Ubisoft Shanghai's I Am Alive is the closest thing yet to a specific kind of game I've long dreamt of playing: An honest, non-fantastical portrayal of life after a civilization-ending catastrophe.
The world is grey, caked in layers of dust that settled following some unknown cataclysmic event. The atmosphere hosts storms that leave deadly clouds of disintegrated debris hanging in the air. Frequent earthquakes are gradually razing cities, slowly erasing the architectural evidence of humanity's once magnificent civilization.
Trudging through this wasteland is a man who found himself thousands of kilometres from home when the disaster struck. He's spent a year crossing North America from East to West, trying to get back to his wife and young daughter. He doesn't even know if they're still alive.
The game picks up with our wanderer about to cross a mostly destroyed iron bridge over a raging river. It's the sole entry point left to the city of Haventon, where he and his family made their home.
It's not your typical end-of-the-world game. Much of our time is spent alone, exploring streets and climbing through the ruins of partially collapsed skyscrapers. There are no mutants, no super soldiers. Our goal isn't to take down some self-proclaimed post-apocalypse dictator, to find out what happened, or to restore civilization. The only thing you can hope for in a world like this is to survive, and, if you're lucky, be with those you love.
We encounter only ordinary people. Small groups of lonely, frightened, and sad survivors. Most cower away in terror. Many need help, which we may provide or deny. Offering a starving stranger a tomato is no small thing when you don't know if you'll ever see another – or if you'll need it to feed yourself.
Resources are depressingly scarce and feel like a true treasure when discovered (especially in the more challenging of the game's two difficulty modes). I think I found fewer than 50 bullets in the whole game. Using one to shoot the lock off a supply room door when you don't know if anything is inside involves a lot of hand-wringing.
Even shooting an assailant – some survivors attack out of anger, desperation, or, in the game's darker moments, hunger – is a difficult decision. But would you rather risk your life? You can try backing away. Sometimes they'll stand down and tell you not to come back. sometimes flashing a gun is all it will take to get people to surrender. And sometimes it will aggravate the situation.
There are times when there's no avoiding a fight. If your enemy has buddies, you may have no choice but to use a bullet or two to take down a couple of attackers before switching to your machete to finish off the last one. If you survive, you may be forced to listen to your defeated foes gurgle their final breaths, struggling to rise and call out for help, too late, in croaky voices laced with regret.
This unremittingly bleak end-of-the-world atmosphere is the most believable I've seen in a game set after the end of human civilization and is absolutely unforgettable.
If only it felt more like a finished game.
Much like its protagonist, I Am Alive has experienced no easy journey. In development since 2008, its originator, Darkworks, ended up handing off the project to Ubisoft Shanghai. There it underwent a significant overhaul, transforming from what some assumed would be a major boxed release to the downloadable game that launched today on Xbox Live Arcade as the final entry in this winter's Xbox Live House Party series Perhaps not surprisingly, signs of its troubled development seem evident.
Fights, while innovative in design, are highly repetitive. Strategy is essentially dependent on how many attackers there are and whether any of them have guns. There's a lack of variety in circumstance, player abilities, and even combat animations. Skirmishes remain challenging throughout, but eventually lose their edge.
Climbing mechanics are problematic, too. The sole interesting innovation – the idea that climbing takes energy, and that you can eventually grow tired and fall – is counteracted by loose controls that makes it all too easy to accidentally move in directions you don't intend. There's also a frustrating need to press a button to haul yourself up onto a ledge rather than just press up. This seems a small problem until you repeatedly waste time (and stamina) by accidentally crawling left and right.
And then there's the general lack of polish. The greater world, though large in scope and impressively desolate, is often blurred by the dusty air and composed of little more than shadows – a shortcut, one assumes, employed by an art department on a tight budget. Subtitles and text bars are riddled with typographical and grammatical errors. And I encountered a pair of glitches that forced a restart, causing me to lose my checkpoint progress and jump back to the start of the chapter.
But the biggest disappointment is the story. We've been given a likeable, sympathetic hero and some compelling side characters, but little is done with them. And we're not provided a satisfying resolution. That might seem fitting given the game's setting, but Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road – which shares a similar vibe and many of the same dreary themes – proves that even the bleakest of stories can still offer a rewarding conclusion.
I Am Alive is a tantalizing but ultimately timid step into a largely uncharted realm that I wish more studios would have the courage to explore. It's a decidedly mature piece of interactive entertainment defined not by the sorts of weapons we wield or the number of enemies we kill, but instead the world we inhabit, the characters we meet, the decisions we make, and the emotions we feel. I'm grateful to have experienced it, but it's a shame that Ubisoft didn't allocate the resources necessary to expand it into a more complete, comprehensive experience.
I Am Alive
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Release date: March 7, 2012