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For many, survival horror’s heyday came during videogaming’s 32bit era, a time when technical limitations contributed to the sense of fear and foreboding as often as proactive design. The early Resident Evil games robbed players of a sense of precision and power with their disorienting control schemes, ensuing hand-eye coordination was as much an enemy as a rabid Doberman. Meanwhile, Silent Hill would have been a far less disturbing experience were it not for the heavy fog that cloaked the town, shrouding the twin terrors of monster and draw distance.
I Am Alive achieves a similar effect by choosing a post-apocalyptic metropolis for its location, a city ravaged by earthquakes that’s all crumbled skyscrapers, twisted girders and endless dust. At the root level of ?the city, the dust cloys and blinds, depleting stamina and robbing survivors of hope. High up, around the decaying skeletons of merchant banks and insurance company towers, the dust desaturates the skies, robbing the world of colour and form, just as the tremors below strip it yet further of its original topography.
You play as a stubbled survivor who’s as athletic as Nathan Drake. But unlike Uncharted’s derring-do explorer, you’re handicapped by a stamina bar that limits the amount of time you can spend clambering across the debris. Survival horrors are so often about managing resources in extreme circumstances. In I Am Alive, your gun rarely has more than a single bullet in ?its chamber and your backpack is often home to little more than a pack of painkillers and a bottle of water, ?but the real resource to be managed is energy.
As you climb and run, so the bar at the top of the screen empties, replenishing only when you plant both feet on solid ground and rest. If the bar empties before you have a chance to recover, then the gauge begins to shrink, unable to return to its previous maximum without the aid of restorative items. This means that every walk from pillar to post must be planned, and ?rest points need to be searched out before you embark upon your next journey into the dust.
Your motivation is to be reunited with your family, and the hunt begins back at your apartment, from which they were evacuated 12 months ago. But information pertaining to their whereabouts is hard won, because the citizens of Haventon have become accustomed to their city’s degradation. Setting the game one year after the apocalypse means that those few survivors who live in its world have settled into an uncivilised kind of existence. They’ve marked out their territories, daubed warning slogans on the walls of appropriated malls, and now guard their bin fires with rusty pistols. Few will help you. Most will try to rob and kill you.
I Am Alive introduces nuance and tension to these encounters by having enemies react to your movements. Approach a man whose weapon is raised and he’ll fire into your face at point-blank range. Walk away and ?he’ll scream “Good riddance!” after you, a low tone of relief to his spitting bravado. You can also put your hands up to feign surrender to muscle-men who stride toward you in anger, then slice their necks with your knife as they lean in to intimidate you. And raising a gun, even if there is no bullet in the chamber, will allow you to force a single combatant to back up.
Complexity is added by sheer weight of numbers. When surrounded, I Am Alive becomes a game of tactical reading, working out who poses the greatest threat before taking them down in the hope that his followers might back down in kind. But there is a sort of emotional uncanny valley to these encounters, which aim for the nuance of high-tension human face-offs, but in reality fail to deliver on that promise.
Unusually for an action game, the meta-structure of I Am Alive involves a score-building mechanic that wouldn’t be out of place in a puzzler. At any time you can check your total, represented as a percentage that’s calculated from the amount of items you have found, and victims you have helped. As the game progresses, so the number of alternate routes and offshoots available for exploration multiply, and every piece of lead piping that can be clung to acts as a gateway to some new pathway or glowing item. Everyday items have become incredibly precious in this dusty wasteland, and finding every last packet of pills and can of tinned fruit becomes an obsessive pursuit, knowing that their successful retrieval will not only add a valuable ?resource to your inventory, but also a higher score.
Victims, meanwhile, are broken or wounded citizens who can be aided with everything from a spare medical pack to an intact bottle of wine. Once appeased, these characters offer clues and information as to the possible whereabouts of your family, trading hope in exchange for your benevolence. It’s an engaging system that stops I Am Alive from becoming too bleak and inhumane. The balance is still tipped towards dog-eat-dog violence (the opportunity to help an aggressor who you wound in self-defence, leaving him clawing at the ground and screaming for aid, is sadly not included), but these moments of humanity hold the ambient narrative back from raging caricature.
The game occasionally drags, arguably due to representing the bleakness of its environment and the challenges of existing within it a little too keenly. Autosave points are few and far between, which means that on anything above normal difficulty your frequent restarts will result in much repetition. Likewise, I Am Alive’s platforming is occasionally cumbersome and inexact. But nevertheless this game offers a journey worth charting, one of physics, social decline and welcome terror in a market overrun by zombies.
Xbox 360 version tested. You can discuss the game and review in the comments section below, in the I Am Alive Edge forum thread, or on our Facebook and Google+ pages.