In this latest offering from Ubisoft, the player is thrust into the role of a survivor of a city-wide disaster. Quite what it is exactly you survived remains a mystery, but it was a helluva “EVENT,” which is what you will hear it referred to throughout the game. Likewise your name is also kept under wraps, at least for a while. When you load up the game, you are introduced to your protagonist through a mini camcorder playback, played by an unseen individual. As with most handycam playbacks seen in movies, this one contains the cliche “if you are seeing this, then I have” (died). Not much is said, other than he has spent the better part of a year trying to walk across the country to come home, hoping to find his wife and daughter waiting for him. One question popped into my mind upon seeing the devastation, and that was, “what is he smoking?” There is NO WAY anyone would simply hang out at an apartment waiting for him to show, for a YEAR. More on this rant later. So, your goal, it seems, is to be reunited with your wife and daughter, and simply stay alive – a challenging feat in itself.
Gameplay is pretty straightforward. You must solve environmental and situational problems with a gun (empty most of the time) and your ability to scale buildings. Mind you, if you are accustomed to Nathan Drake or Ezio’s fanciful gallivanting around cities, you will be sorely disappointed with I Am Alive’s interpretation. Unlike Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed, you are tightly constrained by the amount of stamina you have on hand; run out of stamina while you are climbing and the game prompts you to mash R1. This is a “burst” of final energy to get you where you are trying to go, but at a heavy cost. Your permanent stamina meter decreases during this period, and the only way to replenish it is with supplies. So, your stamina is split between the expendable and maximum variety.
Since you rarely know how long you will have to climb, it is always best to not get to the R1 mashing at all. Believe me, I more than once ran into instances where I did not have enough stamina to complete the climb, forcing my character to fall. Immensely frustrating, especially considering the game is amazingly scarce on supplies. One thing you will acquire right away, funnily enough, is a machete. This gives you your only permanent way of killing foes. However, even this has its limits, which brings me to combat gameplay. Often enough in the game you will be presented with other survivors of the Event; some are hostile, some are fearful, and it is completely up to you how to proceed.
As I said before you are equipped with an empty pistol at the start, but that doesn’t mean it is useless. The other survivors don’t know it is empty, so you can use it to your advantage. Someone starts giving you a case of attitude, pull the gun on them. Their reaction is as unpredictable as you would imagine, but often times the assailant will stop what they are doing and start talking. You can press square and force them backwards – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Some will simply charge and open their own can of whoop-ass on you. If you can get them to back off, you can often force them into some sort of situation where you can dispatch them, like kicking them into a pit.
This is as unbelievable of a game mechanic as the climbing, as frequently you can get people to walk backwards 20 or more feet before they get sick of it. They might charge you, but re-focusing your guns sights on the character will “reset” the situation. Immersion = gone. It isn’t all machete’s and empty gunplay though. Later you acquire a bow with a single, but retrievable arrow, and you can find a stray bullet here or there if you search hard enough. Be warned though, how you use the bullet is far more important than actually finding it. Do you use the bullet to open a locked door that might have something beneficial behind it? Or do you hold onto it, just in case you get into a scrap and need it? To give you an idea… two hours into the game, I had fired my gun twice.
The gameplay is designed like this for a reason. You must treat each area like a puzzle. It has one solution, and it is up to you to find a way to solve it. For instance, there is an area where you have to climb down into the dust of the ruined city. While you are walking in the dust, your stamina drops, just like if you were climbing. If you run to get out, it drops even faster. So you much decide, is running worth it? Where do you climb up to get out of the dust to allow your stamina to rebuild? Keep in mind; you can’t even start to climb if your stamina is too low. Other areas meanwhile have you facing several combatants simultaneously. With multiple people on the screen at the same time, all coming after you, you are faced with how to live. That is the goal after all. Problem? You have one bullet. One machete. There are three of them, two of them are packing guns with all the bullets they can handle. You have to analyse the situation. Who is the leader? If you kill him, will the others surrender? Don’t try to run around or away, as they are crack shots and will slaughter you with ease. This is a puzzle game after all, not a shoot-‘em-up. Use your brain, not your brawn.
Speaking of dying, the game employs a fairly old mechanic. Die and you get to “retry” a level from the most recent checkpoint. Use up all of your retries, and you must start the stage over again. Bump the game up to Survivor mode, from normal, and you get even less chances to succeed. Fun huh? You can earn more retries in the game by saving other survivors. This means that you will have to give them your precious resources. Decisions, decisions. The dialog you hear from these people in need is truly heart wrenching, which makes it harder to leave without aiding them. Another rant, I find it amazing how little the character had after a yearlong walk across America. How can he survive for this long and have zero to show for it?
Graphically I Am Alive is a mixed bag. Fans of drab, bleary landscapes will LOVE this game. Occasionally a flag or spark of color comes through but even then it is muted. Textures are muddy, and the “dust” seems like a cop out excuse to mask some poorly executed environments. When walking through the dust, the very basic outlines of buildings look like PS2-era graphics. In fact, some of the cars, random bodies, and objects, all seem like untouched raw models from the simplest graphics programs available. And yet despite its visual shortcomings, it actually works. The textures, overdone light blooms, bleak color palate, these all combine to give a truly acceptable and believable world. However, I still maintain the dust is nothing more than a flat over screen haze effect used to make the draw distance to keep the game from being unnecessarily bogged down with massive draw distances. Frame rate and other graphics criticisms have no business being mentioned in this game, as there are rarely times where it would matter if it dropped to 12 frames per second. It simply is not that sort of game where frame rate is crucial.
Ultimately, I Am Alive is first and foremost a puzzle game, and a platformer a distant second. There are decisions that impact you, and the people you meet. It is a game that puts you in a difficult position on frequent occasions, and combined with the stellar voice acting you really get a palpable sense of what your fellow survivors are feeling. Do you give the woman a can of fruit or save it for yourself? In I Am Alive, decisions is the name of the game.