A year after the Earth was hit by an unexplained catastrophe, a nameless stranger finally reached his hometown.
The world is in ruins; everything is covered with ash. Constant earthquakes and toxic dust storms continue to batter the city. Armed with only a flashlight, rope and an gun empty of bullets, our protagonist embarks on a quest for his family.
Right from the start I Am Alive's oppressive atmosphere is clear. The world's a dreary, grey place. Everything is filtered through a coarse-grained, dusty viewpoint. There's hardly any colour. You transverse this hellhole with a mounting sense of loneliness. What few survivors there are scrap over the few remaining resources. It's the law of the jungle - and even your kind can look upon you as a potential meal.
The title has clear parallels to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The unnamed man, the events and dangerous encounters with other survivors - all familiar to readers or watchers of novel or film.
Implementing the drama that comes with the struggle for survival in a game is no easy task. Not with a genre established with the saving grace of Continues or Retries. As such, despairing searches for food, and clashes to survive shouldn't be anywhere near realistic. But that's exactly what I Am Alive does.
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We're used to the Survival Horror tricks. Ammunition shortages, groping in the dark only for a short sharp shock. Even with the obligatory flashlight are mere parlour tricks. The real achievement is an ingenious principle of endurance and health.
Running, climbing and straying into the toxic dust clouds that swirl through the city streets reduces our stamina bar. Rest, and the stress is quickly forgotten as the bar shoots back to full.
But if we spend too much on length climbs, the bar's permanently shortened and doesn't dull recharge. So in addition to our health indicators, we have to keep an eye on our endurance, else we get out of breath too quickly, even when climbing a short ladder.
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Thus food and medicine become precious commodities. Overwork, and only digesting food-stuff will health and endurance levels be fully restored. Refilling fully also depends on what kind of food we consume.
Such a little trick, but it transforms simple climbs into nerve-wracking and incredibly exciting situations. It also offers a well thought out save and retry system for real survival anxiety. The number of retries is limited even on normal mode. Use will throw us back to the last checkpoint. Exhaust them all, and the level will need to be replayed in full. On the higher difficulty, its Game Over.
Rescuing survivors will add another Retry to your stock. But it comes at a heavy price: each poor soul often needs something from our scarce supplies. Here stands I Am Alive's morality meter, and its entirely down to you whether sharing is worth risk and possible reward. The consequences and questions you ask yourself pull you deeper into the fictional scenario.
In one situation I've found a beautiful piece of meat vastly better than other scraps I've discovered, and could likely fully replenish my health and stamina. It sits untouched in my backpack. Because of my strong suspicion that its human flesh. Consumption may well have only had statistical consequences - good ones at that. Yet the fiction has impressed upon me a line I refuse to cross.
There aren't just those looking for help. Every encounter can be potentially dangerous. Some survivors are only suspicious and want to defend their supplies. Remain quiet and go on your way, and the situation doesn't escalate.
Then you meet those who won't waste time in seeing you as easy pickings. Quickly the situation must be assessed, response given. Are the opponents armed? Who's the greatest threat, and more importantly - how much ammunition do I have?
Bluffing with an empty pistol only goes so far. Draw and hold, and groups will keep their distance for a time. But the situation must be resolved somehow. Enemies will not stand idly by - bluff called those with guns open fire immediately, short-range weapon holders rush in to attack.
Even if you have bullets, gunfights are starkly human here. As you aim and shoot at one, you may be swarmed by others. Or do you back away and hope they'll stay within the boundaries of the light cast by their campfire? The tactical aspect the game adopts is both slow and hectic, simply because the pressure is so great.
Later in the game you gain a hunting bow, which requires its own strategy to use, and taught string takes longer than pulled trigger. You have to be very careful where you shoot.
The individual tasks in search of our family are quite linear, but the relatively small area of Haventon in which we transverse to the next mission is more open. We pass through some areas several times and new passages open up as local conditions change.
I Am Alive is truly an amazing experience and incredibly exciting throughout because of the constant fight for survival.
If the game was a bit longer, it could have passed safely as full-price title. But then, the eight hour length is long enough to retain both attention and tension.
The graphical style makes for an oppressive atmosphere, and while the blurring and the coarse grain effect is annoying at times, its likely intentional, because when you finally break through the mist above street level, hanging off some sun-kissed office amid a skyscraper's ruins, you find yourself taking a deep breath and drinking it all in, while telling yourself, both as reassurance and affirmation: "I am alive."
8 / 10
+ Great Atmosphere
+ Great gameplay
+ Sells you on a battle for survival.
- Very Linear
- Atmospheric but monotonous visuals.