Alone in the Dark: Are You Afraid?

June 26, 2008


The original Alone in the Dark was a genre-defining, technical marvel, with cinematic cameras, a haunting story, and, unbelievably, these things called polygons that would later become all the rage. A mishmash of action and adventure, the prototype for survival horror was forgiven for its stiff controls, sometimes illogical puzzles and cheap deaths. Developer Eden has drawn on the original source, bringing the original protagonist into the 21st century with a new attempt at innovative, genre-blending gameplay. But is it just as desirable when the lights are on?Edward Carnaby is having a bad day. He's been drugged, beaten, and has a nasty case of amnesia, finding himself in a Manhattan high-rise with some unsavory characters. But that’s the least of his worries when the building itself starts to crumble, and the undead awaken throughout the city. From there, it's a mad dash for freedom, identity, and truth, as he drums up some meager memories and allies as he makes his way to Central Park, the epicenter of the supernatural crisis.

While the overarching plot is intriguing--casting a twilight upon the United States' most populated city--the scene-to-scene writing is typical B-movie swill, supported by constant high tension scenarios. The game takes, literally, a DVD TV series approach to story telling with ending credits, "previously on" openings, and constant episodic story arches with lots of conflict and resolution. It certainly compels you to keep playing, and fortunately, there are no commercial breaks

Alone is ambitious and over-extended. There's almost nothing that hasn't been tweaked, expanded, or simply recast in bump-mapped bronze. Early episodes offer linear navigation filled with jumping and climbing, along with introducing melee combat that asks for analogous swings of the analog stick. Fuse boxes and cars offer exposed wires for mini-games, and the inventory screen opens up with your jacket, allowing Edward a bird's eye view of his holdings.

Getting too scary? Turn to first-person mode, convenient for firing your gun, but also for closing your eyes. Even this mechanic takes on several different roles later on in the game. And that DVD mentality? You can skip over chapters of an episode that have you stuck--or even the entire episode for that matter--all the while checking a cell phone for text messages, GPS hints, and other updates.

Fire adds another layer to combat, with many adversaries needing to be burned for the final take down. The inventory system allows for experimentation, as Edward can MacGyver home made bombs and other helpful sundries. Take damage and test out the healing system with fist aid sprays, bandages, and individual wounds that look like he rolled around in a vat of Big League Chew.

Eventually, some chapters open up Central Park itself, a dangerous, wide open playground. A goal will be marked, but now a modicum of exploration makes an appearance. There are side missions that shouldn’t be ignored unless you want to spend the endgame in a stunted pursuit of Alone in the Dark's idea of value extension. It undoubtedly interferes with otherwise terrific pacing.

Endgame aside, there's a lot of things to keep anyone interested. Set pieces are constantly changing, and cruising a haunted Central Park in a golf cart is charming. The ability to skip sections is a daring design concept, but it allows you to play the game as little as you want and still see the conclusion. We don’t have a problem with the concept, even if some poorly-placed checkpoints, cheap deaths, and plot puzzle bottlenecks can tempt you to move to the next episode.

The design’s overextension casts a shadow on its execution. With one analog stick mapped to melee whacking, turning and locomotion is set to one stick, making moving in both third- and first-person laborious. The melee's novelty wears off quickly, and the inventory jacket quickly feels limited and suffers from micromanagement, while the combination system is easy to master with the limited amount of items in the game.

The cell phone menu will sometimes pop up uninvited and the forced driving sections are nightmares unto themselves; it's like driving with The Club on the steering wheel with tires made of moon boots. There’s no clean carry over between different control schemes, with the game shuffling you between third- and first-person views depending on items. Making things more uninviting, each button has several uses, and the movement, combat, and menu navigation is stiff.

The puzzle aspects have an old school mentality and suffer from a lack of context-sensitive action. Often it will be obvious what to do, just not how to do it. While solving them can be satisfying, trying to guess exactly what the developer is thinking can lead to the temptation of skipping to the next chapter.
Edward's path is filled with both speed bumps and scenic routes. The flashes of brilliance butt heads with the bad controls and guessing games.

The ambition is certainly here with some impressive visuals, and great scripted mayhem mixed in with tons of clipping and bugs that can force restarts. Character animation can be weak, with enemies stuck in loops, or simply not responding at all. Voice acting fits the B script, that is to say, it's not particularly good, but it does the job. The soundtrack is magnificent, composed by Olivier Deriviere, and really adds to the cinematic feel. Finally, though never spoken by any of the game's denizens, various menus state the various enemy names, like Humanz and Ratz, which is just stupid, and hopefully sounded better in the original French where the last letter is silent.

Edward’s trip to the park is no picnic, but suffer through the controls and some aggravation and you’ll be compensated with a lot of unique moments. The game needed more gestation to really iron out the interface issues, but it remains an adventure worth pursuing. And with its DVD affordances, feel free to treat it as such: rent it and skip to the good bits.