Never in my life have I been so conflicted about reviewing a game. Even though I have reviewed literally hundreds of games, I have never been as torn as I am right now. In some regards Alone in the Dark is a masterful accomplishment that should be noticed and honored. But at the exact same time it's one of the most broken and frustrating games I have ever experienced. It's neither the best game of the year nor is it the worst, but I'm finding it almost impossible to put my pure hatred for the game on paper.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Despite not having a number next it its name or a subtitle of some sort, Alone in the Dark is actually the fifth game in this long-running adventure/survival horror franchise. While never as popular as the games that came after it, Alone in the Dark had a hand in crafting such fright fests as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. With a huge budget, some sharp graphics and an intriguing storyline, it looked like Alone in the Dark was poised to reboot the franchise and introduce a whole new generation of gamers to Edward Carnby.
Despite its shortcomings, Alone in the Dark has one of the most exhilarating first acts of all time. Picture this; you just woke in a mysterious building with a bunch of monks holding you and some old guy hostage. Before long the building starts to come alive (so to speak) and horrible things start to happen to your captures. Free at least, Edward Carnby (who conveniently can't remember who he is or how he got here) is forced to escape this building before it crumbles to the ground. But don't look now; because your adventure doesn't end when you escape this evil building ... it's only the beginning.
The set-up's tension is only made more urgent when you realize that it's not just the building that is doing strange (and destructive) things ... it's all of Manhattan! Giant roots are starting to pop up out of the ground, buildings are collapsing all around your head and the whole city seems to be in utter chaos. As far as set-ups go, this is one of the most intriguing. With the game's amazing graphics and real sense of danger, Alone in the Dark managed to keep me captivated early on. I couldn't wait to see what was going on in New York City, who those monk characters were and where this adventure was going to lead me.
And herein lies the problem with the game, from this set-up you might think that I was having a great time. And you know, for the first hour or two I was having a lot of fun. But like so many things in life, once you get over the high tension and exciting danger, you start to see how the game starts to come apart at the seams. The things you start to forgive in the first couple hours end up coming back to you and haunting you, to the point where this game feels more like a chore to play through. And this is my conflict, for everything that it does extremely well, there is at least one thing that is does so poorly that it makes you not want to go on. But then, you've come this far, don't you want to see how it all ends?
Alone in the Dark was originally designed to be an episodic release ... and it shows. While the game fits together, it's clear that each episode tells a unique part of the story and almost always ends on some big cliffhanger. On top of that, players are even treated to end credits each and every time they complete one of the game's episodes. It's a shame that Atari wasn't able to fix some of the technical problems that plague this title, because the story is solid and there's a nice sense of pace to the game. If this had been done better it would have made for a memorable eight-part game.
For me the game starts to unravel at the end of the second episode, in a sequence that had me driving through the streets of Manhattan doing my best to avoid giant roots, falling buildings and flaming busses. In total this driving sequence is no more than four or five minutes, it's an extremely brief part of the game that looks cool and does a good job setting up the next episode. But for whatever reason this short five minute long sequence ended up taking me more than an hour to beat. It wasn't my driving that was the problem; instead it was the game's rampant glitches that ruined it for me, a few that actually made it impossible to complete the level. After going through it flawlessly a dozen times, I decided to do some investigating to see why I kept dying at the end. Come to find out that the problem wasn't my driving ... but rather the game not being able to load part of the level fast enough. I literally had to pause the game and wait for a few seconds to let the level fully load, or else I died.
Sadly this was just the start of my Alone in the Dark woes. Not only does the game suffer from a couple of game ending glitches and some freezing issues, but it also has a number of curious design decisions that take would could have been a memorable adventure game and turn it into one of the most frustrating video game experiences you can have. What should have been an exciting survival horror game with amazing graphics was quickly marred by some terrible controls, an unruly camera and characters I couldn't stand.
Let's start with the most obvious problem - the controls. I don't know if it's a game developer law or what, but must every survival horror-type game have the worst controls ever? It seems like ever since Resident Evil hit the scene good developers have fallen into the mindset that big scares come before good gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately Alone in the Dark comes up short of both, but with its interesting story I'm willing to forgive the lack of genuine scares.
What I can't forgive is the controls, especially now that we have more than a decade's worth of games that demonstrate how to control both a first and third person adventure game. At this point you wouldn't think that it's rocket science, you just point the character in the direction you want and he moves there. But alas, that's not what we have to put up with in Alone in the Dark. The game tries to be friendly, it allows you to change from the first and third person perspectives at almost any time (exceptions being action sequences, such as climbing ropes and whatnot). But for reasons that escape me, the two player perspectives actually use completely different control layouts. Worse yet, there are some things you can't do in the first person perspective, and vice versa.
For whatever reason, Alone in the Dark doesn't get either the first person or the third person perspectives right. When you're in the third person perspective your movements are often imprecise and unruly. Whereas, the first person perspective is too slow and sluggish, making it hard for you to actually do all of the things you would want to do in that perspective. And that's not even the worst part, if you prefer playing the game in the first person perspective (as I did) you'll quickly become annoyed by the amount of times you will have to switch back from the third person mode. Every time a cinema hits, or you get an important call or you interact with the background in any way, you will switch back to the third person perspective. Every single time. This isn't just an annoying little quirk you have to put up with, this is something that is extremely disorienting, especially when you're in the middle of a large battle of some sort. And not only will you be switched back to the default third person perspective, but you will also be pointing in the wrong direction. So I found myself having to run away, switch to the first person, look around to see where I was, pull out my weapon and then try and kick some butt. By the time I was done doing all that I had already been hit a couple of times and forced to use the medicine spray (which, surprise, takes you out of the first person perspective). Imagine doing this hundreds of times throughout the course of the game and you'll start to understand how frustrating this game can be.
And did I mention that the button layouts are needlessly confusing? Alone in the Dark wasn't one of those games where I stumbled with the controls for the first little while, even at the end of the game I was making life-ending mistakes because of the confusing controls. As I mentioned earlier, you have two sets of controls depending on whether you're in the first or third person perspective. But it's actually worse than that. Believe it or not, this game actually has four solid pages of control instructions in the manual. That may not seem like much, but it's about three times longer than even the most complicated first person shooter. The game gives you a different button layout for when you don't have anything in your hand, when you do have something in your hand, when you're driving, when you're throwing something, when you're on a rope, when you're shooting something, even when you're using a fire extinguisher. Performing even the simplest tasks (like combining items and throwing bottles) is made needlessly difficulty by this set up.
It's also worth mentioning that for the most par the weapons in this game are all but useless. You see, the bad guys (all bad guys) in Alone in the Dark can only be killed with fire. The good news is that there's fire everywhere (and if there isn't fire nearby, you can make it with your trusty lighter and bottles of gasoline). Early on the game wants you to beat the tar out of your enemies with whatever you see on the ground, such as boards and chairs. Once you've knocked the enemy out (which is no easy task, I might add), you are supposed to pick them up and drag them to the fire. If you don't do this fast enough they'll get back up and you'll have to repeat the entire process all over again. This task is only made more frustrating when a second (or lord forbid, a third) guy shows up. Thankfully you can combine your gasoline with your bullets to create fire bullets, but even that isn't enough to kill some of the characters you face in the second half of the game. I found myself spending most of my time just throwing bottles of gas at my enemies and then shooting them to watch them (everybody around it) explode. This works ... unless your gun is out of ammo, which you wouldn't know because it doesn't actually tell you how many bullets you have. Needless to say, the process of killing enemies is made much more difficult than it should be.
But let's say you can get past these problems. Let's say the story is captivating enough to keep you going through the first seven levels. Well the developers (Eden Games) have a surprise for you ... the single most tedious task of all time. Without spoiling too much, at a point late in the game you will need to drive around a virtual Central Park in order to track down a bunch of roots and burn them. On paper this sounds okay, but in practice this becomes a multi-hour task that requires all of the patience you have stored up in that head of yours (or wherever patience is stored up). It's as if the developers realized that they had spent so much time working on this recreation of Central Park that it would be a shame not to do something with it, so they made you run around (or drive around) and kill a bunch of roots. It goes without saying that this part of the game is absolutely no fun, it would be as if Rockstar Games made you find and kill all of the hidden pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV before you could beat the game.
And did I mention that you have to do this tedious mission TWICE! That's right, just when you thought you were done spending hours blowing up plants; you're back at it again ... only this time you have to do twice as many. I can only imagine that if this was still an episodic game most people would have completely ignored the eighth chapter all together, no matter how intriguing the story was. Toss in the freezing problem I mentioned earlier and these two root killing missions may just be enough to make you stop playing games altogether.
Now throughout this review you've noticed that I've spent a lot of time talking about how interesting the story is. Outside of the ludicrous endings (there are two, neither of which really bring any resolution to the story), the story itself is really pretty good. Unfortunately the cast of characters aren't quite as interesting. Edward Carnby isn't a likeable character, no matter how many snarky comments he says. While I'm all for profanity, Mr. Carnby takes cursing to a whole new level. It's as if the script writers were getting paid by the four-letter word. Toss in some forced sexual tension, some questionably voice acting and no character development and you have an episode of Alone in the Dark. Some of that I can get over (I'm not a stickler for voice acting), but did they have to make the main character such a jerk?
Oddly enough, the best part of this game is an option that allows you to completely skip big chunks of the game. I'm not joking, even the back of the box states that you will "never get stuck" because the game's "DVD-style chapter select lets everyone reach the game's climax." This isn't just something that lets you go back and relive the levels you've beaten; it's actually something that will allow you to skip ahead. Heck, you can go all the way to the end of the game if you want, even if you haven't beaten a single level yet. It's as if the game is daring you not to skip; daring you to play through all of the painfully tedious moments for a miniscule reward. This sort of extra makes me wonder if Eden Games already knows how bad parts of their game are.
On the presentation side the game really shines. The graphics are outstanding, especially when you're in the middle of a big action sequence. If you're just watching somebody drive through the cities or run through Central Park then you're going to be wowed at every turn. The game's graphics aren't always as consistent as they could be, but when they are good they are spectacular. The same goes with the music, especially when it goes into full opera mode. I can see the music fitting in perfectly with a primetime TV drama, which is certainly what they were going for in this game.
But killer graphics and a gorgeous soundtrack aren't enough to make this game worth playing. The story itself is captivating, but it won't take long before the game's confusing controls, floaty car physics and annoying characters start to bring the whole thing down. If they could have cleaned up a few of these issues this game would have been easily recommendable, but as long as the game has terrible gameplay and that tedious ending, it's extremely hard to recommend. When the game is at its best it's amazing ... however, when it's at its worst it's an absolute train wreck. For that reason I find myself unable to give it anything more than an average score. Some people may be able to work through the pain, but I'm not so sure the payoff is worth the effort.
Alone in the Dark could have been amazing. It could have been one of the best survival horror games since Resident Evil 4. It could have been a real showpiece for what the Xbox 360 could do. But instead it's marred by confusing controls, terrible gameplay, abysmal camera angles and, worst of all, a character I couldn't stand. Then again it does let you skip as far ahead as you want to without actually playing the game. That's something, right?