s a heavy cloud, and climbing up a couple stories will put you in the clear, letting your stamina recharge. In practice, this means that you’ll often split your time between the street, where you’ll stumble around half-blind and desperate, counting down the seconds before you run out of oxygen, and scrambling up ladders or ledges or pipes to get back into fresh air. And while up there, you’ll be able to see plenty of rooftops to explore, populated with survivors to help, supplies to uncover, and, sometimes, undesirables to avoid.
The effect this has on the game world is immediate and brilliant. Games are going through a period of growing out—we keep seeing games that emphasize their sheer sprawl, even when that means that up close the locales are often samey and uninteresting. I Am Alive does the inverse, with the entire game happening in a space about four to six city blocks in size. It sounds small—it is small—but because even crossing the street can be a journey requiring forethought and planning, it feels expansive and threatening rather than constrictive.
In addition, the people who inhabit this world do a great job of behaving like real, desperate human beings, despite some looping dialogue and outdated character models. Many are highly territorial, but have no desire to hunt you down so long as you heed their warnings not to come too close or take too many of the supplies that they’ve offered to share. Your own character is nicely understated too, never devolving into machismo or juvenile posturing. Rather, he’s quiet and good and earnest. Strong and capable, but not bloodthirsty. He has a goal, to find his family, and he’s willing to be strung along into helping some very sympathetic people in order to do that. I don’t want to give away too much of the story here, but a few moments stood out to be as genuinely touching, and one even managed to slap me in the face for my “Well, why don’t you do it?” attitude towards a voice on a radio asking me to perform some fetch-quests.
The actual gameplay adds up well too. The climbing is solid and satisfying, and the few oddities are forgivable gamey nonsense. I’ve heard many complaints about the stamina system, but those strike me as too picky. I’ll explain: When you climb (or when you’re in the dust cloud), your stamina gradually decreases. Only by hauling yourself up onto a ledge for a moment can you recharge. If you run out of stamina, you begin draining your max stamina capacity, which means that unless you use a precious ration or two to restore it, you’re going to last even less time on your next climb. The silly part is that you can keep your stamina up by opening your inventory mid-climb to down a can of soda or stab adrenaline into your heart. This isn’t animated, you just get a bit extra on your stamina bar.
Frankly, I don’t see the problem as being any worse than insta-healing medkits or the fact that our heroes routinely survive gunshot wounds at all. It’s a compromise made for the sake of gameplay, and it’s not a big deal.
Combat is one area where I Am Alive shines. It’s brutal and harrowing, especially when you’re up against multiple foes, and it plays more like an excruciating puzzle than the usual point-and-click that most games embrace.
Enemies are rarely violent right from the get-go. They’ll usually step out from their hiding places and start walking towards you with the intent to rob you blind or just verbally harass you or something. So your first option is usually to surprise the closest enemy by whipping out your machete and cutting him down before he can react. Then you have a few options. You’re armed with a gun, though ammunition is desperately rare (I’m talking zero to three bullets rare), and eventually you’ll have a bow that comes with one (1) reclaimable arrow.
So the arrow is your best best if you don’t want to waste bullets, as you can pull it out of bodies. The gun is best when you’re outnumbered, since any enemy armed with only a melee weapon is going to think twice about charging you, and they might even surrender if you shoot the tough-guy of the gang. You can even point an empty gun at them and get them to back up to ledges or fire-pits, which you can kick them into.
Even so, combat is rarely as simple as pointing the gun and ordering everyone around. The aforementioned tough-guys will sometimes convince everyone to charge you at once, armored brutes will walk confidently towards you, and gun-toting enemies will try to put you down before you notice they’re packing. And there’s a nice mix to the game’s combat scenarios—ambushes require quick thinking and desperate luck, while situations that let you observe before attacking will cast you as the predator. Combat can eventually become repetitive and predictable, but in general it requires a fair bit more consideration than most games on offer.
All in all, I think the best compliment I can pay I Am Alive is that it left me wanting more.
Tragically, that’s also the game’s biggest misstep.
See, I finished the game in just over five hours, according to the end-game clock. That doesn’t bother me—I appreciate a game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. What does bother me is that it should have taken just over six. I mentioned above that I enjoyed 100% of my time with I Am Alive, and that’s true—unfortunately, it’s also true that its 100% should have been 80 or 90%. Even 95% would have been fine.
The game reaches a point where it’s telling three stories. One of those stories, the one about you searching for your family, feels like the sort of tale that could be woven over two or three installments, with later chapters seeing your character stopping at new locales to resupply or resolve some local conflict before continuing his search. The other two story threads are local, and feel like they should be resolved before the game ends.
Well, you do resolve one of them, and it’s very touching and all that, but the second one is left dangling by the time the credits roll. I’ve seen a lot of complaints that the game felt incomplete, and I think this is the crux of it: the game needed at least one more level to wrap up the current story before the lone survivor left town to hopefully find his family in the next. If the developers had done that, the game (even without the possibility of a sequel) would have encompassed a satisfying and complete story about a stranger who came into town for his own reasons, and who set things straight by the time he left. Or, if not straight, then at least straighter than they were.
Instead, the entire game feels like a windup with no punch. The final level feels precisely like a level before the actual final level, but then suddenly you’re being introduced to a scrolling list of the names of the employees of Ubisoft Shanghai.
It’s truly awful. It robs everything that came before of any satisfying meaning. And if I ever replay it, I’m going to do so knowing that I’m going to get half a resolution for my troubles.
One last note: If you do play it, play it on easy. The primary difference is that on normal or higher difficulties, you only get as many “retries” as survivors you’ve saved, and if you run out of retries then you’ll be spat back to a distant checkpoint. There are twenty survivors in the game, and you “save” them by giving them one or more of your items. This is a dumb system. Just dumb.
And my goodness that ending is bad. I can’t even begin to get over it.