Inventory: Two cans of food, one fruit cocktail, three pieces of burnt rat meat, one bottle of water, one piton, machete, bow with one arrow, and pistol with three bullets. This is the most prepared I have been in my experience with Ubisoft Shanghai’s post-apocalyptic survival game, I Am Alive. A year after a worldwide cataclysm, Adam Collins has walked cross country to his home city of Haventon. There he hopes to find some clue of his wife and daughter’s whereabouts. You take control of Adam and set out on one of the bleakest worlds I have ever seen in games. The experience is austere and intense. It is also one of the most remarkable games I have ever played.
Haventon is about as bleak as it gets. Skyscrapers have been ravaged by numerous earthquakes. Streets have been torn asunder or blocked off by abandoned cars. With all the debris, everything has been covered in dust. The world is washed out and palette-less. The environment is downright depressing. Moving two blocks down the road becomes an arduous task. Obstacles block nearly every street corner, so you’re forced to climb over the shattered remains of the world. Traveling on the streets can be just as perilous without the climbing. There is so much dust in the air that you can only spend a limited amount of time in the thick cloud before you begin losing health. A second cannot be wasted. A second must be wasted since the dust cloud prevents you from seeing past three feet in front of you. It is a terrifying and isolating experience being lost in the cloud. Running to your destination will only hurt your health and stamina more. You’re forced to take things slow and soak in all the dismay around you.
There is hope though. Adam stumbles across a little girl no older than six. The child, Mei, has gotten separated from her mother and needs help finding her. Mei becomes your guide through the game. She knows the destroyed city better than Adam did when it was a functioning part of civilization. She hangs on your back as you climb down broken bridges or go through the subway system. She’s a constant reminder that there is a small bit of hope in this world. I have no experience in being a parent, but Mei was voiced and animated so well that I would throw myself in front of anything to keep her alive. Whether it is her giggling when she finds a teddy bear, or her screams when you get into a fight with another survivor, Mei’s presence is a stark reminder of the deplorable acts you must commit to survive.
I Am Alive’s characters and combat had me dreading every encounter with a hostile person. Not because combat was difficult, but because they were human. My first few encounters with other survivors were a significant change from any typical game experience. Enemies feared their own death. An unloaded pistol can be a big enough threat to defuse most oncoming attackers. They will stop dead in their tracks at the sight of a gun being pointed at them. Pulling a gun out lets you lock onto enemies allowing you to strafe around them. Since bullets are such a precious commodity (having on average only one or two at a time), the locking on is incredibly useful. Any missed shot is a waste that could result in your death. Your typical encounter with aggressive survivors involves surprise attacking one with your machete, and then holding off the rest with your pistol. Strafing around the enemies and ordering them to keep back allows you to position them. This way you are able to dispatch them using the least amount of resources. Hesitate too long though, and they might determine that your gun is empty and rush in to kill you. There are a small variety of enemy types. There are those who don’t actually want to fight you. You can hear the fear in their voice. There are enemies with handguns themselves, or larger thugs who don kevlar and must be taken out with precise shots to unprotected areas. Eventually, you come across a bow and arrow. While it is nice to have a ranged weapon with ammunition that’s easy to replenish, the arrow draws out the foe’s death. They squirm and plead not to be left to die. Their words struck a chord with me every time I heard one break down and cry as they passed away. With each enemy fearing their own death, and Mei’s screaming as I fight them, I began to dread encounters because I felt remorse for those that I killed in order to keep myself alive.
Aggressive survivors aren’t the main enemy in I Am Alive. That would be the environment. The city of Haventon has been almost reduced entirely to rubble. The streets are littered with abandoned cars and barbed wire barricades that were set up during the initial cataclysm. Climbing paths are intricately designed into the structures. At first they are hardly noticeable apart from a ladder and some red rails, but by the end of the game you’ll easily be able to recognize the path you must traverse before you grab hold of the first railing. It is imperative to plan your climbing path before you start your ascent. Adam has a limited amount of stamina. This stamina is depleted whenever he runs, climbs, fights, or is stuck in the dust on the lower levels of the city. Simply resting on stable ground, or hanging from a piton while climbing will refill your stamina. Certain resources such as water or fruit cocktails will boost it as well, so you always have a saving grace should you take a wrong turn as you climb up the side of a toppled tower. Should your stamina fully deplete before you can reach a safe spot to rest Adam will continue climbing as you mash on the R trigger to stave off falling to your death. As you perform any arduous task, your stamina capacity will begin to drop. Before you know it, you will have reached a safe spot halfway to your destination, but only have half as much stamina than when you started. You’re forced to consume some of your precious resources to regain your full capacity. To put it simply: Stamina works as a timer. At full capacity, you have thirty seconds with which you can climb. Should you exceed that thirty seconds, you can carry on for an additional fifteen seconds at the cost of your overall capacity. The next time you start to climb, you’ll only have fifteen seconds. If you exert yourself past your capabilities, you’ll either fall to your death if you’re climbing, or begin to lose health if you’re stuck in the dust clouds. As stamina reduces, violins shrill. This makes simply walking through the dust an intense experience.
I Am Alive may have drawn inspiration from a great deal of sources, but as a game it is an experience like no other. The fear of killing another human being, and the satisfaction of giving a dying survivor their last cigarette before they shuffle off their mortal coil are powerful events that are often never even considered in games. Holding a man at gunpoint and kicking him into a fire isn’t something I thought I’d never do in a game. What was unexpected was the impact he had on me as he pleaded for his life. I Am Alive isn’t an action game. It isn’t survival horror. It is merely a survival game. Down to it’s very core it is all about survival. It raised many questions for me. If the apocalypse came tomorrow, how far would I be willing to go to survive? How far would I be willing to go to help the others around me? I Am Alive doesn’t try to scare you with cheap thrills. It is a depressing and shocking experience. It is a game that sticks with you. Everyone who died at your hands will stick with you, and every giggle Mei lets out is a treasure to be cherished.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox Live Arcade version of I Am Alive provided by Ubisoft. There are also plans to release I Am Alive on the Playstation Network.