When I Am Alive was first revealed four years ago, we were promised a game that would revolve around survival after a natural disaster. That was the vision the developers at Darkworks had, but they left the project in 2010. I Am Alive was then handed to Ubisoft Shanghai, who decided to rebuild the game with a slightly different vision, resulting in a game with a solid foundation and fascinating ideas.
But first, let's back up a bit, and start by looking at what I Am Alive is actually about. The world has been devastated by a cataclysmic event that wreaked havoc on humanity, and survivors are struggling to get by in the aftermath. The game takes place roughly a year after this event, as our protagonist is finally returning home to look for his wife and daughter.
The main story is pretty decent and it's told in a fashion which leaves many parts untold. It's a risky way of doing storytelling, but Ubisoft Shanghai pulls it off nicely; it gives the story some good depth while still keeping focus on the present. There are some cliffhangers, but it's not really clear if the story actually builds towards a sequel or if they're simply a part of the storytelling being used. The upside to this storytelling is that it engages the player in a way that makes everything all the more believable. You don't know everything and you can't fix everything; all you can do is to try and make the best of it, starting by trying to find your family. And that's the same for every character you meet; everyone is powerless to do anything about the devastation, it's just a matter of dealing with the situation as best as they can.
This is where I Am Alive stands the strongest. It has a wide variety of personalities, all marked by the event, who try their best to deal with it, and the game does pretty well at making you feel like one of them. Combined with the devastated city the game takes place in, you can't help but feel how the air is thick with desperation. On top of that, you get the excellent soundtrack, which can be quite harrowing, even if it feels a bit overblown on occasion. I Am Alive's voice acting is quite good too, making the characters all the more authentic. Unfortunately, their in game representations aren't as great: their models and animations can feel stiff. The graphics are pretty good overall; everything has a very bleak feel, especially because of the black and white presentation employed. Bleakness can get boring though, so the game mixes things up with a bit of colour every once in a while, but this still doesn't make it hugely exciting, though it works well with the atmosphere.
You can feel this dedication to making things bleak and tough shining through in the gameplay as well. You'll do a lot of climbing, and while the comparison to Assassin's Creed is relevant, I Am Alive makes tweaks and additions to make the climbing a better fit for its post apocalyptic world. One change is that the pace is slower, but this also makes the controls feel a bit sluggish unfortunately.
The biggest change is the introduction of stamina though, which limits how active you can get before you have to rest. This means you have to think about how you climb and what route to climb on. If your stamina runs out, your stamina capacity starts to drop, and if that drops to zero, you die. Your stamina will regenerate automatically when you rest, but you can also use items to keep your stamina up if you can't find a resting spot. Your stamina capacity can only be restored with items however, and running around with reduced stamina capacity can be a serious handicap. Thankfully, the items you need aren't all that hard to come by. That's not to say the game lets you have everything in abundance, but so long as you try to look out for yourself, you should do okay. The question is how much you need the care, because you will meet people who need the same items as you.
While the characters themselves are a strong point in I Am Alive, the way you interact with them is unfortunately quite simple, in spite of some strong ideas Ubisoft Shanghai have put into the game. There are roughly three kinds of characters you can meet. First are the thugs. They're out to get you, but defeating them almost always requires the same strategy. Next are the defensive characters. They just want to be left alone, and will try to scare you off, but can be provoked to attack. And finally, there are the victims. These are people who need your help, for example in the form of first aid or food. What's fascinating about all these characters is the way they handle weapons. One character can feel threatening, and you may kill him to defend yourself. But upon inspection, he wasn't defending anything and he was threatening you with an empty gun. He just wanted to keep on living and be left alone. And some thugs can be defeated with an empty gun, because they're not willing to run the risk of getting shot. But while fascinating, the problem here is that I Am Alive only dips into the pool of human interaction, but doesn't dive in, and so the interactions feel underdeveloped and incomplete. Why can't I talk to any of these people? Why can't I apologize to someone for accidentally taking some of their things (you automatically take items that are in range), and give them their stuff back?
The combat also feels clunky and a bit rough, especially the way enemies behave. Everyone will whimper when you aim at them with your gun, but take out your bow and every bad guy in the vicinity rushes at you, even though the two are equally lethal. This is not actually a big problem because combat isn't something that occurs often and planning how to take out a group of thugs can be exciting, but it certainly lacks that human touch that the story and atmosphere try so hard to promote. Interaction with victims fares better. While you only have two ways of interacting with the victims, handing them their desired item or saving them from some bad guys, their scenarios are nicely varied. One guy wants a pack of cigarettes so he can have a last one before he dies and another has his hand stuck under a big pile of rubble and needs to cut it off to get free, and he would like a first aid kit to stop the bleeding afterwards.
Once you've helped them, the victims will give you some information about what happened after the event, along with a retry. Yes, the game will set you back if you run out of retries, but it's a fairly gentle way of doing retries, as you'll only be set back to the start of the chapter if you run out. The chapters aren't long enough to make running out much of an issue, and the only time I ran out of retries, I did so on purpose to find out what would happen. The victims also give the game some longevity, as they all provide an interesting look into the world, both through the information they give you and through their personality and situation. A playthrough of the game will only take you about four hours if you don't go for all 20 victims, and though the game comes with two modes, they're pretty much the same. Survival mode is a little less forgiving than normal mode, but if you've played the game through on normal mode, you already know everything you need to know to go through survival mode pretty easily. You might just replay it for the story's sake, but the victims are what provide each playthrough with some flavor, and once you've helped them all, playing the game again probably won't be as interesting.
I Am Alive takes a few bold steps into the area of human interaction, but it doesn't really go far enough. It only offers decent value, and the gameplay has some fascinating aspects, but some pitfalls as well. In the end, your enjoyment of I Am Alive will probably hinge upon your enjoyment of the exploration of the human side of its disaster, as that part, however limited it may be, is where I Am Alive really shines.
This review is based on downloadable copy of I Am Alive from the Xbox Live Arcade.