A Boy and His...Well Just the Boy Actually
If I may start of by stating the obvious: Ubisoft Shanghai’s I Am Alive is not for everyone, but it is by no means a bad game. In fact, for the most part, it does what it sets out to do incredibly well. I Am Alive takes place in the city of Haventon after some ambiguous apocalyptic event has left the world as you know it in ruins. Buildings have collapsed, there are huge chasms in the ground, and the streets are choked with a thick dust that not only blocks out sunlight but can also kill you if you don’t find higher ground and fresh air to recover. This leads you to do a lot of climbing that will be familiar to fans of games like Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, or Enslaved. Unfortunately, this particular mechanic doesn’t always work as well as you might like.
Your character has limited stamina, which is drained by doing just about anything more strenuous than walking. This comes into play most notably in climbing sections, where you will often have just enough stamina to make it through to a safe area to rest and recuperate. The game’s extremely desaturated look does a great job of conveying the bleak, mostly lifeless aftermath of “the Event” as many NPCs will call it (minor gripe: not a huge fan of “the Event”); and for the most part in climbing sections, handholds will be red or a near pristine white to make them stand out from the mostly grey world around you. There were still times though where I found myself getting halfway through a climbing section and either using a piton (a single use item that creates a permanent resting point while climbing) or climbing back down to the start to try to figure out what direction I was meant to go. Worse, I would occasionally make it to a ledge and hit A to climb up, only to have my character do nothing while the last bits of his stamina drained away (once this happens your maximum stamina starts to decrease, which can only be restored with certain items). It is a great system overall that adds some real tension to what would otherwise be pretty standard climbing sections, but the occasionally iffy controls did have me saying a few choice words to my TV every once in a while.
There is also combat in I Am Alive, though it is less combat in the traditional sense and more murder puzzles. I say that as a very positive thing. For most of the game you will be lucky to have one or two rounds for your pistol, so when a group of five thugs trap you in a subway tunnel, you really need to think on your feet. Some enemies are just guarding their territory and won’t attack if you simply back off. Others will attack the moment you draw a weapon or if you approach too quickly. It’s often best therefore to find the group’s leader, or whoever has a gun (most people just carry machetes and will back off if you point your gun at them) and surprise them with an instant kill. From there, provided there are no more gunmen, your enemies will sometimes simply surrender, leaving you free to walk up and knock them out. Other times they throw up their hands, waiting for an opening, and you can either shoot them if you have the spare ammo (chances are you don’t), or you can back them up to a ledge or fire and give them a friendly nudge (though here too, I sometimes found myself struggling against the controls, doing a slower machete kill that left me open to attacks from behind instead of the quick kick into the fire or off a ledge). It’s a much more cerebral system than your typical survival horror game, requiring you to always be conscious of your surroundings.
The narrative end of things is good enough: man looks for wife and kid after apocalypse. You can probably guess the ending from the first cinematic, but it’s definitely enough to keep things moving and give you a sense of purpose. There are some awkward spots though. At one point I was carrying a little girl through the subway tunnels, and having just killed around ten men with her riding piggy-back, she asks “are you a mean man?” Nope, totally not mean. Never you mind the ten human lives I just extinguished. Dudes were jerks anyway.
Saving is handled automatically in the game, but you only have a limited number of retries until you have to start an episode over again. You can find more as items in the environment or by helping other survivors, usually by giving them some item that would also be useful to you, giving you yet another reason to be as stingy as possible. I had no problems running out of retries, but there were definitely times when I simply let myself die so that I could go back to the last checkpoint and try to do a section without taking as much damage or using as much ammo. I don’t recommend you play that way. It definitely led to my putting the game down for a few hours several times during my four or five hour play through. Still, I was very satisfied with my time with I Am Alive, and after I’m done writing this up, I will probably start over on the harder difficulty. This is survival horror with a lot less horror than you usually get, but a lot more survival than I think I’ve seen in a long time. If you’re a fan of that sort of thing, or of games that reward slow, methodical play in general, I can definitely recommend I Am Alive.