Alive, alone and dusty.
I wasn’t completely sure what to expect when I bought Ubisoft’s ‘I Am Alive‘. I saw it on Steam and pieced together via the description and screen caps that it was a third person, post-apocalyptic survival, the latter of which was most appealing to me thanks to my ongoing obsession with the Fallout series, though I Am Alive (IAA) is significantly more serious, there is next to no comic relief. Naturally, it is debatable as to whether this is a pro or a con. The protagonist, who we’ll refer to as Unnamed, because he is, has returned to his hometown of Haventon to search for his wife Julie and daughter Mary, after ‘the Event’, as to which it is colloquially referred. Why he was away from them is only really touched upon, which is disappointing but quite dismissible. A good portion of your ordeal is caught on the video camera Unnamed carries around with him – at the start or end of levels, he will stop and record himself giving messages to his wife Julie, or is being recorded by somebody else. Keep that in mind, because the absolute first thing we see is somebody sitting down to watch the movies on the camera, so the game is actually set an indeterminable amount of time in the past, although conditions are still similar. ‘The Event’ is also never described in great detail, just that an array of earthquakes occurred and continue to occur and now everything everywhere is caked in dust. As a result, descending to lower ground, where the dust is thicker than peanut butter, for too long can result in death via stamina loss. Let’s talk about that – your HUD consists mainly of a status bar and a stamina bar. Now, Unnamed is an excellent climber, but he’s only human, so as he climbs, he loses stamina. Using jumps to climb even faster will deteriorate that bar faster, and if you happen to still be climbing when it hits empty, your overall stamina capacity will decrease and your health will drop, too. You can use Pitons to rest while climbing, but they’re hella rare and once you use it, it stays there forever. That’s a pro and a con. But mostly a con. As your stamina falls, dramatic music builds up, growing louder the lower it goes and succeeding in setting you on edge, (if you’ll pardon the pun), forcing you to search your surroundings for a rest stop, a pocket of fresh air or making you use your other resources. Stamina and health can be replenished by various items, such as food, adrenaline syringes and first aid kits. In Sepia: The Game-, uh, IAA, the dust is freaking everywhere, and impairs your vision to a sometimes frustrating degree. Unnamed has a flashlight pinned to his chest, though he will only use it if in a dark enough environment. But the dust creates an interesting foe, not only because of the negative impact on one’s sight, but because of the danger it presents. For instance, a lot of the game requires you to descend into the thick, stamina-draining dust, turning it into an environmental, non-corporeal enemy to dread, not unlike the darkness in Alan Wake; it’s a necessary evil and knowing one must traverse a long stretch of thick dust quickly becomes substantially more distressing than the thought of facing multiple enemies.
The overall desolate, longing feel is something I can’t easily shake
And let’s hit the subject of enemies while we’re at it. There are two types of enemies in this game, passive and aggressive. The passive ones are just defending themselves, only attacking Unnamed if he gets too close. If he kills them anyway, for whatever reason, they will counter with a guilt trip. “My blood is on your hands” … “You killed me… why?”. This introduces a moral aspect that will encourage the player to stop and think before taking action. The aggressive enemies will approach Unnamed on sight. If they have a firearm, be merciless. Take them down as quickly and efficiently as possible. If they have a knife, they’re only a threat if you’re not pointing a gun in their face, or they realise that actually, you have no bullets. (If you attempt to fire without bullets, they’ll hear the gun click and call you out). Since Unnamed will usually be facing 3-5 enemies at a time in nearly all aggressive confrontation and your bullets are about as common as a Catarina Pupfish (In other words, not very), these confrontations become more of a puzzle. Constantly forced to think fast, you must choose who to shoot in what order or whether to shoot assailants at all, though with the little time given to think when facing one or more pistol-wielding enemies, the anxiety of the situation is not lost. Later, armoured enemies are introduced, but they are introduced so late into the game that they hardly qualify as an issue. The “back up!” feature is an intriguing one to play with. Pointing your gun at a machete-wielding enemy results in them being at your mercy, pleading for their lives or sometimes taunting you and questioning your bravado, nonetheless always obeying when you tell them to “back up”. Directing them towards an edge, (“I’m as far back as I can go, okay?”), grants you the option of SPARTA-kicking them off of it. If I may reference Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed, those being the only climbing-esque games I can call to memory right now, what I loved so much about them is the ability to rush through an environment and rely solely on your instincts to guide you; that’s great because of the fluid feel it gives the player. I am saddened to report that IAA does not achieve this as much as I would have liked, however this does promote an extreme ‘look and think before you leap’ attitude that increases the feeling that an in-game death is to be feared and avoided at all costs. Falling due to player fault is a mechanic that is essentially absent in IAA, which is refreshing to say the least. If Unnamed cannot make a jump, he physically will not jump. The music. I could not write this without making a point of praising the music. The composer, Jeff Broadbent, expresses the perfect mix of sadness and darkness in this soundtrack that is truly capable of drawing emotion, flawlessly accompanying the lingering feeling of loneliness the player will always come to notice, no matter how many humans he comes across. As a final point, I would like to mention the controls. The first thing I noticed when given control was that I had to use Left Mouse Button to jog and sprint. This bothered me at first. I found it fairly unnatural as a PC gamer, but with time, I reminded myself that I am a PC gamer; my mouse and keyboard are my instruments and involving my mouse so heavily with the game so that I must use it for more than looking around honestly did encourage my relationship with my equipment. This was likely not purpose, as the game is available on both PSN and XBLA, yet it gave a unique feel, regardless. It is a short game, taking about 5 hours to reach completion and completely linear in its story. The real points that stand out to me when I look back on IAA are the moral issues – deciding whether or not I had the time/patience
to help out a fellow human being and the consequences of my choice; not being penalized for making decisions that could be considered unethical or bad; but most of all, just the overall desolate, longing feel is something I can’t easily shake, not to mention the breath of fresh air that is a post-apocalyptic world without mutants or monsters populating it. I find myself thinking what I could have done differently and how, in retrospect, I could have helped more people, although I cannot say I feel it’s a game I’ll be playing through again anytime soon. Oh, and for a slice of familiarity, listen out for the voice talents of Elias ‘always needs a lozenge‘ Toufexis, otherwise known as ‘guy who voices Adam Jensen’.
The Bad: Gameplay can become tedious and repetitive