Alone in the Dark
First posted on 11 June 2009. Last updated on 11 August 2009.
Infogrames' 1992 release of Alone in the Dark is among the first game titles in the survival horror genre and a likely influence for popular survival horror games of today such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Focusing on not only puzzles but also on combat, and inspired by a largely Lovecraftian plot, the game is an acclaimed success and considered by critics to be an instant classic. Since its release, the game has garnered 4 sequels, though none of them have attained the same acclaim or popularity as the original. Atari's 2008 release of Alone in the Dark is the fifth game in the series, though it is unclear what of this game really qualifies it to be a sequel. Aside from the title and the name of the protagonist, there is absolutely no link between this game and the classic Infogrames original. The Lovecraft Mythos is gone, replaced with angels and demons. The new Edward Carnby neither looks nor sounds like his pixelated predecessor (even though the game seems to claim that he is the same person), and the classic haunted house theme has been completely abandoned in this sequel. To its credit, the game tries to refine the already established survival horror genre to a new level. Alas, it works only partially. Despite the creative innovations, the clunky controls and atrocious story simply take too much away from what the game is otherwise able to deliver.
The story begins with you, Edward Carnby, waking up in a hotel in New York with amnesia and surrounded by armed men who waste no time dragging you up to the roof to kill you. Before they can pull this off, strange fissures in the wall appear and start snatching them. Soon, the dead rise up as zombies, and the entire hotel begins to collapse with Edward inside it. All these appear to revolve around an odd stone that he possesses and an ancient mystery that involves Central Park. Amidst the chaos, Edward is thrown together with an arbitrary love interest and attempts to piece together a puzzle that seems to involve even Lucifer himself!
The gameplay is where this loosely based sequel shows the most of its creativity. Rather than taking the typical survival horror approach of gradually handing you an arsenal, the game provides you with everyday objects that can be combined and utilized as weapons. For example, a bottle of alcohol can be combined with a rag and a lighter to create a Molotov cocktail; double sided tape can be used to attach a box of bullets to that cocktail to give it some extra bang. No rags? Toss the bottle at an enemy and shoot it with your gun to make it explode. Low on bullets? Use your lighter together with a can of bug spray as an improvised flamethrower. This style of weaponry also applies to your environment. All of your melee weapons are improvised, from wooden chairs behind a desk to samurai swords inside a museum display case. Healing is done by finding bandages and medical kits and applying them to yourself. The game does a great job of making you feel like you are making use of your surroundings to survive, as opposed to unrealistically carrying an arsenal in your pocket.
As innovative as this approach is, the end result is flawed. In an attempt at realism, the game provides you with a laughably small inventory space. After using up some of your precious inventory slots on essentials such as your lighter and bullet supply, there is so little room left that some items end up being ignored completely for lack of use. Why ever pick up rags for those Molotov cocktails when medical bandages work almost as well and have a dual purpose? Other items, such as double stick tapes and knives, have such limited use that there is simply never enough reason to carry them around. You can use a knife to cut open a car's gas line to refill your bottles of explosive liquid, but since there is always such a vast supply of alcohol filled bottles just lying around, what may otherwise be a clever use of the environment becomes completely unnecessary. Why limit the inventory space for the sake of realism in the same game where you can also supposedly pour alcohol on bullets to make your gun shoot flaming projectiles? It feels like you are unnecessarily restricted to working with only a handful of items rather than the wide array of items the game intends for you to use.
While the control in this game is not the worst I have seen in any action game, it is far from intuitive and leaves a lot of room for improvement. You have to bind a specific key to let go of a rope mid swing rather than just hit the jump key. (This is a more critical point than it may seem at first, as you will find dozens of opportunities to climb on ropes, cables, and fire hoses in the game.) Melee combat is confusing, with your character refusing to use the weapon until you use the mouse to pull it back for a swing. Driving is even worse, as the control is so poor that it borders on the ludicrous. Since the driving levels have no checkpoints, you must replay each of them from the beginning every time you fail them. Indeed, it is frustrating to get almost to the end of the level before hitting what looks to be a small rock and watching your car flip up into the air.
The game really tries to deliver an epic story and even employs a television style of narrative. Each chapter ends with credits before the next chapter begins with a recap. It is a bit odd, since most players will not need a recap of the previous chapters that they have likely just played moments before, but the attempt at television style drama and tension is clear. The events of the game follow the style of an action television show as well: hanging from a fire hose while debris from a crumbling building falls towards you, or jumping off a ramp with your car over a huge bottomless fissure. Dramatic revelations of your character's past even occur moments before the credits roll. Admittedly, this style of television storytelling is innovative for a video game. The problem is that, if this is indeed a television show, it likely will not air past the pilot episode! The voice acting is poor, in part because of the laughably bad dialog in the game. Cliché after cliché is used, a love story springs up out of absolutely nowhere, and a particular line spoken towards the end of this game can be heralded to be among the worst lines of dialog ever spoken in video games. There also seems to be no understanding of narrative flow. Towards the end of the game, where time is supposed to be tight, you are sent on an arbitrary quest to travel all over the park and destroy evil roots. Not only does this unnecessarily put the story on hold, the game tasks you to do the exact same quest in the very next chapter! In another scene, your love interest even calls you to say you need to hurry. A timer starts, you run to a nearby truck, and then, as the timer drops towards zero, she calls again. Seconds tick down while you are powerless to make your character to hang up the phone and start driving the car. Eventually, the action leads up to 2 confusing and open-ended endings that are based solely on a single choice you make at the very end of the game. These basic infractions of story flow are mere examples of how tiresome the game becomes over time.
It is no mere coincidence that most of the weapons in this game seem to deal with fire. This is because it leads to the singular, shining high point in the game's graphics: the superb and realistic fire effects. The flames rendered in the game are as mesmerizing and beautiful as those of a real fire. For example, you can shoot a locked wooden door with a flaming bullet and watch as the flame starts small, then spreads to the rest of the door, and finally causes the wood to slowly blacken and crumble. Other graphics are also well done. The characters' facial features, including lip-synching, are convincing, and the environments are top notch.
While Alone in the Dark has frustrated me far more than it has entertained me, I cannot help but admire the developer for trying to add to a genre that so rarely sees originality. It is clear that the developer has taken a risk to inject a fresh experience into the aging franchise. I only wish that the game would have been more than just a hackneyed cliché story with clunky controls, despite the creative combat. However, Alone in the Dark fails in both. There is enjoyable gaming experience to be had here, but I cannot help but feel that the game may otherwise turn out to be so much better than it is with just a little bit of tweaking. The game's ending hints at a sequel, and if Atari learns from this debacle, the next time you find yourself alone in the dark may truly be an incredible survival horror experience.