Before I get into the actual review of Alone in the Dark, let me take a brief moment to explain my rating system. Each game I will be reviewing is graded on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the highest and 1 the lowest. There are no scores between each number, so, for example, there is no 9.5 score. A 10 will be given to games that every gamer should play and that are nearly flawless (examples include Halo, Half-Life 2, and the classic Super Mario Bros.). Games that score either an 8 or a 9 are fantastic games that will appeal to a large audience. Games that score a 7 are good games that aren’t great, whereas games that score a 6 are above mediocre, but have some fairly minor problems that keep them from reaching their potential. Games that score a 5 are mediocre; these games are nothing special, but aren’t horrible, either. Any game that scores below a 5 should be avoided. Only the worst games will score a 1. Games that would score a 1 on my scale include E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 and Superman 64. Now that you, the reader, understand my ratings scale, I will begin the actual review of Alone in the Dark.
Alone in the Dark is a classic franchise that is credited for starting the survival/horror genre, which includes the Resident Evil series. Released in 1992 by Atari, Alone in the Dark followed the investigation of a murder inside a mysterious mansion by one of two playable characters, one of which was Edward Carnby. The game was revolutionary for its time, but the sequels released over the following 10 years, as well as the horrible Uwe Boll movie of 2005, tarnished the series’ legacy. However, in a desperate bid to save itself from bankruptcy, Atari has created another Alone in the Dark game, one set in a modern world and featuring a few revolutionary features.
Before I purchased this game, I had read many negative reviews on other gaming websites, including one particularly nasty one on IGN, which gave the game a horrible 3.5 out of 10. However, when I noticed the game on sale for $40 at a local video game retailer, my curiosity got the best of me, and I purchased the game. Now that I have finished it, I can say this; in many ways, Alone in the Dark really is as bad as the press has said. However, the game also features a few noteworthy elements that, combined, make it a passable, if unspectacular, gaming experience.
The game’s story once again follows series lead Edward Carnby. Waking in a room in a daze, Carnby learns that he has been beaten by a group of thugs for reasons he doesn’t understand. Carnby has a classic case of amnesia that prevents him from remembering who he is and what is going on. Also held captive by these thugs is another man, Theophile Paddington, who becomes essential in helping Carnby to understand why these men are after him. Due to strange circumstances within the building (which is located in New York, close to Central Park), Carnby escapes from his captors, meets up with Theophile and another person he doesn’t know, Sarah, and together they flee to Central Park looking for answers as to what is going on.
The story in Alone in the Dark isn’t exactly the deepest in video game history, but it features enough twists and turns to keep the player interested. Eventually, things such as why Carnby, who is 100 years old, still looks relatively young and what the stone he carries with him is for, are revealed, and the supposed mystery of Central Park is exposed. There are a few problems with the story; it’s sometimes clichéd, the beginning and end of the game are story-heavy while the rest isn’t, and the dialogue is awful, featuring more laugh-out-loud lines and random swear words than I’ve heard in a while. While it has its problems, the story is enough to keep the player interested until the rather abrupt conclusion.
The gameplay, however, will test the player’s resolve to see the end of the story. For every innovative feature, there is another frustrating element or glitch that stands in the way of enjoying the game fully. Fire has been touted as a key feature of the game, and it is indeed extremely impressive; it looks very convincing, and spreads quickly on any flammable surface that it touches. The game is set up in a very interesting manner, eschewing the movie-style presentation of most recent games in favor of a TV series’ episodic style. The player can skip to any episode or sequence besides the final two at any point in the game, and there is a recap of previous events before each episode, very similar to a TV series. These features work well, enabling the player to skip any frustrating sequences (of which there are many) while still keeping him/her informed of previous events.
The innovative inventory system, unfortunately, is less successful. Instead of relying on a complex menu system for keeping tabs on a player’s inventory, Alone in the Dark only allows the player to hold as many items as can fit inside Edward Carnby’s jacket. The player will always have such items as a gun (there is only one in the game), a flashlight, and a lighter, but key items such as health sprays, ammo boxes, and bottles take up space in the jacket, making the player consider whether picking up a new item is worth getting rid of a current one. In addition, items can be combined with one another, so for example, a lighter and a bottle of mosquito spray can be combined to form a flamethrower, while a handkerchief, roll of duct tape, and glass bottle can be combined to form a sticky Molotov cocktail. This all sounds well and good, but while Carnby is perusing items in his jacket, the game doesn’t pause, meaning Carnby will be continually attacked by enemies while looking through his inventory. Since enemies’ attacks cause the player to exit the inventory screen, this creates many frustrating moments where the player goes into the inventory, tries to combine items, gets attacked by a monster, tries to go back to the inventory screen, gets attacked by the monster again, and etc.
Another major problem with the game is it’s combat. There are only three enemy types in the game (excluding the occasional boss battle): humanz, ratz, and vampirz (no, I’m not making those up; the designers apparently got lazy and just stuck a z onto the end of each enemy type’s name). Enemies can only be killed by fire, which means things such as bullets have no effect. This means that each encounter is a source of frustration, as the player either tries frantically to find a wooden melee weapon (such as a chair) to light on fire and swing in the most awkward way imaginable with the right analog stick, or must navigate the clunky inventory, looking to combine items into deadly flaming weapons. Sprays and the lighter combine to make flamethrowers, while bottles and handkerchiefs combine to form Molotov cocktails. The most useful weapons against enemies, however, are flaming bullets, made by pouring liquid from a bottle onto bullets from the gun. This sounds okay in theory, but works horribly in practice. Enemies can only be shot in small, glowing fissures that run across their bodies, taking anywhere from 1-3 flaming bullets. These fissures are extremely difficult to hit because the lock-on targeting system is atrocious, often locking on to parts of an enemy that are invincible, and because of the poor hit detection-bullets will often pass right through enemies. Without being shot in these fissures, enemies can withstand a ton of flaming bullets, making this method the only way to effectively eradicate enemies, especially since other items are too scarce to be of much use.
Puzzles in the game range from boring (use a flaming chair to ignite a door) to obscure (use a tow truck to create a makeshift ramp for your car to drive over, despite never having any indication to do so) to broken (drive your car over a ramp that is almost impossible to get up). I strongly recommend using a walkthrough or strategy guide to help you get through the puzzles in this game, even if you’ve never used one before. There are a few driving sequences in which you drive a poorly handling vehicle through exciting, scripted action sequences. These are frustrating, but exciting nonetheless. The worst part of the game, however, comes near the end, where the player has to burn lots of tree roots around Central Park. This is completely random, has little explanation, and is an obvious attempt by the developers to pad the game’s otherwise short length.
Lastly, there are a huge number of glitches in the game. These range from bullets passing through enemies, to Carnby getting stuck on objects, to cars getting thrown into the air because they touched a small object, such as a park bench. For example, in the first major driving sequence of the game, I was driving through the streets of New York in a taxi. Suddenly, the car must make its way through a mall and out onto the streets again. While jumping out of a second story window, the street beneath my car didn’t load properly, causing the car to fall right through the missing section of road, killing all occupants. This happened to me numerous times, until I finally got lucky by hitting the nonexistent street nose first with the car, sending me hurtling 20 feet in the air and causing me to come down just as the street had finally finished loading. It was one of the most bizarre things I have ever experienced.
So, the gameplay’s a mixed bag of incredible innovation and frustrating elements. The graphics and sound follow suit. The environment, particularly Central Park, looks great. However, character models (particularly human ones) sometimes look awkward, and there are lots of low-res textures if you look at things closely. As I’ve mentioned before, the dialogue is atrocious, but the music is haunting and beautiful, even if it very rarely makes its presence felt throughout the game.
Overall, I’d give Alone in the Dark a mediocre score of 5 out of a possible 10. The game isn’t as bad as some press outlets would have you believe; it tries a lot of new things, even if they aren’t always successful, and the story gives you enough motivation to continue playing past all of the annoying gameplay elements and frustrating glitches. Many people will be turned off by the game’s many frustrating elements, while others will want to finish the game to see what is really going on in Central Park. My recommendation, if you’re interested in this game at all, is one of two things. Either you can rent the game, and play it for a week (just make sure to play through different sections of the game, not just the beginning, which is the best part of the game), or to wait like I did until you see the game on sale, although I’d recommend waiting until it hits $30 or less. It won’t redefine video games or even provide a consistently fun experience, but as a flawed experiment in innovation, it isn’t a terrible game.