Aesthetically, I Am Alive suffers from a near perpetual ugliness, the environments devoid of any real creativity – texture quality is poor, while an intrusive, unappealing fog lingers always, cutting down on visibility. This precise element of the presentation – the all-consuming, obstructing fog – only hampers potential joys of exploration, while exploration’s appeal is destroyed further by the repetitive nature of the environments, the game adhering tightly to the tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre, though rarely advancing that genre in any significant manner – everything here is routine, uninspired. All around is destruction and devastation, highways littered with abandoned vehicles, thick plumes of smoke extending upwards towards the heavens, while once majestic skyscrapers, partially deprived of their commanding beauty owing to the architectural damage sustained, loom menacingly overhead as the protagonist navigates this fallen world. Whenever the fog dissipates, the player is likely struck by one sensation – the largeness of the world proper, those towering skyscrapers dwarfing the protagonist, consequently painting him as insignificant, helpless. Ultimately, though, this largeness is illusory, as the game adopts a highly linear structure; invisible walls are frustratingly abundant.
This strict linearity does result in a consistently brisk pacing, but greater freedom of exploration, a larger game world – these things would elevate the title, which otherwise robs player freedoms. Internal environments, when they are explored, foster a sense of claustrophobia, and their inclusion is welcome, as they offer the rare break from the repetition which characterizes the exterior environments. Texture quality is poor; draw distance is deliberately low; environments suffer from repetition – collectively, these are significant failings, though when regarding presentation, one attempt at novelness is made – namely, through experimentation with color, with shadow. Quite frequently, the game adopts a monochromatic aesthetic, black, white, and grey abounding. These creative ambitions are fortunately fulfilled, and while the game is a tight adherent to the post-apocalyptic genre, these flourishes of brilliance do help the game forge a unique identity, distinguishing it somewhat from others in the genre.
The narrative is compelling, abounding in intrigue, which mostly stems from the game’s excellent efforts at world building. Some cataclysmic event has recently transpired, destroying civilization, reducing man’s greatest achievements to rubble, pointing towards man’s fragility and vulnerability, easily destroyed by external forces. Vibrancy and hope are long departed – here is no Eden, and the game captures that bleakness expertly, showing maturation. The player character is naturally in the midst of this devastation, and he has one considerable motivation guiding him, which propels him onwards in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds – that motivation is one of reunion; the protagonist merely wishes to discover his wife and daughter, to comfort them, to bolster their strengths. As figure, he is strong and resilient, having crisscrossed the country in pursuit of them. But they are weak, and without his intervention, seemingly darkness – death – would overtake them. These human dimensions are very compelling, and the protagonist, though unnamed, displays many endearing attributes.
Much of this narrative is communicated in a novel manner, namely through video recordings. Throughout his travels, the protagonist documents the people he encounters, the squalid environments explored, finding some kind of solace in this act of recording, even as the subjects of his recording naturally cause distress; paradoxes are present, and given these complexities and the creativity of narrative presentation, this device is very effective, again contributing to the game’s distinct identity. The empathy for others he displays, the selflessness of his pursuits, mark him as compelling protagonist. Early in the narrative, he visits his decimated home, naturally assuming his wife and daughter may still be residing therein. Upon arrival – and investigation – their absence is clearly apparent; the protagonist’s devastation is etched upon his visage, and the player feels sorrow as he feels sorrow. Showing further complexities, he stumbles upon a lost, little girl, and promptly sets out to assist her, perhaps seeing in her figure an image of his actual daughter. The efforts to save her, to bring her to safety, truly set the narrative in motion.
The gameplay vacillates between the compelling and the frustrating, being broken up into two central pillars: platforming and combat. It is with the former pillar where the game truly excels, as the magnanimity of the environments is made readily apparent, as the protagonist deftly ascends those towering skyscrapers, showing great skill, that skill communicated through excellent animation. These successes, however, are tempered by some bizarre design decisions, again made in pursuit of some uniquer identity. These odd choices center around the game’s stamina system, which depletes with every climbing action taken, while even sprinting puts a strain upon the meter. This mechanic results in an almost puzzle-like dimension, stamina moderation being a constant concern – the player is forced to act cautiously whilst also acting swiftly. Certainly, these systems are divisive, but I was never bothered by them to any considerable degree, for they impart a great deal of depth, tactical considerations. A steep learning curve is in place; death abounds in the beginning, though once the controls and stamina and better understood, frustrations are minimized, enjoyability maximized. If the player can persevere through an hour or so of tedium, they will ultimately be rewarded.
Central to success in gameplay is the careful management of resources, the game boldly adopting mechanics from the survival horror genre. Adhering to that genre, too, resources are often quite scarce, that scarcity resulting in careful consideration before expending those resources. Many of them are unmissable, lying directly upon the path of progression. Other, sometimes more valuable resources can be discovered in the game’s few branching pathways, which accordingly incentivizes this exploration when it is available. Finding health-restoring painkillers and stamina-restoring cans of soda is immensely satisfying, as it equates to success in combat or in platforming. With the fast-draining stamina meter and the occasional massiveness of the objects explored through platforming, full stamina depletion is always a tangible reality. The resources stave off this death, and many riveting moments arise, as the platforming sequences come to a close, but a small sliver of stamina remaining – tension abounds, and failures here are largely on the player’s shoulders, rather than from gameplay cheapness.
Further efforts at gameplay innovation are present within the combat systems, which are ultimately terribly flawed and frustrating, in stark contrast to the platforming. At the beginning of the narrative, the protagonist is indeed equipped with a pistol, though possessing zero bullets for that pistol, making it a useless object. Bullets are found throughout the campaign, but they are incredibly scarce, scarcer even than the most valuable of resources. Accordingly, finding bullets was a joyous affair, as they directly equate to sense of empowerment, destroying somewhat the protagonist’s fragility, which inevitably returns as the bullets run dry – here is a vacillation between strength and weakness. Bullets are found through both exploration and the looting of fallen foes, who have their own weapons, and who are thus very threatening, at least offensively – all enemies can be dropped with a single bullet, reflecting gameplay fairness and design wisdom; peppering multiple bullets into one enemy is unrealistic, and had these enemies dramatically increased health bars, the game’s survival horror elements would be compromised. Not so, the firearm gameplay being rewarding if basic, with an intuitive aiming system and impactfulness upon discharge.
In addition to this conventional firearm gameplay, the protagonist discovers a machete early in the narrative, which can be wielded quite brutally and effectively; upon approaching and grappling with an enemy, a quick-time-event activates; if the right button prompt is made, death naturally follows, the enemy collapsing to the ground in often spectacular fashion. Additionally, a deception system of sorts is in place, though it is of a very flawed sort, even as its mastery is crucial to gameplay success. When an armed enemy is alerted to the protagonist’s presence, they will aim their weapon at him, menacing him though never firing upon him. In consequence, the protagonist raises his hands to show he has no plans of resistance. The enemy advances upon him, being certain of success, until he is grabbed by the protagonist, and is similarly slaughtered. A clever system, certainly, though one marked by failure, as is the vast majority of combat – rationing bullets is enjoyable, while manipulating the A.I. can be occasionally amusing, though the game never excels in these systems, even as it strives for success and innovation.
In combat, a strange sort of freneticism is encouraged, though tactics cannot be disregarded. A gun-wielding opponent poses the greatest threat – he must be dispatched first. Following his dispatch, a mad dash for his corpse becomes next priority, for resting upon his corpse is precious ammunition. This hurrying of movement is necessary as the remaining enemies can seize upon that weapon as well, using it against the protagonist. Those bullets acquired, fast aim on the next opponent must be taken, who swiftly expires upon impact of that bullet. The deception components must be taken into account as well. Collectively some combat depth is present, even as, once this formula is detected and implemented the actual threat of the enemies dissipates somewhat, though their firepower and damage output is immense – the protagonist can be dropped with a single bullet. Here, the developers certainly sought to expand upon the genre, and that they had such ambitions at all is an excellent reflection upon the title; in many ways, it abounds in the generic, though ample signs of life and present.
I Am Alive overall displays great ambition, though oftentimes those ambitions are frustrated – combat is unremarkable, even as it is wholly unique, requiring both tactics and quick thinking; it is not automated. Environmentally, though, zero ambitions are present, the game uninspired and unoriginal, while alongside that derivativeness is poor technical quality, the game hampered by its indie status – no creativity is present, though the game does exude style, often aiming to the cinematic, with sometimes excellent camera work during the protracted platforming sequences, and an excellent emphasis on shadow, light and dark. The narrative, meanwhile, has a lot of heart, embracing groundedness and bleakness, a bleakness tempered by hope. But heart here does not equate with success – relatively little actually occurs narratively. The encountered girl is eventually delivered to her mother, one of the protagonist’s objectives achieved. And some intrigue stems from his quest for wife and daughter, cherished beings, though this narrative thread is ruined by an unsatisfying, rather abrupt ending. For all its failings and frequent stumbling, great potential characterizes I Am Alive, its world-building being a major success, and, given this lore, sequels would have been welcome, as they would build upon and enhance those potentials. But it is not to be. At the narrative’s conclusion, it was communicated that my playtime was a flat five hours and thirty minutes, with a death count of forty, that extreme number perhaps attributable to the high level of difficulty I had selected. Still, with that very brief playtime, the game is inviting – the investment is slight, and while the title is in no ways revolutionary, successes are achieved. Frustration may be abundant, but the highs, when they are achieved, are dramatic highs.