Brutal, Unflinching and… Important
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'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.
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.
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