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The Game Effect Review

I Am Alive Review

I Am Alive Brings Tension To Life But Leaves A Dead World Behind

By Nick Schneider on 4/21/2012
The sky is a gritty haze of gray with just enough sunlight to brighten the atmosphere and up ahead is the bridge that I must cross to find my missing wife and daughter. The twisted steel reaches for the rushing waters below, begging for relief from the weight of the "event." I gingerly jump and climb across the bridge, ensuring I take enough time to recover my strength before I lose my grip. The descent from the upper bridge is hair raising, and I end up burning through too much strength. Safely on the other side with my destination a mere two city blocks ahead, I take a peek at my dwindling supplies and enjoy a canned fruit cocktail I had been given by the kind lady who needed some of my clean water. With my belly full and my strength restored I press forward into the haze, today is just like any other day in the past year since the incident, only today I will find my family.

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I Am Alive, a game that went through a tumultuous seven year development, has been released to the world and provides players with a survival experience that emphasizes careful planning and resource management. While this genre is generally reserved for games with monsters, zombies, and old mining towns, Ubisoft's ambitious title places the player in a world brimming with atmosphere, solitude, and a constant struggle against the forces of nature, including man himself. The premise is ripe with potential, but the rush to release, as well as the change of hands has left the title feeling just as empty as the city streets the player must travel.

The Key To A Good Story

The story of survival is a classic template for any entertainment media. Place a mysterious disaster, zombies, aliens, or any other hazard in a world with dwindling resources, provide a few characters for the audience to relate to, and let the writing a characters come to life in the moments between. I Am Alive fills this template perfectly; Adam is a man travelling back to his family after the "event" and must survive a crumbling city, complete with toxic dust, to find his loved ones.
Problems arise when the narrative never elevates itself above this template. Their is plenty of atmosphere, the world is brought to life with the graphics and NPC's within, but Adam's quest never feels compelling. The forces that drive Adam are his wife and daughter, but along the way he befriends another child, Mei, who reminds him of his daughter, along with Henry, a wheel-chair bound protector to Mei, and Linda, Mei's mother. Players find themselves helping the trio in an effort for Adam to discover clues as to the location of his wife and daughter. However, during the course of the game, there is very little information actually given on their location, and much of what transpires in the plot feels more mechanical in writing. Having created a fantastic atmosphere this lack of story to drive players forward feels just as empty as the world they inhabit.

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Ubisoft Shanghai has nailed all the finer parts of crafting a story, but they have left that story out of the final product. While graphically the world is extremely dull, with grays and browns as the primary colors, the visual palette fits the mood and setting perfectly. Travelling through the colorless environments provide the necessary dread and tension to keep your heart racing throughout the game, and musically the game also heightens these uneasy emotions. The soundtrack is extremely subtle, and used primarily for indication of danger, or the player being close to losing stamina. The audio clues form an easy to manage system during a playthrough to alert players of a potential retry, and by keeping the music so focused on certain situations elevates the city streets into an even more eerily deserted state of being. However, even with all the right keys to the world, the plot just never gets off the ground in any significant way, and leaves players feeling empty and in search of more.

Limited Resources and A Dangerous Trip

The plot is not the only area in which it seems that Ubisoft Shanghai missed the full potential of what I Am Alive could have been. Marketing on a sense of limited resources and the sheer effort of survival, the mechanics presented to players provide all the necessary parts to make a challenging adventure, but much like the template for the plot the gameplay falls just short of the lofty goals presented. Primarily players must balance and maintain two separate life bars throughout their endeavor across the city. The first obviously is their health bar, however in order to make each decision have weight during a long climb, the stamina bar must also be monitored to ensure Adam's safety. While the health bar is the easiest of the two to maintain, since players will spend most time healing that through various hidden items around the city, the stamina bar is a constant factor of consideration throughout any task at hand.
As Adam scales up the gutters of buildings, along the sides of concrete pillars, and even walking through the toxic dust on the streets of the city, his stamina bar will slowly drain away. The rate of drain is dependent on the activity, and during climbs, a player may have to jump from one ledge to another which causes significant drain on their stamina bar. To keep these meters in check players can find several different items throughout the course of the game to replenish their health. These items were seemingly scarce to find, but during the course of my playthrough I never had any real trouble keeping myself alive from total stamina drain, which can kill Adam if not monitored properly.

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These well placed items are not necessarily new to the world of video games, developers have adapted a "stash of supplies before a big event" mentality for quite sometime. However in I Am Alive, this standard practice feels completely out of place. The limits to my inventory came not from within the game itself, but from my perception that I needed everything to survive. This lead to me picking and choosing supply use to extreme situations, and also ensured that my choices were always the safest bet. To Ubisoft Shanghai's credit this was the point they were striving for, survival is about decisions and weighing options to survive, and I did these things, but it never felt necessary. The threats that were thrust in my direction never seemed to come from travel, but always from battle, and when the world is this dangerous those who have survived are also just as deadly.

Two Bullets And A Machete

Similar to items to keep Adam alive, the necessary equipment to protect him from harm is also limited. I Am Alive is far from Dead Space in the encounter department, each time Adam must literally fight for survival is a test of wits, and instinct. Combining these two natural abilities makes for several heart racing scenarios, but unfortunately the lack of fluidity in combat turns each encounter into a mundane affair. Typically a combat situation will play out in one of two ways, with the first being an enemy ambush. As the buzzards circle their prey, Adam will raise his hands in a half surrender motion and wait for their move. At this point it is crucial for players to accurately identify the greatest threat at hand, in most cases the guy with the gun. Another predator will then approach Adam and give him a couple of pushes, where an on-screen prompt will inform players about a surprise kill opportunity.
Pressing the indicated button will eliminate the initial bully, and then combat turns ugly fast. Quick reaction times are necessary to avoid a restart from the last checkpoint, and without adequate preparation this will occur almost instantaneously against large groups of enemies. While most enemies will go down instantly from a gunshot, the same can be said of Adam. Players are given a little bit of grace in these situations, but bringing a machete to a gun fight is a sure fire way to lose a valuable retry.

Despite the exhilaration of these situations, the process becomes formulaic with the resources at hand. Since bullets are often extremely scarce, most encounters will start players with only one or two bullets, or none at all. Smart players will be able to utilize the fear of the situation on the side of their aggressors to simply force a back down, but even these situations are too often telegraphed.

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It seems that Ubisoft Shanghai started with dynamic battles, but for whatever reason by the end game most encounters involved a very standard checklist to go through. Surprise kill, shoot, shoot, back down last guy with my empty gun, and then strike him or kick him into an environmental hazard. Different enemy types do appear, but mostly they are just bigger guys wearing body armor, and their encounters are also pretty easy to deal with when given the bow and arrow halfway through the story. These juggernauts move slowly and deliberately, and unless absolutely cornered by faster moving enemies never pose much of a threat in combat situations. Thankfully the game controls well, as this made many of the encounters easier to manage during my playtime, and left me with enough retries to become careless in the final scenario. However the complaint of "where's the rest?" continues to wade through my mind during my experience in the destroyed city.

As a complete piece to the puzzle of I Am Alive, combat serves the necessary purpose of forcing players to slow down and react accordingly. However, Adam's inability to do much of anything without any ammo, often leads to several frustrating restarts. Enemies are seemingly faster and more aggressive than the player throughout the course of the campaign. While players can usually survive with the right amount of wit, when two enemies come barreling toward you on the attack, and all you can do is swing a machete, prepare to die.

Enemies are free to swing their machete, while Adam primarily has to enter a "struggle kill" sequence to fight off his aggressor. This sequence unfortunately can be interrupted by other enemies, and will happen every time players encounter one or more enemies and engage their foe. Apparently as well, struggle kills are interrupted by enemies with guns when one is targeted for this attack, and the frustration of having no bullets and no way to stop the gunman becomes an extreme test of patience. Had the combat alone just been harsh, this wouldn't be a complaint. However, the game doesn't invoke the tough but fair mentality that would have made combat feel more visceral.

A Struggle Is Sometimes Easier On Those With Good Karma

To help balance out the difficulty of I Am Alive players can earn retries by performing good deeds and rescuing various victims along the way. Most of these side quests are simple fetch and return affairs, and yield the standard retry. However, other quests require a larger degree of resource sacrifice, but also yield larger rewards. Helping one victim in the area gave me access to a shotgun and five shells. This weapon made a huge difference in my playthrough, as the spread of the buckshot was able to fell two enemies at a time. Another victim provided me with some pitons, that allowed me to create a resting place anywhere I wanted during a climb. Along the way I provided various foods and medications to survivors, and in some instances I had to steal from the innocent to acquire these supplies.

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Another instance of incomplete design occurs in these interactions with non hostile NPC's. With choice and consequence seemingly following my every step, I would hope that choosing to steal some tomatoes from a kid, or water from another guy, would have lead to an actual result. In the tomato instance, I took more than what I was granted, for which the kid gave me a verbal warning, but when I went to the "others" they too were just as happy to ask for my help and provide a reward. I didn't start a war over it, and when I walked past the kid a second time he repeated his initial dialogue, and my choice was apparently non existent. Once more it seems that the limited size, and the change from developer to developer has left this title scratching the surface of brilliance, but again failing to reach the finish line.

Overall Impression

Ultimately I Am Alive is a unique game, but the premise, plot, and mechanics never fully develop. I wasn't left with a feeling that I had played a bad game, rather I left the experience wishing for so much more. Survival was definitely the primary theme, however survival never feels necessary. Most instances of difficulty scattered throughout, feel cheaply presented and resource management, while forced personally, never really factors that heavily into the overall game. Players are presented with plenty of opportunities to wisely decide when and what resources to use, but the sacrifices almost always lead to a satisfying reward through an extra retry. I Am Alive is far from a terrible game, but it's far from the complete survival experience I was hoping for. With seven years of development into the title, it really would have been better to let this title gestate for awhile longer before giving it the life it fought so hard obtain.

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The Good
  • Atmosphere Matches Gameplay
  • Limited Resources Requires Smart Use
  • Limited Resources Add Necessary Tension to Combat
The Bad
  • Combat Feels Formulaic
  • Plot Never Develops Outside of Initial Setting
  • Item Placement Feels Forced
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shavrath on September 22, 2012
This game isn't that bad. After seeing the IGN's review (they gave it 3 points or so) I was quite sceptical, but this is really a fun to play (from time to time). Some parts are really frustrating and dull, but the overall effect is quite good , especially for an arcade game. 

Also, I liked the climax, as I'm pretty much into post-apocalyptic stuff.
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AsherSackman on April 27, 2012
I played the PS3 demo, and I found that it had a lot of good concepts in it, but over all the game was dull. Because you're alone in the game a lot, they should have made exploration a big part of the game, in a way that would make you curious about the world (similar to Journey).
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