Review: Alone in the Dark
Ghostbusters without the gags.
For a series with practically no pedigree, the Alone in the Dark name still carries a bit of weight in survival horror circles. It may give itself a little too much credit for inspiring Resident Evil, but I guess, like Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis, it did open the gateway for bigger, scarier things as well as tide of survival horror shovelware.
There is definitely a line between the premier titles in the genre (Resi 4, Eternal Darkness, Silent Hill) and the also-rans (Jericho, The Darkness, Condemned). Some games make the grade, usually because they combine great production values with clever writing and decent scares, but other ones tend to be happy with average looks, poor voice acting, clumsy gameplay and stories likely to put you to sleep rather than keep you up all night.
So when Alone in the Dark turned up with no review copies sent out, it certainly looked like it was going to fall the wrong side of that particular divide. Initial impressions of the game wereâ€¦ hmmmâ€¦. not particularly great. Rumours of poor graphics and horrific controls didn’t seem that off the mark but a series that is sixteen years old must have learned a few tricks in the storytelling department. So let’s look at that before we wrestle with the game itself.
Alone in the Dark puts you in the familiar shoes of Edward Carnby, the paranormal investigator at the centre of the previous four games in the series. Instead of being the dapper chappy from the early titles he’s now a moody, petulant Private Eye type of fella with a similar attitude and pottymouthed dialogue to Tommy from Prey.
The game opens with you looking through Carnby’s bleary eyes (indeed you have to manually blink) as he meets the principle characters in the game and is led to his execution in similar, but far less dramatic, manner as COD4’s infamous sequence.
After surviving that, Carnby spends the first levels of the game fighting his way out of the building you start in and into Central Park where most of the game takes place. These opening scenes introduce you to the skills and techniques you’ll need to survive the game’s tough later levels whilst showing off the game’s physics engine.
From fairly early on, the game thrives on epic set pieces with the escape from the starting building and an early car chase proving to be great sources of eye candy and all in all the game looks pretty reasonable all the time with decent lighting effects and fairly well-realised enemies and backdrops. It’s nothing special most of the time and then, out of the blue, something massive will come flying at you or will be destroyed and you can’t help but be a little impressed.
Voice acting is, more or less, the usual standard. Not bad, although the dialogue can get a tad corny at times but it doesn’t pull out of your suspended disbelief. The music score is particularly grandiose, especially during any particularly spectacular scenes. Like any good survival horror game, music is key to the whole thing. A selection of demonic growls and whispers completes the audio particularly nicely as well.
This game is a funny one for me. I pretty much decided a few weeks before release that I really wanted it â€“ I hadn’t really been following it, nor had I played past games in the series. I’m not too sure why I wanted it, I think I just liked the cut of its jib. Of course the smoking special edition box set helped somewhat.
Ok I wanted to take my time with this game but that doesn’t really work when you have a deadline, but actually one of the biggest annoyances helped me out â€“ the DVD style scene selection allowed me to jump about sampling what the game had to offer â€“ not completing chapters but getting a good feel o the game. At times during play I got some really good old school vibes, like the unforgiving (but enjoyable) driving sequence, or how at times the game doesn’t hand hold you as much as other games.
Praises? I like the characters and voice acting (but your character definitely sounds a bit dodgy), good use of darkness, some good puzzles (not portal levels of lateral thinking, but I liked them), story is good enough for you to not really know what’s going on (much like the amnesiac Mr. Carnby) but still keeping you playing to find out what’s happening next. Scripted scenes are fun (although some can be a bit frustrating). Music is very good. Overall good ambience that I did find quite spooky at times.
Annoyances? The scene selection seems pretty pointless. The liberal scatterings of items everywhere upsets my OCD (I don’t like leaving stuff behind). Although you can aim accurately in first person mode, I’d have loved an over the shoulder aiming mode also. I never saw the big deal of the â€œright stickâ€ melee combat, but it worked fine.
All in all I can understand why other reviewers haven’t been fully praising this one (still there’s some not bad scores) but for me, there was just something which I hadn’t seen for a while. A good thing. A certain je ne sais quoi. If you’re after an adventure game that is remarkably dip in – dip out I would strongly recommend AitD.
Secondary Score: 8/10
The game offers a decent story and presents it quite well. Every time you reload the game you get a US television-style ‘previously on Alone in the Dark’ summary, which is a nice touch and just adds to the impression that the storywriters actually gave a damn about this game. I won’t go into the ins and outs of the story except to say that, like the last Alone in the Dark game, it sees Edward Carnby running around in modern times despite the first three games being set in the 1920s whilst battling the forces of evil. Big, bad-ass forces of evil at that.
Now, you may have heard about this game having shockingly bad controls. They are a struggle at times but worth persisting with as they aren’t as bad as you may have heard. They are quintessentially old-school survival horror third-person controls with the option to switch to straightforward first-person when you need to. There is a learning curve to it, which they unfortunately wrap up in a difficult-to-navigate first level but if you can get past all that and into Central Park you probably won’t have too many more control issues.
On the plus side, the controls are actually quite novel at times, especially during combat where you can pick up objects and swing them, using the right stick, freely as weapons. In fact, the combat in this game is excellent and goes a long way to saving this game from a drubbing. Aside from swinging objects (fire extinguishers, axes, chairs, rakes) at your demonic foes or unloading your magnum into them, your best weapon against them is fire.
The game’s excellent, if cumbersome, inventory system lets you combine items in order to maximise their effectiveness. For example, a bottle of whiskey can be combined poured onto bullets to make them ignite or you could stuff a bandage into it, tape on an emergency flare or a box of ammo, light it and then throw it at the enemy. Or, if time is against you just shoot the bottle mid-flight.
Due to the game’s physics engine you could even batter an enemy with a chair and then roll them into the nearest fire, or light the chair and hit them with that. Or how about combining your lighter with a first aid spray and making yourself a crude flamethrower. All these options are yours.
Despite the niggles and possibly the most frustrating of driving sequences ever (think GTA4-style handling combined with a road that wants to eat you whilst having cars, buildings and buses thrown at you whilst having no clue where to goâ€¦ HNGGG!), I’ve found myself really enjoying this game. Maybe not a great candidate for your forty quid, but in a few months this’ll no doubt be half the price and that’s the time to pick it up.
But be warned, this is for patient gamers only. If you’re the sort who likes to take a punt on a less-celebrated title, you’ll find plenty to like here but it’s no Resi 4 and won’t fill a niche between FPS sessions. However, as the score below shows, it’s a strong, above-average title and one that’s a whisker away from making an eight out of ten.