I Am Alive is an ambitious, post-apocalyptic survival game where resources are few, fights are discouraged, and the air is unbreathable. It was once meant to be a retail game but it became a downloadable title instead. Is this a negative portent of the game’s quality? Not necessarily.
The protagonist of I Am Alive isn’t a soldier or a superhero. He’s a regular guy. His name is Adam, and all he wants is to reunite with the wife and daughter he was separated from after a cataclysmic disaster destroyed most of the world. (The game never tells us what this disaster was, referring to it only as “the Event.”) Adam was on the other side of the country when the Event occurred, while his family was in their hometown of Haventon. Adam spent the next year walking back to Haventon to find his wife and daughter (apparently, there’s no mechanized transportation available), and the game begins as he enters the limits of what’s left of the city.
Don’t bother looking for any mutated enemies or supernatural perils; you won’t find any. I Am Alive instead goes for a refreshingly ultra-realistic approach, putting you into an extremely hazardous environment that has a few enemies scattered here and there. The game features a number of dynamics that change up the typical FPS formula in drastic ways, and most of them are compelling enough to justify the purchase. First and foremost, in addition to your usual health meter, there’s also a meter that measures your stamina. Climbing — one of the foundational elements of the game — drains your stamina quickly, creating sort of a puzzle for you to work out where you have to find the right path that gets you to your destination before your stamina runs out. Running also drains this meter, so you’ll spend your time walking through the city, with occasional sprints only when necessary.
Where the game excels is in its portrayal of this post-apocalyptic, utterly decimated former metropolis, and the unconventional ways that Adam is forced to navigate it. The graphics aren’t the best in the world, but in this case, they don’t have to be. Most of the game is made up of climbing, shuffling, and jumping your way through the city of Haventon. The city is quite large, and many areas are filled with a thick dust cloud that will slowly drain your stamina. (The dust also gives the city a color palette so desaturated, it’s nearly black and white.) So when traversing these areas, every so often you have to climb up to higher altitudes to get clear of the dust and refill your stamina.
The disaster has destroyed any semblances of law or order, leaving the survivors in a state of perpetual anarchy, where he who has the most weapons, resources, or smarts, wins. The fights bring something new to the genre by introducing an “intimidation” tactic. Instead of running-and-gunning down enemies wherever you go, battles must be approached strategically. The scarcity of supplies has made bullets an equally endangered commodity, so you have to rely on bluffing more times than not. Usually this means brandishing your (empty) gun in the hopes that your opponent can’t match you, resulting in their surrender. But if your enemy also has a gun, or armor, or greater numbers, then bluffing won’t work and they’ll come out shooting. At times, the combat feels jarringly unbalanced; more than once, I made my way through rooms or outdoor areas taking on one opponent at a time, only to be confronted — with little to no warning — with a half a dozen or more combatants that were all but impossible to get past. But on the whole, once I got used to the intimidation dynamic, it made for a welcome change of pace.
You can roam pretty freely throughout Haventon, though there are some insurmountable barriers that only open up for certain chapters of the game. Cries of help will frequently reach your ears while you wander, and investigating them will always lead to some kind of moral dilemma. One early scenario presents you with a mother who’s teenage son is deathly sick; you can save him by giving up what’s probably your one and only first aid kit, but of course this means you won’t have it later — and you will need it. The game rewards you for rescuing disaster victims by giving you an extra “retry.”
Retries are extra chances to complete a specific portion of the game. Your progress is auto-saved as you go, but dying or failing means you have to use a retry to do it again. Run out of retries and you’re forced back to an earlier point in the game called a checkpoint. It’s not as annoying as it may sound; exercising a little more brains than brawn will usually supply the needed solution.
One thrilling sequence has Adam crossing a great, underground chasm where a subway line has given way to an enormous, mile-wide sinkhole. (I half expected Gears of War‘s Locust Horde to come piling out of it.) Handholds are precarious, you have to make big, stamina-draining leaps to get from one spot to the next, and your passage is complicated by the fact that a young child is strapped to Adam’s back the whole time. (More on that in a minute.) Jutting out into the middle of this expanse are three coupled-up subway cars, two of which dangle in mid-air — and which Adam has to climb straight through to reach his goal. Other levels feature things like a massive ocean liner run aground in the middle of town, a skyscraper that’s leaned over onto its side high up in the air, a bridge stretching over a raging river that runs just below like Niagara Falls, and more. These environments give the game a real “wow” factor that had my heart racing every time.
That said, I longed for more interaction with the game world. If it’s not a handhold or a door, then there’s not much you can do with your surroundings. As much as I admire the developers’ desire to “stay on point” with the main game dynamics, it seemed kinda silly to I encounter an overturned grocery cart on the street and not be able to push it out of my way. It was like an immovable boulder, inexplicably glued to the pavement, even though its wire frame only came up to Adam’s knees. In every location, I found objects and environments that were fascinating visually, but which offered no interaction, served no purpose in Adam’s quest. As such, most of Haventon is little more than window dressing.
It’s effective window dressing, though. I’ll give it that. Everywhere you go in the game is a place of desolation and danger. It literally feels like an enemy might appear around every corner, so the tension that I Am Alive generates is terrific.
I love how every aspect of the game is approached with its focus doggedly on the reality of surviving, post-apocalypse, on one’s own. This even bleeds over into things like the in-game map. It looks and feels like a standard city map, but as you explore and Adam finds passages blocked or hidden shortcuts, the map is filled in with his scribbled notes and drawings. Like everything else, it takes some getting used to — and I kept wishing I could place my own markers on the map so I could find another route to precious commodities spotted from across some impassable obstacle — but it works.
For all that I Am Alive gets right, there are several things that are just plain wrong. I mentioned earlier the uneven fights, and there are other minor aggravations here and there. But these are forgivable in light of how good most of the game is. But the game has one glaring fault that I just can’t get past.
The story is well-crafted, with some smart cut scenes that play out through the lens of a video diary Adam keeps to chronicle his journey. The problem is that the whole thing violates one of the cardinal rules of storytelling: After spelling out for the player that Adam’s goal is to be reunited with his wife and daughter, we rightly expect this to be what the game is about. But then the game suddenly diverts to a side story about Adam helping a little girl and her mother escape Haventon. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that storyline on its own, but the switcheroo leaves you feeling blindsided. The story that’s advertised (Adam searching for his family) has no connection to the story that’s in the game. So the ending can’t help but be unfulfilling in every way.
I Am Alive is a flawed but fascinating game that never quite reaches its full potential. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the game really shines with its survival aspects. Gamers looking for a fresh experience should definitely give it a try.