Platform: XBLA | SEN (slated for April)
A haggard survivor clutches a machete in his trembling hands as you slowly advance towards him. He's done well to survive this long in Haventon, months after 'The Event' turned your hometown into a living hell of choking dust, violent looters, food shortages and earthquakes. "Just keep on walking," he shouts, voice quivering, and you briefly consider it. He's no threat, after all, just another broken man alone in an unremittingly hostile world. You could walk away and never see him again.
But after a near fatal run-in with some depraved scroungers, you desperately need the medical supplies stashed in his makeshift rooftop camp.
Your pistol is empty, but the survivor doesn't know that. Calling his bluff, you raise it and order him to surrender, yet he doesn't cave. He's been through too much to back down, and matches your gaze in a grim stalemate. Knowing that he'll attack the moment he realises your deception, you shout at him to back up to the edge of the rooftop, close the gap and kick him into the yawning chasm below. A single bottle of painkillers is your sole reward for killing an innocent man... but tragically, the decision was probably the right one. Who knows when or even if you'll find more supplies? You'll survive. And that's what matters.
This is just a single optional encounter in I Am Alive: an unflinchingly raw survival simulator that's unlike anything else on the market.
Initially, though, I Am Alive looks like every game on the market, at least of the third-person shooter variety. As an unnamed protagonist hellbent on finding his wife and daughter in the post-apocalyptic remains of his home town, you'll engage in a huge amount of climbing and some tense combat against small groups of hostile enemies; so far, so Uncharted. This comparison will absolutely disappoint a large number of players who go into the experience expecting something familiar and fun - and are instead faced with an entirely different beast.
In stark contrast to the likes of Drake and Croft, you're just an ordinary everyman (who's admittedly an extremely skilled climber). Most of the game is spent negotiating the ruined vertical heights of Haventon, shimmying up pipes, crawling hand-over hand up buildings, swinging across chasms and sliding headlong towards dizzying drops. However, you've only got a realistically limited amount of stamina represented by a constantly-depleting gauge - climb for too long and you'll fall to your death. Once depleted, stamina starts to permanently burn in a last-ditch effort of superhuman desperation as you pump the right trigger, willing yourself onwards to the next safe platform before your last reserves give out. Since stamina can only be refilled by finding and using incredibly rare food items, you'll have to work out how best to approach each section, many of which offer multiple routes and optional detours to find extra supplies and infrequent stamina-replenishing pitons.
It's an unremittingly tense and heart-wrenchingly authentic direction for a downloadable game to take, and one that inspires difficult decisions at every turn. Do you dare use your last soda can in order to reach the end? Waste a piton to create a safe haven? Risk burning a huge amount of stamina or falling at the final hurdle when the end is in sight? Emotionally draining doesn't even begin to cover it, especially when coupled with the near-silent loneliness of the grey, uncaring urban jungle. For the full effect, I'd actually recommend disabling the background music in the options menu.
However, you're not alone in the ruined city. Small gangs of vicious looters roam the choking dust-filled streets and deceptively safe interiors, who'll take no small delight in bullying and eventually murdering you for your meagre resources. Or just for fun. Combat is therefore your only option, but since handgun ammunition is incredibly rare (chances are that you'll spend most of the game with an empty magazine or a single precious bullet), it plays out very differently to anything you'll have experienced before.
Bluffing is the key. So long as you don't seem threatening, enemies will merrily saunter up to you as their leader pushes you around, giving you a few moments to size up the situation. One of the enemies has a gun. The others are armed with knives and machetes. Your plan decided, a quick jab of the X button allows you to surprise your erstwhile bully with a brutal machete blow to the neck... and then everything goes to hell in five heart-stopping seconds.
Holding down the left trigger raises your pistol, which is usually best used to quickly kill any gun-toting looters before they have a chance to react. Melee foes automatically assume that you're willing to do the same to them (which, due to the aforementioned scarcity of ammunition, you probably won't be able to do), and grudgingly lock eyes with you, waiting for any opportunity to rush you when your back is turned or dive for their fallen comrade's firearm. While threatening enemies, you can order them to back off towards fires or chasms - and summarily kick them off the edge - but take too long and some of the braver antagonists will call your bluff, cutting you down after realising that you're neither willing nor able to pull the trigger.
Leaders can be executed or prioritised to cow their fellows into submission. You can perform a 'struggle kill' on aware enemies with an incredibly difficult QTE, which leaves you open to attack from anyone else in the vicinity. A lethal bow and arrow found in the latter half of the game gives you another devastating ranged option, but its long drawback time and clunky aiming allows your unpredictable adversaries to launch their own desperate assaults. Each and every encounter has to be dealt with on the fly, with you typically scraping through by the skin of your teeth.
Constant improvisation, bluffing and sacrifice (do you use that last bullet?) add an entirely new, thoroughly compelling and incredibly uncomfortable dimension to traditional third person combat, and one that will leave you a shivering wreck after a few hours of being put through the wringer time and time again.
Fellow survivors provide a sole beacon of light in an otherwise bleak experience. To help them, you'll typically have to sacrifice (there it is again) an incredibly useful item such as a first aid kit or stamina-replenishing inhaler that would otherwise serve you very well in later encounters. Apart from a handy revive token that allows you to restart from a checkpoint rather than a save point - more on that later - the reward for being a good Samaritan is mainly emotional; you'll feel a much-needed surge of joy despite there being little gameplay benefit for your kind actions. Chatty survivors will also fill you in on details about 'The Event,' providing some much-appreciated backstory.
Sadly, I Am Alive has plenty of flaws. Collision detection while jumping and grappling is incredibly inconsistent, resulting in several cheap deaths when the anonymous protagonist fails to land or grab a ledge in the way you'd expect. A few bugs, such as becoming stuck in the falling animation or being unable to open a door when you accidentally backtrack too far, crawl out of the woodwork and ruin immersion. And, as much as anything, most of the game is simple trial and error... but punishes players with a harsh checkpoint system that can force you to replay several tough sections from scratch after dying or restarting through no fault of your own.
Had I Am Alive released as a full retail game, these issues would have been a dealbreaker. But as a focused downloadable title, the mechanics don't have time to overstay their welcome. Ubisoft's decision to launch on downloadable platforms was a stroke of genius, with a campaign long enough to satisfy yet short and punchy enough to ensure that the gameplay never stagnates.
And what's more, the harsh, uncompromising bleakness of the experience wouldn't need to last any longer than a few desperate hours. The grim, grey visuals, the constant threat of imminent death, the unceasing misery and sense of loneliness adds up to an emotional blitzkrieg that simply would have been too much to bear in a longer campaign. You'll emerge drained and desperate, numb and tired from your exertions yet safe in the knowledge that you've played something special, something worthwhile. I Am Alive succeeds by immersing you in a world completely devoid of compassion, a city ruled by the dark side of human nature and nature itself, and you'll probably only want to venture into it once.
Thankfully, once is enough.
- Sensational climbing and stamina mechanics
- Unique combat based on bluffing and improvisation
- Incredibly immersive, bleak, miserable and unremittingly tense (in a good way)
- Several mechanical issues and glitches
- Punishing save system, reliance on trial and error
- Fun? That's arguably not the point.
The Short Version: Through the course of a few hours, I Am Alive pulls you into an unremittingly bleak, unbelievably tense and frequently miserable world - spitting you out the other side raw and numb after having to make tough decisions at every turn. It's an uncompromising survival simulator that challenges conventions and presents a unique, dark and compelling take on downloadable gaming.
Be in no doubt: I Am Alive is certainly not for everyone. Those of you who crave fun traditional entertainment from our medium will likely hate every moment spent in the ruins of Haventon, and that's okay. But if you crave something new, mature and different, this long-awaited divisive gem is well worth a download.