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ArbitraryWater

Internet man with questionable sense of priorities

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I'm going to write about the new Alone in the Dark reboot because no one else will

Alone with my Snark

Remember when video games were good? No? Maybe we've moved on and have made better things? Where are you going?
Remember when video games were good? No? Maybe we've moved on and have made better things? Where are you going?

I had to be the one to do this. As the internet man whose current internet brand is “Playing bad horror games” I’m gonna be the guy that has a take about the Alone in the Dark reboot. Despite being delayed twice to avoid competing with heavier hitters, THQ Nordic successfully managed to release this game right in front of Dragon’s Dogma 2, which has seemingly sucked up all of the discourse in the room not currently devoted to the rest of February and March’s big releases. When an ostensible big PS5 exclusive like Rise of the Ronin is barely getting talked about, a mid-budget horror revival has no chance. Even in a better release climate, I’m not sure this would be talked about much, which is a pity. Credit where credit is due, I think they managed to bring back Alone in the Dark in an interesting way, even for all its shortcomings.

The original 1992 video game Alone in the Dark is staggeringly important, both on a technical level (having like five polygons on screen!) and a mechanical one (adventure game but you’re navigating a 3D space, tank controls, et all.) However important it is, I’d argue it doesn’t really have a consistent identity outside of its grab bag of goofy haunted house trappings. Its sequels make a surprising pivot toward action, unintentionally mirroring the same progression Resident Evil would make, but I’d say they’re all “pretty rough” to go back to. Part of that comes down to the controls, which are clonk even by my standards as a notable Tank Controls pervert, and part of that is simply the punishing trial-and-error design all three games run in. There’s a reason why Resident Evil is the touchstone for most of the gaming sphere while Alone in the Dark is a historical footnote, and a lot of that has to do with RE not randomly killing the player as a goof.

Attempts to bring the series back have gone all over the place, 2001’s The New Nightmare more-or-less ouroboros’d itself into a mediocre Resident Evil imitator, one I managed to finish in a single sitting. It sticks pretty firmly in the middle of my various Dubious Horror Game adventures; not bad enough to be camp, not good enough to be memorable. Infogrames (who by that point had rebranded as Atari S.A.) would try one more time with the infamous Alone in the Dark 2008, which is a game with plenty of fascinating, terrible ideas and basically no foundational connection to the original beyond having a dude named Edward Carnby. It’s easily one of the more spectacular trash fires I’ve played on stream (literal, given the fire tech they have going on) and is worth looking at as a piece of inscrutable ambition.

If you wanna see me play through what accidentally ended up being most of the original AitD, I have great news. The video below will do that for you! I also, for whatever ungodly reason, have a full playthrough of The New Nightmare and a decently long stream of 2008 on my youtube archive channel. Truly I am an accomplished streamsman.

Alone in the Dark (2024)

The first three months of 2024 have been a series of one banger after another. This is not one of them, but *I* like it.
The first three months of 2024 have been a series of one banger after another. This is not one of them, but *I* like it.

So that brings us here, and to my question of “how does one even bring back Alone in the Dark?” In the ensuing 16 years the rights were sold off and Embraced, and development duties were handed over to Pieces Interactive, a Swedish studio whose prior accomplishments were Magicka 2 (not 1) and both of the modern expansions to Titan Quest. Did you know they made two more expansions to Titan Quest in 2017 and 2019? Now I do. Thanks, THQ Nordic. This is their first big AAA (or at least AA) project and for what it’s worth I think they did a solid job with this. I think I’m probably on the more positive end of things, especially compared to some of the more damning reviews from larger gaming outlets. Not going to claim this as being a God Hand “they just didn’t get it” situation, but maybe more that my own preferences and tolerances are going to be different than the average freelance video game writesperson.

I will be clear and upfront here, because I’m a sick person and you need to know where I’m coming from: I was fully expecting this game to be a very Eurojank take on Resident Evil 2 remake, and while it’s kind of that it’s not nearly busted or misguided enough to fully earn that descriptor. The combat can be clonk (especially with melee), and some of the facial capture can be stiff, but in my parlance the essence of Eurojank is that of ambitions outpacing design, technical constraints, or budget. Evil West is Eurojank, Gothic is Eurojank. This is more of a lower-case eurojank. There are plenty of aspects where you can see the lower budget, but they're smartly designed around (or at least curtailed) in a way that is easy to overlook.

I am a coward and did not play the entire game with the classic costumes but I wish I did.
I am a coward and did not play the entire game with the classic costumes but I wish I did.

Surprisingly for something one could label as “Eurojank”, I think Alone in the Dark (2024)’s greatest sin is its own sense of restraint, especially during the first half of its runtime. Of the many ways to bring back a series whose defining characteristics are “Spooky House” and “Guy named Carnby” I was not expecting a slow-burn, dreamlike descent into madness. The lead writer Mikael Hedberg was also responsible for Amnesia: The Dark Descent and SOMA, and you can see that in the way the story is presented. A lot of it is implicit or pieced together in notes, collectibles, and conversations. Despite my assumptions the celebrity talent would phone it the fuck in, I think David Harbour and Jodie Comer both deliver solid performances, leaning more towards understated than anything. I’m also a sucker for whenever the more obscure ends of cosmic horror are brought up, and there were a few special treats for me, guy who owned a copy of Arkham Horror and played it maybe four times.

By virtue of also being set around N'awlins, I got Gabriel Knight vibes multiple times with this one. Alas, no Tim Curry.
By virtue of also being set around N'awlins, I got Gabriel Knight vibes multiple times with this one. Alas, no Tim Curry.

The thing is though, this is also a survival horror game where you shoot eldritch monstrosities in the head (or orifice where head should be) with a Thompson SMG and solve puzzles involving sliding tiles, neither of which really benefit from a more meditative pace or constrained scale. Structurally, the game bounces between the mostly safe areas of Derceto manor and various nightmare worlds, which tend to have most of the combat encounters. It’s never really going to be that hard to figure out where to go next, and for the most part the solutions to the various puzzles are going to be in or around the rooms they’re contained in. Some of the puzzles are clever or require a certain amount of outside thinking, but I wouldn’t call any of them especially taxing or involved. They’re mostly on par with the Resident Evil remakes (if perhaps overly-reliant on a handful of different puzzle types) but compared to recent indie games such as Signalis or Tormented Souls, they’re downright tame.

I guess the way I would describe my issues with this game are pretty simple: either the action set pieces need to be louder, dumber, and more memorable, or the puzzles need to be more involved. That’s maybe a complicated way of saying “the game would be better if they made it better” but I also think Alone in the Dark would have benefited from slightly more focus on either of these aspects. Vibes alone cannot carry a $60 survival horror game. The consequence of the (mostly) clear delineation between “puzzle time” and “shooting time” is that there’s not a ton of tension during the former and there’s very much always going to be enough ammo for the latter. The shooting is inoffensive and functional given its infrequency, but the real secret is that your dodge has enough iframes that you can often just run past everything. The last few areas, when things get more… cosmic, are probably my favorite parts of the game, but they’re all over fairly quickly, even on a casual playthrough.

Still, my genre-specific preferences aside, I can’t help but still be on board with what Alone in the Dark manages to accomplish. It’s almost parody at this point for me to advocate for a lower-budget video game that “has moxie” but it’s a probable contender for this year’s “Most 7/10 video game” award. No, you should not pay $60 for it. I didn’t pay $60 for it at launch. It’s going to flop horribly and will likely lead to the studio getting downsized or axed as part of the greater Embracer Sowing/Reaping cycle, but it’s *doing stuff*. A little dry in spots, perhaps, but a much better performance than I was expecting. There. I did it. Feel free to go back to playing Dragon’s Dogma 2. I give you permission.

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