An ambitious underperformer.
And true enough, calling Alone in the Dark by any other name won't help it become a better game, yet I feel like there is an eerie symmetry between its title and its position in the survival horror genus. Whereas its unofficial offspring grew into industry-defining franchises, Alone in the Dark was left to wither, as if dumped in a retirement castle because it couldn't keep up with its own legacy. And there it lay dormant since its last game release in 2001: forgotten and, well, alone.
But times change. The word 'reboot' is music to executive ears now and Atari, struggling with brand recognition, saw a chance to get the poor sucker out of the catheters and into the spotlight. With a new generation of hardware comes new power, and with a new developer comes fresh ambition. And if there's one thing you can't say Alone in the Dark lacks, it's ambition.
But that's also its problem. Eden Games, who were handed development duties, got a little too ambitious for its own good, zealously infusing Alone in the Dark with its own confident (read: stubborn) design tuition rather than incorporating the proven mechanics powering its kin. Not all of its innovations are a hindrance of course (some are even novel takes on classic formulas) but when its diluted executions come into play, the whole experience suffers for it.
Much like its overall design, the narrative of Alone in the Dark will have you cinched one moment and cringing the next. You wake up on the top floor of a Manhattan high-rise as an amnesic captive of some occultists. Judging from their conversation, they just performed a ritual on you, and the bloodstains on your matras indicate that good times have been had indeed. Unfortunately, you've served your purpose now that the ceremony has been completed. In Layman's terms: you've become expendable. As an armed grunt escorts you to the roof where you are to be executed, the whole of New York gets mauled by malicious epiphanies; fissures that eat people run across the walls, massive landslides rip the city to shreds, possessive demons take hold of the inhabitants, and it all appears to be your fault somehow. Well done, you! Obviously, you set out to right the wrongs, finding allies in the token love interest and wise old fool who knows you well enough, but deems it unnecessary to share your name because there's "no time to tell you everything." So, saddled with guilt, memory-loss and idiots, you take a cue from New York City itself and get cracking.
The story is a good slice of biblical retribution that's well-paced (except for a daunting fetch quest just before the final chapter) and compelling enough that you'll want to see it to the end, but from my short introduction to the story alone you can already deduce plenty of ripples in the script, and then I'm not necessarily talking about the cookiecutter characters or horrible dialogue (which, by the way, is horrible) no, I'm talking about moments where you let out a big sigh thinking "Really?" Executing someone with an un-silenced uzi on a rooftop isn't a bright idea because it increases the chances of being heard or seen. For the time it took Theofile to say there's "no time to tell you everything" he could've easily said "Edward Carnby." You even survive a freefalling elevator unscathed somehow. There are so many inconsistencies already and we've only been underway for half an hour.
But it's a breath-taking half hour nonetheless. It's easy to get swept up in the chaos happening around you: a daring escape from a crumbling apartment that culminates in a frantic car ride through the destruction of New York. It doubles as the snappy hook to get your attention in a blink-and-you-missed-it set-up (you can blink in-game by clicking the right thumbstick, by the way) and as a tutorial that covers all of the game's mechanics and play-styles.
And boy, does Alone in the Dark juggle a lot of play-styles. There's melee fighting, shooting, platforming, puzzling and driving. It's a modern open world survival horror game with plenty of nods to its adventuring roots, but like a true Jack of all trades, it masters none. This is mainly caused by two factors: bad gameplay and bad design decisions.
The melee fighting is a brave but ultimately dysfunctional addition that uses the right thumbstick as a means of controlling your battering item in real-time: you push the thumbstick in one direction to pre-wind, then slam it to the opposite direction to strike, but it's just too convoluted. Combat should be smooth and reactive, at the press of a button, not by waggling the joystick. In the thick of battle, flicking the stick accurately is troublesome anyway, and it happened multiple times that instead of swinging, Edward readied his weapon at his other side. To make matters worse, enemies can only be killed by fire so you'll have to carry this object to open flame, get it to burn and then start attacking.
Shooting would seem like a less torturous method, but baddies can only be killed by pumping fire-bullets into their friggin' scars. Aiming at a line on a moving enemy is hard enough by itself, but the flawed hit detection truly makes it a challenge to kill an enemy with your pistol. If you keep the right thumbstick pressed, Edward keeps his eyes closed which will cause the scars to glow, even after you open your eyes again which makes it a little easier to aim for the weak spots in the dark .
Central Park is a pretty big place, and you'll find plenty of cars (and the occasional golf cart) to get around. And I mean around. Destroyed bridges and giant chasms force you to take a longer road than necessary to get to your destination. The driving is further hampered by environmental hazards like thin branches of collapsed trees. Yes, you read that right. You'd expect a car to be able to just drive over the branches and break them. Not so in Alone in the Dark. The smallest tip of a tree can halt you dead in your tracks when you're driving at full speed, damaging your car and yourself a great deal. But you can't drive too slow either because then enemies will jump on your hood and start punching you through the windshield.
It doesn't help that the game throws a modifier into the story-related driving bits. Whether you're being chased by an earthquake or a flock of bat-like creatures that lift your car when you're not going fast enough, or stressed by a timer that forces you to quickly navigate spikes that burst through the ground around you, you're under constant pressure. The driving controls are fine, it's all this additional fluff to make driving "interesting" that deteriorates from the experience. Well, that and the bugs.
There's a certain chapter early on where you drive a car through the destruction of New York. I restarted that segment six times, mostly due to bugs beyond my control. You have to drive through a scaffolding at a certain point, of which a bar got stuck in my car, causing my car to get stuck in the environment. Since there's an "earthquake" following at all times, it was a quick end for me. Another time, at the end of that segment, you have to drive through a mall-type area over some stairs to proceed but a potted tree, thrown down in the absolute chaos, blocked these stairs for me, effectively preventing me from doing anything but await my imminent Game Over screen.
But not all of its game styles are a mess: the platforming is a great deal of fun. Most platforming sections have been scripted in such a way that even climbing a rope becomes a spectacle. At one time, for example, you're climbing up the side of a cliff with a burning helicopter wreck dangling above you. It's a crying shame then that the platforming is hampered by jerky animations and very sluggish movement.
The puzzling too is genuinely good. You'll come across a good amount of challenges, ranging from physics-based puzzles that would make Half-Life 2 blush to environmental hazards that need creative clearing. That daunting fetch quest I was talking about earlier basically involves you going around Central Park to burn "evil roots" but most of these have their own puzzle. One will require you to launch a car from a ramp to a floating island with a root on it, for example, so that you can shoot the car's gas tank to destroy the root. Some mini-games persist (hotwiring a car or a fuse box) but they stay fun throughout the game.
Another impressive feature is the inventory system. Edward can craft makeshift weapons from basic household tools and garbage littered across the game's world and there's a surprising versatility to their use. You can fill an empty plastic bottle with the gasoline of an abandoned car, wrap some duct tape around it, stick the bottle with a knife and throw it to a distant enemy. When you select the lighter and put the trial of gasoline on fire, and watch the fire spread across the trial and eventually the monster to which the bottle sticks, you can't help but feel giddy. And it's not just because of the amazing fire effects either. Combining a bug spray or first aid spray with your lighter to make a short-range flamethrower, or hanging some bullets to a bottle of liquor and putting the bandage stuffed in its neck on fire before throwing it to a group of enemies, is all very satisfying. Throwing an explosive is made even better by an autolock: once you throw a bottle of alcohol, for example, Edward will have his gun fixed on the bottle so that you don't need to worry about targeting it. Just pull the trigger and you'll instantly shoot the bottle.
But the inventory menu is not without flaw. Keeping in line with classic survival horror design, your inventory spaces are limited. They are represented by the inner pockets of Carnby's jacket though I wish that plot-essential items (such as an important flashlight overlay) wouldn't take up space. Being able to stow away plot-essential objects in other satchels would've gone a long way in mixing up the combat since you could experiment more with different combinations without dumping the contraptions you've come to rely on. The game also doesn't pause when you enter your inventory meaning you can (and will) be attacked when combining or selecting items.
To accommodate all of its genres the game uses 3 camera styles; third-person, first-person and fixed angles, and they all have their issues. The camera is not smooth or responsive enough in first-person, especially considering the precision you need in the gunplay, and it's pretty much useless in third-person since you can only rotate the camera within a 180° cone of Edward's front, and only when you're not carrying any blunt objects. The camera also hangs a little too close to Edward for my liking.
You can switch between first- and third-person at the press of a button but this freedom in perspectives feels more like an illusion than an option. When you walk around in third-person and want to shoot, the game automatically goes to first-person despite having a Resident Evil 4-style camera and a pistol with laser-sight. When you turn a corner and the game wants to divert your attention to something special, it will drop a fixed camera angle on you without warning. The sudden change in image is confusing enough on its own, but the fixed angle also influences your controls: up becomes down, etc...
Movement in general is kind of problematic. Since there's so many different and obscure moves that you can do (such as blinking or real-time object handling) the control interface takes a while to get used to. And even then there are some questionable moments: for someone who has little trouble shimmying across great heights, Edward can't seem to overcome waist-high obstacles unless the game wants him to.
The game does a few novel things with its presentation too, the most notable being its DVD-like interface which allows you to skip to the next scene should you be stuck somewhere, though you lose your inventory when you do so. The music is also a standout, relying on the Bulgarian women's choir to heighten the tension and mysticism. The voice-acting isn't stellar but considering the material, they do a good enough job. Unskippable movies and lack of subtitles are the bane of any presentation though.
The engine powering Alone in the Dark is an impressive one. Character models and lip synching are a little off, but environments and effects look amazing, especially the fire which spreads across inflammable materials as it does in real life, and it's a lot of fun to let your inner pyromaniac loose in Alone in the Dark. Once everything wraps up with a sudden but great ending, it's the fire you'll remember most fondly.
I can't help but feel a bipolar affinity for Alone in the Dark: its pendulum swings from brilliance to tedium in a flash. It's at its best when you're platforming through a collapsing building or puzzling through ancient temples, but when you're cast into the damp green yonder of Central Park or forced into combat, the game recidivates to something uglier than the demons you face. From what I understand, some of the game's issues have been resolved in the PS3-version but, contrary to prior promises, the Xbox360 and PC-versions never got the game-mending patch.
In a nutshell, Alone in the Dark is an ambitious underperformer. There's a lot of potential here, and I'd hate to see this series fill a grave already. But if any genre masters the art of resurrection, it's the one Alone in the Dark invented.