Alone in the Dark

What happens when you have an age-old franchise in a dubious, almost-bankrupt company’s hands? They might do something irresponsible with it. Like: lend the franchise to a small production house and let them make it into a big title. And what does that lead to? An extremely, ambitious, great videogame that’s  flawed in the most unbelievable places. This basically sums up my weekend with Alone in the Dark: when it blew me away, it blew me through the roof. When it annoyed me, I blew it through the window.

“You’ve got game in my movie!”

About Alone in the Dark: it’s an almost-revolutionary step in the creating of and thinking about video games. It’s survival horror (like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, …). It does however throw a lot of genre and general conventions out the window. There is no pointless hunting for keys. You simply bash the door in. There is no restriction in what you use as a weapon. This game comes with what Atari and Eden have proclaimed to be “Real World Rules”, and they get the job done: combine a bandage and an alcohol bottle and you got yourself a molotov cocktail. Add tape to said molotov cocktail and you’ve got a sticky bomb. Combine your health spray and a lighter and you can create a  flame thrower. There’s a lot of creative ways to get your work done, and that’s where this game shines.

That’s one way Alone in the Dark changes the way we think about video games. Like GTA IV’s “smash a window to steal a car” novelty left me wondering why all people in GTA: San Andreas left their cars unlocked, this game will cause me to wonder why Resident Evil protagonists don’t just use their fists to beat zombies to a pulp when they run out of ammo. There’s a second way however. This game comes packed as a DVD. You insert the game, and you can “continue” your game where you left off, or select a part in the game you want to play. Can’t get past an annoying section in the game (which will happen, but more on that later)? You can actually just skip it if you want. Want to replay that awesome scene? Just hit the rewind button in your menu, and you’ll be there in no time. While this might sound shady
at best, it’s a really cool tidbit that will get everyone to enjoy 90 % of the game instead of just the beginning. 90 %, because the last “episode” is left locked until some requirements are met. It’s so obvious that these guys are fans of serialized drama shows (and of J.J. Abrams, apparently) and that’s a big plus in my book.

On top of that, it has to be noted that this game oozes with tension. It’s not a scary game, which will undoubtedly put off a lot of gamers. But it’s an action-packed, storydriven adventure game that will have you on the edge of your seat with your heart racing nonetheless. The story’s a bit dodgy – and I’m not a huge fan of the swearing (which means a lot, coming from ME of all people) – but what do you expect from a survival horror game. The first AitD game had you fighting a giant tree – this is not a step down in the least.

A bug’s life

It’s not all cakes and eggs or whatever that is called in ye ol’ English, however. It has to be said that this game is the buggiest thing I’ve seen on a console in a long time. Bugs usually don’t annoy me that much, but in this game, it’s different. You see, the “real world rules” work wonderfully most of the time. Everything burns realistically enough and the combinations make sense. So, the arbitrary point of the game where the most bug testing is done, seriously works. Kudos! What doesn’t always work, however, are the wonderfully cinematic experience the game drags you through. A building is falling apart, and you’re in it, but you’ve got no idea where to go. Run towards the light? Dead. Run in the darkest corner? Dead. Stand still and do nothing? Winner! But what really frustrated almost every game to no extent (it was saved by me thanks to the wonderful music), is the car chase through the apocalyptic New York.

Now doesn’t that seem unbelievably awesome? It would be, if it weren’t for the fact that the trajectory you’re supposed to do isn’t always clear, and the sequence sometimes gets bugged because the other cars can’t seem to get their acts together and decide where to go because the AI doesn’t really work all the time. Seriously, Atari. This game could have been so much better if it had gotten a bit more bug testing on areas where it didn’t seem obvious it was needed. I can forgive the fact that the car doesn’t quite feel like a car – GTA spoiled us – but these bugs are just laziness (or lack of time in design for decent bug testing. Damn you Atari?).

Things I will also not comment on: the complicated control scheme. It’s okay. It works. It’s not broken. I love the fact that you can use the right analog stick to swing burning furniture around, but obviously this leads to complaints amongst people who played this game. It basically means you lose a second analog stick as a camera using device. I personally think this – and the fact that your character moves like Ryo in Shenmue – adds to the tenseness of the game. It’s kind of odd when you’ve got real world rules for everything else though: it’s as if you’re a kitten being pulled out of a cage by paws and pushed back inside by the head. But less painful. Just in a strangeness kind of way.

I also won’t complain about the very small amount of inventory space (check the screenshot to see a view of the inventory, which I
find wonderful). There’s a line to pull between dubious design choices and blatant mistakes. They want to make it realistic? This is a good way to do it. If you’d apply their “real world rules”, however, we’d have to note that our protagonist has pants. Pants with pockets.

The bottomline…

And suddenly, those crazy ratings made a bit more sense: to some people, this game will undoubtedly be broken. In this game, you will die a lot. You will swear a lot. At a lot of times, you will not know what to do. But, on the other hand: you will cheer a lot. You will gasp a lot. Your heart will be racing a lot. But you’ve got to give it a chance. You’ve got to find a way to love this game. If you can’t look past the sluggishness and bugginess in this game, you’ll never be able to enjoy it. If you can, however, you’ll like it. I only hope that developers learn some lessons from Eden’s clever gaming design, where passages can be skipped, real world rules apply and a wonderful sense of tension is created through interactive cinematics.

Oh, and Eden, if you read this: please, please please pretty please release a patch for this. This game is too good to be treated like this. Just fix the rough edges and it’ll be much, much better…