Review: Afterfall: Insanity (PC)

Afterfall: Insanity
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Nicholas Intoxicate
Publisher: Nicholas Games
Release Date: 11/25/11

When I first laid eyes on Afterfall: Insanity, it seemed like a really intriguing prospect. A game that takes mechanical elements from games like Dead Space, then attaches those elements to a plot that’s culled from the same place as games like Metro 2033, from an independent developer, for twenty dollars? This seemed like a fantastic, under the radar sort of experience that, even if it was rough around the edges, would be a great idea that more people should have tried. Let’s not forget that Dead Space itself was born as a random idea from some staffers at EA who managed to shill the project to the right people and make the right case for it to be published. If this, too, was a labor of love from a developer with a smaller budget and some creative ideas, hey, that’s fantastic. But the unfortunate side effect of that is that when such a game comes along, if it can’t pay off that promise, the effects are instantly demoralizing, to a point where making progress in the game becomes tiresome. This, unfortunately, accurately describes the reality of Afterfall: Insanity on multiple levels. When certain parts of a game don’t work well, the experience can suffer to variable degrees, but frankly, when almost nothing works, well, at that point, the whole experience just collapses in upon itself.

Afterfall: Insanity places you in the role of Doctor Albert Tokaj, a psychiatrist in a world desperately in need of them. Albert and those he treats live in a bomb shelter of sorts, as twenty years prior, the world witnessed World War III first hand, and survival on the surface is considered to be something of an impossibility. As the game begins, Albert is tasked by the leader of the shelter to investigate a disturbance in one of the sub levels that may have something to do with one of the residents having a psychological breakdown, and Albert, along with two random soldiers, are sent in to investigate. Well, this thing goes to hell almost immediately, as all of the people in the sublevel are going quite insane and, in some cases, mutating into horrific monsters, leaving Albert to initially discover what’s going on… and later, to escape by any means necessary. On one hand, the game has moments of appropriate plotting, as environmental flickers and changes lend credence that the world is not quite right and enemy designs in some cases can seem a little odd. There are some very minor flashes of brilliance here and there that try to sell the experience, and when they work, they work very well.

But most of the time, the plot doesn’t work because the core concepts fail heavily. Albert isn’t an especially likable protagonist in the least, to start, which is a major failing for the plot on multiple levels. Now, the plot itself implies heavily that Albert has something wrong with him, which is fine on a base level; plenty of games and films try to imply that their protagonists have some kind of issues that may be more involved than the viewer understands. People love games like Silent Hill 2 and Dead Space, or films like Secret Window and Jacob’s Ladder, for exactly that reason. But the problem here is that the main characters in those products are likable, but their worlds seem a little off; Albert is unlikable to begin with, so nothing that’s “off” here resonates with the player because the main character is uninteresting at best and unpleasant at worst, making the whole experience tedious. Further, the plot concept feels underdeveloped, and the ending feels like a cop-out, and leaves the game feeling like a waste of time. It simply doesn’t resonate; nothing happens, nothing feels particularly important, nothing works. You can see what the game is trying to do from miles out, and since no one here is likable, nothing really works. It’s just… a mess.

Visually, Afterfall: Insanity looks solid enough, thanks to the Unreal Engine, and there are some very good design concepts in play that mostly make this a winning category. The game environments can be a little repetitive at times, the enemy designs can be repetitive, and there is some mild glitching in the models and how they interact, but these complaints don’t hurt the visual design too much. Rather, the game works visually because a good amount of effort was put into things like appropriate lighting, freaky special effects, and the odd enemy designs that make it apparent something is a little wrong in the world beyond the obvious. The visual aesthetic is solid, at the very least, and when it works, it works well. The same cannot be said about the audio, however. The sound effects are adequate and get the job done well enough, the odd ambient noise is good enough and can add to the tension at times, and the music is appropriately ambient and carries the experience when it needs to, albeit not to the sort of level where you’d want to own the soundtrack or anything like that. The voice acting, however, is atrocious at the best of times. The dialogue on its own is stilted and feels forced, but the voice work in the game makes that significantly worse, to the point where any time a character talks you actively wish they wouldn’t. It’s rare to say that there’s not a single voice actor or actress in a game who delivers their lines decently, but this game does not have a single voice over that isn’t stiff, wooden and completely painful to listen to. It’s not even Resident Evil bad where you can laugh at the dialogue and how corny it is; it’s just terrible to a level that there is literally no joy to be had with it, at all, and that’s just a shame.

As you may have gathered from the introduction, Afterfall: Insanity essentially plays like Dead Space, though there’s a dash of Condemned thrown in. The game allows for both keyboard and mouse support as well as controller support, but if you can buy or find a 360 controller, this is the ideal way to play the game; not only does the game instantly recognize the controller as such and treat it appropriately, but it also makes the experience much easier as a result. The game is played from the third person, so you can run, strafe, and look around as you’d expect. You can also attack enemies with melee weapons or guns, depending on what you have handy and personal preference. In both modes you melee with one button, kick with another, can dive away from or towards enemies with a third, and block attacks with a fourth. When holding a gun, you can also aim with a separate button and fire with the attack button, and you can reload with yet another button. When using a controller, these are all mapped in a very intuitive fashion, which further makes the game more useful to play with a controller. You also have a flashlight you can flip on and off as needed, if the environment becomes too dark to handle. In general, the core controls are fairly basic and easy to understand, and work well enough that you can get by with either control method, though, yeah, controllers are going to be better here.

The basic gimmick of the game comes in from Albert’s PDA, which serves a variety of functions. For one, it serves as a sort of life bar/terror meter, changing from green to yellow to red as you are scared or take damage, and returning when you calm down or stop getting hit. For another, Albert can use it to hack control panels, which puts you into a minigame where you have to press the right directions in sequence, and start over if you guess wrong, though the directions remain the same so it’s more of a trial and error experience than anything. The game also borrows a bit from the Condemned system where “anything is a weapon”, as Albert can use various melee weapons he finds strewn around the environment as combat weaponry, from more conventional weapons like fire axes, sledgehammers and lead pipes to less conventional weapons like saw blades on a stick, support beams and makeshift maces. You can only carry one of these at a time, and if you arm anything else you drop that weapon, but you can find weapons almost anywhere, and combat largely remains unchanged either way. Albert can also store three weapons on his person: a pistol of some kind, a small melee weapon, and a larger gun, depending on what you find. You can find tranquilizer pistols, regular pistols and magnums, collapsible batons, assault rifles, shotguns and more as you progress, though Albert can only hold one of each, so you’ll need to decide if you want to replace one thing for another. The game shifts from being more melee centric to more gun centric as you play, but you can spend a good portion of the time mixing and matching as you see fit, depending on your play style.

There are other minor novelties that pop up here and there as you play to mix things up a bit. For one, enemies will occasionally fall into a downed, but not dead, state, collapsing to their knees in semi-submission before you. If you leave them alone, they get up and fight again, but if you attack while they’re in this state Albert delivers a brutal finisher, beating the mess out of them or stomping their face in as needed until they cease to exist. It’s rather gruesome, and feels somewhat out of place at first, but it gets the job done. The game also incorporates Active Time Events at different points, sometimes to hack panels or perform code sequences, other times to run away from enemies successfully, depending on the circumstances, and, again, these are easier to pull off with a controller. There are also a decent amount of boss battles to plow through, and while these take place more towards the end of the game, they’re challenging enough to be entertaining in their own right. The game is also full of puzzles, both conventional and otherwise, and while they can sometimes be too easy or too obtuse, for the most part they break up the experience well enough.

You can plow through the game in around six to eight hours, depending on how much time you spend looking around for hidden items and such. The game does feature multiple difficulties to go through, however, so you can take on the game on a higher difficulty if you choose to do so. The difficulty mostly only seems to affect enemy difficulty, so puzzles largely seem unaffected, and even on normal difficulty the game seems manageable enough, even with a few enemies on screen at once. The game doesn’t change up enough to really merit a second playthrough, as there’s only one ending and no extra content to find in a second go, mind you, and the game lacks any sort of incentive to play through it again unless you really like what the game did enough for another run. You’ll basically see everything the game has to show you in one go, and the added difficulties don’t add enough to the game on their own to really compel you to come back for more.

This is because, sadly, the game is something of a mess mechanically, and doesn’t lend itself very well to being played in the first place. For one thing, the melee combat controls are very messy. While there are speed and animation differences between smaller and larger weapons, combat is awkward with all of them, and you can simply block and attack to infinity with little consequence or difficulty. The combat itself feels stiff and cumbersome, and Albert’s attack animations are awkward and don’t flow well, making what could be a tense affair into something undesirable. The game works somewhat better when you get into ranged combat, as the shooting mechanics are fine enough, but the game places a huge emphasis on melee combat, leaving weapons all over the place for you to find, so it’s frustrating that the combat never feels natural when the game seems so intent on having you work with it. The game also doesn’t seem to like the idea of you doing anything interesting with the gunplay, as it strips you of your weapons and ammo several times throughout the game, forcing you to find new tools to work with, which is fine once or twice, but after the sixth time the game does this sort of thing it becomes highly annoying.

Further, for all of the intent in the game to make this a horror experience, the attempt falls flat. The horror elements mostly amount to jump-scares and enemies coming out at you from every possible corner instead of anything meaningful. Early on, there are some potentially interesting scares as hallways shift and lights flicker, but eventually the game becomes little more than progressing from one combat sequence or puzzle to the next, lacking any sort of tension or horror along the way. Oh, and while I’ve mentioned this several times before, the fact that the game is designed as a PC experience, but isn’t friendly to the PC player who doesn’t want to use a controller to play, which seems counter-intuitive, to be honest. Designing the game to be friendly for an XBLA or PSN release later is fine, but taking the current market for your game into consideration is the smarter move, and that’s not really the case here. Finally, it really bears noting that the game doesn’t really seem to have any really original thoughts to speak of; everything the game does has been done in one, if not several, other games before, from the concepts to the plot to the mechanics and beyond, everything is derivative, and nothing is presented in a way that feels even the least bit original.

Afterfall: Insanity is a case study in squandered potential on multiple levels. It does nothing with its interesting concept and instead tries to tell a story that is clichéd and ultimately unconvincing in its present state. It manages to do well enough with its visual designs, but falters with its audio, as any positives that come from the music and effects are rent asunder by the horrid voice work. The gameplay is functionally simple to understand if you’re a fan of the genre and works well enough to get by if you have a gamepad, there are a few interesting boss battles here and there, and there are multiple difficulty levels to play around with for those who are interested. However, there’s really nothing to come back to once you’re done with the game, the game is mechanically awkward in melee combat, and the gunplay, though fine, is uninspired and hampered by the constant stripping of your weaponry. The psychological horror/survival horror themes of the game fall flat because the game becomes far too obvious and bland in its presentation of these elements, the game isn’t terribly friendly to PC players in general, and the entire concept fails to generate an original thought throughout the course of the experience. Even for its budget price, Afterfall: Insanity is simply an unexciting, tedious affair at best, and a frustrating one at worst, that smacks of squandered potential, missed opportunities and poor decisions at almost every turn.

The Scores:
Story: POOR
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: POOR
Control/Gameplay: POOR
Replayability: DREADFUL
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: WORTHLESS
Addictiveness: BAD
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: BAD

FINAL SCORE: PRETTY POOR GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Afterfall: Insanity turns a concept that sounds amazing on paper into a product that’s basically dismal in actual execution, and aside from some acceptable visual design, the game is wholly unpleasant all around. The plot is poorly written and assembled, the voice acting is dreadful and mars any aural positives the game may otherwise have, and while the game is simple enough to play, the mechanics are either uninspired or unsound. Melee combat is awkward and annoying, while ranged combat is simply adequate but hampered with other frustrations that make it unenjoyable. There’s no reason to return to the game once you’re done with it aside from the added difficulty levels, which add little to the game, the overall presentation of the game is bland at best and annoying at worst, the game isn’t especially friendly to its native audience, and it’s ultimately unoriginal in thought and deed. For the PC gamer who rarely strays from that platform, Afterfall: Insanity may be vaguely entertaining if you have a controller to play with, but if you’ve played any of the games it’s borrowing from, it’s going to come off as little more than an unoriginal, unexciting mess of wasted potential and borrowed ideas. Even with its budget price, it doesn’t make a convincing argument to be played, and that’s a shame.

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