March 6, 2012
As mentioned above, I Am Alive places players in the shoes of a man struggling to find his family in the face of a series of catastrophic natural disasters, which have all but destroyed any semblance of civilized society. Returning to his hometown of Haventon over a year after ‘The Event’ tore apart humanity, our traveller is forced to brave treacherous urban ruins and hardened, often merciless, survivors en route to his family. It’s a cookie-cutter premise, but one that serves as sufficient motivation to press onward. The side stories, which touch on themes of cannibalism and the sex trade, are interesting deviations to further build this bleak world, but much like the rest of I Am Alive, are never explored beyond surface-level interactions.
Fundamentally, I Am Alive consists of getting from one point in town to another, making choices along the way about whether to explore or not, how to best use your limited resources, and what to do about the city’s other inhabitants. Anything you do or any choice you make has to be in service of reaching your next objective alive, as Haventon, combined with the game’s traditional, punishing design will do their best to prevent your progress.
Being a game about survival, the first choice you’ll likely be faced with is how to utilize Haventon’s scare resources, whether it’s ammunition, food or water. The best way to find more of these life-saving commodities is to explore the environment, but doing so has its own consequences. Climbing, jumping or navigating each street’s thick layer of dust will slowly deplete your stamina bar, which will cause a fall and inflict potentially fatal damage if it runs out. It’s one of the ways I Am Alive adds weight to otherwise straightforward decisions.
Another way the game demands a slower, more deliberate approach than a run-of-the-mill action romp is through your interactions with Haventon’s other survivors. Since ‘The Event’, many of them have turned to violent gangs, cannibalism, or numerous other forms of brutality in order to survive. The message is clear from the outset: be very weary of others. Possessing firearms goes along way toward influencing people in these desperate times, but much like other supplies, ammunition is extremely rare.
With that in mind, I Am Alive incorporates an interesting intimidation mechanic, wherein people react simply by seeing a gun drawn, regardless of whether there are any bullets in it. Pulling your weapon will trigger a different reaction depending on the size of the group, their own firepower, and so on. Some will surrender after a show of strength, while others will aggressively charge. Combat in this world boils down to methodically assessing a group, deciding when to draw your weapon and where to place the one or two rounds in your chamber, rather than relying on twitch reflexes. It’s an interesting and unique approach to combat, one that truly makes the sight of another human intimidating. However, the vast majority of these encounters play out in a very similar way, as your options to deal with other survivors remain relatively stagnant from start to finish. It would’ve been nice to see other ways to persuade people naturally develop.
If you do happen to come out on the regrettable end of a skirmish and die, I Am Alive uses a traditional, punishing checkpoint and respawn system to further increase the challenge. Players have a set number of retries at their disposal before being forced to start at the beginning of an episode - lasting roughly an hour of play. However, helping vulnerable civilians by sacrificing some of your supplies, alongside gaining some of their goodwill and knowledge, results in an extra retry. It’s an interesting way to provide some motivation to help desperate survivors. Unfortunately, I Am Alive’s rigid controls make the punitive retry system feel unnecessarily frustrating at times.
Beyond core mechanics, the ever-present map of Haventon and emphasis on exploration make the game appear to be more of an open-world game than it ends up being. In reality: I Am Alive is a fairly directed experience, that only leaves room for deviation with occasional side paths to find extra resources or help survivors - frequent backtracking doesn’t improve the situation. Ultimately, I can’t help but feel more could have been done to make traversing Haventon more natural and dynamic.
Part of these limitations could be the result of the seemingly disjointed development cycle, combined with the demands of digital distribution, but one area where I Am Alive definitely punches above its weight is in presentation. Haventon is rendered with impressive realism and detail, with a film-grain layer on top for good measure, which figures into the lore surrounding ‘The Event’. Sound design also holds up well. The voice-acting is competent throughout, but the star is the dynamic score, which adds appropriate tension to an already desolate environment.
Having said all of that, I Am Alive is by no means a bad game. On the contrary, it has a handful of interesting takes on survival gameplay and does a good job creating a truly bleak world, one you’ll be weary of exploring. Additionally, there is real weight to the same number of decisions you make, whether it’s traversal, resource consumption or helping civilians. While I Am Alive makes a strong impression and presents a great deal of promise, the game simply doesn’t deliver a consistently inventive experience going forward, instead settling comfortably on its limited foundation. It’s a shame, because the unique ideas it does offer make your imagination run wild with the possibility of a game that would go the extra mile, expanding on the psychological persuasion at work here. Perhaps this experiment will provide an avenue for that in the future.
I Am Alive was reviewed on the Xbox Live Arcade. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.