Gamers may say that they want originality and unique gaming experiences, but I beg to differ. Most people want the same crap they've been playing over and over and over again. If you need any proof, just look at the sales numbers behind Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, or any of the latest sequels to hit your local games shop. Want a little more proof? How about the fact that a superlative gaming experience, something unique that we haven't seen or played before, is getting dumped into digital distribution channels by Ubisoft. At least in a way, the fact that I am Alive is getting a digital distribution is a blessing in disguise. For only $20, you too can experience one of the most unique gaming experiences that I've had in years.
I am Alive is a post apocalyptic thriller with a realistic slant. A massive destructive occurrence known only as The Event has crippled the entire planet through earthquakes and the emergence of massive choking dust clouds. Little pockets of survivors have managed to live their lives in this bleak and forsaken land. You play as a man who arrives in the city of Haventon looking for his wife and daughter whom he hasn't seen in a full year. When he narrates that it took him five hours to fly to the east coast, but a year to walk back in this ruined world with only an empty pistol, some climbing gear, and minimal resources, you'll be immediately hooked in the plight of the remaining people in this world shaken by cataclysm. It's not long before your protagonist finds a little girl, not unlike his own daughter, who needs to find her way home in a world gone mad.
As you begin the game, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the game is a cross between the oppressive atmosphere of Silent Hill with the platforming mechanics of a Prince of Persia or Uncharted title, and the tense "grip-based" climbing of Shadow of the Colossus. While Uncharted's Nathan Drake can climb and jump across ruined temples with ease and grace, in I am Alive, every action takes up stamina. As you climb over ruined buildings, stalled cars, crippled bridges and high rubble, your stamina meter will drain. Once it drains all the way, your overall stamina capacity begins dropping, resulting in a lethal fall or less energy to tackle the next set of obstacles. Your stamina always drains quickly, giving you usually just enough to time to make it from resting point to resting point before your capacity starts to drain. As your stamina drains, the game also plays some appropriate and intense music, giving the climbing sections a rare sense of urgency.
You can regain stamina and health by utilizing found resources like painkillers, fruit cocktails, water bottles, first aid kits, or just by finding a rest spot or climbing hook to recharge your grip. Seeing that the world has been ruined, resources are extremely rare and difficult to come by. This in turn, encourages exploring every nook and cranny of the gameworld, providing some interesting surprises along the way. The fact that there's also a toxic cloud of dust that hovers directly over the main streets of Haventon that will burn away your stamina if you spend too much time in it, gives even the exploration a tense sense of urgency unseen in other titles.
About as rare as the resources are, living survivors pepper the rooftops and tunnels of Haventon, and can be either gracious or unwelcoming. This is where the game's unique combat system comes into play. Like any other resource, bullets are scarce and must not be wasted in order to survive. When you encounter one or multiple enemies, you are given several options to deal with the scenario. Sometimes all you need to do is walk away slowly and a skirmish won't even take place as the NPC will yell at you to "keep right on walking" away from their turf. For the times that violence is unavoidable, you can surprise an enemy with a quick machete strike as they bully you, or threaten enemies with a gun regardless of how many bullets you actually have, which is usually close to zero (You'll thank your lucky stars when you find the bow and arrow with reusable ammo). Your enemies will only be threatened so long, so you'll need to make quick decisions as to which enemy gets your last bullet to the skull before they fully test your resolve to shoot in the first place. Enemies can also be intimidated by being pushed down holes and into fires. If you make a wrong move against more than one enemy, you can easily be overwhelmed and killed in mere seconds. It's a surprisingly mature way of dealing with conflict which hasn't been seen before in gaming, and reinforces I am Alive as a game for adults, one in which violence is best avoided and literally no bullet goes unwasted. It creates unseen tension from an action game to threaten someone with an unloaded gun and bluff your way out of a situation, compared to a game like Call of Duty that has you dispensing bullets like penny candy.
The other people you will encounter in the game are usually victims that need your help. Usually, helping a victim requires going into your own bag of resources and sparing an inhaler for someone trapped in the dust cloud, a first aid kit for someone with a broken leg, or even sparing a last cigarette for a dying man. Helping victims is rewarded by additional retries from checkpoints. Not only that, but helping victims provides clues to the game's backstory. If you decide to play on Survivor mode, retries are worth their weight in gold and are just as essential as any other resource, considering that when you run out, you're thrown back to the last save point, sometimes as much as a half hour back. Some may be frustrated by not being able to save at checkpoints and retry infinitely, but I (mostly) appreciated the extra challenge in a game industry that has gone somewhat soft.
That's not to say the game doesn't feel cheap or frustrating at times. The game's unique mechanics and linear nature sometimes demand an infuriating level of trial and error, or can be downright impossible if you weren't wise with your resources. One particular section in the second half of the game has you running through a dark hotel lobby with dozens of enemies and only two or three bullets to take them on with. Until I found the exact order of enemies to take out, I probably burned through 20 retries. At least there was a victim to help right after the checkpoint, so I could retry infinitely by repeatedly saving their life. The same goes for the climbing sections when you just can't seem to find the right pathway through the maze of pipes and ledges to get to the next objective.
The environments are actually very well thought out and varied, even if the game's colour palette is not. The game's pervasive atmosphere owes a lot to Silent Hill, especially when you are exploring the dust cloud and can only see three feet in front of you. A convenient and auto-updating world map (which updates in red sharpie, also just like Silent Hill), will be your best friend in the less linear areas. All in all, you'll pay visits to the tops of Haventon's tallest skyscrapers, plunge into its darkest subway tunnels, climb through a ruined mall, and fight your way through an unfriendly hotel filled with enemies. Considering the game's eight hour length, you certainly get your money's worth considering the game's $20 price tag on either the XBLA or PSN.
Colour in the game is as rare as a shotgun shell, but the washed-out, nearly black and white visuals serve the depressing atmosphere of the game beautifully. While there are several graphical glitches such as poor lip synching, a main character that occasionally hovers over the ground, and lacklustre texture work; in the context of a downloadable title, I am Alive is simply beautiful. The game's Unreal Engine powered graphics have crammed an impressive level of environmental detail, a great draw distance, superb character animation, and outstanding lighting effects into a tiny 2GB package. I am Alive is not the best looking game on the market, but it very well could be the best found on either console's downloadable-only networks.
The killer atmosphere of the game also owes a lot to its impeccable sound design. Voice acting is generally good, especially for the main characters. The environmental sounds will have you checking behind you in fear, and the soundtrack is perfectly subtle or overbearing whenever the game requires either. The climbing sections wouldn't be half as tense if the music didn't swell into a terrifying crescendo as your last gasp of stamina is being used as you climb the outside of a massive skyscraper.
If you're looking for something unique and mature in a gaming world populated by me-too clones and predictable sequels, look no further than I am Alive. This is an adult game that rewards patience, appreciation for story and atmosphere, and a little perseverance. In exchange, players will experience a level of tension nearly unheard of in gaming with some excitingly unique gameplay mechanics. The fact that the game is only $20 and available right from your couch through PSN and XBLA makes the purchasing decision a no brainer. Don't miss this one.