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I Am Alive review: Do not resuscitate

Xav de Matos, @Xav

Somewhere along the way, development of I Am Alive took a sharp turn. It shifted from a full retail release to a condensed downloadable title. Development was ripped out of the hands of one (now defunct) developer and given to another. The character and his backstory were changed. Even the setting was altered. It almost seemed that, like I Am Alive's protagonist, Ubisoft was attempting to pull itself out of a terrible disaster. Core ideas that exist in I Am Alive show an exceptional amount of promise, but the title shows its hand far too quickly, running out of captivating tricks within the first few hours.

Gallery: I Am Alive (1/23/12) | 5 Photos

The plot centers around a man named Adam who has walked across a devastated America to reunite with his family, after what is only described as "The Event." The story is delivered through a video account of his journey, in which Adam records himself documenting his ordeal in the event that he is unsuccessful in his quest. It helps convey each scenario, but the entire thing comes across as some sort of exposition theater.

There are two primary concerns for players in I Am Alive: Adam's health and stamina. Stamina allows Adam to climb, run, and breathe in areas choked by dust and debris. When the stamina bar is completely depleted, Adam's health begins to trickle away. A tension builds as you attempt to traverse destroyed buildings or escape from unbreathable air. It works exceptionally well, even when things become frustrating. The problem with these situations is that there's a high level of trial and error and, in the case of traversal, one very specific way the developer expects you to accomplish a goal. It makes the feeling of tension seem completely fabricated. You know your survival is ensured, because it was designed to be.

Another missed opportunity involves scenarios in which Adam meets bands of survivors. Adam will often come across gangs wielding machetes or guns and must strategically pick their defenses apart. Ammunition is a rare commodity in the ruined fictional city of Haventon, so each encounter almost feels like a puzzle. Even with an empty pistol, you can raise the weapon to warn off enemies; however, they soon question your ability to pull the trigger and rush in your direction. Sometimes, killing the toughest of the group will make a statement, forcing other enemies to give up. Later in I Am Alive, armored enemies show little interest in Adam's raised weapons and walk straight toward him -- despite rarely ever wearing a helmet. It's wonderful at the beginning, but the feeling fades over time, like solving a fantastic puzzle again and again. Interest wanes when the solutions are always the same.

Adam finds other survivors, many hidden throughout the world's constant, thick cloud of dust. Some of these moments are haunting, perhaps teasing the original concept for I Am Alive. In one instance, I encountered a woman begging for two cans of food, but I only had one. Later on, I found another can and returned to her location, only to find her lifeless body hanging from a pipe. It was horrifying and fascinating at the same time, something I wish I Am Alive played with more.

I Am Alive's drive is to help solve the mystery of where Adam's family has disappeared to in his yearlong absence. His videos are directed at them specifically, promising that he will find his way back home. But I Am Alive forgets about this quest within the first hour, when Adam meets a small child who needs his help, and his focus shifts to helping her and her family. This wouldn't be such an issue if Adam wasn't constantly talking about finding his family, teasing what could possibly come next. The narrative ultimately disappoints, playing out more like a side quest to a much greater adventure than its own, cohesive story.

I Am Alive's main failing is that it wastes its promise. There are fantastic ideas on display here but, like its hero, I Am Alive loses stamina at an alarming rate.

This review of I Am Alive is based on the Xbox Live Arcade version, provided by Ubisoft. The PS3 version will be released at a later date.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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