I Am Alive – Review
Platform | Release Date
XBLA | March 7, 2012
Developed by Darkworks/Ubisoft Shanghai
Published by Ubisoft
One year after a worldwide cataclysmic event that wiped out most of the human race, a man struggles for survival in a desolate city as he tries to reunite with his long lost family. In this post-apocalyptic tale, there are no supernatural threats, just an everyman who faces a decaying and hazardous world and humanity’s darkest inclinations. Will you hang on to your humanity and help strangers or are you ready to sacrifice others in order to survive?
One of gaming’s prime appeals is how it serves as a source of escapism from the tedium of our daily lives. It’s not a coincidence that nearly every character-based game fulfills our desires to be all powerful – to save the world from whatever dark menace waits before us. Sadly, these experiences are inherently insular in nature; once the universe is saved and the princess rescued, we set down the controller and return to our world largely unchanged.
There are other games, however, that attempt to bridge the gap between these worlds. In the real world, we don’t have superpowers. We never hear the full story on the consequences of our choices. We can’t always triumph. By forcing us to confront these same limitations in the game world, we can learn something about ourselves that carries over into real life.
Learning these types of things is seldom “fun.”
At its best, I Am Alive manages to put us in this uncomfortable mode of self-discovery. Your character is not out to save the world, in fact the world has already been lost. His simple goal is to find his family, a seemingly impossible task after a year’s separation and no means of communication. Without the slightest hint of direction he trudges onward, unwilling to give up like everyone else seemingly did long ago. His singular ability to maintain hope in the face of abject depravity is his only superpower.
When striking these chords, I Am Alive plays us a haunting melody. Unfortunately, the deep thrumming bass of power fantasy fights its way to the forefront too often. Amid the pulse, the enchantment ripples and bends. Seemingly eschewing realism when convenient for gameplay, combat slowly devolves over the course of the game. The first time I take down a gang of five with a knife and two bullets I feel my heart lurching from my chest. The seventh time, I feel like a grandmaster of chess winning a game of tic-tac-toe. When enemies begin approaching me in body armor, the glamour fades completely.
This doesn’t completely undermine I Am Alive’s successes. The pacing is unexpectedly solid given the five year development cycle that featured at least one rumored trip back to the drawing board. Set piece exploration can be found here on a scale that simply doesn’t exist on $15 downloadable console titles, and it keeps improving as the game progresses. Choice is handled superbly, with both “good” and “bad” choices providing intangible rewards like additional backstory or simple self-respect.
For example, an NPC invites you in with open arms and asks you not to swipe the meager supply of food he’s gathered in the other room. In almost any other game, the NPC would attack you for ignoring that request, or you’d be too smooth and perfect to be seen stealing. In I Am Alive, the NPC curses you, asks you to leave, and outwardly laments his chances of surviving now. Sure, it’s passive-aggressive… but it’s effective.
Had I Am Alive allowed itself to skew closer to the side of realism, even to the detriment of gameplay and “fun”, it could have been something truly magical. If it pressed on in the entirely different direction, toward tight combat and ever-increasing abilities, it could have been a thrilling if ultimately forgettable ride. Instead of either extreme, we’re left with something somewhere in the middle; a game that impresses both with tone and detail, but ultimately plays it too safe to be outstanding.