Alone in the Dark Review
Earlier this year, we listed Alone in the Dark among our most anticipated games of 2008, simply because we loved the media and information we had seen at that point. Unfortunately, Atari delayed the PlayStation 3 version until later in the year, which meant we’d have to also delay our analysis of the promising survival/horror title. But even so, we’ve been able to examine the next-best thing- Alone in the Dark for the PS2. …and if this is any indication of what we’re going to get on the PS3 later, you can keep it to yourselves, Eden. Just don’t bother. A significant graphical upgrade might be nice, but it wouldn’t be able to save the game from atrocious controls and other significant drawbacks that make this particular adventure nigh-on unplayable. Sure, it’s currently available on the Xbox 360, but PS3 owners should know that owners of Microsoft’s console aren’t reveling in a creepy, involving, entertaining title. We assure you; they’re not doing anything of the sort. If they have this game, they're likely suffering.
Even for a PS2 game, Alone in the Dark’s visuals fall well short of expectations. Everything is fuzzy and out of focus, the detail leaves a whole lot to be desired, there are numerous technical issues (clipping, aliasing, etc.), and when you get up close and personal with your environment, you’ll often cringe. It’s not exactly a horrendous graphics presentation, per se, but it’s hardly what you want to see from a game that relies so heavily on atmospheric impact. There are a few good special effects tossed in here and there, but the herky-jerky cut-scenes and drab backdrops dominate much of the visual palette. Titles in this genre have always had a bit of a problem when it comes to color, just because the developers are usually limited to the darker and supposedly more forbidding colors (gray, brown, dark green, etc.). We accept that, but this particular survival/horror game is simply too dark and too bland, creating a setting that falls well shy of the intended goal. There are a few saving graces sprinkled throughout, but for the most part, everything just looks…blech.
The sound is by far and away the best part of Alone in the Dark, and while that’s good news for the score we assign to this category, it’s not really helping too much in terms of the ultimate conclusion. But let’s get positive for a minute: the sound effects and soundtrack are both solid, and although the voice acting is a bit erratic, several characters really shine. If the graphics were better, the combined visual and auditory effect of the background would be significant, but as is, the sound attempts to shoulder the load all by itself. And while it’s definitely good, it’s not quite up to the task; there are just too many other problems (we’ll get to those in a second). And besides, many of the effects seem to be “outliers,” as the unrealistic and surprisingly annoying sound of a fire extinguisher contrasts sharply with the deep, intimidating rumbling of a collapsing building. So it’s not all roses, but it’s a good bit better than the graphics, and certainly better than any one aspect of the gameplay. The soundtrack, which consists of a nice array of classically composed and fitting music, helps a great deal, too.
But even the best sound in the world couldn’t override the critical flaws found in the gameplay. Eden Studios clearly wanted to introduce a number of unique control mechanics, but every last one of them fails to be either fluid or accessible. We can’t even tell if the initial idea was a good one just because the end result is often so awfully implemented. For example, the first supposedly original part of the gameplay kicks off in the intro, where we have to keep blinking to focus our fading eyesight. We’re obviously hampered by some sort of affliction – we don’t know what it is at the time – and when listening to the open dialogue and then walking for the first time, you’re blinking away the apparent grogginess. But all you do is press the R3 button to clear your eyesight, which just continues to fade in exactly the same fashion, over and over. It was kinda cool for about 30 seconds, but it quickly lost any cache it may have had. But hey, at least that’s better than several other gameplay aspects that are never cool and almost instantly frustrating.
Furthermore, we’re often left guessing what it is we’re supposed to do. Sometimes, this led to us dying for no reason besides the fact that we were completely in the dark (pun intended) in regards to our next move. A controller will pop up at the top of the screen during the early intro sections, but even that didn’t always explain the situation very well, and multiple times afterwards, we just felt lost. You know, dazed and confused, but with no relation to the classic teen angst movie. Anyway, the basic control isn’t any better, as just about everything feels loose and unrefined. The simple act of moving about, regardless of whether you’re in third-person or first-person mode, is an exercise in tedium and frustration. Your character moves very quickly, but with the inability to fine-tune his movements with any accuracy, you’re always overshooting or over-compensating or over-something. The camera sure as heck isn’t helping, either; you might be able to control it to some extent, but you can’t stop it from sitting far too close to the main character and adopting some crazy angles.
Many times during hectic, intense action, the camera just left us blind, which is the single biggest flaw a camera can have in any game. You fight with the controls, you fight with the camera, you fight with the unknowing (what the heck am I supposed to do now?), and all this before you ever fight a single enemy. The silver lining is that the story isn’t too bad and what you’re battling is indeed quite creepy, just because it’s another form of “unknown” that actually works to make the game semi-enjoyable. But these encounters only work if you can master the bad camera long enough to survive, and if you’re not floundering about due to the obscenely loose movement control. But if you can somehow come to terms with the poorly instituted gameplay foundation, you may find it possible to become absorbed in the plot. At the very least, the pacing is decent and due to some well-voiced and even compelling characters, the player isn’t always complaining about the shortcomings. On the other hand, there’s a seemingly never-ending supply of those aforementioned shortcomings, so you’ll be irritated quite a bit.
It’s never good when you’re irritated more than entertained. Isn’t that the opposite of entertainment…? Alone in the Dark may be a good deal better on the Xbox 360, but only because Eden probably used the extra power to add another dash of authenticity to the surrounding environment. The gameplay itself is crucially flawed from front to back, and most players won’t be able to ignore the problems. This isn’t what we were hoping for when viewing the first bit of media, and it certainly won’t be good enough to compete with the likes of Resident Evil 5 and (we hope) Dead Space. We don’t want to battle terrible controls all day, and we certainly don’t want to attempt to fight the nasties while still battling the terrible mechanics. Nothing about this adventure seems professionally crafted, and it almost appears as if parts of the game never even went through regular ol’ QA testing. Just about anyone could’ve spotted the failures within the first hour of play time, but for some reason, Atari just figured it was good enough to package and ship.
Alone in the Dark is ambitious, but it trips, stumbles, and…well, breaks. It’s a bad PS2 game and we can’t imagine it would get that much better on the PS3. Sorry, guys.
7/17/2008 Ben Dutka