Welcome to Ghosts of Gaming Past — here we’ll be reviewing older horror games, classics and non-classics we missed when they were originally released. Have a game you’d like reviewed? Send us an email.
Written by Ally Doig, @allydoig
The original Alone in the Dark predated the emergence of survival horror. While Resident Evil rightly takes the credit for popularizing the genre later that same decade, it owes much to the likes of Infogrames’ ambitious 3D title. Its influence, though arguably understated, still earned it its own page in the history books. Sixteen years later and unfortunately that dusty old page now seems like the best place for a series that failed to properly build on its own foundations.
Understandably, Lyon based Eden Games’ Alone in the Dark 2008 remake bares little resemblance to the original with which it shares its name. It pitches itself as part survival horror, part disaster movie and part action thriller; a far cry from the more traditional adventure offerings of the early nineties original. While that game will be remembered for inspiring the Resident Evils of this world, this is one that you’ll quickly want to forget. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that when Edward Carnby wakes up in a New York hotel under armed guard, he’s suffering from a hefty bout of amnesia. As he then struggles in vain to gain some clarity, the game’s shortcomings start to make themselves glaringly obvious.
Eden were working on a limited budget here, and it shows. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Alone in the Dark was rolled out late in the PlayStation 2’s cycle. That’s not so much of an issue if the game compensates for it in other areas. As it transpires, ugly visuals are at the bottom of a lengthy list of problems. Character animations are stiff and awkward, poorly recorded dialogue often overlaps or cuts out completely, the physics are wonky and the frame-rate is prone to dropping during the more action packed sequences.
Granted, this is 2008 so you’d be prepared to make a few concessions. It’s not like we can turn around and point at the giant PS4 shaped shadow looming on the horizon after all. But when the game struggles to feel at home on current-gen systems you’ve got to start asking questions.
It’s clear that Edward’s escape from the burning hotel is intended to be a dramatic showpiece introduction. Twenty minutes of gripping action before the title fills the screen and the player can pause for breath, reflecting on the events that just unfolded. It should be the game’s way of announcing itself, of setting the tone and gearing us up for the hours that follow. Carnby’s cumbersome break for freedom during the first level merely highlights all of the above issues and fills you with pessimism.
There’s a school of thought that argues that horror games should employ a weighty, tank-like control scheme. In theory, the protagonist’s restricted movement adds to the tension, particularly during fight or flight scenarios. Although perhaps a little outdated – most games will now allow you to move and shoot simultaneously – it’s a mechanic that works well in the right context. Alone in the Dark adopts this approach, but Carnby’s general awkwardness is made much worse by the horrible camera. It often can’t make up its mind if it’s free or fixed, opting to set up shop on shaky middle ground between the two.
The jarring mix of viewpoint perspectives doesn’t help matters. While you’ll often want to explore in first person to get a better grasp of your surroundings, the game will suddenly switch to third person on a whim. You’ll spend much of your time with Alone in the Dark wrestling madly with the controls. When you’ve finally wrapped your head around them, you’ll have died one too many insta-deaths, fallen off one too many ledges and shouted one too many expletives at the TV screen.
There is, however, a small chink of light in the, ahem… dark. Alone in the Dark does have a few decent ideas. An apocalyptic New York isn’t going to scoop many originality awards, but the dark and twisted vision of Central Park around which the majority of action plays out is intriguing. You can tell that the developers have noted the popularity of conspiracy thrillers in recent years. The park harbors an ancient secret deep beneath the sprawl of concrete and vegetation that Carnby is intrinsically linked to.
It’s a story that descends into gibberish towards the end, but that just about has the legs to keep your attention up to that point. There’s an unsettling allure to the idea of something being hidden in plain sight; right in front of our faces, or, in this case, below our feet. Inevitably this shadowy secret is also the source of the malevolence running rampant through New York: possessed humans, flying demons and gigantic ‘Fissures’ that tunnel underground and through the walls of buildings. It will also occasionally throw an ingenious puzzle your way – the type that’ll muster a self congratulatory grin after figuring out the solution.
The most infuriating thing about Alone in the Dark is that it seems hell-bent on shooting itself in the foot at every given opportunity. Working with limited resources is one thing. We can let a game off the hook if it’s a little rough around the edges. Obnoxious design choices are another: infinitely respawning enemies, unskippable cinematics and rage-inducing driving sequences, for example. What really grinds the gears, however, is that any promising concepts it does have are almost always marred by shoddy execution.
Fire is at the heart of Alone in the Dark’s puzzle solving and more importantly, it’s combat. Enemies won’t lie down indefinitely unless they are burned. You can offload four pistol clips into one of the possessed humanz (yes, that’s with a Z), but he’ll keep getting up for more punishment unless introduced to a naked flame. Carnby can only carry a restricted amount of items in his inventory. This means you’ll have to opt between healing supplies and those which are potentially flammable.
While slot limitation has its roots in survival horror, Alone in the Dark’s item combination harks back to old point-n-click adventure games. You might have a handkerchief, a bottle of whiskey, and and a lighter, and if you combine them you’ll get a Molotov cocktail. Add double-sided tape into the equation and it will stick to an enemy, turning it into a walking inferno when the flame eventually meets the liquid. There are a fair few combinations to experiment with.
In addition to trusty ammo boxes you can pick up glow sticks, batteries, emergency flares, bug killer and anti-rust spray. You’ll want to mix and match these ingredients and find out just how devastating your new sticky-taped explosive glow stick cocktail really is.
This pyromaniacal emphasis sounds great on paper, but in reality the combat is hamstrung by all the game’s other problems. In keeping with the controls, inventory management is stiff and cumbersome. Navigation itself seems to be deliberately awkward, constantly forcing you to dip in and out, to pick up and discard, in order to craft what you want. The dated graphics, bugginess and physics issues don’t exactly help matters, either. Beyond the initial interest in seeing what your latest firebomb can do, fighting foes becomes nothing more than a laborious slog. It simply isn’t fun.
The Final Word: Alone in the Dark is a struggle from start to finish. Low production values accentuate the bad design decisions and decent ideas are let down by poor execution. Even the promising story trails off into quasi-religious babble. We’re much better off remembering this as a title that had significant influence over the survival horror genre and some of gaming’s most recognizable franchises. Not as a game that will do very little for anyone.
Alone in the Dark is available on the PS2, PS3, Wii, PC and Xbox 360 (reviewed).