I Am Alive was announced years ago, at an otherwise really irritating press conference at E3. Then it disappeared.
The original developer, DarkWorks, went into bankruptcy late last year, but not before handing the project off to Ubisoft Shanghai. They, in turn, turned the game into one of the largest downloadable titles on the market for some reason, clocking in at just under two gigabytes.
With all that in mind, I don't think anyone would be surprised if I Am Alive was a complete train wreck, but it isn't. It's an odd game with a few issues, but it's actually really entertaining and surprisingly gripping, which may qualify as some kind of miracle.
You play the role of the unnamed protagonist (or at least, if he has a name, it's never mentioned aloud), who was on a trip to the east coast of the United States when an unnamed apocalypse, simply called the Event, destroyed human civilization. A year later, he's returned to his hometown of Haventon, a fictional representation of what kind of looks like San Francisco, in search of his wife and daughter.
In that year, the city's become blanketed with gray ash, which drives people indoors and makes it difficult to breathe without protective equipment. The few survivors are holed up inside makeshift shelters with limited supplies, and many of them have banded together into roving gangs of bandits or descended into cannibalism. Your goal is to figure out what happened to the protagonist's wife and daughter, while surviving any way you can.
(By the way, I've had a few conversations lately with various people about the concept of "trigger warnings": letting people know that, if they're depressed or enraged or likely to suffer therapeutic setbacks by being exposed to fictional representations of sexual violence, they probably don't want to watch/read/play a given work. Consider this, that. There is a lot of implied, offscreen rape in this game, though always played as an act of malevolence that you're there to stop.)
I Am Alive will probably appeal to the same people who like the Assassin's Creed games, with their emphasis on sudden, violent attacks and parkour-style roaming. There are a lot of other influences on I Am Alive's sleeve, though; there's a lot of survival horror here, a little bit of first-person shooting, and it's quite reminiscent of an obscure PS2 game called Disaster Report, which was about escaping a city after an earthquake destroyed it. A lot of games like this, where they draw a lot of disparate features together, don't quite become a cohesive whole, but I Am Alive pulls it off.
You navigate Haventon mostly by climbing around, using whatever you can find as improvised handholds and scaling surfaces, with a very limited stamina meter determining how long you can keep moving vertically before you have to find somewhere to let your character rest. You can eat food, drink water, or plant a piton and relax for a second, but all of these things are limited, and I Am Alive has that early survival-horror tendency to give you exactly as many provisions as you may need, and no more. Every time you use an item, whatever it is, there's a very real chance that you may be screwing yourself over in the long run, and the music goes from inaudible ambience to a steadily insistent, frantic pitch as your stamina meter wears down. I Am Alive is very good at driving you into a mild state of paranoid panic.
When I think of the game now, it's mostly about the climbing, and I do want to emphasize that. There's a lot of picking your way through ruined subways, wrecked office buildings, and up the face of collapsed skyscrapers in this game, and the most memorable sequences are those where you're pointed at an objective that happens to be about eighty stories straight up.
There's a fair amount of combat and stealth in I Am Alive, but there's almost no fighting in the traditional sense. You start the game with an empty pistol, which you can use to bluff enemies with, and quickly acquire a machete. The game emphasizes surprise and sudden violence, as any fight that goes for more than ten seconds tends to go against you. When somebody approaches you, intending to mug or kill you, you have the option of waiting until they get close enough, then suddenly cutting their throats with your machete. You can also intimidate gang members by killing their leader, or bluff with your pistol until you can push an enemy into a fire or over a cliff.
Bullets, and when you find a hunting bow much later on, arrows, are in extremely short supply and it's rare that you have more than one. Suitably, when you do shoot somebody with them, it's a one-hit kill, justifying their rarity. They become a bit more common in the endgame, as you begin to encounter better-armed opponents, and that's when I Am Alive takes a hard right turn into a stealth game that it doesn't quite pull off.
It's not as bad as some about this (I'm thinking rather specifically of that horrible stealth mission near the end of Indigo Prophecy, and I'm sure you've got one in mind), but it marks a shift from combat being a series of bluffs leading up to five seconds of extreme violence to multiple acts of premeditated homicide, and it loses something in the exchange. The endgame is almost entirely combat, as you wipe out multiple street gangs that happen to be in your way, and it's like you fell into an entirely different game out of nowhere. It's probably the single biggest misstep I Am Alive takes.
This is a surprisingly risky game, which deals with a lot of uncomfortable subject matter. It reminds me of a lot of the games that came out in the middle of the Dreamcast's lifespan, where you could go ahead and release whatever you liked and Sega would probably approve it, because why the hell not. It's exactly the kind of thing I like to see in the online marketplace, and I'm glad I finally got the chance to play it. It's dark, frightening, intense, and often very satisfying.
This review is based on a redemption code for the Xbox Live Arcade release of I Am Alive provided by Ubisoft.