Alone in the Dark Review
Developer: Eden Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PC and PlayStation 2
Reviewed on Xbox 360
Edward Carnby, a paranormal researcher, survived his investigations during the early 20th century (and a dreadful film outing in 2005), to awaken an amnesiac in the hands of evildoers who would use him to unlock an horrific evil that dwells beneath New York City's Central Park. Carnby must race against the evil that lurks beneath the city to save humanity from a ghastly fate.
Alone in the Dark has as much in common with the original game as the Uwe Boll film of the same name: the title and the name of the main character. But in many ways, that's a good thing. Alone in the Dark is incredibly ambitious, and attempts a lot of things other games and developers should learn from. Unfortunately, the technical execution can most kindly be described as problematic. This is a game that developers and game designers should grit their teeth and play through to encounter some remarkable ideas. But the technical issues are such that an average gamer looking for entertainment will wind up frustrated and annoyed. At some point between when the design document that outlined Alone in the Dark was written and when the actual game was released, the fun escaped from the product.
In short, Alone in the Dark tries so much, and fails to make any of it work. If the development team had cut half of what it attempted, it could have created a truly brilliant game. Instead, Alone in the Dark is a laundry list of failed attempts. Because the game had so much potential, but fell victim to technical problems, it made me feel like I was playing wrong. But let me go into gory detail.
The game is divided into episodes and sequences – an episode is a discrete group of events that tie together thematically, while sequences (sections of episodes) are, effectively, save points and must be completed to move play along. While Alone in the Dark was originally planned for an episodic release, even as a single package, this is a brilliant concept that more games should emulate, allowing players to skip forward and backward throughout the game, moving ahead when certain sections are too frustrating.
While brilliant in concept, the ability to fast-forward to new sections of the game was absolutely critical, as crippling technical difficulties (or sometimes just being low on health) often made it impossible to proceed without slamming my forehead into the wall until it bled for a pleasant change of pace. The ability to skip forward made it possible to experience the full game despite some abysmal physics and collision problems. Unfortunately, skipping and coming back means losing most of your inventory (in both directions). Also since some puzzles were just broken (like the see-saw bus physics puzzle), sometimes the game would become stuck, forcing me to go back, losing everything I'd collected (useful things like Molotov cocktails and medical supplies).
Alone in the Dark has a great idea for melee combat – actually having to swing things yourself with the analog stick. While the concept behind the melee combat with objects is cool (you physically have to wind up for your swing and then swing using the stick), it's so clunky it doesn't work well and usually results in my taking a lot of damage trying to get the protagonist to respond or pick up a weapon. Worse yet, when I got bludgeoned by an enemy, I'd lose the weapon, be it a sword or a flaming chair, and picking up another before being summarily executed was a serious challenge.
The same idea is used for opening locked doors. Rather than a lock-picking interface, you can grab something like a fire extinguisher or an ash can and use it like a battering ram to break the door and shatter the lock. It's a really great concept, but using the third-person camera it's really hard to swing the battering ram exactly where you need to break down a door. This, too, needs more polish.
Fascinating and clever puzzles would make many sequences of the game unbelievably engaging, except that they are often broken. For example, one puzzle had me dragging bodies from one end of a bus to another to balance the vehicle like a see-saw so that I could access a platform. But having solved the puzzle, Carnby got caught in the game's geometry and I couldn't progress without fast-forwarding. Also, there is a great context-sensitive action system, where a single button press should do what you want (such as activate a switch, open a door or grab a cable), but it's very touchy, and it can be hard to find exactly the right location to progress. The context-sensitive actions can even get downright silly, such as when you have to perform CPR.
As part of Alone in the Dark's puzzles, there are great fire dynamics. Aside from it just being fun to set fire to everything, sometimes you can open areas or trigger events by setting fire to something and watching the fire spread to whatever is blocking your progress (though it can be dull to stand around and wait for the fire to spread). It's a lot of fun to pierce a car's gas tank, set up a line of fuel and light it from afar to blow up the vehicle. The same fire system often requires you to use a fire extinguisher to put out fires to pass through a hallway.
One of the cooler types of puzzles needs a lot more work. Some areas are filled with a fluid darkness that will consume and kill Carnby on contact. The cool thing is that this fluid can be pushed away using light, such as a flashlight beam. The decidedly uncool thing is that it's so hard to control the flashlight beam (even in first-person mode) that these puzzles are painful instead of brilliant.
Visuals should be a strong point of Alone in the Dark, but so often the game falls well short of its ambitious goals. There are some spectacular textures and dramatically cinematic sequences, but these are often undermined by other textures that are clearly relics of development for the last generation of consoles. It's jarring to see the detailed model of an old fellow collapse and die on a grass texture that looks coarse even for the PlayStation 2.
Also, the game tries to accommodate cinematic angles and dramatic combat by allowing players to use both third-person and first-person camera angles. The third-person camera works for action puzzles and melee combat, while the first-person camera is much easier to use when shooting. Unfortunately, to keep things cinematic, the game will force camera changes, so quite often I'd be drawing a bead on the head or vulnerable scar of an enemy when the game would force a change to the third-person perspective, causing me to lose my aim and often take a few hits before regaining any sense of what was going on.
The game tries something incredibly clever with its inventory system, restricting you to what you can carry inside your jacket, and trying to make interesting weapons out of everyday objects. It's a nice change of pace from other games. For example, you have to make a Molotov cocktail by finding a rag, inserting it into a liquor bottle and lighting it on fire. It's fun to improvise a flamethrower from a spray can and lighter or use adhesive tape to stick an explosive bottle to a distant wall. I'm not sure that in reality you can pour booze on bullets and then actually fire them from a gun, but why not take advantage of it in the game?
As interesting as the idea is, the room for items inside Carnby's coat is too limited, and many areas of the game will let you get stuck with too little health or too few items to continue. Worse yet, the game doesn't pause when you are interacting with your inventory. As realistic as that may be, the game interface isn't easy enough to use, so it's common to be killed while trying to fish out the right item or pour liquor over bullets.
Often, realism rears its ugly head. As true to life as it may be to have bottles scattered all over Central Park, they sure aren't full in the real New York City. It's also cool that wounds actually appear on Carnby as cuts, abrasions and scrapes, and these can be treated by spraying medical ointment from cans onto the wounds. Of course, it also seems to reconstitute denim and leather as it regenerates flesh. And the aforementioned inventory shortage gets really irritating when you need a bandage to wrap an especially deep wound.
The legacy of Alone in the Dark is incredible – the original games managed to create a life-or-death feeling of tension with clever puzzles, simple graphics and very few colors. But this new Alone in the Dark goes its own way. Edward Carnby is the same man, but unaged and nearly a century older, he's stuck with amnesia in New York City. Carnby is plagued by someone named Crowley (the name of a real-life occultist) and aided by an old man named Theophile (a lover of god).
Rather than something subtle in which the darkness hides unspeakable horrors and terrible truths, New York's Central Park is simply the haven for Satanic forces, and is overgrown with (try not to laugh) the roots of evil – gigantic, tree-like roots that writhe with, well, evil. The writing relies on cursing rather than clever banter, and quickly goes from interesting puzzles and innuendo to boss monsters and "burn 10 root" quests. That's not unusual for games, but disappointing for something with the pedigree of Alone in the Dark.
The final segments of the game felt the most like the name Alone in the Dark demands, but it sure was strange to find the Prince of Darkness imprisoned in a subterranean Jenga set created by the designer of MOMA. It's at this point that Alone in the Dark, having already demonstrated that its combat engine can't cope with the split-second timing needed to kill the game's creatures, wanted to show off how split-second puzzle timing doesn't work with the game engine, either. It should also be said that the ending was... lacking. I can't help but feel that rather than being intentionally mysterious, something in the (not so) dramatic conclusion was lost in translation.
As if all of the above isn't enough, Alone in the Dark tries to tap into the "open world" experience of games like Grand Theft Auto by allowing you to freely drive around the entirety of Central Park. There are even intense chase sequences that rely on the driving engine. But driving in Alone in the Dark sucks. I cannot overstate that. The driving physics is so awful that it's impossible to maintain control over a vehicle. Tiny lines in the landscape can stop a car like a brick wall. In one sequence, bat-like creatures tried to fly off with my car. Rolling the vehicle didn't phase the winged freaks, but driving over a curb knocked off the car roof and dislodged the creatures.
And the sequence in which I raced a car to outrun Satan's gaping cracks in the street would have been impressive if the car had handled in a responsible way. Unfortunately, no matter how loud the throbbing, apocalyptic music is, and no matter how many cool, scripted explosions I triggered, the 12th time I'd replay a sequence it didn't really help build tension. Besides, there are only a few cars, none of which look or drive right. While it's nice to know that every taxi in New York City has a can of first-aid spray in the glove compartment, it would be nice if they didn't all have the same ad for Test Drive.
In truth, playing Alone in the Dark was a lot like playing that classic coin-op game Dragon's Lair in which you watched a cinematic cartoon, and had to hit a button or tap the joystick in exactly the right direction at exactly the right time. Because of the game's many control, camera and play problems, you have to suss out the right action with precise timing to continue seeing the cool movie. Certainly, there are occasional forgiving sequences, but there are others that demand an obscene level of precision, not because the game was designed to be exacting, but because a lack of quality assurance turns certain sequences (like the taxicab race from devastation) into technical minefields.
For everything that's horribly wrong with Alone in the Dark, it attempts things that many games should try, such as the ability to move forward and back via episodes, the way melee combat uses the controls, the fire mechanics, the mix of puzzle-solving and open-world exploration, and the jacket-bound inventory. I only hope those other games succeed.