The Second Time's the Charm

Alone in the Dark: Inferno Screenshot

HIGH Pushes the edges of design further than most in recent memory.

LOW This game might have been a blockbuster if it hadn't bungled its initial release.

WTF As much as I loved it, adding alcohol to bullets really makes no sense.

In the world of advertising, it's often said that bad press is better than no press at all. In the world of video games, and specifically in the case of Alone in the Dark, I'd say that statement isn't even remotely close to being true.

Eden Studios's take on the Alone in the Dark franchise was released on the Xbox 360 in June, 2008 after much anticipation. The developers had been quite vocal about attempting to revitalize the survival horror franchise, and also about incorporating fire and physics in significant ways. Although it's not quite clear whether that release was the result of publishers rushing a product to shelves or whether Eden genuinely felt it was ready, but it received nearly universal rejection and damningly low review scores due to a host of technical and design issues.

In an unusual and surprising move, the Eden team took all the negative feedback and addressed each problem in a heavily revamped re-release subtitled Inferno. Among other things, the camera system was improved, the inventory system was changed, vehicle control was adjusted, a brand-new segment of gameplay was added, and the amount of tree roots required to be burned before the game's finale (one of the biggest knocks against the original) was cut in half.

Knowing that Inferno was coming, I intentionally held off playing the game until I could get my hands on this fixed, more polished version, and I'm glad I did—it's absolutely fantastic.

Starring paranormal investigator Edward Carnby, Alone in the Dark: Inferno starts off with a bang: a Satanic cult has set into motion a ritual that will destroy New York City. However, they can't complete the ritual without a stone that's in Carnby's possession. Trapped in Central Park after it's been separated from the rest of the world by dark chasms and jagged spires, Carnby must do what he can to stop the cult and prevent the antichrist from arriving on earth.

Alone in the Dark: Inferno Screenshot

It's a much darker, more serious take on storytelling than players usually get in the horror genre. There is no camp or silliness here; it's all extremely mature and grim. In fact, the writing is quite strong and it does a great job of setting the black-on-black tone.

Reinforcing the strength of the story is the incredible cinematic quality of the entire Inferno experience. The developers have absolute mastery of creating tension and drama, and the setpieces on display show a skill and elegance that place them at the top of their field. Rivaling any blockbuster in gaming, or even on film, Edward's journey through the park is an extremely dynamic and compelling one.

Intellectual content aside, one of the things that most impressed me about Inferno was the way that the developers crafted their world cohesively from the ground up. Starting with the central concepts of fire and realistic physics, every aspect of the game takes those into account and builds upon them. Weaving these core ideas into the identity of a project is a real talent of Eden Studios; they worked a similar sort of magic around the concept of wind and crafted a stellar airborne platformer called Kya: Dark Lineage. The same attention to detail I loved in Kya is everywhere in Inferno.

For example, rather than having predetermined interactions between Edward and the environment, each instance of the player taking action is determined on a case-by-case basis. If something is set on fire, it doesn't always burn the same way. If Edward is trying to navigate down a rope, there's no canned animation if the rope snags something on the way down. Rather than crafting specific levels and placing areas of interactivity within them, Eden has created a world with its own rules. It's up to the player to use their heads to make their way through it. It's a true and tangible step towards next-generation game design, rather than the usual route of slapping shinier graphics on something that players have already seen a million times.

Though the things I've mentioned are already significant enough to earn Inferno top marks, Eden didn't stop there. In further efforts to innovate and invigorate, their inventory system and DVD-style chapter structure are both quite unique.

Alone in the Dark: Inferno Screenshot

Whenever Edward picks up an item, it must be placed in one of the pockets inside his jacket. To manage these things, the game takes a first-person perspective as Edward opens up the coat to see what he has-handy, and avoids most survival horror tropes. Furthermore, items can be combined in many different ways, and managing the inventory  scavenged in different locations gives the game a very deep, flexible feeling. Need an instant lightbulb? Combine a glow-stick with double-sided tape and you've got one. Need to blow open a metal door instead? Wrap that tape around a bottle of lighter fluid, stick it to the barrier, and put a bullet into it from a distance. All sorts of clever and interesting things can be accomplished with this item system, giving it a real leg up over practically everything else in the genre.

The DVD system I mentioned is sheer genius. Dividing the game up into "chapters," the player is free to fast-forward, rewind, or simply play straight through at their discretion. (The latter is strongly recommended.) It's a beautiful concept that meshes beautifully with the fact that many players these days don't have huge chunks of time in which to play, and also gives players who struggle with certain sections a chance to simply move on instead of becoming frustrated and quitting prematurely. An interesting hybrid between traditional video game and pre-recorded media, I would love to see the system adopted by more developers.

Before ending the review, I certainly think it's fair to say that Alone in the Dark: Inferno isn't perfect; the lack of subtitles was annoying, there's a certain amount of physics randomness when trying to get some tasks accomplished, and in general there are lots of little things could use another coat of polish—no argument there. That said, this new and improved iteration of Eden's initial release rejects playing it safe with the usual developer shortcuts in lieu of being experimental, forward-thinking, bold, and genuinely innovative. This is exactly the kind of stuff that people who really care about video games should be rewarding, and it's truly heartbreaking to see a game as superb as this get the cold shoulder.

It's impossible to know for sure, but I can only imagine that if the initial version had been as finely-honed as Inferno, it would have received a much warmer welcome. Instead, thanks to all the negative word-of-mouth generated by the inferior 360 version, Inferno came and went with hardly anyone blinking an eye. In this case, bad press was certainly worse than no press at all. Rating: 9.5 out of 10.


Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately nine hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed one time. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, strong language, and violence. Although sometimes I think the ratings board is a little too sensitive, in this case the warning is entirely justified. This is not a game for children in any sense, so if they ask to play, just say no. There are several scenes of explicit violence, tons of salty language and all sorts of other things you don't want kids being exposed to.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: I'm extremely sad to report that there are no subtitles available in the game, which seriously undercuts the quality of the experience and prevents the story from being understood. Adding insult to injury, there is no option to increase the speech volume while turning down the music and sound effects. During gameplay, being able to hear monsters approaching is a great benefit, so be prepared to take a few cheap hits. Overall, this is not a very friendly game for people with hearing impairments.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
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8 Comments on "Alone in the Dark: Inferno Review"

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FukkenUniverse
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FukkenUniverse
2 years 3 months ago
I totally agree with you about everything except the story. The writing in this game is so jarringly bad, I suspect the writer might have mental problems. Or maybe he’s just French. The dialogue is just so outlandish, especially for Carnby, who sounds like a psychopath and loves to flip off everyone he meets. The storyline itself is the worst “hurr durr Satan is gonna conquer the world” cliche, and the ending is completely nonexistent. It doesn’t resolve anything, it just looks like a hook for a sequel that never came. The developers tried to go for a serious, apocalyptic… Read more »
ZEN
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ZEN
7 years 3 months ago
It’s one thing to review a great game and give it a score just a tad on the low side (see inFAMOUS) and claim it to be an “average score” based on this site’s standards… but to then read about Alone in the Dark, a crap game on all accounts with clunky controls, a throwaway story and a lead character that drops the F bomb every other sentence, getting a 9.5 on this same site… that’s just… blasphemous. Although I guess anybody can enjoy anything (I have a friend that actually liked Superman 64), no matter how crappy. I’m just… Read more »
Hargrada
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Hargrada
7 years 6 months ago
[quote]I’d have to go back and replay it to be sure (and i can, thanks to that groovy episode system ^_^ ) but IIRC that randomness is part of the holistic implementation of the physics… the engine definitely creates some unforseen occurences, but i sort of found that to be part of its appeal, in a certain way.[/quote] Yes, but one of the results is me dying and having to redo the sequence over simply because a car or piece of debris falls in certain way to obstruct/detour me. So no matter how skilled I am at driving the car,… Read more »
Brad Gallaway
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Brad Gallaway
7 years 6 months ago

I’d have to go back and replay it to be sure (and i can, thanks to that groovy episode system ^_^ ) but IIRC that randomness is part of the holistic implementation of the physics… the engine definitely creates some unforseen occurences, but i sort of found that to be part of its appeal, in a certain way.

LMK what you think as you go further. IMO, you’re just now starting to get to some of the good stuff.

Hargrada
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Hargrada
7 years 5 months ago
I finally passed the driving portion of the 2nd chapter after failing at it a bunch of times (once due to the game freezing). For some reason things just went wrong every time I tried. At first it was just me being unfamiliar with the route that I was supposed to navigate, but even after I learned I kept dying due to what seemed like random chance. A cop car that wasn’t a problem before suddenly landed directly in front of me (happened 2 times), or i’d hit a part of the pavement the wrong way and get myself flipped… Read more »
Brad Gallaway
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Brad Gallaway
7 years 6 months ago
Monsieur: Thanks for the words. = ) I felt the same way you did until i started catching on to how the physics are in everything. once i got on that track, my appreciation for Eden’s work really went up quite a bit. Hargrada: using weapons is definitely more difficult than the gun since it’s all tied into the overarching physics engine. i’d say practice a bit more and try to get the hag of moving/winding up for strikes. that said, i’ll admit i preferred to use the gun for most combat. thankfully, there’s *loads* of ammo scattered throughout the… Read more »
Hargrada
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Hargrada
7 years 6 months ago
After fighting my first enemy I have to ask: why can’t I just press a button to swing my weapon? Using the analog stick to attack feels clunky and imprecise, and the lock on button doesn’t seem to “lock on” as well as it should. Am I missing something? Is it easier to fight in first person mode? I didn’t want to use the gun (saving bullets is a habit I have in games) and I followed the onscreen prompts, but I might end up using it full time for battles (if I can). I’m barely into the 2nd chapter… Read more »
Monsieur Eek!
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Monsieur Eek!
7 years 6 months ago
I had the demo of this game sitting on my hard drive for a couple months now and only just got motivated to play it after reading your earlier impressions, and I was really impressed. Apart from the pretty terrible (but much improved, I hear!) driving sequence, anyway. I like that they go pretty much whole hog in implementing the physics system even if it took a little getting used to at first because it’s hardly ever been done making it feel like the game just controls poorly when really it’s just a bit technically unconventional and actually pretty impressive… Read more »
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