Eden’s Alone In The Dark attempts brave things, failing in some, and not coming across as a very successful videogame, but an interesting, laudable effort it is.
If you decide to delve into it, pack a lot of patience. It can be extremely frustrating, even while it entertains you. I haven’t been this mad at a game in some time, mostly because you appreciate completely what they were reaching for.
Case in point: in the beginning of the game there’s a car chase of sorts through the streets of a crumbling, apocalyptic New York. Visually, it’s awesome, full of great “wow” moments. The problem is, the car’s handling isn’t quite acceptable and one mistake – a moment of hesitation, a wrong turn, a collision with one of the dynamic objects or other cars, a wheel stuck in a crack in the road – and you’re out, forced to replay the section from the beginning. And it’s long, too. I had a dozen goes before succeeding.
But you keep on trying, because Alone In The Dark does a lot of things right. It makes an effort to keep the player inside the game’s world at all times, with an inventory and health system that keeps you immersed. When you find a locked door, you look for something heavy to bash it in with – no hunting for keys when monsters are after you. And by “something” I mean just that: a lamp post, a gas tank, a chair, whatever’s at hand. When a monster is lunging at you, you grab on to anything solid you can find to defend yourself with – a 2×4, a frying pan, a chair (I demolished a lot of chairs last night). Just about all of the puzzles are based on physics – electricity, water, fire, balance – and the solutions are more or less free-form. It’s convincing, believable stuff, perfect for the survival horror the game is conveying.
This focus on physics ranges into the protagonist’s movement. You can freely position an item you’re holding, allowing you to move electric cables, set fires and so on, but the same system is used for melee combat, as well: you simply move an item back and forth to hit things. In theory, this is a good system, but in practice I spent some five minutes trying to hit a car window I was standing next to with a fire extinguisher. The focus on physics also means that the protagonist moves about in a very clumsy, jerky manner.
Inventory management can be a pain, though, immersive as it is. Your inventory is the insides of your jacket. It only holds a small amount of items. The great thing is, you can combine mundane stuff to make new items (mostly weapons). That roll of double-sided tape finds a lot of applications. I got all McGyver-ey with it.
The visuals range from breathtaking (the city views, fire) to very poor (many characters, animation). Character faces are not convincing at all, reminding me of the time console game developers discovered bump mapping, and the monster designs thus far leave a lot to be desired. The writing hasn’t gripped me at all – I’m around three hours in – and the dialogue, which comes without subtitles, tries very hard to be realistic in its swearing and unsubtlety, but comes across as throwaway.
I died maybe around fifty times last night. Considering the game’s frustrating qualities, it’s great that they’ve made it possible to skip a scene or two whenever you like, but I find that I can’t bring myself to use the feature. It’s not a pride thing, it’s the need to know what, exactly, happens between moment A and moment B. The hints should come faster, as well, I spent many a frustrated minute walking in circles. Sometimes the signposting in the surroundings is great, clearly communicating what the developers want you to do, but many times important items are completely lost in the background.
All told, Alone In The Dark does a lot of good for the survival horror genre and one can but hope that later games take notice. Resident Evil 4 focused on just utilising the environment in a more convincing manner and was a revelation with just that feature – Alone In The Dark attempts to do the same to the whole game world and everything in it, falling rather short of the target, but being all the more intriguing for it. One can hope that the PlayStation 3 version, released later this year, manages to fix some of the issues.