It’s two hours before any act of kindness befalls Adam, I Am Alive’s inured protagonist. Two strangers sheltering from the callous outdoors offer the chap some meat. It’s cooked, Adam’s nursing wounds and his is a world in which food is hard come by. The men huddle around a fire in full blaze and, in a city ravaged by earthquakes and shrouded by a plume of killer-dust, the scene in the dingy subway is about the most heartening moment yet. Perhaps there is good still in this most ruthless of worlds. And then you stumble upon the cage; a 4×3 foot coop home to a human skeleton and some leftover slabs of meat. Damnit.
Like so much of I Am Alive, it’s a scene anchored in Cormac McCarthy’s comfortless classic The Road. But Ubisoft could hardly have chosen a more worthy inspiration for its bleak survival horror.
Adam’s tale takes place in the wake of a cataclysmic incident known as The Event. While that sounds more hipster nightclub than doomsday scenario, it’s had devastating consequences. Earthquakes ransack the fictional city of Haverton and civilisation has plummeted right down into the murky abyss. Haverton is a ruthless and uncaring place, painted in greys and browns and home almost exclusively to the depraved and the derelict – Ubisoft don’t hold back on the horror – and it’s here that you arrive in search of Adam’s wife and daughter.
From a gameplay stance, I Am Alive is a fusion of Uncharted-like platforming and puzzles masquerading as combat. Like Nathan Drake, Adam can scale walls and leap ravines. True to the tone of the game though, he’s forced to take a break every now and then; his efforts dominated by a declining stamina bar. Let it reach zero and he’ll take a plunge. It’s this perennial sense of impending doom that gives the platforming an edge entirely absent in something like Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed.
Combat scenarios are rare at first but become more prevalent as you progress. Chancing upon a single bullet is reason enough to make merry in Haverton – there’s probably only two or three clips worth of ammunition sprinkled throughout the city and it’s rare to find yourself in possession of more than a couple of bullets. Enemies hunt in packs and while they’re quick to back off hands-in-air if you point a gun their way, they’re even quicker to swoop in for the kill if you turn your back. With such a short supply of ammo, knowing when to fight, when to run, when to bluff and when to sneak up and slice someone’s throat with a machete is key to surviving. It’s a shame more isn’t made of the basic stealth mechanic because combat quickly falls into a groove: sly machete kill, shoot guy, force other to surrender. But the combat harks back to old-school survival horror and it’s better for it.
At its heart though, I Am Alive is a game about the loss of humanity. Haverton is a suffocating and lonely place and your time spent in the company of those who require your help is minimal; the closest thing Adam has to a friend is Mai – a four year old girl that clearly doesn’t know what the hell’s going on.
Nobody is aiding you and if you choose to assist the sick or the imprisoned characters dotted about the place it’s always at your own expense. Health items are at a premium and sacrificing these to save the lives of strangers (which rewards you with a retry but little else) becomes a tougher call as the game goes on. One woman puts on her most seductive voice in a desperate attempt to convince you to set her free, but is her life worth the last bullet? Probably not.
Still, that last scenario throws up some of the game’s biggest flaws, chiefly its inconsistencies. The only way you can rescue the handcuffed lady, for example, is to shoot her handcuffs. Fair enough, but there are several points prior to that where you’re forced to use Adam’s machete to cut through metal chains. Not here.
In similarly ludicrous fashion, the hard up AI characters each demand certain items; a bottle of wine, some rat meat, a tomato or a cigarette. They’ll flat out refuse water if they want wine, scoff at meat if they’ve ordered tomatoes and hang themselves if you don’t cough up a tin of food. These are people in their death throes behaving like spoiled children in Pizza Hut. You can feel the atmosphere dissipating like air leaving a balloon.
Ubisoft also renege on tacky game-conventions when it ought to stick to its guns and embrace that I Am Alive does well enough without them. Quicktime events, armoured enemies and a needless score system fly in the face of the discouraging atmosphere and survival-horror gameplay at the heart of the game. Bashing the right trigger doesn’t make opening a gate any more enjoyable, it just serves as a stabbing reminder that this is a videogame played on a television screen in a comfortable room. And while it echoes the game’s ruthless aesthetic, a checkpoint system that demands you restart whole levels if you’re caught without a retry is punishing without adding anything meaningful to the formula. That’ll be the kicker for most people.
Make no mistake, I Am Alive isn’t a sympathetic or charitable game; cruelty is part of the appeal but it’s things like logical inconsistencies and character fussiness that threaten to tear the whole thing to shreds. Fortunately it never quite reaches that point.
The survival horror genre has cannibalised itself over recent years; less concerned with brooding atmospheres and clunky inventories, more so kitsch chills and cinematic pep. I Am Alive bucks that trend with some verve. It doesn’t always work, and it’s peppered with absurdities, but look beyond those and Ubisoft’s long-awaited survival-horror proves absorbing and harrowing in equal measure.