I Am Alive Review

Publisher: Ubisoft / Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: 1200 MSP / ESRB: Mature [Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language]

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Written by Cormac McCarthy, The Road tells a dark and poetic tale of a father and his young boy as they journey across a desperate post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s one of my favorite pieces of literature but I don’t think I would ever recommend it. I mean, it’s incredibly effective but as a result, woefully depressing. I Am Alive, a game that has been endlessly compared to The Road, is a similar victim of its own success. Ubisoft Shanghai’s vision of what happens when the thin threads that hold our society together fall apart is a brutal and realistic one. But too often their adherent commitment to this vision results in an experience that, while tense and hopeless, isn’t always enjoyable to actually play.

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Story

I Am Alive’s narrative is one of survival. The nameless protagonist (perhaps a reference to The Road) returns to his hometown a year after a catastrophic event has left it decimated. Skyscrapers lie on their sides, dust storms virtually blackout the streets, and frequent earthquakes rattle the city. The other survivors that you meet who aren’t dying of fatal injuries or starvation are ready to stab you at a moment’s notice for a bottle of medicine or some canned fruit. As a place to be it totally sucks. But that’s kind of the point, right?

It’s not long before you discover that the wife and daughter your protagonist returned for are nowhere to be found. From here the narrative unravels a bit. The main character’s motivations of saving his family shift on a dime once he encounters another character and he eventually turns into an errand boy, almost never coming back around to the reason he started his journey in the first place.

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Gameplay

The intent of the design of I Am Alive’s mechanics is clear and focused: create tension. Your traversal is dictated by a stamina meter that empties as you jump, run, and scale up buildings. Enhanced by increasingly swelling music, long climbs can be nail-bitingly hazardous if you don’t plan accordingly. Combat is just as intense. You’ll often find yourself in situations in which you have three enemies approaching but only one bullet in your gun. Figuring out the proper order of operations of whom to blast and whom to shiv with your machete turns combat into an interesting puzzle.

Bottled water, rat meat and various other consumables can be found strew across the city, each of which will restore your stamina and/or health. Knowing the right time to take them when you’re stuck in a dust storm or mid-climb is key. The twist is that occasionally you’ll come across a helpless survivor that needs a specific resource to stay alive. Will you give up your health pack to a stranger so that they might enlighten you about the events surrounding the crisis? Some solid voice acting combined with your own curiosity might make the decision harded than you’d think.

But it’s a thin line that I Am Alive straddles. Success is always satisfying but failure almost makes the whole process not worth it. The tension-inducing design present in I Am Alive’s mechanics extends to its checkpoint system, which I would describe as torturous. Each time you die (which will happen often), you’ll lose a retry. Lose all your retries and you’ll be brought back to the last save point. Save points that are very infrequent. Having to redo 10 or 15 minutes of an area is a bummer but the real crappy part is that the by fifth or sixth time you’ve restarted a section, the tension the game was so good at creating in the first place is lost entirely.

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Visuals

I hope you have a favorite shade of gray because it’s sure to appear in I Am Alive.  The city streets where dust storms limit your visibility to almost nothing: gray. The dark and disturbing subway tunnels: gray. The interior of abandoned hotels and malls: grey. As a vision of the post-apocalypse, it’s haunting and realistic. But it’s also a drab, unvaried world that’s not very fun to look at.

Bottom Line

Game design is not just about developing to the strengths of the medium but also about realizing its limits. Harsh consequences can undercut strong narrative elements. And what might make sense for invoking an emotion in the player might not be very fun to play. The apocalypse gets glorified pretty frequently in our media and I appreciate I Am Alive’s shrewd and sobering approach to it. But in doing so they’ve sacrificed delivering an entertaining experience.

6.5/10

  1. I don’t know about you guys, but I think I am Alive was a success. Sure, I’m not going to buy it because it looks and plays like it was from the xbox original. However, games like I Am Alive, Amy, etc… are all showing the potential of downloadable games trying to reach full retail value. With this in mind, I think a 6.5 is a good score for this game.

  2. L.R. (aka ScreamoLuvr)

    Whaaaat!? This game was so hyped. Damn.

  3. Well, if they ever finish it for PC with not a horrible port or DRM, I might buy it, because I love these kind of games.

  4. Whatever, man, I’m buying this. Honestly, half the things you complained about are RPG classic old-school styles that made the game more difficult. Also, it’s more than understandable that the game is all gray, the world is technically a city that’s been blown to hell. I don’t normally play this car, but ‘You gave CoD a great rating and it’s just a rehashing from the last game and yet you disregard the unique gameplay this game has to offer.’ So what if the intensity of each encounter dies with it’s replay-ability, don’t suck at a game and you only have to experience it once.

  5. I was really looking forward for this game, Inside Gaming’s preview was very good .. Guess I’ll try it out anyways ..

  6. I like how everyone’s defending the game in some way. The reviewers are saying the game tried at all these good things but have to give it the shitty score it deserves in the end, when if this was any other game of similar quality, they’d be trashing it throughout the review. The fans’ responses boil down to: “Damn, it looked so good”, “Fuck you, I love this game”, “No, you’re wrong, my opinion is better, a clearly shitty game is fantastic in my confused mind”. So I guess that means this game, along with a couple others, prove that if a developer or publisher market their game enough to the public, no matter how shitty the game turns out everyone, even the reviewers (assuming they’re not bough off) will stand by the game. That’s sad. I’m not going to lie, I thought it was shitty right away. When a game takes so long to be developed even though it is a smaller downloadable title, looks so “meh”, and is pushed down everyone’s throat, it’s just gotta turn out shitty.

  7. It’s a shame it went downloadable, because if you see the media for the original version, it looked much, MUCH better. Now, I’m not a graphics whore at all, but if memory doesn’t fail me, the original vision for the game had much more appealing visuals, more colour, better landscapes, etc.
    Still a unique game, though. I think.

  8. People need to stop comparing current generation games to ones of the last in the graphics department. I think You’ve all forgotten just how bad PS2 and Xbox games looked.

  9. Im loving this game…. A lot.

  10. I thought it was a great game, graphics seemed pretty good to me, most games I buy now seem to be using the ps1 style graphics alot, like re racoon city, every time u shoot someone the blood comes out in blocks wtf dues ex prototype series I don’t see many games that blow me away anymore and the story that they come up with just sux batman arkham city was my last major disappointment along with mw3 I’m looking forward to re6 ducking as much as 4 and 5 did, sorry started ranting anyways it was nice to find a game that got away from the run and gun theme most games go with now

  11. Really fun game love it

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