Search for your family amid the ruins of civilization.
PC Release: September 6, 2012
By Ian Coppock
Horror games tend to focus on sci-fi or fantasy instead of realism. Why not? It’s relatively easy to conjure up a terrifying monster or a horde of zombies. To spook up something more realistic, like a human, requires context and attention to detail that many horror games don’t have the patience to lay out. It requires that the player know or fear something about that person that isn’t always an obvious visual detail. I Am Alive is such a game, preferring to focus not on the horror of a bloodthirsty monster, but on the horrors that everyday people can commit in desperate situations.
If that morose introduction wasn’t enough of a hint, I Am Alive is a survival horror game. The title was made by Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio and released in 2011 after spending half a decade in development hell. About a year later, I Am Alive was ported to PC, where it enjoyed a much more lukewarm response than its console counterparts. Though I Am Alive‘s horror is an important component, the game is also a gritty survival challenge. It’s hardly alone in being a post-apocalyptic game, but it’s unique in that it presents a post-apocalyptic world without zombies or mutants.
I Am Alive takes place one year after the Event, an apocalyptic earthquake that destroys countless cities worldwide and brings about the end of civilization. The nameless protagonist of I Am Alive is a survivor who has spent the last 12 months walking back to his home city of Haventon, where he hopes to find his wife and daughter. The game begins as he approaches the outskirts of Haventon, intent on making his way into the felled metropolis and finding his family.
I Am Alive is played from a third-person perspective and incorporates elements of climbing, shooter, and hack’n’slash gameplay. The survivor can scuttle up surfaces like an insect thanks to his handy dandy climbing harness, but he has only so much stamina with which to do so. This ain’t no Assassin’s Creed; players have very finite climbing energy and will fall to their death if they can’t reach a horizontal surface in time. Players who are quick can regain lost stamina, but spend too much time monkeying around and the stamina bar begins to permanently shorten. The only way to restore its length is with precious food and water.
I Am Alive‘s climbing challenges make for some of the game’s most tense moments. As the survivor takes longer to reach the nearest surface, an itchy little violin starts rubbing against players’ eardrums like a mosquito. Compound this with the game’s frequent use of unclear paths upward, and climbing can feel like disarming a ticking time bomb. It’s a brilliant mix of sound and level design where both elements can make even the most seasoned survivalist feel anxious with every passing second. Even planning a climbing route can only do so much to preempt that alarming violin. Risky climbing maneuvers cause the music to crescendo.
Even more tense than I Am Alive‘s free-climbing is its combat. The survivor has a pistol and machete with which to defend himself against Haventon’s many bandits, but ammo for the gun is scarce. The survivor can trick enemies into thinking the gun is loaded, but pull the trigger on an empty clip and they’ll see the ruse for what it is. Players will often be outnumbered by foes, so figuring out who to shoot and who to tell to back up can be dreadfully tense. Players can also trick enemies into thinking they’re unarmed and cut them with the machete when the bandits get too close.
I Am Alive‘s concept of pre-combat being more terrifying than combat is fascinating, but the execution suffers from clunky controls. Players have to manage shifting between multiple enemies (some of whom will try to jump the survivor if he’s not looking) and the controls for doing so are pretty un-intuitive. Indeed, players are just as likely to die from not shifting the mouse quickly enough as they are from a bullet to the head. Fortunately, picking up on the rhythm of managing enemies is not that hard. Killing the mouthy bandit first is Post-Apocalypse 101.
I Am Alive‘s controls suffer in other departments as well. The character has to take wide turns and the camera feels janky. Sometimes the controls just flat-out don’t respond, which can be a problem when the player is trying to shoot a bandit or climb up a building. There’s more than one segment in this game where the survivor is within arm’s reach of a horizontal surface but can’t reach it, and not because of invisible walls. Similarly, shooting and looking controls may sometimes not respond.
I Am Alive‘s user interface also needed a bit more cooking time before Ubisoft pulled it out of the oven. Ridiculous as it may sound, it can be difficult to tell what types of supplies restore the health or stamina bars, and by how much. Does that can of beans restore the stamina bar to its proper length, or just replenish the amount of stamina that can currently fit in it? These issues could’ve been easily avoided with some simple UI fixes; hell, Ubisoft Shanghai makes the Far Cry games, and those have simple enough UIs. No such luck for I Am Alive.
The story in I Am Alive is more impressive than its controls, even if it ends up taking a game-long detour. The survivor gets back to his old home in downtown Haventon, and finds a note his wife left behind nearly a year earlier. That’s about as far as his search for his family goes, as he quickly gets roped into rescuing another wife-and-daughter pair who are on the run from a particularly sadistic bandit clan. The survivor also teams up with Henry, a cagey local who seems to know every nook and cranny in the city.
Despite a valiant voice acting effort from Elias Toufexis as Henry, none of these characters are particularly memorable. The survivor is a pretty blank slate, offering rote observations of how bad things have gotten since the apocalypse but coming up with few original ideas. Most missions are helmed by Henry, who yells at the survivor to get going up this skyscraper or down that subway tunnel. The entire point of a nameless character is to get players wondering who they are, but the survivor is not that compelling. More’s the pity; there’s plenty of room for emotions of anxiety and longing that go unexplored in I Am Alive.
Despite the main narrative being, well… not that great (and ending on a huge cliffhanger that will likely never be followed up) players on the hunt for post-apocalyptic fiction can find it from a few other survivors throughout the city. Not everyone will shoot the survivor on sight but some are armed, so be careful about testing their patience. Unscrupulous players can kill “good guy” survivors and take their stuff, but these hardened individuals won’t go down without a fight. Still others are people in need of certain supplies. Usually they have nothing to offer in return, but do provide backstory on the Event.
I Am Alive offers a small open world that has just as much vertical space as horizontal. Though players can spend as much time as they want creeping through gas stations and exploring subway tunnels, very little of this space has anything of value in it. There’s no impetus for exploration except the sake of exploration. Given how many bandits are roaming around, the chance to look at the environment is something most players will likely find too risky. Some areas can’t be revisited, so pick them clean.
The other problem precluding exploration in I Am Alive is how ugly the game is. It’s a given that a post-apocalyptic game probably doesn’t burst with bright colors, but I Am Alive is done out almost exclusively in dull shades of gray. The textures and character models look atrocious, having more in common with a game that came out in 2004 than 2011. The objects in I Am Alive have no sharpness to them at all, looking more like smudgy polygons than anything else. Though the survivor’s climbing animations are decent, they’re about the only decent visual element I Am Alive has to offer.
I Am Alive‘s sound design is a bit better. The aforementioned climbing violin is a great way to ratchet up the tension, and the game also comes with some beautiful music driven by mournful piano chords. The voice acting’s pretty good; not great, but definitely serviceable. Guns go off with startling force, and players are constantly hounded by the sounds of groundquakes and distant cries for help. It’s a functioning stew of unsettling noises that does a better job of giving I Am Alive its haunting atmosphere than the graphics.
Despite I Am Alive‘s many failings, the game’s biggest success is its portrayal of the lows desperate people can sink to. The game pulls no punches in its graphic depictions of violence, however poorly rendered they may be. I Am Alive also contains some of gaming’s most visceral depictions of sexual assault, which, while heavy to witness, reinforce the game’s hopeless atmosphere. The violence makes the player feel alone and afraid in a city full of monsters; not zombies, mutants or the creatures present in dozens of other titles, but the monsters inside of people—the creatures that even the best people can devolve into under the worst circumstances.
Video games that do these sorts of exposés on humanity are surprisingly few and far between. Gaming presents a unique opportunity for humanity studies, because players engage more directly with them than with books, movies, and television. I Am Alive is almost shocking in its portrayal of callous survivalism. Even though its enemies are just dudes with machetes, that context can make them more terrifying than even the most disturbing creatures in Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Soma. Humans are complicated, and though I Am Alive spends most of its time showing them at their worst, it also shows them at their best.
It’s a shame that the one thing I Am Alive does well is outweighed by all of its poor design decisions. Even players who are excited after reading about this game should know that its PC port is awful. Seriously, it’s garbage, and don’t even bother trying it out on an AMD card. In fact, I Am Alive‘s PC port is probably the worst such port Ubisoft has ever released; yes, even worse than Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed Unity. Crestfallen PC gamers interested in this types of horror game should take heart that others like it might be on the horizon. If I Am Alive can’t get props for being a functioning or well-designed game, it gets credit for being a horror game about the monsters inside of each of us.
You can buy I Am Alive here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.