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'I Am Alive' Review (PS3)

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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I Am Alive

I Am Alive

Image © Ubisoft
As I crossed a seemingly bottomless pit in a heavily damaged subway tunnel by climbing through the interior of a train car hanging over it with a child strapped to my back, "I Am Alive" really worked on my nerves. Most post-apocalyptic games focus on action over environment, but Ubisoft Shanghai take a different approach with this highly-anticipated downloadable title, a game that is more artistically successful than most of the on-disc games released this year, but you'll only find it on the PlayStation Network. Yet another indication that the gaming market is moving to a world of downloadable games (you must also play "Journey" and these must-owns), "I Am Alive" could one day be seen as a landmark title for future generations.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Ubisoft
  • Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
  • ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
  • Genre: Action Adventure
  • Pros: Strong sense of atmosphere, focus on dread over action, decisions that feel like they matter, striking visuals
  • Cons: Repetitive structure based on memorization, some under-developed concepts
"I Am Alive" starts twelve months after the apocalypse has wiped out most of the Earth's population. Buildings have been destroyed and, more importantly, looted. Supplies are few and far between and major sections of the city in which you find yourself have been overrun with enough dust that breathing just isn't possible. Pockets of machete- or gun-wielding hooligans litter the urban landscape, making travel even more difficult. And when you're not choosing between fleeing or fighting an enemy, you're struck by an encounter with an innocent victim clinging to life. Will you give up your painkillers to save a stranger, even with the virtual certainty that you'll need them before your quest is done? With no zombies, no aliens, and no magic powers, "I Am Alive" focuses on the one element inherent in its title -- your humanity.

Gameplay

I Am Alive

I Am Alive

Image © Ubisoft

The game is broken up into episodes that seamlessly flow from one into another, but it does offer save points, which become essential as your gameplay gets more difficult. At the start of each episode, you're given a certain number of retries. There are checkpoints along the way, but if you don't make it to the end of that episode (there are several ways that could happen, which we'll get into later), you must use a retry or go back to the start. Some of these episodes can be as long as 15 or 20 minutes and getting near the end only to run out of retries can be extremely frustrating. It's a game design that's meant to force you to focus on your decisions more than you would in most action experiences, but I don't think the concept is refined enough to call it successful. Instead of enhancing the storytelling, the limited retry structure most often leads to frustration.

How can you die in the world of "I Am Alive"? Believe it or not, most of the time, it won't come at the hands of an enemy but rather by your own failing stamina. The world of "I Am Alive" is one that has been decimated, leaving incomplete train tracks, shattered stairs, and abandoned vehicles everywhere. Getting around is not easy. For most of the game, you'll have to climb sides of buildings and shimmy down poles much like in the hit "Uncharted" series. However, your climbing ability is not unlimited. The bulk of the gameplay is built around planning and completing your climbs. See a ledge above you that you need to get to? Climb that pole, jump to that rubble, etc. And your stamina drops the entire time that you're not on two feet. It can be improved by items in your inventory, but it's mostly a timed challenge. Run out of stamina and you will fall.

You'll also run into people looking to take whatever supplies you may have found. Once again, decisions must be made. Sometimes even pulling your gun (which often only has one bullet in it) will get you killed. Sometimes you need to surprise your enemy. Sometimes you should just walk away. While I like the attempt at strategy, it often feels like only one decision will work.

Sadly, the emphasis on stamina and specific combat outcomes leads to the sense that a lot of "I Am Alive" is built around memorization. That way didn't work, I fell, and now I’ll try the other way. It's not unlike a maze. Reach a dead end and try again. Early in the game, the strong sense of atmosphere makes the memorization less frustrating, but I found myself hoping for more freedom as the game got more difficult. I didn't like the sense that I was just repeating myself until I got it right. It distracted from the realism of the title and reminded me I was playing a relatively simple game in terms of there being often only one path from point A to point B.

Graphics & Sound

The "one path to success" aspect of "I Am Alive" becomes more annoying because the presentation looks like a title that should offer more freedom of exploration. The game is very visually striking with the strong sense that danger awaits around every corner. The graphics here are more impressive than many of the on-disc games I've played this year. Sure, the horizons are often a bit indistinct and the character animations could have been stronger, but the shadows and light in this game make it one of the best-looking downloadable games available on the PSN.

Bottom Line

I Am Alive

I Am Alive

Image © Ubisoft
"I Am Alive" would perhaps be an easier game to criticize at a full purchase price on a disc, but, for $14.99 on the PlayStation Network, it's a no-brainer.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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