There's a book by Cormac McCarthy entitled "The Road". It's a sombre story about a man and his young son, travelling through a post-apocalyptic world and observing first-hand the kind of toll a mysterious event has taken on humanity, or at least what's left of it.
Besides the more tangible evidence of grey, desolate lands and dilapidated buildings, the humans that have survived the event have become tainted with fear, which sometimes turns into a hostile, defensive response for the sake of survival. They experience harrowing encounters that prove just how far people have fallen in their state of desperation. Cannibalism, theft, and a downright disrespect of human rights and dignity are themes that run rampant in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Ubisoft's survival platformer that releases tomorrow on Xbox Live Arcade, I Am Alive, tells an almost identical tale. An unnamed man travels to the fictional city of Haventon in a seemingly hopeless search for his wife and daughter. He searches their home first — now fairly empty and broken — to no avail, and is forced to almost aimlessly wander through a haze of thick dust for clues on their whereabouts. Playing as this stranger, you'll have to be mindful of travelling too low to the ground, as the dust build-up puts a strain on your stamina.
Stamina maintenance is key to playing I Am Alive. As you platform your way through each chapter, climbing up the rusting metal structures of old billboards and bridges, your stamina begins to drain. But pushing forward to keep on a higher level is important to stave off stamina depletion while walking through the dust clouds. Keeping a mindful eye on your stamina emphasises just how dire the situation is while trekking through this collapsing city.
Of the risks you face in this changed Haventon, perhaps the most common and deadly one is the people you encounter. While meeting people is typically a reprieve from the demons and other creatures you see in many survival games, I Am Alive never really gives you that chance. These encounters are hit or miss. Some are merely wounded and looking for help, or for a bottle of wine — because who wouldn't need a drink after going through the apocalyptic "Event" — but others resort to thievery and violence for their own gain.
Armed with a pistol and rarely more than a bullet in the chamber, many of these more unfriendly Haventon inhabitants will back down when you point a gun to their head. But others are more daring, perhaps feeling more confident when they're backed by a few other goons with machetes. Once you find the bow and arrow in I Am Alive, your fighting strategy evolves. At all times you hope to conserve ammunition, as refills are scant on the desolate streets and subway tunnels you'll traverse. In the face of danger, you may just have to pull that trigger, even if it's a regretful decision.
Fortunately, arrows are reusable. When you see a group of enemies, you'll know that at least one of them has a pistol of his own, and will approach you confidently and aggressively. He's not scared by the threat of your gun, so tackle this deviant first. Keeping the others at bay with a pistol aimed squarely at their nose will allow you to grab the arrow from the corpse of the first victim for reuse. Rinse, repeat until all enemies are wasted, and you stay alive with flawless victory.
Weapon-switching feels clumsy, though, and your enemies might misinterpret the split-second lag as indecisiveness. This will prompt them to switch back to offence. Targeting can also be fickle and unresponsive. Auto-aim hinders your ability to quickly switch between opponents once you've decided to pull that left trigger to hold your gun (or bow) up. These drawbacks force you to make quick decisions while on your feet. What felt like a mechanical flaw ended up contributing to the high intensity of the story. Whether that's intentional or not is another discussion.
I Am Alive is a test of survival, but you can choose whether you want to be ruthless in your pursuit of it. When you meet helpless survivors, you can do what the new formation of gangs do and steal their resources. Although that's not the most heroic route, it's definitely a foreseeable last option for people willing to abandon their moral compass in favour of survival. Personally, I never felt pressured enough to resort to that. In fact, I went so far as to give first aid kits and dehydration salts to the survivors I met, if not out of an act of kindness then at least to earn a retry and a story told to me by the survivor in question. Helping survivors helps your understanding of the Event, and gives you further insight into where your family might be holed up. None of the information I unearthed from these poor souls was ever too pressing or informative, but I only managed to rescue about half of the lost survivors the game tells me are accessible.
Checkpoints are more of a luxury than a staple in I Am Alive. Yet another resource to conserve, retries let you revert to a checkpoint when you fall to your death, misjudge threats, or run out of stamina. Ubisoft has constructed a universe that makes you feel alone, almost helpless, knowing that every move and decision you make is a step toward your goal, but also at a cost of your very limited resources.
Interactions with these survivors are only ever a few sentences' worth. Their stories are not fleshed out, and the survivors often won't even reflect a substantial acknowledgement of your treatment of them. Some would still lay groaning in pain on the floor after being offered bandages. Others would bogglingly still sit in a seat even after they were unchained from it.
It's certainly exciting to meet new people in I Am Alive, even if most of them aren't friendly. But when the game inadvertently unmasks that illusion, reminding you that they're all just robots, it's hard to care about what they have to say.
Fortunately you'll soon meet Mei, a small and frightened girl, after a gang of men try to harass her. Helping Mei find her friend, Henry, opens the storyline to new quests and story arcs. You learn that Mei's mother has disappeared, and she's likely been taken hostage by gang members. These three will reveal more of the storyline to you, but most of your interaction with them involves taking and carrying out orders. They're never too concerned about your wife and daughter. Although your main quest was always to find your family, it feels that the unnamed protagonist is forced to temporarily lose sight of that to help this group of people first. Their concerns become his concerns, and you never get to pursue that part of the storyline that seemed to be the focus of the game.
It may seem like you're up against insurmountable odds without any help. One bullet at a time? One arrow? Bottles of water that refresh your stamina and the occasional rat meat that replenishes a decent amount of your health? The city may be fairly depleted, but there are still treasures you can find. A gas mask helps maximise the amount of time you can endure the debris-filled air on street level. Pitons allow you to spontaneously create a resting place while scaling particularly tall buildings. A grapple lets you swing to new ledges that just might procure a few extra bullets (but of course that almost always means you'll soon be facing multiple enemies, and the somewhat predictable level design).
I Am Alive never treads too closely to the absurd and horrifying results of the apocalypse in McCarthy's "The Road," but interacting with people who have become mentally crippled because of the Event is an interesting, dangerous journey of its own.