Brutal, Unflinching and… Important

I Am Alive Screenshot

HIGH Finding a safehouse where colors still exist.

LOW Taking a beating and limping along for two areas on a sliver of life.

WTF Why aren't critics talking about this game? Oh, right. Mass Effect 3.

The worst thing that could possibly have happened to I Am Alive was for it to be released on March 7, 2012—and it was. What made this particular day so terribly unfortunate?

Mass Effect 3 was released on March 6.

Not only did this small, post-apocalyptic download debut in the shadow of a massive blockbuster, anyone remotely connected to games was aware of furor over Mass Effect 3's ending and how it threw the signal-to-noise ratio in critical circles entirely out of whack. It's a real shame because I Am Alive is one of the bravest, most mature and unflinching titles I've seen. As a critic who seeks out challenging material and relishes things that dare to be different, I Am Alive was a revelation.

At its core, I Am Alive is a platforming-heavy third-person adventure with exploration elements and a heavy burden of resource management. As the story begins, the unnamed main character arrives in the ruins of a city devastated by catastrophe. Prior to the disaster, he was thousands of miles away from his wife and daughter, and had to walk back—a trip taking over six months on foot. Now that he's finally home, his only wish is to reunite with his family if they're still alive.

It's clear from the start that the main character is a survivor, but that doesn't mean he's invincible. Far from it, in fact. I Am Alive takes a unique approach to its gameplay by making the player fight for every inch of ground, in both its climbing and combat.

In order to travel where he needs to go, the character will often scale the sides of dead skyscrapers, find pathways across broken concrete, hang from dangling pipes and claw into impossible fingerholds. While extreme climbing is hardly new, how it's done here is.

I Am Alive is ruled by a stamina bar which determines how much strength the main character has before collapsing. If his stamina depletes before finding a place to rest, it's possible to perform a last-ditch push. If safety hasn't been found after that, the next thing to come is a wetly abrupt halt at the end of a long fall. Unlike most games where climbing plays a large role, it's extremely important to survey the territory ahead and plan a route before taking any action. With certain paths leading nowhere and some maneuvers requiring more strength than others, rushing forward and expecting the game to compensate for poor decisions is a quick way to end the adventure.

I Am Alive Screenshot

I Am Alive's combat requires a similar level of awareness and caution. While making his way through the city, the main character is rarely equipped with more than a machete and a pistol holding a bullet or two—sometimes none. Physically, the player's character is only as strong as a fit human male, so he can be killed almost instantly by enemies, and he's usually outnumbered. Taking these things into account, every conflict that would be a forgettable throwaway in another game takes on incredible immediacy.

Slugging it out or trying to brute-force a mob wouldn't be a successful strategy in real life, and it's not here, either. To compensate, the hero has a surprise attack for incoming thugs, and many enemies can be held at bay with the gun pointed in their direction. By using these basic techniques and carefully observing enemies, the odds can be overcome. Later in the adventure, other elements shift the balance a bit more towards the player's favor. Even so, meeting opposition is rarely anything other than a split-second scramble for life.

The systems I've mentioned are already unique, but I can count on two hands (maybe one) the number of titles I've seen tackling mature content in serious fashion. I Am Alive does it from start to finish, and over the course of the adventure there are several scenes that I suspect many players will find quite startling—I know I did. The depictions of post-apocalyptic survival are brutal, harsh, and often quite graphic, yet I never got the sense that it was done for shock value. Instead, it seems totally in tune with the gravity of existence in that situation—starvation, death, isolation, rape, cannibalism… all of these things and more are touched on, and I give the highest respect to the development team for the courage and vision to touch on things given wide berth by most developers.

I Am Alive is bold, challenging, and refreshing in its approach, but I would guess the difficulty might put some people off. Although I hesitate to call it a hard game, the constant resource management and extreme levels of caution and awareness required to play successfully are not the norm. There are also some rough areas that could have used work, such as obstacles or surfaces that seem able to be scaled, yet can't be. Some instances also occur when the developers are clearly pushing the player towards a conflict, signaled by things like open doors becoming locked (and vice versa) in order to funnel the player a certain way. It's a little too overt at times and can intrude on immersion, but I forgave it in light of what it gets right.

Although I would never call I Am Alive a perfect game, very often the most memorable and exciting experiences are the furthest from what a polished, attractive title might look like. That proves to be exactly the case here, and I would strongly urge anyone interested in broadening their video game horizons to see what Ubisoft Shanghai has created. With its darkly mature subject material and radical re-interpretations of standard play formulas, I Am Alive is both emotionally difficult and conceptually challenging—and those are wonderful things in my book. Rating: 9.0 out of 10.


Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, sexual themes and strong language. Parents, this is one of the rawest, most brutal games I've played in quite some time. All of the warning tags here are entirely appropriate, and the game pulls no punches. It is incredibly adult and children should be kept far away. It's gripping stuff for the appropriate audience, and the audience is not children.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You will be at a slight disadvantage. Although voices and cutscenes are subtitled, there are sometimes spoken or musical cues for enemies or dangerous situations which do not have on-screen signals. There were also times when survivors in need of help were calling out, and there were sometimes no subtitles to inform the player of their presence.

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
Brad Gallaway

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15 Comments on "I Am Alive Review"

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Spokker
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Spokker
4 years 3 months ago

The way I see it, this is just the old nature vs. nurture debate with a different skin. It’s likely that both play a role. Your behavior is going to depend not only on genes and inherent traits that differ across gender, but also whether or not mommy dressed you up in frilly dresses and made you feel ashamed of your penis.

Both probably play a role, but it seems that it has become too controversial to even mention nature without a pack of philosophy majors descending upon you.

Bilgewater
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Bilgewater
4 years 3 months ago
Hey upselo, I just have to wonder why. What is the reason for women being less violent? Human violence, to me, arises from a need. A need of survival. I need bread. You have bread. I have a gun. I take your bread. If I wasn’t male, would I not act this way? I don’t understand why I wouldn’t. I like bread. A lot. Also pizza. Sociological factors derive from society. Without society, why would those factors still apply? Admittedly, this is anecdotal evidence, but I’ve met and continue to know many women who would have no problem cutting a… Read more »
upselo
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upselo
4 years 3 months ago

It was not my intention to assert what is “natural” or not.
There are a number of factors behind why some categories of population are disproportionately represented in prisons (sociological factors in particular). But I think most of those explaining why women less often resort to violence would still apply in a post apocalyptic world.

Bilgewater
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Bilgewater
4 years 3 months ago

Upselo,

I don’t agree with that at all. You’re making a pretty broad assertion from a single sentence. Historically, African-Americans have made up a larger percentage of the prison population. Does that mean they’re naturally more inclined to violence? Caucasians are naturally peaceful?

Women routinely receive lighter sentences and reductions, according to a University of Georgia study (http://www.terry.uga.edu/~mustard/sentencing.pdf). If women are regularly receiving better plea deals and less jail time than men, isn’t that a social factor and not some made up biological one? In a world without society, who would bother to continue to follow those rules?

upselo
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upselo
4 years 3 months ago

According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service “Historically, women have been more likely to commit minor offenses and have made up only a small proportion of the offender population”. It goes a long way in justifying that women are less represented as attackers in the game in my opinion (although there are some). Some stereotypes have some truth to them.

Bilgewater
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Bilgewater
4 years 3 months ago
Hi Eric. I’m glad to hear that there are active women in the game and it’s always refreshing to see children, let alone girls, being tough and realistic. I still haven’t played I Am Alive, and one day I probably will. The impression I’ve gotten from you and Brad is that any bias is not extreme and certainly unintentional. I’m not calling for any kind of boycott of the game or the developer, I just think it’s useful to point out double standards to avoid shoving them under the rug. I have to confess, this has gotten really interesting, and… Read more »
Eric Bowman
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Eric Bowman
4 years 3 months ago
Hey there Bilgewater, While Brad is right that the thugs that attack you are all male, that doesn’t mean there are no active women in the game. Early on, while walking down an abandoned street, you’ll encounter a woman standing on her porch with a gun, who will shoot you if you come too close. Later on, while going up a broken down skyscraper, you’ll come across a woman and two men talking about baseball. If you approach, all three of them will threaten you if you come closer, and you may have to kill them. There are non-violent but… Read more »
Spokker
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Spokker
4 years 3 months ago

“For example, in the event of an undisclosed apocalyptic event, what reason would women have not to get just as violent, vicious, and desperate as men?”

Because they would lose?

Alv
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Alv
4 years 3 months ago

Stereotyping one side of a coin, implicitly stereotypes the other. Chew on that for while. 🙂

Bilgewater
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Bilgewater
4 years 3 months ago
Thanks for responding again, Brad. I don’t really expect any kind of definitive answer on that last question because I know that the image of women in society is a much larger issue than ‘no female opponents’ in a single video game. I just get awfully tired of seeing this sort of thing pop up over and over again. I mean, we’ve got the “no girls allowed” mentality of a lot of first-person shooters and the super-sexy plate steel armor that exposes all the vital organs of women in many fantasy games and that stuff is pretty obviously sexist. But… Read more »
Brad Gallaway
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Brad Gallaway
4 years 3 months ago

Hey Bilgewater.

as far as I can remember, I think you are correct in that all of the active opponents (as in, faced in combat) are male.

As far as your question about why women wouldn’t be just as violent, vicious, and desperate as men in the game… I guess I don’t have an answer for that. I will have to respectfully direct you to Ubisoft Shanghai!

^_^

Bilgewater
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Bilgewater
4 years 3 months ago
Thank you for responding, Brad. I appreciate intelligent dialogue about video games which is why I frequent this site. Undoubtedly, I Am Alive does not reinforce gender stereotypes nearly as strongly as some of it’s competition, but there is still an undercurrent here that I noticed even in your response. I want to stress that I’m not accusing you or the developers of any kind of overt sexism. I don’t know this to be absolutely true, but from your description of the enemies and from any footage of the game I’ve seen, I get the impression that all opponents are… Read more »
Brad Gallaway
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Brad Gallaway
4 years 3 months ago
Hey Bilgewater. >>I Am Alive sounds really interesting and I was eager to get it until I saw some of the trailers and found out what the storyline consists of. My impression was that this game is about a man fighting men to save women in various stages of victimization. Having played it, I’m wondering if you think this impression is accurate and if it is, if it bothered you at all. Thanks for your question, and it’s a good one. Also, ***SPOILER WARNING*** for anyone who hasn’t played the game yet. If you’re afraid of being spoiled, don’t read… Read more »
Bilgewater
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Bilgewater
4 years 3 months ago
I Am Alive sounds really interesting and I was eager to get it until I saw some of the trailers and found out what the storyline consists of. My impression was that this game is about a man fighting men to save women in various stages of victimization. Having played it, I’m wondering if you think this impression is accurate and if it is, if it bothered you at all. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have thought of this if the game hadn’t been advertised as this hyper-realistic antithesis to the fun and excitement of Borderlands/Fallout/Rage style post-apocalyptia. While it would… Read more »
Justin
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Justin
4 years 3 months ago

I completely agree with your review. Ive been aware of this game for years and for a while I thought it had been given up on. I wonder if it would of been as good had it been a full retail release. What came out, seemed similar to what I had read about years ago.

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