June 23, 2008
I think it’s safe to say that the Alone in the Dark franchise is one of the founding fathers of the survival-horror genre, with its debut making waves way back in 1992. The latest title, of the same name is in fact the fifth title in the series and was announced as far back as 2005. After numerous slips and delays, here we are with the release date finally upon us, so draw the curtains, cut the lights and get ready to have your wits tested.
The game starts off with the classic Alone in the Dark character Edward Carnby, who featured in the original title, in his bid to save the world from an ancient, evil power and unlock the mystery that is his past. Atari’s resurrection of the old series is a rollercoaster ride from start to finish and as close to an interactive movie that we’ve ever seen to date.
You start the game in an apartment block in New York, a few blocks away from the main hunting ground; the eerie Central Park, and are slowly eased in to the controls. Alone in the Dark adopts both a third person and first person system which you can change at your leisure throughout the game. In first person mode, you don’t really get to experience the defined character model of Carnby and the game just doesn't feel that natural. Whereas in third person mode, the camera angle and player control isn’t exactly ideal. You’ll often find yourself flicking between first and third person mode just to get your bearings. One thing for sure is that you'll very rarely combat any enemy in the game in the third person view just because the sheer difficulty in doing so. Instead, a quick click of a button and you’ll be combating in first person mode, but this most certainly detracts away from the game and taints the immersion.
Your inventory should, by all rights, be your best friend in the game yet it turns out to be your worst enemy at times. On its own, the inventory is a nifty little tool allowing you to open your jacket and combine various items that you'll find throughout the game. Allowing you to add a rag to a bottle of alcohol to make a Molotov Cocktail is genius in theory, but the problem is that the inventory is real-time, so if you enter the inventory mid battle your adversaries will continue to take lumps out of you while your faffing around. That pretty much means that there is no thinking on your feet, you have to be prepared for everything. This usually wouldn’t be too bad, but it’s a survival horror title and pretty much everything takes you by surprise.
Not only is the inventory awkward, but even selecting the correct weapons mid-battle is a chore. Something as simple as turning your torch off to conserve its charge when you haven’t got it selected becomes as complex as finding a cure for cancer. There are so many moments throughout Alone in the Dark where you find yourself genuinely frustrated by a horrible control mechanism that fetching the 360 out of the wall plaster is sometimes close to a reality. All of these things are unforgivable in any title these days, let alone a title that should be leading its genre.
What we do see throughout Alone in the Dark is plenty of well executed, innovative ideas; a perfect example is the health system. Using the left/right directional arrow allows Edward to enter recovery mode where you have to heal your own wounds with medical spray you find around the park. Of course if it's a serious wound, you'll need a bandage, but be quick, you only will have 7 minutes to do so before you die.
The use of light and fire throughout Alone in the Dark is incredible. Allowing the player to manipulate objects and scenery with fire is so impressively done that the folks at Eden Games deserve a medal. There is just something ultimately satisfying about using a plank of wood that you set alight yourself to light the way and keep the demons at bay.
Use of the right analogue stick becomes quite innovative when Edward picks up one of the objects littered throughout the environments. Move it from left to right quickly for him to swing it in that direction, or conversely, hold forward so Edward can light it over a flame. It makes for some great puzzle solving action later on in the game.
One of the shining lights of Alone in the Dark, without a shadow of a doubt, is its superb interactive set pieces and puzzles. These will have you hooked on the action that is taking place, whether you're traversing the inside of a chasm or scaling a building in the city as it collapses around you. Interactivity at its best. Some of the puzzles will have you pondering for a few moments but they're essentially quite basic.
Getting around Central Park is a little different to what you or I might be used to. Carnby will have access to many cars dotted around the park, whether you have to hot wire them or take advantage of a hidden key, there is always a way to get them going. The cars are simple and easy to drive taking advantage of some simplistic arcade controls, but the driving scenes are unforgiving and irrational. Being stopped dead in your tracks by an inconspicuous bump for example is bloody annoying.
As far as enemies are concerned you’ll predominantly be fighting "Humanz", "Ratz" and "Vampirz" (yes I know, not the most original of names), and they usually travel in packs. So long as you use the fire and light dotted around the Park to your advantage, they won’t put up much of a fight but they’ll sure make you jump and send shivers down your spine.
Alone in the Dark is as close to an interactive film as we have possibly seen in this day and age, sure other stories are compelling and gripping, but you feel a part of the world you step in to and boy is it one eerie environment. The film element ties in with another ingenious tool that Eden Games must be commended for and that is the “Previously on Alone in the Dark”. The game is split into Chapters and Sequences so it feels like you are acting out a scene and an act. Go away for a day? Come back and get a “Previously” cinematic replay of the action you’ve experienced up to now. Sublime!
Visually, Alone in the Dark is as good as any other title out on the market at this moment in time. The Eden Games team have made a fine job at recreating fire, light and shadow effects, but in first person mode this seems to lose its edge and it slips in to the realms of a poor FPS. The park is dark, dingy and atmospheric... Just as it should be at night! The characters have some rather detailed faces but are let down by some shaky lip synching and character animations.
If the visuals don’t set the mood, then the score surely will. Part of a collaboration between Olivier Deriviere (known for his work in the 2004, horror, survival title, Obscure) and The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices, the score is truly epic. Immensely powerful and hugely atmospheric whilst being haunting; it is definitely one of the better aspects of the title. It is let down in part by some unenthusiastic acting that fails to scale the epic heights of its accompanying score.
As far as the achievements go, this is what they class an "easy 1k". You’ll get the vast majority going through the relatively short campaign which only lasts about 10 hours. The only real chore is taking down the Roots of Evil as they are in some pretty tricky places. You won’t be able to get them all on the first time through but the ability to load any chapter and sequence means that they will be easy pickings after you have finished the campaign. Not much originality but it certainly encourages you to take full advantage of the inventory and the object combination, which is obviously a good thing... But only if you’re alone... Very alone! All in all, a fairly bog standard list.
Alone in the Dark is the biggest Jekyll and Hyde title that currently exists on the Xbox 360. There are moments when you’ll be gripped by the innovative and exhilarating gameplay, but the rest of the time you’ll be throwing your controller at the neighbour’s cat because of its frustrating camera angles and hard to manage inventory. Whilst the game has almost broken elements of gameplay, underneath, what we have is an adventurous and innovative title that will have you on the edge of your seat. If you can look past its problems, Alone in the Dark is an experience to savour.
Epic score that is only slightly let down by an unenthusiastic acting role from most of the cast.
Great environment... In third person mode. First person mode seems to make the game’s visual appeal lose its edge. Some dodgy animations and lip synching, but other than that, well polished. Light and fire are exceptionally well reproduced.
Commended for superb innovation. Odd yet repetitive puzzles seem to grind after the tenth time.
Difficult and overly complicated control system. A camera with no sense of direction nor help. Difficult third person mode that makes combat a nightmare meaning you have to switch between first person and third person all the time. Hugely frustrating in general.
Pretty bog standard list tied to the campaign. Finishing the campaign will net you over 700 points and a few more quick chapter reloads will net you the 1k within seconds. Warning, some roots of evil require some thought and planning.
A title that should be heralded for its innovation that clearly attempts to do things its own way. However, a few faulty mechanisms mean that if you’re easily frustrated... Steer well clear. Despite the fairly mediocre score, the title is worthy of anyone’s time. However, as we’ve come to expect higher standards in the games of this day and age, having fundamental gameplay features that are not up to scratch prohibits me from giving the higher score it may otherwise deserve.