Game Rant's Brian Sipple reviews I Am Alive
Rarely could a game’s title be so personifying of its own history than I Am Alive. After loudly announcing itself at E3 2008 with an earth-shattering trailer, the Ubisoft Shanghai game bounced through two studios in four years amid constant flurries of cancellation rumors.
Only last year did we learn that I Am Alive was, indeed alive - and in the process of being retooled and re-imagined for digital download over Xbox Live Arcade and PSN. But how well did it handle the turbulent development process? Is it truly the gritty, realistic survival thriller that was promised?
I Am Alive places us in the shoes of Adam Collins, a family man searching for his wife and daughter after “The Event" one year ago left his home city of Haventon (a modern metropolis scaled to the size of a large Battlefield 3 map) — along with the rest of the world — in ruins. We don’t know exactly how he became an expert climber or cunning survivalist - though he’s a man who loves his family and a year of scrounging his way back to Haventon to find them has hardened him to the perils of 40-story heights and nefarious bandits. The premise works - and it sets up the opening of the game with exciting potential.
Like many of the elements in I Am Alive, though, the narrative starts to erode as fast as the dilapidated environment it tosses players into. While touching on the darker elements of a bygone civilization (think cannibalism, family tragedy, torture, misogyny, et cetera) the story gets lost on unnecessary tangents with underdeveloped characters and never comes back. It’s difficult to decipher our protagonist’s motive — or find one for ourselves to keep playing through the game’s short, but repetitive, mission structure.
While Adam carries a pistol and hunting bow in I Am Alive, the chamber or quiver rarely contain more than five rounds. Resources are hard to come by in Haventon and the game makes an interesting challenge out of scrambling for ammo or health-and-stamina replenishing supplies. This conservation theme is central to the gameplay and a pleasant contrast from survival games of the gunslinging, lead-pumping variety.
It’s quite rewarding to pick up item drops scattered across the map, but equally discouraging when half of this is accomplished through wandering around in The Dust — the city's poisonous street-level ash cloud, where contrived obstacles and a blinding line of sight devolve exploration into a finicky guessing game. Even worse, a constantly shrinking stamina level forces Adam to walk his way through The Dust, a dragging process that accounts for way too much of an already short game.
Ubisoft clearly took some cues from Assassin’s Creed’s climbing mechanics in I Am Alive. But in doing so, they slowed down the pace and turned it into the game’s shining feature. Unlike even an elderly Ezio Auditore, Adam has a limited stamina level that drains through every action such as climb jumps, dangling, or breaking a fall. With the occasional surprise, like a ledge peeling away off from the 50th story of a skyscraper, locating the nearest resting point for a stamina refill can create some adrenaline filled moments - which are further accentuated by spine-tingling music and a pulsating heartbeat drum.
Unfortunately, not all of the terrain in I Am Alive is so well-realized. It’s not uncommon to encounter random objects right in Adam’s immediate proximity that aren’t open to interaction at all. There’s an unseemly disconnect when Adam climbs a thin pipe fifty feet up to the top of a billboard, nimbly slides down the other side, and then can’t outdo an inebriated frat student by mounting the roof of an adjacent cab.
This could have been a minor gripe, but it hints at the way Ubisoft has designed movement throughout the entire urban ashtray of Haventon. The more I Am Alive progresses, the more it reveals itself as a free-roaming / linear hybrid that incorporates some exploration but pushes Adam along a general path by collapsing every other street and boarding up every other alleyway. This means that, while climbing moments can be exhilarating, overall navigation is robbed of one crucial element: the air of doubt. The question of “Should I have chosen this path?” while dangling off a fire truck hanging off a bridge is never in question - because it’s likely to be the only path the game has laid out.
Engaging enemies in combat is another area where I Am Alive attempts to differentiate itself from survival games on the market, but its skin-deep approach doesn’t offer much lasting appeal. Encounters often occur with the same group of four or five foes, and the process of dispatching them through a “surprise” machete swipe, followed by a mix of auto-aim shooting and clunky knifeplay — while unique at first — can be done with blindfold after a third of the game. Other NPCs are either defensive loners, that Adam can avoid simply by walking away (in an orderly manner, of course), or listless “victims” - for whom Adam can fetch specific items in exchange for a retry and a score boost. In a world where supplies are the scarcest of resources, though, the incentive to help out is even scarcer.
The color palate of I Am Alive looks like it was pried straight out of the Hughes Brothers’ film The Book of Eli. A lopsided grayscale allows only vague tinges of bright yellows or reds to radiate off of the decaying surrounding surfaces. The bare flair is crucial for conveying the dark and gritty tone of the game - and while it’s not as eye-popping as some might like, it’s somewhat appropriate for an Earth that’s been dead for over a year. Some textures in the game look downright beautiful (in an apocalyptic sort of way), with a mish-mash of collapsed freeways, collapsed buildings, and demolished cars jutting out of, that's right, collapsed freeways and buildings — all assembled into one frame. Other textures, however, don’t fare as well. Facial patterns often appear bland and devoid of detail, while the poor visibility in The Dust comes off as an excuse for I Am Alive maintaining a rather low draw distance at most times.
That said, the game will put Adam through the ringer on multiple occasions and doesn’t pull punches with the “survival” mantra — even on the normal difficulty setting. While much of this is due (for better or worse) to the interplay of human and environmental challenges, part of the experience can further be stymied by a convoluted and damaging save system.
Death via the various falls, combat wounds, or dust inhalations that can transpire brings into focus the three “retries” (a few bonus ones are also sprinkled around the map to pick up) that take Adam back to previous checkpoints in a game. Checkpoints are usually spread out to about a fourth of the episode size (10 or 15 minutes worth of gameplay). There’s no manual save-at-will option and dying without a retry means a ticket straight back to the beginning of the level. It’s a fair arrangement on its face but it sets up disastrous potential - considering the episodic bookends are the only point at which the game actually saves and that health or items aren’t replenished here at all (just retries). It’s entirely possible to be hobbling to the end of an episode — depleted of health and supplies — and, should the next stage open up to a predicament that’s insurmountable under Adam’s current state, the player is forced to either die on loop or spend an hour trudging back through the last episode they conquered moments ago.
The save setup is an inexcusable mishandling that epitomizes I Am Alive as a whole: for every artfully designed climbing level, there’s a (literally) suffocating scene in The Dust; for every occasional dizzying set piece, a pedestrian plot device brings us there; for every brutal enemy kill, the fact that it’s the same enemy, via the same tactic, time in and time out.
It’s a game that aims to depict the brutal challenges of surviving in an urban post-apocalyptia but, in the end, it can’t quite survive the challenges of its own lofty goals. There are a few features in the game likely pique the interest of survival genre fans; unfortunately, they're backed up by little substance and a short, underwhelming campaign - nothing capable of reviving I Am Alive from its noticeable flaws.
I Am Alive is available for download on March 7 for the Xbox Live Arcade and a later date for the PSN. Game Rant played the Xbox 360 version for this review.
Follow me on Twitter @Brian_Sipple.