What is it about nighttime that's so, scary...
The title “Alone in the Dark” should sound familiar to just about any gamer. The paranormal detective, Edward Carnby, has been in some sort of survival-horror game through nearly two decades of existence. From PC puzzler to Playstation adventurer, the Alone in the Dark games have been about mystery, with dastardly, devilish, and, you guessed it, dark themes. This time around, however, the story and gameplay have been reworked for a new generation of hardware. There are a lot of really interesting ideas floating around in the cross-platform reinvention, but while some work, it's hard not to come away from the game with an eyebrow raised in confusion, feeling like just too much was tried, and not much was perfected.
Essentially, it would be easy to say that the story of Alone in the Dark is a straightforward tale of good versus evil, in biblical proportions. However, the story gets a bit complex with a roundabout exposition, explaining the mysterious eruption of devil roots, people-eating fissures, and humanz, ratz and vampirz (i.e., bad-guys, mutated rats and bats). The game may start with you waking up without memory of who you are or what's going on, but it ends with you deciding the fate of humanity as Lucifer himself follows through on a plan to enter into our mortal world from underneath Central Park.
Exploration, but not necessarily innovation...
Eden Games has done some interesting things for not only the horror genre, but games in general with Alone in the Dark. By implementing various in-game mechanics for real-time action, it's possible to find yourself feeling a bit more anxious than you would with loads of menus to navigate.
Though games of the past have allowed players infinitely-deep pockets for an overwhelming amount of items, weapons and accessories to carry about, survival games have always limited players to what they can carry. Sticking with that tradition, Carnby can only carry what he can fit into his jacket pockets. What's even better, however, is you can see exactly what goes where, as you look down to your pockets in a first-person view, without pausing the game. You don't have the luxury of pausing the action to equip your items, and if you fumble in your jacket for too long, you're left vulnerable to enemy attacks.
Also using the real-time, first-person mechanic (all of these are initiated by pressing a corresponding directional button on the d-pad) is a way of doctoring yourself, healing wounds which appear as bits of clothing rip and tear. The gashes, cuts and bone-deep injuries all appear in specific, predetermined locations which distorts the realism factor a bit, but having to bandage, on the fly, life-threatening hemorrhages (you have 6 minutes while playing on the Normal setting), or heal minor wounds with a spray, keeps things tense. Your health regenerates a little bit over time, but only as much as your injuries are attended to.
Finally, one of the most noted aspects of the game covered prior to its release, is its use of fire and ignitable/destructible objects. By picking up a chair, fire extinguisher, sledgehammer, axe or other melee objects, you use the right analog stick to swing, slash or rotate it about your body. However, things get more interesting when you pick up a burnable object as it becomes a torch to light dark hallways, or a weapon to burn your enemies with, after you put it to an open flame. The integration of analog stick movement with on-screen imitations is totally immersive, but movement is a bit slow and can get frustrating when in the heat of battle.
MacGyver would be proud, sort of...
Even if the game is absent rubber bands, paper clips and super glue, playing through Alone in the Dark requires you to use a bit of creativity and resourcefulness to build the equipment you'll need to survive your night in Central Park. Unlike some survival games, ammunition isn't hard to find, but your pistol isn't the most effective weaponry against enemies.
Instead of picking up bigger caliber guns, making Molotov cocktails out of fuel-filled water bottles and bandages, or using your health spray and a lighter to burn your enemies, become more efficient ways to take on your enemies; ways that makes you decide how you want to use your resources.
Oh, hell no:
Camera angles, 'nuff said...
Shouldn't this be a non-issue by this time in gaming history? While the game can be played in both first and third-person perspectives, you'll find yourself favoring the former due to a horribly mismatched setup for room cameras and movement control. In third-person, all of your movement is done via the left analogue stick which works when the camera is behind Edward, but when you get into a room with a camera set for a more “cinematic” angle, it's easy to get disoriented—things only get worse if you find yourself in a position where two sections have such camera issues, back to back.
Open world need not apply...
As is the craze in recent adventure games, Alone in the Dark utilizes an over-world system, in this case: Central Park. Though you're moving in a linear progression through the game, continually moving from location to location within the park, near the climax of the story the entire park opens up for exploration—also creating an overly-belabored side-quest of searching out and destroying devil roots, necessary to move on to the final chapter of the game.
Though the environment itself looks graphically impressive, with great draw distances and only a little bit of pop-in, the open park becomes tedious and boring, and, honestly, isn't all that scary.
Havok may not have been the best choice...
Glitches litter and mar much of Alone experience. Between flailing ropes and hoses, invisible object collision (mainly during driving sections), and twitchy enemy movements, things feel far too rushed. For the most part these are all minor technicalities, but had there been a push to smooth out these rough edges, it may have been easier to stay in the game, and get a bit more scared.
What the hell?:
This is a new section for things which just left us wondering what was going on. Though either of the game's two endings leaves things open for a sequel, and even if they're both cliffhangers, the more puzzling aspect of the game is its Episode selector.
No rewinding necessary...
Alone is broken up into several episodes, like a DVD movie. From the start the whole game is open to play, save for the final chapter which has to be unlocked (see above). There's a lot inspiration from cinema and TV here, in terms of presentation, dramatic events and “previously on...” round-ups, but the impetus for these doesn't make any sense. Each section is broken up into specific points, which you can access whenever you please, but fluidity is sacrificed for its novelty.
It's a fun idea to skip around a game whenever you want, but it breaks the storytelling aspect of the medium. We understand it as a feature after you finish a game, but from the start, it's just odd.
And I thought I dropped the F-bomb a lot...
For the most part, the story may be a bit convoluted, but it's easy to get caught up in. On the other hand, the dialog writing is riddled with obligatory swearing and somewhat corny lines.
Also, while the voice acting may not be the best, it's competent, except for the most ambivalent Emergency Response doctor, ever—it's hard to tell if the actor didn't want to be in the game, or if the character just hates his job.
We smell a sequel...
There has been plenty of criticism for this latest Alone in the Dark title. Although there are flaws to be pointed out, there should be a focus on some of the effort that was made to make the game a different experience. On-the-fly inventory management and site-specific healing add to the anxiety that your supposed to experience in such a game, and along with flammable environments, there is some fun to be had. Ultimately, however, glitchy, leadened gameplay overshadows a fitting, choir-filled soundtrack and an entertaining, cinematic story.
The endings leave things open for a sequel, and given a proper amount of attention and careful tweaking, Carnby's battle against the devil could be a good one.