Throughout I Am Alive’s long development cycle, the idea of surviving in an earthquake ravaged urban landscape remained a strong one. The title and initial trailers pointed to something more than a “blow up everything that moves” scenario. It looked like survival horror with a realistic edge. It hinted at the need for a man to find his way in a destroyed city, to battle the worst of humanity even as he chokes on poisonous dust. The game has finally arrived, albeit in downloadable form, and for the most part, it delivers on its promise.
Following an unexplained ‘Event’ Adam has spent the last year walking across the country, determined to reach his home city of Haventon and find his wife and daughter. Because he has documented his progress and thoughts with a camcorder, players are quickly brought up to date on what has happened and who he is. There is a real sense that he is hanging everything on locating his family and that this has helped him focus and keep his humanity through the horror that he has experienced.
Gameplay comprises two main demands, climbing and fighting. The former sees Adam grappling over and through the shattered city in order to reach loot and find a way forward. He is highly nimble and capable in these sequences, but is hampered by a stamina bar which swiftly reduces as he progresses. When it reaches zero, he falls unless he uses a piton (very realistic) or he downs a snack (not so much). As his gauge plummets, the music builds in intensity, which completely conveys the stress of the climb. Pushing Adam to the limit may help him reach his goal, but it lowers his overall stamina capacity, making the next climb harder unless he can find a health item. This is among the best elements of the game. Each climb has a cost on Adam and somehow also leaves players breathless with effort. Superb stuff!
Most people were killed in the Event, but some remain and many require Adam’s help. They plead for him to either gather items for them or, more shockingly, release them from captivity. Helping survivors costs him some of his scant resources, but it also gains him ‘extra tries’ to use in the event of his death. The survivors then share stories about how they escaped the Event or give clues relevant to a mission. The fact that humanity has become such a pathetic and desperate lot further enhances the oppressive nature of the game world.
Adam also encounters people in his journey who want to rob and/or eat him. He is armed but ammunition is rare. Drawing a weapon makes enemies retreat, which enables him to separate them and pick them off one by one or even move them into a position where they can be kicked off a precarious ledge or into a fire. Some adversaries also have firearms and they don’t hesitate to shoot if provoked. Once they have been killed, he must hastily collect their guns in order to gain bullets and prevent others from picking them up and using them against him.
Most combat requires Adam to take one thug by surprise and then pick off the rest one at a time. Later in the game, he encounters enemies with body armour that can only be killed with a headshot, but at least he gets the armour to wear himself. Players who complete the game are advised to tackle the Survivor mode, which limits retries, items and ammo. Helping others really impacts on Adam’s ability to survive, forcing him to make harsh decisions such as ignoring people that he knows aren’t going to make it.
Graphically, this game fails to excite with its bland character models and lack of overall interactivity with the environment. Every climbing pathway is clearly signalled by handles for grappling and all other objects are impassable. It seems strange that so agile a hero can be blocked by a table or a small fence, but at least he never gets lost. Character movement is much better as he swings and slides over obstacles. The music is wonderfully sparse and moody.
The game works so well on so many levels, but is hampered by its overall lack of scope. As a post-apocalyptic world, it is highly atmospheric, but the events depicted in the game are actually quite small in scale. Being a downloadable release, it offers excellent value for money, but it is far less than it could have been. It would have been great to have a larger open world to explore and the chance to experience more survivors’ stories, but really, players should probably be glad that I Am Alive made it to market at all.