Giant Bomb Review


I Am Alive Review

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I Am Alive starts with an exciting premise, but it's hard to imagine a wider gulf between the promise of its ideas and the reality of its execution.

Nobody said the apocalypse was going to be easy.
Nobody said the apocalypse was going to be easy.

For the first 30 minutes, I Am Alive seems like one of the most refreshing games to come along in years. You're a determined guy who's spent the last year trekking across a ruined America to get back to what's left of your hometown, where you hope your wife and daughter have eked out their survival among the wreckage, or at least managed to evacuate to a safer place. Sifting through the rubble won't be easy. This is a survival horror game without the horror, in which every single bullet is precious and the evil lurks not in hordes of zombies or a shadowy corporation, but within the base hearts of those formerly ordinary people who have traded their humanity for a better chance of staying alive. But there are just as many innocents in the city trying to get by without resorting to killing, and possibly eating, their fellow man.

The game focuses on the mundane exercise of surviving in a modern-day ruin, and makes an implied commitment to extreme realism by limiting your supplies and turning every encounter with other characters into a life-or-death affair--just like it would be, presumably, if the world really did end. In practice, I Am Alive breaks down pretty evenly into fetch quests, rote combat situations, and urban climbing sequences of the Uncharted variety, so it's already more video-gamey than its stark concept would suggest. Still, I was more than willing to stomach a few old-hat design tropes in the hope they would cohere into a unique and memorable experience. In that light, it's a real shame I Am Alive falls so far short of making good on any of its grandiose ideas, almost right from the get-go.

The most successful of I Am Alive's concepts is the focus on health and stamina as finite resources. Health never recharges after you lose it, but you can replenish it with predictably scarce food items. Stamina comes back quickly when you find a place to rest, but your total stamina capacity can drop if you push yourself past the limit in situations of duress. Those include any time you're climbing, or when you descend into the dusty netherworld of the city's street level. That Uncharted style of climbing has been criticized in the past for leading you by the hand with little chance of failure through absurdly dangerous situations, so I love the idea of adding some time pressure to your exploration. But the climbing controls are too awkward and unreliable to consistently get you where you want to go, so you often end up burning more stamina than you ought to. It's tough to comprehend the directions your character will sometimes climb when you're explicitly pushing a different direction on the stick. It's not fun.

The combat has some great ideas, if it only worked properly.
The combat has some great ideas, if it only worked properly.

That clumsiness extends to the often lethal instances when you're interacting with other human beings. Similar to the way stamina constrains your climbing, I was more than ready to embrace the idea that not every enemy wears his ill intent on his sleeve, and some people aren't exactly friendly but also aren't out to kill you just for the sake of malice. But the game takes such a bald three-tiered approach to presenting NPCs that it's hard not to feel cynical about it after 15 minutes. People are either attack-on-sight bad guys, immobile innocents who want you to fetch them items, or (in rare cases) people who are perfectly happy to let you pass by, as long as you don't pass too close.

It's the first group you'll spend the most time dealing with, as there are roving gangs all over the city ready to cut your throat just for laughs. Again, your methods of dealing with these guys break down into a tidy little list that includes shooting them, getting into a button-mashing "struggle kill" with your knife, kicking them into a fire or off a ledge, or performing a surprise throat-slash of your own if you let them approach you without attacking them yourself. It's that ability to threaten enemies that initially makes the combat seem interesting; if you don't pull your own weapon, enemies will saunter up to you, letting you get in that one crucial surprise kill without wasting one of your precious bullets... which you're not ever likely to have more than three or four of at a time. Once you do aim your gun (when the game switches to first-person), enemies with melee weapons will stop their advance, and you can even demand that they back away from you, which is handy for maneuvering them toward the nearest pit or fire.

The list of problems I ran into with the combat is a mile long. The biggest problem is that the special kill moves (and even the ability to threaten enemies back) all use the same button, and you're at the mercy of the game to provide you the right prompt to pull them off. But it's ridiculous how picky it is about where you and the enemy are standing, and how often it gives you the wrong prompt, or doesn't give you one at all. You might have a guy lined up with a fire expecting to kick him in, but instead you get the "struggle kill" prompt, which locks you into a button-mashing animation, and if there are other enemies around, they'll run up and cut you to death while you're trying to mash your way out of being totally defenseless.

I'm not holding my breath for a sequel to make good on this game's terrible ending.
I'm not holding my breath for a sequel to make good on this game's terrible ending.

I could give example after example. Armed enemies are always supposed to drop a bullet, but sometimes don't. Occasionally they dropped their guns on the level geometry in a way that prevented me from picking them up. Later on you get a bow and a single arrow, which is meant to be reusable, but the arrow disappeared several times after I used it, forcing me to restart to a checkpoint. Your retries are as finite as your health and stamina items, so it's inexcusable that you have to waste them so often just to make up for the game's basic mechanical failings. And don't even think about rolling back to a previous chapter via the ordinary-looking chapter select menu. When I did that, the game erased all of my progress past the chapter I picked, making me play through it all again.

All that wonkiness might be worth putting up with if I Am Alive made good on what initially looks like a highly personal story of struggle and hope, but it doesn't even do that. The game frames the tale with occasional shots of a camcorder on a table, showing sequences of your quest recorded by your character himself, but that device is never used for anything meaningful. Worse, you abandon the search for your wife and daughter after about 20 minutes, spending the rest of the game acting as an errand boy for other characters you meet with almost no reference to the primary, personal reason you're here in the first place. Then the game culminates in one of the hastiest, most ramshackle endings I've seen in ages, resolving almost nothing and leaving at least one major character pretty much totally unaccounted for.

I Am Alive is extra disappointing because it has so much potential right up front, and then wastes no time squandering all of it. Its premise is exciting but its promise goes wholly unfulfilled, and at some point you've got to stop lauding a game's good ideas and think about how much you actually enjoyed playing it.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+
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Avatar image for attackslug
Posted By attackslug

@BeachThunder: Disaster Report/Raw Danger are two of my favorite games of all time (the 3rd PSP one was never localized, but also good, and the 4th was canned after the earthquake)

I was hoping this would at least live up to those, but apparently not =/

Avatar image for upwardbound
Posted By upwarDBound

Glad to see this game getting some appreciation by some of the comments here as it looks really interesting. I happen to be one of those people that can have a great time with a game despite it having serious flaws if the overall experience is compelling.

Avatar image for krakn3dfx
Posted By Krakn3Dfx

@h0lgr said:

I wish this was out for Steam so I could try it out properly.

Lies, you would just pirate it, Ubisoft told me so!

Avatar image for slayergnome
Posted By slayergnome

I will say I am about half way thru this game and there are a lot of problems with that.

That being said this is an interesting idea that no one has done before and I think giving it 2 stars is way to harsh.

Avatar image for glitznglamstyle
Posted By glitznglamstyle

Stupendous game. I'm sure Brad just pulled a "Brad" too often. ;P

Avatar image for redravn
Posted By RedRavN

This is such a cool concept for a game and could be a very thrilling experience. It would be great if a developer would make a game in a similar style but iron out the mechanics and gameplay to make a more fun and less frusterating experience.

Avatar image for jozzy
Posted By jozzy

@popmasterruler said:

After watching the quick look I was hoping Brad wouldn't have been the one to review it because he just didn't seem to be very good at it.Quite honestly I'm going to buy it no matter what the reviews say.

I don't think he is really wrong about any of his gripes with the game, although I didn't think they are as game-crippling as he makes them out to be. It's just that it seems many people really enjoy the game despite it's problems. There are a lot of games that are perfectly playable but don't really offer anything new or memorable, this game is definately not one of those.

Like I said before, I would put this game in the Alpha Protocol, Deadly Premonition and Nier category. They have problems but end up being more than the sum of their parts because they are ambitious and offer something new and exciting.

Avatar image for h0lgr
Posted By h0lgr

I wish this was out for Steam so I could try it out properly.

Avatar image for iamjohn
Posted By iAmJohn

@louiedog said:

I didn't have the same problems with climbing that Brad did. I definitely lost some stamina from making bad choices or taking too long to figure out where I should be going, but I don't think I ever died, so it never became frustrating.

I never got to that point either, but to be fair to Brad, having to burn a piton because my character wasted a couple seconds randomly deciding to climb in the opposite direction because the camera got screwy (which has happened to me a couple times) is fucking annoying as hell and should never happen. Especially not in a game that is expecting me to play it on Survivor and be hamstrung by a lack of items.

Avatar image for popmasterruler
Posted By popmasterruler

After watching the quick look I was hoping Brad wouldn't have been the one to review it because he just didn't seem to be very good at it.Quite honestly I'm going to buy it no matter what the reviews say.

Avatar image for louiedog
Posted By louiedog

I didn't have the same problems with climbing that Brad did. I definitely lost some stamina from making bad choices or taking too long to figure out where I should be going, but I don't think I ever died, so it never became frustrating. I also didn't have a problem with my arrow disappearing but other people in the forums reported that as an issue. Even if I missed my target the arrow was never too far past them and I was able to collect it again. Based on the way supplies are doled out in the game and the way I relied on the bow, that's a shitty bug.

I will say that the game is definitely wonky as Brad says and the ending sucks. It really feels like Ubisoft Shangai took the project over and was given a limited time to make it into a product to recoup some of the development losses. Still, it was fun to play and after finishing it I keep thinking about it and ways that I could have played it better and helped more people. My first time through only took me a little under 4 hours and with a survivors guide to get them all I could probably replay it in about the same amount of time. I may do that.

Avatar image for iamjohn
Posted By iAmJohn

I'm up to Chapter 11 or 12 (basically, I'm looking for a transmitter on a boat or something), and while I agree with a lot of Brad's complaints, I dunno, there's something about the game that really grabs me. For all its bad checkpointing, occasionally clunky controls and camera that makes platforming more difficult than it usually should, they really nail the atmosphere. Even if the hub world is very small and doesn't really have any reason to explore it outside of how they force you to traverse it to get to the more linear missions, wandering around the dusty streets, unable to see, constantly losing stamina... there's just something so brilliantly tense and hopeless about the whole thing. It really taps into some base survival instinct for me that I can't explain other than to say it makes me really key into what they're going for, even if the mechanics are sometimes a little too transparent.

Really hoping the ending doesn't bum me out as much as it did you, Brad.

Avatar image for hollitz
Posted By hollitz

Bought the game anyway. This may or may not be the first time I've disagreed with Brad. So far we're in sync as I've enjoyed myself and have only played the first 30 minutes.

Avatar image for turboman
Posted By turboman

I was way into the quicklook, but the game erasing part was insane. Also, I can see how the formula gets old really quick.

Avatar image for suigyoken
Posted By Suigyoken

Hope this doesn't become a Hydrophobia incident, with those comments from the developer already negative towards players.

Avatar image for chris2klee
Edited By Chris2KLee

This is another game whose development process I found much more entertaining than the game.

Avatar image for jozzy
Posted By jozzy

I would advice people that can look past mechanical flaws in games to at least try out the demo. I freaking loved this game, it is really tense and atmospheric. Yes the combat and the climbing doesn't always work flawlessly (although I had less problems than Brad aparently had), but it is always interesting and challenging. I also didn't hate the ending as much as Brad did, although it definately is rushed.

If you are the kind of person that enjoyed mechanicly unsound games like, for instance Alpha Protocol or Nier, for what they did do rather than what they didn't do, I think you will really enjoy this one too.

Avatar image for master_funk
Posted By Master_Funk

Hopefully the Last of Us makes true to the promise of survival that this game had.

Avatar image for dropabombonit
Posted By dropabombonit

Good review Brad and reviewing this late means that you weren't subject to the same abuse Greg Miller got for giving the game a 4.5. I played 2 hours of this game at a friends house and that score seems fair

Avatar image for outerabiz
Posted By outerabiz

Too bad, i liked the premise and have been looking forward too this for a while.

Hopefully someone else will succeed in making this kind of game good.

Avatar image for beachthunder
Posted By BeachThunder

Well, hopefully someone else can make good on this kind of survival-not-horror idea D:

Avatar image for still_i_cry
Posted By Still_I_Cry

Disappointed to read about all the flaws..I was hoping that there wouldn't be as many as Brad mentioned in the quick look.

Avatar image for animasta
Posted By Animasta

this is the best brad picture

Avatar image for zipcrash
Posted By ZipCrash

I just started it yesterday and at this point I'm good bit past the quick look and I think the game is pretty great. The climbing controls can certainly be an issue at times, as seen in the quick look, but so far that hasn't been a deal breaker.

Avatar image for theyear20xx
Posted By TheYear20XX

Well, at least it wasn't vaporware.

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