Review: Alone in the Dark (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Alone in the Dark
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Eden Games
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: 06/24/08


Alone in the Dark, as a franchise, is historically significant for basically being the series Resident Evil used as a template to build a game from, as the first AitD and the first RE shared more than a few similarities (even if RE1 was a good bit more playable for its time). It is also, however, a franchise that has fallen into decline after its initial release; the two immediate sequels were not really anything special in comparison to the first game, the first attempt at rebooting the franchise in The New Nightmare was not very good, and the Uwe Boll film based on the franchise was, well… it starred Christian Slater about ten years past his prime, how good do you THINK it was?

But never let it be said that a good franchise can be kept down by some bad ideas, as Atari has seen fit to bring us another Alone in the Dark, this time seeing fit to simply title the game “Alone in the Dark” with no number or subtitle, with the indication being that it’s more or less a franchise reboot. It’s a new attempt to make something of the franchise, a third chance to make the experience into something new and, most notably, an attempt to make the franchise itself into something more cinematic and fresh than its predecessors, something that blends action and survival horror into a product that overshadows and influences the survival horror genre for years and decades to come.

This does not happen quite the way the developers would have hoped.

The story of Alone in the Dark once again sees you taking on the role of Edward Carnby (as do all AitD games), only as the game begins, he has no idea who he is or what’s going on. You wake up in a hotel room, only to find you’re about to be executed for some unspecified reason. Well, as you might expect, that doesn’t happen, as instead, the entirety of NYC more or less goes to hell (somewhat literally) as fissures begin spawning around the city and, well, everything goes to shit. Buildings start collapsing, people start dying, everything that can go wrong does, and before you know it, Edward is wrapped up in saving the world from evil for what is, canonically, the fourth time in his life.

Now, there’s a difference between good storytelling and telling a good story, and AitD shows this pretty simply, in that the actual telling of the story is pretty impressive, but the story that’s being told really isn’t. The dialogue writing is strong, the characterization is well done, the various events that occur throughout the experience are scripted well and feel powerful in all of the ways they should, but the core story itself just feels like one that didn’t need to be told, and the endings, no matter which one you choose, put a large punctuation mark on that point. Now, here’s the thing: AitD is a miserable story with a miserable ending, punctuated by death, destruction and absolute suffering throughout the experience, but it lacks the same thing a lot of products whose primary goal is to make you empathize with the main character lack: a reason for all of this to be happening that makes the ending of the experience click. See, if the main character opts of their own volition to put themselves into a bad situation and elects to make things worse under the understanding that doing so will make things better for them (IE will make them rich, will give them power, whatever), then certainly, screwing them over in the end works in context. When the entirety of the experience amounts to “being forced to save the world because there is no other possible option”, the whole message of the experience seems to be “hope”, and the experience ends on a sour note, that’s “being depressing solely for the sake of being depressing”, and there’s not a particular need for it. Plenty of video games have ended on a sour note and made perfect sense in context, and while I really don’t want to ruin any of them, I’ve reviewed at least two, so if you want to go back through the archives and take a guess, feel free. This game, instead, gives you plenty of hope spots to get you into the position of believing that yes, the game really WILL end on a high note, and then does not, and while the ending makes sense when one considers who the antagonist in question is, well, there wasn’t really a purpose for it save to set up a sequel or to set up a plot point for DLC to resolve.

You know, another survival horror game did that. It was called Run Like Hell. Only in RLH, the depressing twist happened at about the halfway point and was meant to punctuate the need to save the universe and the “there will be a sequel” was just twisting the knife (as well as not at all true), whereas here it’s THE END. Just saying.

Visually, AitD is visually impressive so long as you never see any of the visual glitches in the game. The environments are generally atmospheric and well-designed, the character models are well animated (if repetitive) and look pleasant and technologically sophisticated, and the fire effects are amongst the best on the market today. That said, visual glitching is common; enemies and Edward will often switch from one animation to another without any transition animation, clipping is common (to the extent that, in the very first chapter, Edward’s entire upper-torso went through the top of a collapsing building because I wasn’t in the correct position for the event), and other odd glitches (like the head of a weapon coming right at you as you swing it away from you, or having the roof of your car ripped off while driving, only to see it magically re-appear in the next cutscene) pop up frequently enough that they’re nearly impossible to excuse. Aurally, however, the game makes up for the visual presentation by being pretty much perfect. The music is exceptional, and mixes electronic composition and chorus singing in a way that is wholly atmospheric and powerful, the voice acting is top-notch and done incredibly well, and the sound effects are movie-grade in quality. There’s pretty much no way the audio could have been improved upon in any significant fashion.

The gameplay of Alone in the Dark, however, is very difficult to describe in any sort of liner fashion, so instead we will simply break it down into a sort of stream-of-consciousness discussion of things, largely because it’s very hard to pinpoint where exactly the game goes wrong, simply because not a lot really works. Okay, so manipulating Edward is fairly easy; the left stick moves Edward forward and backward and allows him to turn as needed, and the right stick kind-of sort-of moves the camera around so long as Edward isn’t brandishing a melee weapon. The A button picks up things on the ground, turns the flashlight on and off (if equipped) and allows you to run, the X button jumps, the Y button toggles between first and third person view, and the B button reloads your pistol if equipped. The right trigger enables you to fire your pistol by switching into first person view, and subsequently firing your right hand weapon in general (whether a gun or otherwise), the left trigger throws/fires left-handed weapons, and the bumpers allow for quick cycling through of your weapons/items for the respective hands. The D-pad allows you to cycle various things, with Down going to your inventory, Left and Right enabling healing mode, and Up accessing a list of four Favorites of hand combinations (say, a spray can and a lighter, or a flashlight and a pistol, or a pistol and a bottle, or whatever). The Left Thumbstick can be clicked in to do a quick 180, and the Right Thumbstick can either turn the camera to face Edward (in third person view) or close your eyes (in first person view) when clicked in, with the latter having some… surprising uses. Pressing Start opens your PDA when you get it, which allows you to check your GPS (map), text messages, current objective, and other stuff. It also doubles as a phone, though you’ll only really ever need to use it as one sparingly and, mostly, when the game dictates as such.

Now, in fairness, AitD does a lot of neat little stuff that is, in all honesty, pretty amusing when you first see it, though how long it will remain amusing is relative. The first time you open your inventory and see that it’s the inside of Edward’s jacket is an amusing and immersive element of the game mechanics, as you have to choose what to carry based on what you have space for, with bottles/cans/sticks of stuff fitting neatly on the right, and everything else fitting on the left, that explains inventory limitations nicely. Combining items from this menu is a simple matter of moving over an item, pressing X, then moving to the next item and pressing it again, making such actions easy. Healing, too, is a neat mechanic, with Edward spraying healing spray on injured body parts and bandaging wounded limbs and you directing the camera as to where to focus next until you heal him completely or he runs out of spray. The various combinations of items and weapons you can make are also pretty sweet; put some double-sided tape on a bottle of booze, throw it on an enemy, shoot him, BOOM, good times… or, pour flammable liquid on bullets to make FIRE BULLETS (which is completely ridiculous but at the same time completely badass)… or stuff a rag in a bottle, light it, instant Molotov Cocktail baby! There are plenty of other simpler combinations (double sided tape on a glowstick equals hanging light, for instance), but you get the point. The little things the game has you do or presents to you are neat and add to the gameplay cool points, too. Hotwiring cars and electric boxes is cute and surprisingly interesting, for instance. Watching Edward shove the flashlight into the flap on his jacket shoulder while he brandishes a weapon is a fairly novel touch of detail a lot of developers would benefit from noting. The little introductions when you load the game that start with “Previously on Alone in the Dark…” are also pretty neat, and give that “episodic TV” feel the game seems to be going for.

That said, most of the above mechanics are a pain in the ass after a while. Okay, first off, the inventory: when you start finding mandatory inventory items that aren’t the pistol and flashlight (say, the lighter as a non-spoiler example), these items WHICH CANNOT BE DISPOSED OF take up slots in Edward’s jacket inventory, leaving less space for things you might need for later, like double-sided tape or gauze or what have you, and considering many games have this wonderful mechanic of making sure key items are stored somewhere that isn’t your regular inventory, this is really kind of messed up that you have to take up space you might need with things that you MUST carry. I mean, what the hell is Edward carrying in his pants pockets besides his cell phone? Why can’t he keep this crap in there and out of my valuable inventory spots when I can’t get rid of the damn things? Also, for a game that spends a good amount of time trying to be immersive, showing me a little blue background and an illustration of my combination instead of showing Edward making the item seems counterproductive to this element of realism the game is going for, as does, for that matter, Edward’s magically repairing jacket and jeans every time you save and load your game. And on the matter of healing and inventory management: some people will like that this is in real time and thus allows you to be attacked while you’re doing it, while others will find it to be annoying, but for the record, it probably wouldn’t matter very much if the combat was actually functional in any notable way, as that would mean fighting enemies off wouldn’t be a Herculean task requiring inventory accessing and healing in combat.

See, the combat in AitD is, in the most charitable description imaginable, not very good. Now, there are all sorts of neat things you can do to enemies to get them out of your hair (setting them on fire with a spray can and a lighter, throwing bottles and shooting them, etc), and a few sections come up with interesting alternative options for you to choose (using a propane tank as a modified flame thrower, for example) but most combat comes down to either shooting enemies with flaming bullets or smacking the crap out of them with melee weapons, and these combat mechanics are not very functional at the best of times. The former mechanic is annoying because, in order to kill most humanoid enemies, you will have to shoot them in the fissures on their skin to damage them or you’ll have to plug them with about twelve flaming bullets (or hope you catch them off guard and take them out in two shots), with the former being awkward because of collision detection issues (IE shots that plainly hit the fissures not being registered while shots that plainly MISSED the fissures counting as kills) and the latter being awkward because the game insists you use the right stick to swing weapons, which might be neat in theory, but in practice doesn’t work as well as the game might think. Couple this with enemies dodging swings and shots, groups of four to six enemies bearing down on you with your dinky fire axe and slaughtering you, and having to make fire bullets and heal in real-time, and combat is not fun or friendly in most cases. That the game seems to think such is not the case, especially during the seventh chapter, is especially onerous. Combat against smaller enemies fares a little better, in that most of these foes go down after one or two shots, but the first time you find yourself blinking acid out of your eyes to see your shot only to take another shot of acid because YOU DIDN’T SEE THE ENEMY PREPARING THE SHOT BECAUSE YOUR EYES WERE CLOSED, well, that heads south pretty quickly too. In an odd twist, during Chapter Seven the game gives you the ability to more clearly see Fissures on enemies, which is silly because 1.) they’re already plainly visible, and making them more visible isn’t going to help me hit them any better, and 2.) the following stage features little to no combat, making the upgrade useless shortly after its acquired.

The jumping/climbing sections fare little better, thanks to a combination of wonky collision detection and the feeling that these mechanics are simply out of place in their product. Now, okay, the latter can be overcome easily enough, but the former is a pain to circumvent; if you are not lined up properly with your jump, which is harder than you might think, you will miss the jump entirely and plunge to your death, which happens a not insignificant amount, particularly when you’re doing said puzzles under duress (IE when a building is collapsing or you’re being attacked by things). The game DOES usually load you nearby to where you bit it, often in seconds, but this isn’t exactly a selling point.

Driving sections are back and forth in their playability; anything that involves driving when there is no specific objective to meet is often tolerable in most respects, but when there’s something to get to or get away from, the driving sections are EASILY the worst parts of the game. Now, the thing is, you’ll often find yourself getting stuck on invisible obstacles (as in, on flat road surfaces where nothing should impede you) as well as on visible obstacles that you will have some difficulty circumventing, which makes leisurely driving sections a bit annoying at times, if certainly bearable, as the vehicles generally DO control well enough to be workable. During the three pressured driving sequences, where there are outside forces at work messing with you, however, you’ll find yourself continuing again… and again… and AGAIN… because you blew up your car in some sort of spectacular way. Now, there’s a significant difference between “you are lacking in skill” and “the game is not so good” and when one makes a jump NINE times, the EXACT same jump in the EXACT same way, and TWO of those times dies IN THE MIDDLE OF THE AIR FOR NO EXPLAINED REASON, well, that’s glitchy design. Even beyond that, the sequences aren’t terribly intuitive, and even if you are a good driver you can expect to see yourself undertaking them multiple times simply because you might hit something you couldn’t see or you might take a jump wrong or you might be T-boned by an unexpected driver and die, all of which are wholly possible ways to kick off.

Sections where you are not fighting, driving, or jumping around (IE adventure sections) tend to fare the best, as they often involve puzzle-solving of some sort, which is often fun to do and enjoyable, as many of the puzzles are intuitive and the needed supplies are often in easy reach. Some puzzles, like a puzzle where you need to punch a hole in a bottle, stick it to a monster, and let it return to its nest to light the nest on fire, are neat, and the game seems to know this, as it makes most of the last chapter nothing but puzzle solving to various degrees. Certain puzzles are less intuitive than others (hey, how do I investigate this dark room, oh, I know, I’ll CLOSE MY EYES), certainly, but overall, the sections of the game that involve puzzle solving are often the most enjoyable, largely because they don’t involve combat, jumping puzzles, or driving around. If you can tolerate the other mechanics (and it can be done) to get to these puzzles, they’re pretty fun sometimes.

That aside, however, the game does a lot of other things that aren’t directly related to the gameplay that make it annoying for entirely different reasons. For one: the game offers you hints on how to play through the game at certain points, but its idea of what is and is not helpful seems suspect. In a section where you’re trying to drive away from a horde of blood-sucking bat monsters (lest they lift your car into the air and kill you), the game feels the need to advise you that you can shake them off by driving fast or hitting things, which would be fine if it weren’t displayed IN YOUR FIELD OF VIEW FOR THIRTY SECONDS WHILE I’M TRYING TO DRIVE I MEAN COME ON NOW. Conversely, the game doesn’t actually TELL you that you can kill the moving Fissures that chase you down, leaving you to discover that a well-placed flaming bullet can, indeed, kill them (which, considering I thought they were just something like Nemesis in RE3 that couldn’t be killed, was a bit of a shock). This is doubly annoying if you, as I did, discover the roots in an episode prior to Episode 7 (where they cannot be killed, and yes, I tried, even with Molotov Cocktails), only to find you’re now required to kill them, leaving you with no idea how, exactly, to do that. For two: opening doors makes you drop your melee weapon, and while, yes, you can just break doors with your weapon, THAT IS NOT THE POINT. Opening a door should not require dropping my weapon, especially when it’s of a size where brandishing it only requires one hand. For three: the entire second half of the seventh episode feels like busy work meant to artificially lengthen the experience, and had it been excised entirely, the game would have been better for it, especially since it combines an hours worth of driving around and destroying things with lots and lots of combat. For four: the much-touted ability to skip Episodes and go from one part of the game to another is theoretically a neat idea, but when you stop and consider that 1.) skipping episodes means you can’t acquire the Achievement points associated with the Episode you skipped until you complete it in its entirety, 2.) you miss plot-critical information in many cases, 3.) you can’t just skip to the final chapter and see the end anyway so there’s really no point, and 4.) the game strips you of your inventory, meaning that save for plot-specific items you’re left with nothing, well, it makes this feature useless. This is especially annoying when you realize that one plot point sees you finding a .44 Magnum (which indirectly causes the vampire bat chase described earlier), yet skipping ahead in the game even once this is found reverts you to the 9mm pistol you start the game with. For five: there is only one difficulty to the game, meaning that beating the game leaves you with nothing to do save earn the remaining achievements and, perhaps, skip around in the chapters; there’s nothing whatsoever to bring you back to the experience save the possibility of DLC, which you will most likely be charged for, and as such, isn’t really something to be judged as part of the experience. For six: the game shows you sticky tape, Molotovs, gunplay, and melee combat within the first two episodes of the game, and has nothing else up its sleeve save for the puzzles to show you, save for a flashlight trick, for the rest of the game. When the experience comes down to two guns, one kind of bomb and a handful of melee weapons you can’t carry around, that just makes the already limited and unexciting combat WORSE.

And hey, let’s talk about the originality of the experience for a second. Many people have lauded the game for being dramatically original in its design and presentation, and while I can certainly applaud the game for the visual jacket inventory and targeted healing sprays, the rest of the game is an amalgam of concepts from other games crammed into one experience. Crumbling city, people dying everywhere, fires and death and whatnot? Saw it in Disaster Report and Raw Danger. Combining items and weapons to make new items and weapons? Adventure games have been doing this thing since the 80’s, and while AitD does it to more interesting effect, it’s not revolutionary so to say. GTA has done the free-roaming driving sections, the jumping and climbing elements are straight from Prince of Persia, the combat is Silent Hill mixed with an FPS only not as fun as either, and the intro trailers recapping the prior episode were done in Lost: Via Domus (which, yes, did this because the SHOW did it, but that’s neither here nor there). Yes, AitD is an ambitious title, but it doesn’t do a lot of the things it’s trying to do well at all, and I’m sorry to say it, the only things it really does well are the things it pioneered.

Oh, and as one final kick in the ass, the game is bug-filled, and I don’t mean insects. I counted several cases where taking some sort of injury in battle rendered Edward unable to access his inventory, use his healing sprays, and in one weird case, equip Molotov Cocktails (which was doubly annoying because I needed one to kill the monster at the time and when you’re telling the game NO NO EQUIP THIS EQUIP THIS and it’s literally going into his Inventory hand but not appearing in his character hand, well, that’s broken). Respawning from check points is nice in the sense that you come back near where you were, but in several cases, you’ll find yourself respawning sans items you used prior to checkpoint flagging and death, meaning that Molotov you used to open the door, the only one in your inventory, is now gone as you load in to find the door back in place and you with no way of opening it. This, by the way, also happens when you go down in battle after exhausting all of your curatives, only to find you have to start battle all over again, ONLY WITH NO HEALTH ITEMS. There is also the occasional oddity where Edward will take damage from something that appears to have no source, whether it be ghosts or damaging materials that fall from the sky without being fully rendered first or whatever you want to call it, which only serves to make a frustrating experience that much worse.

In conclusion, it can be noted that if you have the patience of a saint and you’re willing to overlook technical flaws, Alone in the Dark can be an enjoyable experience. The planning that went into the various cinematic sequences is obvious, the dialogue and writing in general is quite nice, the aural presentation is outstanding, and there are some parts of the game that one can derive enjoyment from with little effort. It’s really a pity that the whole experience can’t simply be these things, as were that the case, the game would be easily recommendable. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the game sees you futzing with uncomfortable controls, engaging in unpleasant battles, fighting through technical faults, and messing about with unfriendly gameplay elements just to get to more of those enjoyable sections. It’s entirely possible that Eden Games may well fix these issues for the PS3 release, and if so, then bravo to that version of the game, but as it is now, if you’re looking for a good, enjoyable horror game, you’d either be better off renting Alone in the Dark first or, alternatively, investing in a game that is less “tolerable” and more “enjoyable”, as this game is far too often the former and far too infrequently the latter.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: BAD
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: BAD
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: WORTHLESS

Final Score: BELOW AVERAGE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Alone in the Dark is a game with lofty aspirations and ill-equipped tools to match. It aspires to be a cinematic masterpiece, a game of heavily atmospheric presentation and haunting presence, and on an artistic level it partially succeeds; the visuals are of good quality, the audio is fantastic, the writing is strong, the game has a few innovations to show off and the puzzle sequences are entertaining and thought provoking. Sadly, most of the rest of the experience is flawed on multiple levels; combat is clunky and unfriendly, driving is cumbersome and rife with glitches, the graphics are glitchy in spots, many of the gameplay elements don’t work as they should, and the game has game-killing bugs and design flaws. If you’re a very patient gamer or you’re more interested in the artistic merit of an experience than the technical merit, you may find there to be some fun to be had, but otherwise, you can safely pass this by and feel assured that in ten years, no one will be laughing at you for having missed it, as in all honesty, the experience is sadly, unforgivably flawed.

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