The birth of the survival horror game as we know it was in 1992 when the influential Alone In The Dark was released. This creepy adventure was one of the first games to show us full 3D rendered polygons and had you fighting to stay alive inside a haunted mansion. In 2008 the Alone In The Dark series has been re-imagined for a new generation of gamers, crammed full of creative ideas and littered with flaws.
You play as Edward Carnaby, a paranormal investigator who begins the story suffering from amnesia. Supernatural forces start wreaking havoc and Edward is caught in a cataclysmic disaster centering around New York’s Central Park. Now he must uncover the dark secret behind the park and discover his own destiny! (Riveting).
Anyone expecting to be skulking around haunted mansions looking for clues will soon be surprised to find they are jumping over fiery chasms and fallen sky-scrapers in a yellow cab. This is not the Alone In The Dark of old; although there are plenty of torch-lit corridors, there are also some explosive set pieces, driving sections, and a token open-world element to cater for the action-hungry modern gamer. Unfortunately the game’s plentiful ambition and vision is never matched by the quality execution it deserves, and the whole thing reeks of insufficient play testing.
The Blockbuster-esque sequences pack a punch, (high production values are evident) and the results are both visually impressive and exciting. An early driving set-piece starts well enough until the path required for progression becomes unclear. I had to resort to a trial and error method, each time passing through a difficult four minute section. Was this a deliberate attempt to get the player to repeatedly witness the big budget set-piece until they hated it? Two hours, and about twenty deaths in, it was becoming apparent that this is an unforgiving game.
Upon loading up a saved game you will be greeted with a gruff voice announcing “Previously on Alone In The Dark” accompanied by a TV style logo and, well, previous events catch-up montage. Now this is a very good idea, as most of us will have loaded a game we haven’t played in a few days only to lose interest thinking “What the hell is going on here?”. Maybe Eden Games had noticed this phenomenon in other narrative-driven games and didn’t want risk their masterpiece succumbing to this fate, or maybe they realized no one was going to follow the nonsense going on in this story without a little help. Either way it is effective, and I dare say we shall see it repeated in future games. Also, with a pretty nifty inclusion, if you get stuck you are able to skip through the game using a chapter selection story-board.
The gameplay of Alone In The Dark jumps between puzzle focused survival-horror and “ha, ha, you died again” scripted action sequences presumably because getting one right would be too easy. The puzzles are generally straight forward but satisfyingly logical. Solutions involve moving physical objects around you, combing items and often burning things using Alone In The Dark’s impressive fire effects. Watching toasted obstacles crumble is a brilliant implementation of the Havok physics engine: watching the windows of your car explode simultaneously because you have hit a gentle incline is not. This game has tried to do too much and only rarely succeeds.
One interesting feature is a novel inventory screen where accessing items is done using a first-person view of the inside of Edward’s jacket. Here he can store explosive bottles, flammable liquids, batteries, sticky tape, a gun. You know… guy stuff. Combing different items creates weapons or explosives. For example, a cloth and a bottle of spirits (liqueur) creates a handy Molotov cocktail. The game does not pause whilst in the inventory so you had better be quick deciding on how you are going to skin the impending metaphorical cats. Explosive items can be thrown and shot mid-air to blow stuff up from a distance, all in slow-motion revelry. A decent idea, but it doesn’t ever feel skillful and its often unclear whether or not you are going to be in the blast radius. Success in combat is mainly achieved by ensuring your cruelly limited inventory slots are fully stocked with explosives.
Another nice touch is that you are able to blink to close your eyes (when in first-person view) which serves the function of clearing your vision and enabling the spooky ‘spectre vision’, a supernatural ability to see the paranormal.
Some levels in Alone In The Dark do a good job of creating a dark, haunted atmosphere, partly thanks to the excellent, nerve-jangling musical score. Enemies are tough and can quickly dish out punishment, the prospect of them emerging from the mist is daunting. When they do appear, clumsy animations and AI punch you square in the face with a “you are playing a computer game” sign.
The dismal selection of enemies you encounter have only a handful of character models, are quite challenging, and only occasionally require resourceful use of the environment to defeat. By the time you reach the open-world section where you are free to roam Central Park, the only thing you are likely to fear is your progression being slowed by these miserable, repetitive chore-beings who don’t have the common decency to explode gorily, but evaporate with a puff of smoke. The Central Park ‘Humanz’ can be avoided by simply running directly away from them; get into a car however, and its a different story.
Enemies suddenly remember they are able to jump impossible distances, stick to the roof of your car, and pummel you through the windscreen; the only way to remove them is to deliberately crash. As it happens, crashing is not a problem thanks to the glitchy collision detection. Humanz are able to get up and repeat the attack pattern until you wish you had never seen that car.
Besides the glitches and niggles, the major problem for me is that Alone in the Dark can never quite decide whether it wants to be an action re-vamp or wants to stick to its classic survival-horror roots. Sluggish character controls are used, as they are in a host of games, to create tension but it doesn’t always seem to match the level design. Boss battles in particular seem to have been designed for an action game where it is easy to control the character. To include projectile firing bosses would be silly wouldn’t it? The results are often very frustrating.
If Dead Space studied sci-fi horror films to craft its scares using lighting and music, Alone in The Dark started to watch a series of 24, got bored half way and put Ghostbusters on. No one could say it lacks ambition, and a number of the ideas show great originality, but few would argue that the end result is an enjoyable gaming experience. If the unforgiving difficulty doesn’t put you off, the troubled pacing of the action and story probably will. I won’t recommend you go out and buy Alone In The Dark; I will dare you to.
Reviewer’s note: The Xbox 360 version was tested for this review
AAA graphical detail, great fire effects and spooky atmosphere throughout.
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Too many ideas and too little time to perfect them. Open world section is mundane.
Fantastic musical score but cringeworthy character dialogue.
If you get to the end without skipping any chapters you aren't going to be playing through again in a hurry.
Its disappointing that a game with such ambition hasn't got the quality execution it deserves. Those still intrigued will find some interesting moments.