I Am Alive (March 7, 2012) is a game that was first announced in July 2008. Since that time, it changed design, went from full release to an arcade title, and fell into the historically capable hands of Ubisoft. Upon first glance, this is a game of amazing possibilities that sounds like the kind of experience I could lost in but, after hanging out in the universe, do I think it was time well spent or would I rather slide down a cheese grater into a tank of sharks who just lost their girlfriends to someone that looks just like me?
I’ll be honest. I struggled with this review. Writing this was aggravating, grueling, and ultimately disappointing...just like playing I Am Alive. This game has so much potential to be fantastic, but manages to fall short in every way.
WHERE DOES HE GET THOSE WONDERFUL TOYS?
The game opens with the protagonist speaking into a video camera and giving the setup. Essentially, he was across the country from his wife and daughter when the EVENT (You have to say it like that. Preferably with the dramatic Law & Order BUM-BUM following.) happened. What exactly was the EVENT? Massive earthquakes? Alien Invasion? Jehovah’s Witnesses? You never really find out. All you ever know is that the EVENT happened and life as we know it changed. The after effects are the occasional aftershocks and a thick cloud of dust that hangs over lower areas of the game.
The focus is on an unnamed protagonist (I imagine he’s called Jethro) and his quest to find his family. The story opens with him at the end of a year long trek across America to return to Haventon, the town where his family lived when the EVENT happened. In this opening scene, Jethro is speaking into his video camera and proudly displaying the useful items he has accumulated over the past year. This is your first sign that Jethro just ain’t right.
He has just spent a year struggling to cross a post-apocalyptic America on foot to reach his family so you would expect him to have gained some pretty useful and cool items along the way. I was thinking along the lines of a crossbow, some rope, a knife, and, dare I dream it, a Flowbee? Not so with Jethro. What are his most valuable possessions after a year beyond the Thunderdome? A gun with no bullets, a flashlight, some batteries, a backpack, and a video camera. That’s right. The world has turned upside down. Dogs and cats are living together and mass hysteria reigns but, everything is going to be alright because Bubba, the Wonder Idiot, can record it.
THESE ARE THEIR STORIES
Enough of that, let’s talk about the gameplay. I decided the best way to handle this was to give you a breakdown of each feature.
I loaded up I Am Alive with anticipation. I had been reading about this game for years and was excited to finally get my hands on it. After watching the opening scene where I meet Jethro and his fascinating toy collection, I was put through the standard “getting to know you” phase where the controls are introduced. There was some platforming similar to what you get in an Assassin’s Creed game with the biggest exception being the effect of stamina in whatever you do. The point with I Am Alive is that Jethro is just a normal guy trying to survive. He’s not a Special Forces operative that can kill you with a napkin nor is he some kind of acrobat that can contort himself into shapes that would make Picasso wet himself. He’s just your Average Joe. With this in mind, every action you take involves a drain on your stamina.
Stamina is the bane of your existence while playing this game. Everything from climbing a building to zipping up your pants takes away your stamina so you have to be constantly on the look out for things that will allow you to rest. When you climb, you have to carefully plan your route. If you choose poorly, you won’t make it to safety in time and you die. If you spend too much time walking in the dust cloud, you die. Basically, if you do anything mildly strenuous for too long, you die. It’s a mechanic that was designed to add urgency and tension to every action and it works...for a little while. After some time, it just becomes an annoying hassle to try to keep up with and starts to detract from the game itself.
This is one area where I became increasingly aggravated. Since you are just entering a post-apocalyptic world a year after the dreaded EVENT (BUM-BUM!), items are scarce since survivors have already picked through whatever they can so rationing is the key. You will find various items in the area and, as you learn to horde, it does become easier to hold onto supplies. There are items that will refill stamina or health that you need to keep a lookout for and, if you are smart, you can grow a useful little pile. The problem I had has to do with helping victims and the checkpoint system.
First, the victims. What kind of depressing, end of the world game would it be without random victims lying around demanding your time and resources? You will usually stumble across these people as you progress through the game and, if you’re lucky, you’ll have what they need on hand. If not, you’ll have to stumble around in the dust in hopes of finding whatever it is they are looking for. The victims are completely optional and, if you want, you can choose to leave them all to their fate and keep your supplies for yourself. Doing this comes with at a price and that brings me to the checkpoints.
When I said earlier that rationing was key, I wasn’t exaggerating. EVERYTHING is limited, including checkpoints. You start the game with a limited number of “checkpoint resets”. When they are used up, you can only restart at the beginning of an episode. You will gain more checkpoint resets as you help victims so, in essence, you trade items like painkillers and health kits for the ability to reset your mistakes. I found this to be an annoyance. Even though I managed to accumulate just over 10, I saw these quickly dwindle when I hit a particularly difficult area of the game so that, with each mistake, my frustration grew to the point where my controller began to whimper whenever I’d die. It recalled what has happened to its brothers in the past when a game pushed me too far and I was dangerously close here.
Honestly, if you are someone that hated the save system of Dead Rising, you do not want to play this game. My worst moment with I Am Alive came on day one when I had just completed the sixth episode. I got into a fight I couldn’t win so I decided to reset to the beginning of the seventh episode. I got a little quick with the button and accidentally reset to the beginning of the game. That’s not a big deal, right? WRONG! Apparently, if you reset to a previous chapter, you lose all progress past that chapter so, by resetting to Episode One, I had erased all my progress and had to start over. My cat hid under the bed for 24 hours after my scream of rage echoed through the house.
Here it is. The area that caused me to walk away from this game. Combat in I Am Alive is an irritation I really just don’t need. It’s repetitive and unsatisfying. Very early in the game, you get your hands on a machete. This becomes your primary weapon due to the scarcity of items. For your gun, you will only have one bullet at any given time so you have to be careful who you choose to share it with. Wasting one means you could be in big trouble in future battles. Because of this, here is how the vast majority of fights occur.
A group of men step out and come at you in a threatening manner. The others will stop while the Alpha Douche approaches you. When he gets close enough, you pull out your machete and slice his throat. This is followed by you immediately pulling your pistol to hold the others off long enough to gather a game plan. If one of these opponents has a gun, you have to shoot him immediately. If they all have knives, ideally, you want to get them backed up to a ledge or fire so you can simply kick them into it. If not, you’ve got trouble. If you engage one in combat, the others will run up and hack at you. This never ends well so combat is always a trial and error event that is especially annoying when combined with the bizarre checkpoint system. Throw in guys with armor and now you’re at whole new level of anger.
I AM DONE
I admit to you that I haven’t covered every aspect of this game. There is a sneaking component that I found to be pointless. You get a bow with only one arrow and this is moderately useful if you see enemies before they see you but, overall, it doesn’t matter. It is possible that the game could have greatly improved at some point VERY late in the story but I didn’t make it that far. I Am Alive is a dull, frustrating mess of ideas that sounded great but fell flat. Don’t waste your time. Some things are better off dead.