Alone in the Dark: Inferno Review
Last year, survival/horror fans everywhere anxiously awaited the launch of Eden and Atari’s Alone in the Dark, as acquired preview information indicated a potentially solid and freakishly entertaining experience that would tide us over until Resident Evil 5 (or, little did we know at the time, Dead Space). Unfortunately, the game ran into serious issues: the PlayStation 3 version was delayed until fall, the 360 version was nothing more than mediocre, and the PS2 version was downright awful. The only saving grace of the situation was that Eden promised a completely overhauled adventure for PS3 owners, thereby turning the discouraging delay into an encouraging wait for a superior version. Thankfully, after playing the freshly named Alone in the Dark: Inferno, we have learned that it is indeed the superior version…even if it’s not necessarily worth the price of admission. For fans of the genre, though, this revamped production may prove to be a satisfying adventure.
Obviously, the clearest evidence of this upgrade lies in the graphics. This visual presentation features plenty of detail and solid design, and the characters appear more refined and polished than they were in the 360 version. There’s no comparison to the PS2 version, so we won’t waste your time with that; let’s just say it’s a whole different universe. As is usually the case with titles in this genre, there’s always a whole lot of darkness so it can be difficult to sit back and conduct a complete analysis of the graphics. But with the exception of a few inconsistencies and tiny glitches that aren’t really worth mentioning, this is a surprisingly pretty and even accomplished production. If Eden had managed to provide us with this early last year, they would’ve been more impressive; we’ve seen the industry make more visual strides since then (things happen fast in gaming, you know). Enemy artistry is decent – even if many of them are merely altered humans – and the explosive effects, while not quite as appealing and one would’ve hoped, certainly serve to enhance the experience.
The sound falls well shy of new expectations, as the decent voice acting and some enjoyable special effects have to override the lackluster gameplay effects. The latter are extremely erratic; certain aspects of your adventure will never even be heard. For instance, at one point, you have to leap at a cable in order to cause a piece of broken cement to rise on the other side. There’s a short cut-scene once you’ve leapt to the cable, in which you hear absolutely nothing. Furthermore, when engaged in mortal combat with the nasties that infest New York City, we’re left wanting in regards to appropriate impact, whether you’re attacking with a chair or using a firearm. The soundtrack isn’t too great, either. It kicks up a notch when things get extraordinarily intense and the suspenseful music fits the atmosphere, but it’s never quite up to the challenge. In order to create a completely effective survival/horror setting, one must have convincing visuals and music that continually adapts and sets the tone. Inferno does some of this, but not all.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the original iteration last year was the lack of stable control. There were all sorts of problems, ranging from incomprehensible tutorials, bizarre button-mapping decisions, and a general lack of smoothness and solidity. Perhaps the best way to describe them is that they were just “too all over the place.” Therefore, when starting Inferno, with the crippling control and gameplay problems from the previous versions sitting in the back of our mind, we immediately checked to see if Eden had fixed it. It didn’t take long to realize they had indeed made the appropriate adjustments, but they just didn’t take the next step and polish the gameplay to the point where a player would simply slip into the adventure without thinking about the control. This is what great games do: they make us forget we’re controlling a fake character on a video screen. Once we get a feel for the controls, they don’t let us down and they’re implemented in a sensible, accessible way. And while we weren’t saying, “damn, this is terrible,” we were still saying, “yeah, this is a lot better…but…”
But let’s talk about the good stuff first. The tutorials finally make sense and the controls have been streamlined a bit. The first example of this improvement came during the introductory sequence when our character had to descend on a cable inside a building that’s falling apart. We remember playing the PS2 version and completely failing to understand how to perform the necessary actions. This time, things worked out just fine (despite a small hiccup at the end where the last tutorial command came very late), and that was most encouraging. It helped to make up for the slight disappointment we felt when first gaining control of our character; you can choose between first-person and third-person view, which is a fantastic idea, but only if the developer can make both views work equally well. In this case, you move too quickly and erratically when in first-person view, and besides, it just feels strange to be playing a game like this with that camera angle. The third-person view works out just fine, even if it’s nowhere near as tight as it should’ve been. And if you enjoy a first-person look, you’ll still use this for aiming weapons (and fire extinguishers).
The good news? Eden gives us some really nice ideas that we hope to see in other games. For example, you won’t open up a generic screen when you go to search through your personal inventory; you will actually look down into your coat and belt to examine what you’re carrying. It’s a simple idea, and it’s surprising nobody thought of this before. Also, instead of merely selecting a healing item and having it magically take care of business; your hand with the first aid spray actually hovers over the wound in question, thus allowing you to target the afflicted area. Finally, there’s more in the way of platforming than in your standard survival/horror title, as you will be shimmying along edges, leaping over chasms, and swinging along cables. This all works relatively well, and Eden tosses in plenty of visual assists to ramp up the intensity and atmosphere; hanging from a ledge while pieces of a crumbling building are hurtling by you is pretty damn cool. Oh, and you’ll even be able to leap into vehicles – sometimes, you’ll have to cross the wires to start it – so there’s a lot more gameplay elements than you might not have anticipated.
Perhaps the biggest addition here, and a valid explanation as to why “Inferno” is in the new title, is the role fire plays in your adventure. This time, you can use fire in a number of different ways: you can use it to light pieces of furniture to use as a torch, you can light up Molotov cocktails, and you’ll even need it to finish off enemies for good. Fire can be both your worst enemy and best friend, which is an enticing concept. Sadly, it’s not always so easy to use. This stems from a lack of gameplay and battle balance that remains the single biggest drawback of the game, and will likely cause some frustrated grimaces. Shooting with a weapon is okay (even though we didn’t like the idea of pressing Triangle to aim), but trying to whack enemies with objects like chairs is just plain annoying. You have to push the right analog stick right or left to prepare your strike, than push the stick back in the other direction to deliver the blow. This just doesn’t work anywhere near as well as a normal mechanic would’ve, and we can’t understand its purpose. We tolerated bashing through certain barriers by pulling back and pushing forward on the right analog, but in combat…? No. Just…no.
Alone in the Dark: Inferno is indeed the best AitD version available, although it’s difficult to say if it was worth the long wait for PS3 owners. If it weren’t for Dead Space, Atari’s game might be more appealing, but this renovation just feels a little incomplete. They did manage to tweak the controls, add in a bunch of appreciated little features, streamline and smooth out the core gameplay, and strengthen the foundation for the entire production. However, everything still feels too loose; the platforming and vehicle use is entertaining but still a little unstable, the idea of striking with the right analog stick is silly, the sound effects and voice acting don’t always deliver, and the storyline isn’t quite as engaging as we would’ve hoped. Inferno is now decent – yay! – but it still falls short of the intended goal.
3/9/2009 Ben Dutka