The Second Time's the Charm
HIGH Pushes the edges of design further than most in recent memory.
LOW This game might have been a blockbuster if it hadn't bungled its initial release.
WTF As much as I loved it, adding alcohol to bullets really makes no sense.
In the world of advertising, it's often said that bad press is better than no press at all. In the world of video games, and specifically in the case of Alone in the Dark, I'd say that statement isn't even remotely close to being true.
Eden Studios's take on the Alone in the Dark franchise was released on the Xbox 360 in June, 2008 after much anticipation. The developers had been quite vocal about attempting to revitalize the survival horror franchise, and also about incorporating fire and physics in significant ways. Although it's not quite clear whether that release was the result of publishers rushing a product to shelves or whether Eden genuinely felt it was ready, but it received nearly universal rejection and damningly low review scores due to a host of technical and design issues.
In an unusual and surprising move, the Eden team took all the negative feedback and addressed each problem in a heavily revamped re-release subtitled Inferno. Among other things, the camera system was improved, the inventory system was changed, vehicle control was adjusted, a brand-new segment of gameplay was added, and the amount of tree roots required to be burned before the game's finale (one of the biggest knocks against the original) was cut in half.
Knowing that Inferno was coming, I intentionally held off playing the game until I could get my hands on this fixed, more polished version, and I'm glad I did—it's absolutely fantastic.
Starring paranormal investigator Edward Carnby, Alone in the Dark: Inferno starts off with a bang: a Satanic cult has set into motion a ritual that will destroy New York City. However, they can't complete the ritual without a stone that's in Carnby's possession. Trapped in Central Park after it's been separated from the rest of the world by dark chasms and jagged spires, Carnby must do what he can to stop the cult and prevent the antichrist from arriving on earth.
It's a much darker, more serious take on storytelling than players usually get in the horror genre. There is no camp or silliness here; it's all extremely mature and grim. In fact, the writing is quite strong and it does a great job of setting the black-on-black tone.
Reinforcing the strength of the story is the incredible cinematic quality of the entire Inferno experience. The developers have absolute mastery of creating tension and drama, and the setpieces on display show a skill and elegance that place them at the top of their field. Rivaling any blockbuster in gaming, or even on film, Edward's journey through the park is an extremely dynamic and compelling one.
Intellectual content aside, one of the things that most impressed me about Inferno was the way that the developers crafted their world cohesively from the ground up. Starting with the central concepts of fire and realistic physics, every aspect of the game takes those into account and builds upon them. Weaving these core ideas into the identity of a project is a real talent of Eden Studios; they worked a similar sort of magic around the concept of wind and crafted a stellar airborne platformer called Kya: Dark Lineage. The same attention to detail I loved in Kya is everywhere in Inferno.
For example, rather than having predetermined interactions between Edward and the environment, each instance of the player taking action is determined on a case-by-case basis. If something is set on fire, it doesn't always burn the same way. If Edward is trying to navigate down a rope, there's no canned animation if the rope snags something on the way down. Rather than crafting specific levels and placing areas of interactivity within them, Eden has created a world with its own rules. It's up to the player to use their heads to make their way through it. It's a true and tangible step towards next-generation game design, rather than the usual route of slapping shinier graphics on something that players have already seen a million times.
Though the things I've mentioned are already significant enough to earn Inferno top marks, Eden didn't stop there. In further efforts to innovate and invigorate, their inventory system and DVD-style chapter structure are both quite unique.
Whenever Edward picks up an item, it must be placed in one of the pockets inside his jacket. To manage these things, the game takes a first-person perspective as Edward opens up the coat to see what he has-handy, and avoids most survival horror tropes. Furthermore, items can be combined in many different ways, and managing the inventory scavenged in different locations gives the game a very deep, flexible feeling. Need an instant lightbulb? Combine a glow-stick with double-sided tape and you've got one. Need to blow open a metal door instead? Wrap that tape around a bottle of lighter fluid, stick it to the barrier, and put a bullet into it from a distance. All sorts of clever and interesting things can be accomplished with this item system, giving it a real leg up over practically everything else in the genre.
The DVD system I mentioned is sheer genius. Dividing the game up into "chapters," the player is free to fast-forward, rewind, or simply play straight through at their discretion. (The latter is strongly recommended.) It's a beautiful concept that meshes beautifully with the fact that many players these days don't have huge chunks of time in which to play, and also gives players who struggle with certain sections a chance to simply move on instead of becoming frustrated and quitting prematurely. An interesting hybrid between traditional video game and pre-recorded media, I would love to see the system adopted by more developers.
Before ending the review, I certainly think it's fair to say that Alone in the Dark: Inferno isn't perfect; the lack of subtitles was annoying, there's a certain amount of physics randomness when trying to get some tasks accomplished, and in general there are lots of little things could use another coat of polish—no argument there. That said, this new and improved iteration of Eden's initial release rejects playing it safe with the usual developer shortcuts in lieu of being experimental, forward-thinking, bold, and genuinely innovative. This is exactly the kind of stuff that people who really care about video games should be rewarding, and it's truly heartbreaking to see a game as superb as this get the cold shoulder.
It's impossible to know for sure, but I can only imagine that if the initial version had been as finely-honed as Inferno, it would have received a much warmer welcome. Instead, thanks to all the negative word-of-mouth generated by the inferior 360 version, Inferno came and went with hardly anyone blinking an eye. In this case, bad press was certainly worse than no press at all.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately nine hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed one time. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, strong language, and violence. Although sometimes I think the ratings board is a little too sensitive, in this case the warning is entirely justified. This is not a game for children in any sense, so if they ask to play, just say no. There are several scenes of explicit violence, tons of salty language and all sorts of other things you don't want kids being exposed to.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: I'm extremely sad to report that there are no subtitles available in the game, which seriously undercuts the quality of the experience and prevents the story from being understood. Adding insult to injury, there is no option to increase the speech volume while turning down the music and sound effects. During gameplay, being able to hear monsters approaching is a great benefit, so be prepared to take a few cheap hits. Overall, this is not a very friendly game for people with hearing impairments.