For one thing it does right, it does twice as many wrong
You can’t fault Alone in the Dark for its ambition or for its production values, but for everything else it attempts to do, it does it badly; for every unique innovation it presents, it almost always, unfailing, counterbalances it with something to piss you off. Alone in the Dark isn’t a total disaster, but neither is it any good.
Fundamentally, the game is a cross between a traditional, third-person survival horror game (pre-Resident Evil 4) and a first-person shooter. While initially the game starts out in a linear fashion, it eventually branches out into a small open world – namely an abandoned, torn-up simulacrum of Central Park, NYC. There are a couple of timed vehicular segments that aim to break up the gameplay, but these end up being one of the game’s worst features. Eventually, it all ends in an underwhelming and confusing apocalyptic finale.
The problems are manifold: the controls are clumsy, sluggish and awkward, while managing your character’s inventory is also a chore, with space being extremely limited. In general, the interface that’s needed for the more fast-paced combat sequences just isn’t up to snuff, and this means a lot of restarts and yelling at the screen. If you pair this up with some horribly punishing, unfair driving sequences and the glitchy nature of the physics engine, what you end up with is a game that is more infuriating than fun.
With that all said, Alone in the Dark does do atmosphere, and it does it well. It has a powerful theatrical score and the visuals make good use of the contrast between light and dark. In terms of immersion, it really does push the boat out in what you can interact with and how you can manipulate objects. For instance, one of the game’s best features is the way you combine normal household objects to form weapons – grenades, Molotov cocktails, a flamethrower, etc. There is even a specific button press that allows you to blink – which, at first, sounds ridiculous but ends up being quite a vital, clever little twist on the gameplay.
Where Alone in the Dark succeeds is in devising puzzles that require more three-dimensional thinking, a sense of resourcefulness, and it’s the way that the puzzles themselves are made to feel dramatic that they are also made exciting to play through. However, failure often means death, and no matter how fast the quick load, dying over and over again is not fun, nor is the trial and error gameplay – a habit that the worst puzzles in the game sometimes indulge in.
Although the game aims to be cinematic, the story is, unfortunately, completely convoluted to the extent that it’s not really clear why you’re doing what you’re doing (Alone in the Dark seems something of an apt title in this regard). The game does its best to make itself look all dramatic and televisual, even to the extent of adding a chapter select in the main menu, allowing you to skip ahead or rewind to certain parts of the game while presenting you with a “Previously on Alone in the Dark…” summary narration before you load up. The game shows you fantastic set pieces, ambitious gameplay elements, an epic sounding musical score, but it’s all hampered down with controls that are unwieldy and too many instances where a small mistake can lead to an insta-kill – and insta-frustration (ha ha!).
On a final note, Alone in the Dark also has one of the least conventional anti-hero’s I’ve seen in the guise of Edward Carnby. Quite honestly the guy’s an asshole. He meets up with Sarah Flores; she’s an asshole, too! Like a match made in heaven – or hell – they fall in love halfway through the story (*yawn*) and in the mean time they fucking swearing at each other, like, every fucking second of the fucking game. Seriously, I’ve never heard such a gratuitous use of the F-word in any game, and it feels just really unnatural and over-the-top, and almost comical. Here’s a handy YouTube clip I found earlier, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean:
While I’ve nostalgically pined away for a spiritual successor to the PlayStation Resident Evil titles of old, the reality is that some of the inherent problems of those games, that perhaps some of us collectively chose to overlook at the time, are no longer acceptable. Alone in the Dark truly is a survival horror game, unlike the newer Resident Evil titles, but when the “survival” aspect comes from trying to navigate around the game’s many design flaws and the “horror” comes from the twentieth time you’ve had to restart a vehicular segment, you’ve somewhat missed the mark.