I never really cared for post-apocalyptic stuff. That stereotypical dystopia of derelict cities fighting off some zombie horde or devastating dust storm while people living in squalor… It all felt a bit too played out to me. Considering what’s happened in the past few years with us living through a global pandemic, I can’t say I’m really interested in playing too many things that hit a bit too close to reality like that.
That doesn’t mean I never play those kind of games. I’ve played stuff like Fallout 3 and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead which take place in dystopian worlds and yet still enjoyed them. But it’s definitely not something I actively seek out.
Yet, I decided to start 2023 by playing a game that took place in a post-apocalyptic world. One that was recommended to me as something interesting, but fairly clunky. And as you’re gonna learn, feels like the dollar store brand of something more notable.
I Am Alive – a title that while grammatically correct, still sounds weird to my ears – is a survival action game published by Ubisoft and developed by Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio. Released in March 2012 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and later the PC through Steam and
Uplay Ubisoft Connect; the game was one of those aforementioned post-apocalyptic games, coming out just as the survival action genre was starting to take off.
Originally announced as just Alive in 2008, I Am Alive was being developed at Darkworks, a French studio who had done other similar games, such as the interesting survival horror game Cold Fear and the mostly-forgotten Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare.
After an initial trailer showing a player surviving a catastrophic event in Chicago, Illinois, the game went dark, with only occasional news reports of the game still being alive (no pun intended). After countless delays, the game was rumored to be canceled until Ubisoft moved the development in-house around 2010, while also shifting the game’s focus from a major retail title to a smaller digital-only title. Darkworks shuttered its doors not long after.
Unless some Darkworks developer held on to some unfinished development code, this particular version of I Am Alive is presumably lost, with only some proof of concept trailers still available online.
Even after moving development to Ubisoft Shanghai, they opted to take Darkworks’ concept and start completely fresh, basically making a new game under the same name. Let’s see if they revived this concept, or if it should’ve stayed dead.
In I Am Alive, we’re introduced to the playable character, a boring, run-of-the-mill dude protagonist whose name is never mentioned at all during the game. For some reason, I thought his name was “Ethan,” but all the sources I checked have him unnamed, so he’ll be named Our Hero going forward.
After The Event – the nebulous term the game uses for the apocalyptic event that ravaged the country – Our Hero returns to Haverton, a fictitious New York-like locale. He goes to find his wife and daughter – who do have names unlike Mr. Unknown here – but after finding that they’re not home, Our Hero then gets wrapped up in a journey that involves reuniting other families, getting supplies, and taking advice from various strangers around Haverton to eventually escape out of this hellhole.
The tutorial level has Our Hero climbing on a bridge, which introduces us to the core movement and platforming mechanics. Our Hero has a stamina bar that drains whenever the player does anything action-heavy like climbing and sprinting. Running out of stamina will cause the player to start panicking, forcing a quick time event to rapidly climb to a safe area while shrinking the maximum stamina the player can have.
Both stamina and the stamina reserve can be refilled by items acquired in the world, which is critical if one uses up too much stamina to complete an area and suddenly has a lower stamina threshold. Our Hero can also use safety pitons while climbing to give the player a safe haven to catch their breath without needing to find somewhere to climb up, but this seemed unnecessary as the inventory system can be opened even while climbing. Still though, I can give them some credit for the idea even if it’s only useful a few times.
The movement controls in this game are similar to how they work in Assassin’s Creed games. Our Hero can jump, grab onto ledges, and climb up and down with the left/right mouse button (or LT/RT if you’re playing with a gamepad.)
However, this leads to an issue I often called the “Not that way, you idiot!” problem, where sometimes Our Hero will climb back to an area rather than moving forward, or constantly shimmy back and forth rather than going down the pipe right in front of them. This is something that plagued several of the Assassin’s Creed titles, and they’re just as annoying here. You think with several games about climbing under your belt that you’d make sure you’d refine the movement to be a little more fluid, but I guess if it ain’t broke…
Haverton is populated with locations to visit and folks to meet, some of which Our Hero meets by chance to progress. While this may give the illusion of Haverton being a free-roaming world with areas to visit, the game is a bit more linear than expected. Indeed, there were a handful of points where the game told me I was going the wrong way, which made me wonder why there was a world to roam around in the first place. A fair share of areas are mostly locked off until Our Hero does something to advance the plot or unlocks a new item, akin to a Metroid game.
While there’s folks the protagonist can meet, often times they’re just there to give stories nobody really remembers. Helping out can give Our Hero a retry – more on that in a bit – but that’s all they’re useful for. Sometimes they give you some tale about what happened during The Event but these people are so inconsequential that I swear they used the same models for enemies as they did for regular folks.
A fair share of the ground level outside Haverton is stuck with dust from The Event that makes it hard to see and slowly kills the player’s stamina if he stays in it. This slows down the pace of the game a bunch as there’s little time to explore, requiring the player to find higher ground to regenerate stamina before continuing. Eventually Our Hero finds a gas mask that slows down the process of losing stamina while in the dust, but I didn’t get it until I was really late in the game, where I didn’t really need it to explore at that point.
While Our Hero will be mostly climbing and walking, this is a survival game, and what’s a survival game without a bit of combat? Our Hero gets a machete early on to attack enemies. If the player gets spotted and can get an enemy close enough to them, he can do a quick kill with a simple button press. Otherwise he can get into a “Struggle Kill” quick time event to finish them off. This can be helpful, but when there’s many people this becomes impossible to do as the player can be broken out of the QTE if they take any damage.
This is where the firearms come in. Our Hero can pull out a pistol and threaten enemies to step back to move them into position to be kicked off a ledge, or make them surrender. Or if you have a bullet, you can shoot them to dispatch them instantly. Since bullets are incredibly scarce, it’s important to prioritize who to attack.
However, some enemies will also have guns, which makes them priority number one when tackling groups. This too can lead to issues as any enemy can grab the pistol off a downed foe unless you’re quick at the draw.
Though, the handgun is not the only weapon Our Hero gets to dispatch soldiers. He can get a bow to take out targets but doesn’t threaten foes like the handgun can. Finally, he can acquire a shotgun through helping out an unseen ally inside the dust cloud for a side quest. While you can scavenge arrows and handgun bullets around the world, the shotgun has one five-round tube magazine, as far as I could tell. I often saved them for the big armored dudes that start appearing later in the game.
By default the game will automatically aim towards the torso of the nearby target, of which one can quickly change targets with the mouse, and can press the Shift key to go to a more precision first-person mode to target specific parts of the body, which is which is critical to fighting certain foes later in the game.
Unfortunately this aiming system is incredibly clunky. Parts of my playthrough caused Our Hero to constantly switch targets as I was trying to either aim at a specific enemy or to shepherd the enemy onto a cliff. Doing this means enemies can easily lower their guard and attack you, taking you out of the aiming mode, which is incredibly disorienting.
Hell, It took me several tries to even figure out there was a precision aiming feature, which made certain fights with armored foes a pain until I realized this. I understand that this was also in the original console version, but here on PC it feels incredibly clunky and unnecessary. I’m playing this game on a traditional mouse and keyboard setup, I should just be able to aim anywhere like any other action game.
UPDATE: Seems I was wrong! According to Zaphero, there *is* a free aim mode that “increase difficulty” (sic) in the options menu. This gets rid of the target switching for a more conventional first-person aiming system. It makes it easier to fight in certain parts of the game, but some of the other things mentioned still apply here.
Finally, the game has an unusual checkpoint system. Losing all health results in using a “retry,” and the player can get more retries – which are video cameras, fitting with the found footage approach to the story – by helping out people in the world by giving them items or making progress in the story. Run out of retries and the player’s sent back to the last major checkpoint.
I can see what they were trying to do with this: Give a bit of weight to the player’s decisions by trying to make them think about how to engage certain areas, knowing that running out of retries may mean restarting whole sections of a level. That may work in theory, but it fails in execution, as it was more of an inconvenience more than anything. I never really was in danger unless I was frustrated by the game’s difficult combat sections. Even failing the climbing sections didn’t really penalize me that much.
And it’s not like restarting from the last major checkpoint is a major penalty: When I ran out of retries in one section, the last checkpoint was only a small bit ago, so the risk wasn’t really that big. I wonder if this holds more weight on the “Survivor” difficulty or had more purpose in earlier iterations of the game. Because it’s complicated and unnecessary here.
The worst part is how the only choice in enemy encounters in I Am Alive is evade or to attack. There’s no items the player can use to distract or incapacitate enemies like there would be in a conventional stealth game. While weapons like the bow can be helpful to take out foes from a distance, and there are some encounters where one can sneak around to quietly kill enemies, it’s not enough. Hell, several encounters are set up in which the only way out is fighting.
There isn’t even a way to make the enemies easily surrender unless they’re the only guy left and you’re aiming at them with the pistol. This basically means every combat encounter will play out the same way almost every time: Constantly die until you figure out the trick the game wants you to do, which often involves running around the area and killing everyone one at a time. You think from the people who brought us games like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell would’ve taken a few pages from that game just to give the player more options to approach a conflict that didn’t play out the same way each time.
You may have noticed this article has been more about the game mechanics than the story. Well, there isn’t a whole lot to mention: Our Hero meets up with Mei, a little girl who’s mother got captured. Eventually the two meet up with a guy named Henry – voiced by Elias “I Never Asked for This” Toufexis – and Our Hero saves Mei’s mom Linda at a hotel where other women are kept hostage, presumably for… rather nefarious deeds.
Eventually Our Hero gets in touch with other contacts outside Haverton and tries to get Linda, Mei and Henry out safely, while also trying to find his family. The final major area is mostly an action fest where Our Hero tries to fight off about a dozen foes at an abandoned carnival before finally getting to an escape vehicle. And then the game just ends there.
The campaign for I Am Alive is fairly short. According to the game, my total play time was 4 hours and 11 minutes on normal difficulty, not counting retries. And honestly, even for a digital title that normally went for $15, that seems woefully low. While you could replay it on higher difficulties, there’s little incentive to go back and replay it after beating it once. There’s no bonus ending or unlockables you can find, so this is definitely a one-and-done kind of game.
The game originally shipped with a multiplayer mode, but it seems to have been removed from the game in 2018, and I couldn’t easily find any footage of it, so I don’t even know what it would’ve entailed. A co-op mode, perhaps? Couldn’t have been just run of the mill PvP combat, this doesn’t seem to be the kind of game that would work with that. But I’ve played several games with pointless multiplayer, so I guess I’m glad they put the kibosh on it.
I went into I Am Alive with few expectations. A community I’m a part of had mentioned playing this before and sounded like they didn’t really remember anything special from it aside from the more obnoxious mechanics mentioned here. After finishing it for myself, this is a game that honestly should’ve just been canned rather than being released the way it was.
The combat’s not fun, the stamina mechanics are interesting yet unnecessary, certain mechanics seemed to make it feel less of a story and more of a game, and the story didn’t do a whole lot to keep me going. It just feels unfinished, even to the point where the ending leaves questions that go unanswered. Even after finishing the game once, I see little need to ever replay this game.
And since it was a cheapo digital title, there might’ve been some enjoyment here for some folks. But for me, I didn’t enjoy it that much. It’s a survival game that while has some neat ideas, but doesn’t execute on them very well. Granted, I Am Alive was probably a decent little time waster in the tail end of the seventh generation of gaming. But then another survival action game would come out the following year and basically eat this game’s lunch: The Last of Us.
A fair share of modern critics and Youtubers tend to call this game “Ubisoft’s Last of Us” — which is ironic, to say this game is a knockoff of a game that came out later — but I can totally see it. This is a game that probably had a more interesting idea but then just looked like it was ripping off its contemporaries instead. I don’t know if the Darkworks iteration of I Am Alive would’ve been amazing, but I bet it would’ve been better than the final product.
If you do want to play I Am Alive, it’s on Steam, still at the original $15 USD price tag. I bought it on a sale for $3, and that’s probably a better asking price. Even then, I see no need to play I Am Alive these days when better games exist that do this kind of thing better.
Speaking of Darkworks, I wonder how good Cold Fear is… Some of my friends spoke highly of that as well, but I hope they’re not yanking my chain this time.
This was available on Patreon a few days early. If you want to be able to see this before everyone else, please consider contributing to my Patreon. Only $1 will get you to see this and future articles before anyone else, no 1st aid kits or adrenalin syringes necessary. Check it out here.