Throughout the decades, video games have had many different takes on Revelations. Some require fending off hordes of the undead. Others highlight a futuristic, technology-driven glance at Armageddon. Ubisoft Shanghai’s I Am Alive is bold and ambitious enough to approach world-wide devastation from a different angle.
I Am Alive romps through well-traversed territory. After an apocalyptic catastrophe known only as “The Event”, the world is in shambles as our protagonist sets off on a heartstring-tugging endeavor to find his wife and daughter. Plenty of stories across many mediums have focused on the end of the world, but few have done it as maturely and competently as I Am Alive.
When playing through I Am Alive, one can’t help but shake the feeling that it would be an accurate depiction of the state of affairs if the Earth just kind of fell into itself. Buildings are toppled over, yet still half erect. A toxic dust cloud covers most everything at ground level. Citizens are no longer civil; they’re either out to protect what’s theirs or part of a roving pack willing to kill for resources. The atmosphere and surroundings constantly project a sense of urgency that adds tremendous weight to every situation.
That is to say, I Am Alive is an incredibly tense game. A large chunk of the game will be spent climbing about the ruined city in an effort to arrive at the next locale or to acquire the next plot-advancing item. However, unlike most titles, I Am Alive features a stamina bar that turns climbing from a ho-hum activity to an intense, heart-pounding adventure. As our protagonist climbs along his route, the stamina bar continually decreases. Once it’s completely gone, hammering the right trigger will buy a bit more time to reach safety. Otherwise, it’s a plummet to the death. This system injects I Am Alive with constant short bursts of adrenaline designed to always keep the player on their toes.
While a large emphasis of I Am Alive is on climbing and exploration, the combat is a crucial aspect that cannot be overlooked. Combat is an interesting affair because it’s mostly cerebral. Usually faced with multiple attackers, fighting comes down to picking the correct order to dispose of them, not skill. It’d certainly be easy to simply shoot everyone, but bullets are at a premium. In fact, I rarely found myself with more than three bullets in my inventory at any given time. This leads to several situations whose outcomes are contingent upon quick-attack machete kills, bluffing, and ammo conservation. It’s truly a wonderful and inspiring departure from the fighting mechanics that we’re used to, but it can prove to grow a bit stale and predictable at times.
The heart of I Am Alive lies within the aesthetics. Emphasizing the bleak and desperate context, I Am Alive‘s world is draped in a monochromatic palette of several hues of gray with a bit of stunted color mixed in. However, when in safe and welcoming areas, the setting is often drenched in warm and full colors. Besides giving I Am Alive a visual uniqueness of sorts, it also subconsciously attempts to alter the player’s mood in accordance with the current situation.
Probably the most striking of I Am Alive‘s competencies are the enormous set pieces that our protagonist is tasked with either ascending or descending. The game has a penchant for taking unfortunate aftermath of destruction and turning it into critical junctures for crossing. For instance, one of the earlier chapters spotlights a long climb up the side of a skyscraper. Minutes after reaching the peak, we find ourselves in a long and dangerous slide down the other side of the very same skyscraper. These moments, while not necessarily few or far between, never fail to provide an extra dose of tension and excitement.
Not many titles are willing to forego the real life disconnect usually associated with video games, and place the player in the shoes of an ordinary Joe. However, that’s precisely what makes I Am Alive so engaging and enthralling. Being constantly vulnerable and barely equipped to handle any situation creates an increased air of importance and a character that’s incredibly relatable. To Ubisoft Shanghai’s credit, they’ve built a setting of pure death, destruction, and depression, and somehow managed to tell a story of hope and willpower. Even though the world is coming to an end, it feels as if it’s never been so alive.