Dark But Not Creepy
Since Alone in the Dark was first announced, I have been anxiously awaiting its release. The cinematic approach, moody environments, innovative mechanics, and the promise of an engulfing story appeared to be right up my alley! Furthermore, I had seen loads of screenshots and poured over press releases that seemed to confirm my initial excitement.
Sadly, the title proved to be too ambitious for the timetable, and simple things like clunky controls and unruly camera angles proved to be the game’s undoing. Moreover, the uninspired enemies and shadowy environments weren’t nearly as scary as the plastic-looking protagonists. As a result, I never found myself startled or nervous, just frustrated. Alas, this piece will largely recount the trials and tribulations of a disappointed gamer.
Alone in the Dark has players take on the role of an amnesiac Edward Carnby. Edward awakens to find himself almost completely out of his wits and in the clutches of wicked men intent on his demise. Before Edward is roundly executed, he is “saved” by an evil that was unleashed through a dark ceremony via a stone necklace he once wore and protected. After platforming his way through a towering inferno in upper Manhattan, Edward meets up with a couple key characters and is put on the Path of Light. Will Edward find out who he is, what his purpose may be, and a way to save New York and the world from an the dark secret that lurks within Central Park?
The plot twists and intrigue that follows is one of the best parts of this title. As such, the developers created a DVD-like interface that allows players to skip through difficult episodes and advance the plot. It also serves as a great rundown for players who haven’t played in a few days, as the plot is neatly summarized with cutscenes and dialogue from key moments of what you’ve already played. This works extremely well and feels like the introduction to your favorite television series. The episodic nature of the story is just one of the innovative mechanics put in place by Eden Games in Alone in the Dark.
Disappointingly, the other creative initiatives don’t work nearly as well as the scene select function does. For example, the inventory screen has Edward peer into his jacket. Inside he has a veritable utility belt of compartments where he can store items. They all fit neatly, but selecting them with the left analog stick is a nightmare. Thankfully, the items can be selected with the D-pad, but even still the layout was a nice idea gone bad. While in the inventory screen, you’ll be able to combine elements to create new and useful items such as a fiery spray or a Molotov cocktail. This is akin to the overused combination puzzles of PC point-and-click adventures, which we all know is nothing but an irritation.
Additionally, the right analog stick is used to bash through both doors and heads with melee weapons and mundane items scattered throughout the environments. Initially, it seems like a good way to bring the player into the game, but it eventually feels so inconsistent that players will long for the ease and reliability of simple button mashing.
Moreover, the healing mechanic in the game is just silly. If Edward gets wounded, he will begin to slow. If he gets seriously wounded, a timer will pop up on the screen giving him a few minutes to find some magic spray and bandages. If you happen to have the healing equipment near or stored in your jacket, you can bandage your wounds to stop both the bleeding and the counter. Needless to say, this just gets annoying and repetitive. In fact, if I happened to hurt myself with an explosion and didn’t have supplies at hand, I would simply kill myself and start over.
The use of fire in the game is also poor. This was supposed to be one of the marquis features of the title, but it doesn’t work well at all. Though the fire effects look quite nice, constantly having to use fire to permanently take out enemies, blast through walls, and light your way is more of a hassle than an interesting mechanic. In fact, gamers will undoubtedly feel shackled to it. After all, there are only so many ways to use fire, and they all feel played out after the first few times.
Finally, the game implements a camera system that allows players to choose between a first and third person view. Maddeningly, players will constantly have to bounce between the two of them, as platforming is superior while in third person view, and combat via the gun is only possible in first person. This schizophrenic approach is decidedly poor. Additionally, while in third person, the nearly-fixed camera positions are out of your control and are reminiscent of older Resident Evil titles. This hinders gameplay in Alone in the Dark. There’s a reason RE4 switched to an over-the-shoulder view!
The developers tried to add layers of realism and complexity with these innovations, but in practice they are poorly conceived and superfluous. The only other innovation I actually enjoyed was the use of the PDA. Similar to Niko’s cell phone in GTA4 (but far less annoying), the PDA is your in-game menu interface. The PDA will let you make calls to people you meet, gives you a GPS map with objectives, and even allows you to receive text messages with instructions and key bits that can be reviewed later.
Other than some minor button inconsistencies across views, vehicles, on ropes, etc. the button layout is fine. However, picking up items on the ground, making quick turns, hot wiring cars, swinging away and shooting at enemies, driving sequences, item combinations, dragging around corpses, inventory selection, the healing mechanic, and even negotiating ledges and jumps (platforming) are all utterly shambolic. I almost forgot to mention that Carnby can’t even punch. That’s right; you can only attack baddies with an item in your hand. That means you’ll be running around like a chicken looking for its head rather than grappling the various minions in heroic struggles. Unfortunately, the wonky controls and often obtuse gameplay moments will have many players scratching their heads, shouting out expletives, and essentially giving up on difficult sections in order to advance the story.
Visually, the game is incredibly disappointing. This title was touted as a graphical triumph, but it ends up not living up to the hype. For starters, the faces and animations are not very good. Everyone looks and moves like they were made out of wax and rubber. The characters are all very ugly-looking, but not in a stylized, Sleepy Hollow kind of way; it just seems unpolished. The ragdoll physics applied to corpses is entirely exaggerated; I constantly saw bodies bend in half like Gumby simply by walking past them. Textures tended to look flat and out of place – except for metal. For example, the wrinkles on shirts and faces looked completely unrealistic; it looked like everyone was wearing a mask. Finally, the dark environments were exactly that – dark. There was nothing that gave me an eerie feeling; it was just difficult to see. Nevertheless, the one bright spot in the graphics actually had to do with the lighting and shadows, all of which were masterfully rendered.
While the game employs a wonderful score and themes along with solid sound effects, the voice acting was not believable. All the same, I would say the sounds in the game are excellent, but it seems like the amount of effort that went into their creation could have been expended in other more important areas. It’s kind of sad when the aural icing on the cake is more memorable than the dry layers of gameplay.
Obviously, Alone in the Dark didn’t come close to living up to expectations. It seems like the development team bit off more than they could chew. However, there is an interesting story to be found and many of the components are decent. I think many people will find $60 worth of enjoyment out of the title, but it’s not the shiny gem we were expecting. I commend Eden Games on the risks they took and the daring they displayed. In an industry rife with cookie-cutter sequels, it’s nice to see someone stick their neck out. Hopefully, the creators will take their time with the Fall release of the PS3 version and address many of the game’s faults.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.9 Graphics
You know it’s rough when lighting and fire effects are your best visual aspects. The characters are all ugly and waxy-looking. 2.2 Control
Frustrating and silly. You can’t even punch for crying out loud! 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The musical score is deep and engaging. Unfortunately, the voice acting was not believable. 3.3 Play Value
Despite the numerous obtuse moments, the interesting story should keep you playing at least a little while. 3.1 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.