Ubisoft’s I Am Alive is a game filled to the breaking point with good ideas. Literally. It’s unfortunate, because the game that was originally announced at E3 2008 seemed to offer something a little bit different. As it turns out, I Am Alive is a LOT different, though it’s frequently not in the most enjoyable of ways.
The story picks up in the wake of a global catastrophe that is never fully explained and only referred to as “The Event.” Your play is actually framed as a flashback of sorts, with the opening scene revealing the unnamed protagonist in the playback viewscreen of a small flipcam. We are meant to understand that his adventures and exploits are playing out in the past-tense, with an at-first-unidentified viewer taking it all in.
The construction of the narrative in I Am Alive is actually strong in some ways, though it flies off the rails early on and never quite manages to get back on track. The Survivor’s story gives us a glimpse of a desperate world in which trust and the common good have become anachronisms. He’s returned to the fictional town of Haventon in the hopes of finding his wife and child after The Event reshapes the world into a broken shadow of itself.
A fine enough setup, but the focus of our Survivor’s efforts are quickly forgotten when he encounters a young girl being terrorized by a gang of thugs. He rescues her and soon after makes contact with her father via radio. The large part of the story from here then focuses on reuniting this young stranger with her dad while the primary MacGuffin that at first seemed to be driving the story takes a backseat role.
The narrative’s shifting focus is only part of the problem. I Am Alive is flat out not fun to play. There are good ideas heaped one on top of the other — you can clearly see a kernel of the console game that this was once intended to be — but the design more often leans toward frustrating than challenging. The intent was for I Am Alive to be a game about survival, but it instead ends up feeling more like an endurance trial.
Our limber Survivor has a knack for negotiating the end-times’ tricky terrain. Climbing mechanics reminiscent of those you see in Assassin’s Creed are a big focus here, but with one key difference: stamina.
The more time you spend supporting yourself with anything other than your own two feet, the more stamina drains out of an on-screen meter. It’s not instant death if that meter zeroes out; you can hang on by tapping a trigger button repeatedly. This drains the overall size of your stamina bar, however, something that can only be restored by dipping into your always-limited stock of resources.
As the game progresses, additional wrinkles are introduced. Single-use pitons can be collected, allowing you to restore your stamina bar mid-climb during some of the lengthier scalings. Certain parts of the environment that are lower to the ground are filled with a choking dust that drains stamina at a steady rate. The idea of course is to escape the suffocating air quickly, though the catch-22 is that running also drains stamina.
Initially, these elements are effective at raising tension and constantly keeping you on your toes. There is no safe haven until you’re able to plant your two feet firmly on the high ground. Unfortunately, the game tends to vacillate between presenting you with a clear path and just enough resources to tread it, or presenting you with a more open-ended puzzle in which the wrong move effectively zeroes out your already-limited resources.
The protagonist is also keen on other forms of survival in the desperate post-Event wasteland. Humanity is in tatters and most everyone you encounter is either too sick/injured to attack you (sidequest!) or immediately aggressive. You’ll come across the rare gun-toting bystander that will merely threaten you until you back off, but most of the humans you encounter need to be dealt with physically.
You start the game armed with a pistol and no bullets. Only rarely will you find yourself with a supply of more than one or two shells. Even the empty gun is an effective tool, however. Point it at an unarmored human to stop him — all of the game’s aggressors are male — in his tracks. Keep it trained on the baddie until you can walk up and off him with your machete or with a forceful shove into a conveniently placed Pit of Death.
This is initially a neat gimmick, though it quickly wears out its welcome. Gun-toting enemies don’t have the same supply issues that you do; they’ll simply keep firing until you’re dead or they’re dealt with.
Larger groups are downright infuriating to take on. You’ll generally be able to off one approaching enemy with a sneak attack as he gets close, but groups of three or more invariably come packing more than one gun. Even if you sneak attack one gun-toter, wonky controls often prevent you from bringing your weapon to bear quickly enough to take out the next one before he chips a significant chunk off of your health.
Much like restoring a diminished stamina bar, you can only heal by dipping into your limited stock of resources. Sometimes, that’s simply not an option. If you’re down to a sliver of health and have run completely dry on healing goods, then you’re effectively stuck watching the game unfold behind a thick, blood-tinged filter while the protagonist’s beating heart drowns out the soundtrack and causes rumble controllers to continually pulse.
Is it clever? Sure. It’s not fun though. The inventive take on survival play mechanics starts off strong, but it gets old fast. The controls overall tend to feel a little wonky and the rules are too restrictive at times, but the fatal flaw here is really in the overall design. The mish-mash of ideas never really manage to find their footing, turning I Am Alive into a game that feels dead on arrival.
Score: 6 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation Vita on a copy provided by Ubisoft)