Post-apocalyptic survival the way it should be – without Zombies.
“At least you’re alive” – That’s what people say, isn’t it? Y’know, when you have suffered some tragedy or other. They try to make you look on the bright side of life, consider how things could be worse and such. At least you can be thankful that you are alive. However, living in the post-apocalyptic world of Ubisoft’s I Am Alive, a world that has been devastated by an unspecified event which has left buildings crumbling and humanity teetering on the edge of extinction, there really very little to be thankful for, and it is difficult to see how things could be worse, resulting in a world where being alive could be considered more of a curse than a blessing.
Still, it is across this world that the hero of the game has spent many months traveling, trying to get back to his home town and find his wife and daughter. It is as he approaches what is left of the town of Haventon that we join the game and, given the problems that our hero is about to face, one can only wonder how he survived as long as he did. Low lying areas are blanketed in a dust that will kill you within minutes, forcing the player to climb and remain high up for the majority of the time.
Ubisoft have tried to make this game as realistic as possible, in a number of ways both obvious and perhaps not. The player will not have to worry about the waves of Zombies or demonic entities that invariably roam this type of world. Instead they will have to contend with humanity pushed to the brink, desperate to survive. But more on that later.
Being gifted with obvious climbing skills, our hero will spend a large amount of time finding seemingly impossible routes to his destinations. But although his climbing skills are far beyond that of mere mortals, he does have limitations that make him seem more human. As the player starts climbing, their stamina bar will start to empty. It would seem that climbing takes a lot of energy and if the stamina bar is allowed to completely empty, beyond a small burst of energy that can be traded from their health, the player will likely fall to their death. It is an interesting mechanic that forces the player to constantly plan their routes and what they are capable of. There are items that can be found later in the game that allow the player to pause part way through a more laborious climb and rest, but they are few and far between.
Forcing the player to consider their actions is something that happens in other areas of the game as well, such as encounters with other humans.
The other survivors of the “event” come in three flavours. As the player makes their way across the landscape searching for their wife and daughter, a mission which fairly early on seems to be pushed to one side in favour of aiding a small girl, they will come across the occasional friendly survivor, but they are rare. For the most part, the other survivors will be suspicious of the player, aggressive if approached, but only in defence of what little possessions they have. Give them a wide berth and all will be fine. Then there are those in need of help. Providing them with whatever aid they need, in the form of scarce supplies that the player has gathered, will generally earn gratitude and even an extra “retry” – the limited credits used to restart from a checkpoint in the event of death – that are mostly more valuable than any supplies lost. But this is the players choice.
Then there are the aggressive survivors who simply want to cause harm to the player and take whatever they can. It is here that the games’ combat mechanic kicks in.
Much like with the climbing, the player has to plan carefully any combat encounters. They are armed with a gun from the very beginning of the game, but bullets tend only to come in ones, making actually using the gun a gamble. However, quite often the threat of the gun is enough to force any adversaries to back off. Pointing a gun at someone can force them to move away and offer other opportunities to remove the threat, such as pushing them down a hole or cracking them around the head.
Melee combat can be used to preserve bullets. A clever tactic is to appear harmless and then slap a button to quickly strike the opponent before they can retaliate. But when the player comes across groups of adversaries, things get more difficult. If one member is holding a gun, then the threat of the players gun is useless. Remove the greatest threat, the one with the gun, and then maybe the others will back off. Later in the game the player will come across a bow which makes things easier, as arrows can be re-used. But still, every encounter requires thought and planning.
Which is all well and good, unless the player is taken by surprise. It is at this point that things go wrong slightly. The actual combat feels clunky and slow to respond, forcing encounters to be a steady, deliberate sequence of button presses, with very little by way of flow. At first, I thought that the combat was broken, it was that irritating. But the more time I spent within the game, the more I wondered if this was another example of the game being realistic. The combat isn’t smooth, but then perhaps it isn’t in the real world. Because of this, the player is forced to consider alternatives, avoiding encounters unless they can be sure of the upper hand. However, there will be some players who will continue to find this mechanic annoying, no matter what the reason for it being the way it is.
In fact, this is not the only thing that will turn away some gamers. There is a relatively slow pace to the game which is not just evident in the combat. The “missions” can be somewhat uninspiring. And the world, for all of its post-apocalyptic beauty, can feel a little barren and underpopulated.
If these are not things that bother you and you can embrace the bleak environment for what it is, then you will be rewarded with an incredibly well-crafted game tells a compelling tale of an ordinary man in the most dire of circumstances. Although enjoyable, I Am Alive is not fun in the traditional sense of the word. But it is an experience worth experiencing.