Alone in the Dark is a decent horror game that could have been great if not for the noticeable bugs and gameplay issues.

User Rating: 7 | Alone in the Dark (2008) PC
The Alone in the Dark series has been around since the early 90's, and is considered to be the original survival horror franchise. In the spirit of originality, "Eden Games", a relatively unfamiliar French game development studio, has decided to revive the franchise with the simply titled game "Alone in the Dark". Ignoring the 4th installment of the series, the game brings back the original protagonist Edward Carnby, a paranormal investigator who lived in the early 20th century, but this time to modern day New York.

Alone in the Dark starts with Edward Carnby waking up in a strange room, not knowing where and who he is. It soon becomes obvious that the other people in the room don't have his best interest in mind, and after being escorted to the roof of the building at gun-point, Edward comes face to face with the sinister, openly hostile, force that is terrorizing the city of New York. A few puzzles, some wall-climbing and one horrible driving sequence later, Edward, with his newly acquired companion Sarah, crashes into Central Park; the only piece of land that remained, more or less, intact. From here on out, the entire game takes place inside (and underneath) the park, where Edward must regain his memories and fight the malevolent entity that has taken over Manhattan and its residents.

Since the previous games in the series all took place in the 20's and 30's of the 20th century, it is a bit odd to see Carnby driving a modern car, or even using a flashlight (an old oil lantern was always iconic to the series). The game does explain why Carnby seems to suddenly appear in the 21st century, and why he remained unchanged through the years (with the exception of losing his mustache), but neglects to explain how come he is familiar with all of today's technology, such as cell-phones, GPS and the art of hotwiring a car. To the game's credit, this does little to hamper the atmosphere. It is easy to get lost inside the game's story and setting, since everything seems so real and convincing, and not just graphic-wise. Alone in the Dark stays true to itself from beginning to end, and does nothing to disrupt the player immersion. For a survival horror title there aren't a lot of scares, but than again the series was always known for its creepy vibe and less for its visual horror.

The one thing that stands out in Alone in the Dark right from the beginning is how beautiful the game is. The environments are detailed although lacking variation, the facial animation is astoundingly life-like, and the character models, especially Carnby's, are well made. There are some slight clipping issues during cut-scenes, but they are minimal. The best graphic feature is probably the fire and the dynamic lighting. The flames look amazingly real, and the way they spread around, consuming everything flammable, is simply incredible. Burning wood crumbles in a believable manner (if maybe a bit too fast) and explosions are a visual work of art. The only thing that seems out of place, regarding the fire, is that when Edward puts it out, using a fire extinguisher, the flames seem to shrink in size, like they are sucked into the floorboards. Other than that, Alone in the Dark is a visual masterpiece, with graphics matched only by a handful of next-generation games.

The gameplay is where Alone in the dark takes its first blow. While some aspects work great, like the puzzles or the episodic structure, some are unbalanced or down-right broken. It seems like the development crew had a lot of really good ideas, but when they tried putting them all together, something went wrong. Maybe it was because they were rushed by the publisher, but a few more weeks' work would have probably helped reduce the amount of broken features, and make the game rise above mediocrity. Even the features that work well have some sort of a problem. For example: the inventory system, while unique and easy to use, doesn't provide enough space for the player to discover every item combination, option or use. Another good gameplay decision was to enable the player to switch from third person view to first person. The PC version is much easier to control in the first person view, but each time Carnby picks up an object, be it a piece of wood or a sword, the game switches back to the third person view, making combat a lot tougher than it should have been.

Speaking of which, combat isn't a major part of the game, and most of the time it can be avoided. The few times the game requires the player to eliminate a certain number of enemies (ranging from little poison-spitting spiders to large possessed humans) or fight a boss, are by far the worst gameplay experiences. Basically, combat is unintuitive and hard to master. From the first person point of view, it is pretty easy to aim the handgun, or use a combination of a lighter and a can of spray to take down enemies, but the third person point of view is a completely different story. Using a flaming wooden chair or an axe to fight off enemies can be a real pain, since the mouse is used for shifting the weapon around, striking, or throwing the weapon at the enemy. Most of the times Carnby misses the target and ends up hitting air while getting pounded repeatedly. Adding the fact that every time Cranby is hit he drops his makeshift weapon, third person combat quickly becomes something to be avoided at all costs.

Given the fact that the majority of the game takes place in Central Park, with the option to go anywhere in the park's area at any given time, driving a car becomes a necessity, and a core gameplay mechanism. While some less important features, such as combining items, work without a hitch, it is unfortunate that the driving is probably the single most busted feature in the entire game. Maneuvering the car itself is pretty easy, but it is the physics that are broken. Driving over the smallest bump in the road, at high speed, will send the car flying in the air, or simply come to a sudden stop, causing damage to both the car and Carnby himself. It seems like the vegetation in central park is made from concrete, since it is impossible to drive over small bushes, or even off road, without getting stuck or flipping over.

Not only does the broken driving makes it hard to get from one side of the park to the other, there are a few timed driving sequences that require pin-point precision and timing. For example, in the second episode, Carnby is forced to drive a car through the crumbling streets of Manhattan, with a wave of destruction on his tail. It isn't enough that the limited visibility (thanks to clouds of dust and rubble) makes it hard to see where to go next, but the entire sequence is pretty long, with not a single checkpoint. This, of course, forces the player to try it over and over again, memorizing the path the car needs to takes so not to get stuck and be devoured by the trailing chaos. It is hard to guess which of the tiny puddles scattered on the road should be avoided, and which of the other drivers zigzagging through the city has a born hatred towards Carnby, and will try and smash into his car whenever possible.

So apart from the broken driving physics, the bad implementation of good ideas and the annoying supporting characters (Sarah is one of the worst supporting characters in video game history), there is one more thing that prevents Alone in the Dark from being the great game it should have been, and this is the camera. While in third person it is impossible to move the camera around, which makes it really hard to navigate, since the directional controls do not change accordingly with the camera angles. Pressing forward will always make Carnby go straight ahead, even if he is facing towards the camera, unlike most third person games, where the controls change depending on the character's position, in relation to the camera.

The sounds of Alone in the Dark are pretty good considering. Most voice actors do a fine job, with the exception of Sarah (who is just a bad character all around). True, the dialog won't win any prizes, but it doesn't seem out of place as well. The sound design is definitely one of the strong points of the game, with great sound effects (especially the fire and explosions), and well timed musical scores. The theme music for the game is a bit on the annoying side, since it tends to pop up virtually anywhere and at any time, but the other pieces are well made and really contribute to the atmosphere. The sounds the various enemies make are creepy and, with the combination of the right music, add tension to combat sequences.

To sum it all up, Alone in the Dark suffers from quite some bugs and unbalanced features that prevent this good game from being great. The story itself is more than enough to grasp you through the entire game, and makes it easier to ignore the various problems you might encounter along the way. Fans of the original series won't be treading on familiar grounds when it comes to playing the game, but will probably enjoy the short references to previous games. It is hard to ignore the feeling that a few more weeks of development would have probably saved it, but even with all the problems, the game is worth playing, as long as you play it Alone in the Dark.