Playing through Alone in the Dark, you begin to feel a creeping sensation that something is not quite right. This unease is not born of the dark, sinister plot or engendered by your unholy, malevolent foes; rather, it is spawned from the sizable rift between the game's celestial aspirations and terrestrial execution. There are a number of great elements here that are regrettably hampered by pervasive technical shortcomings. This disconnect keeps Alone in the Dark from reaching its full potential, but doesn't keep it from presenting a unique and often rewarding action adventure experience for those with the patience to stick with it.
As the gruff, amnesiac protagonist, you make your way through a disaster-struck New York City into Central Park, where you begin to unravel the many mysteries before you. One of the most intriguing and well-executed elements of this adventure is the inventory and item system. The game allows you only as many items as you can fit in your belt and jacket pockets; and, in a move that visually subverts the convention of the vast yet unseen inventory, you literally open up your jacket and look down to see what you've got. While it's never quite groundbreaking, this subversion does appear in myriad ways throughout the game, and creates the feeling that there is something novel about Alone in the Dark. You experience this feeling of novelty the first time you look down at your limbs to heal your gaping bloody wounds with medical spray, but some of the thrill will dissipate when you watch your blue jeans regenerate along with your flesh.
The limited array of items you can pick up as you move through the world belies the complexity with which they can be combined to serve your purposes. The explosive power of a plastic bottle filled with flammable liquid is obvious, but what if you wrap it in double-sided tape, stuff a bandage in it, light it, and stick it to an enemy? Then you've got a slow-burning Molotov cocktail perfect for blowing up the hive that your spidery foe is returning to. Tape a box of bullets to the bottle, chuck it at a cluster of enemies, and shoot it midair to unleash a decidedly nasty explosion. Poured out all your liquid while immolating downed demons? Grab your knife and puncture the gas tank on a car for a quick refill. There are multifarious possible item combinations, and while you'll generally stick to a select few for killing enemies (flaming bullets, midair explodables, spray-can flamethrower), the game makes you flesh out your repertoire by demanding specific actions to solve certain puzzles.
Most of the puzzles in the game involve vanquishing the evil beings that are now the main inhabitants of Central Park. Since all enemies can only be permanently offed with fire, you'll have to find a way to make them burn, baby, burn. The most straightforward method is to grab a flammable object, like a chair or a broom. Then walk over to any open flame and set fire to the object by inclining the analog stick toward the flame. Wielding the blazing object, you target your foe, set up your attack by tilting the stick in one direction, then strike by flicking the stick in the opposite direction. It's a lot of fun to smack monsters with chairs, shovels, baseball bats, tree limbs and so forth, and the analog stick actions you must perform to do so are a fun approximation of your in-game actions. Alas, this fun is hindered by finicky controls and inconsistent hit detection, so you'll often find yourself merely repositioning your weapon instead of striking, or clanging it off of a wall that you could have sworn wasn't so close.
For practical reasons, you'll end up taking on most of the evil legion with your trusty handgun. Throwing an explosive bottle and shooting it midair is a cinch, thanks to the aim assistance in the form of a glowing trajectory arc and the slow motion that kicks in whenever you throw something. Alternatively, you can pour flammable liquid on your bullets and fire flaming rounds at your foes. Sure, this combo is a bit improbable and the gun should probably explode in your face, but flaming bullets will be the keystone in your monster-battling strategy so it's best to suspend your disbelief. However, firing these babies into monsters won't kill them unless you hit their fissures. These are the livid scars left on monsters by the evil that corrupted them, and hitting them can be a real pain. Combat certainly isn't anything to write home about, but there's definitely some satisfaction to be had in scourging your enemies with flame after bashing them stupid with a heavy pipe.
The few non-combat-related puzzles are clustered early and late in the game. Some of these creative platforming sequences are part of larger, dramatic set pieces, such as your escape from a burning, collapsing building. It's generally pretty clear what path you need to take, but figuring out the necessary actions and carrying them out is still entertaining. Puzzles in which you set fire to things are particularly fun, because the fire looks gorgeous and spreads realistically while the textures on the burning wood change accordingly. The only problem comes when you need to navigate precise paths, because you aren't exactly the most nimble fellow. Since you walk like a goon, you'll sometimes have to maneuver excessively just to interact with an object. This sort of technical awkwardness is not rare in Alone in the Dark.
Maneuvering issues become particularly frustrating when you are trying to hop into a car. Once you manage this feat, you can do some neat stuff like check behind the visor for car keys or slide into the passenger seat to ransack the glove compartment. Actually driving cars is less neat, since the things handle like motorboats and will sometimes launch into the air when driving over the smallest curb. They do take damage, but they do so in such an unpredictable way that sometimes your car won't react much to bouncing off multiple trees, but the next impact will cause the hood, doors, and entire roof structure to explode off the car like a Mythbusters experiment, leaving you with a bizarro convertible.
In addition to the vast and varied Central Park, you'll also adventure through a number of well-detailed indoor environments. These are all well done, and are at their best when integrated with one of the many dramatic set pieces throughout the game. During these events the camera will often pull out to a wider angle, giving you a greater sense of scope and harking back to the fixed-camera roots of previous Alone in the Dark games. There are definitely some missteps here as well, and the dynamic lighting can sometimes turn an immersive environment into a something's-not-quite-right environment. The aforementioned fire is definitely a highlight, but sundry inconsistencies keep the visual presentation from being as stunning as it tries to be.
These visual inconsistencies carry over to the numerous cutscenes, so you'd better be ready for some for some strange hair and wonky aftereffects. Despite the occasional pop-in and imperfect facial animations, the cutscenes do a great job of adding weight to the already dramatic storyline. Playing as an amnesiac man who wakes up in the company of men who mean him harm, you manage to escape and make your way to Central Park where the dark, far-reaching story begins to unfold in earnest. The story doesn't break any new ground, but it's well scripted and provides a few intensely dramatic moments, which are enhanced by mostly on-point aftereffects that imbue them with a filmic quality. The whole game is segmented into chapters and sections so you can skip around to them as if it were a DVD, but with no replay incentives and achievements that reward not skipping, this feature will probably only appeal to folks who get stuck on a tough patch and don't mind jumping ahead. Skippers need not fear too much missed content--every play session and every skip treats you to a "previously on Alone in the Dark" segment that rehashes the pertinent story elements.
Alone in the Dark is an ambitious game that features a lot of cool gameplay and bucks a lot of gaming conventions. Unfortunately, the technical execution does not match this ambition, and the resulting roughness will prove too high a cost of entry for many gamers. Still, if you are craving a game that tries new things with a reasonable degree of success, you'll definitely be able to get some enjoyment out of Alone in the Dark.