Written by Kevin Kennedy, @thekevmiester
When Alone in the Dark came out back in 1992, it left an impact upon gaming that is still felt to this day. Without this game, there’d be no Resident Evil as Shinji Mikami said he freely took gameplay ideas from the genre defining game. While we can all appreciate the impact it has left on the industry, it is as undeniable fact that games age quite quickly, a simple look at the game’s graphics can tell you that. How does the game hold up after all this time?
Famed artist Jeremy Hartwood has been found dead in his Louisiana mansion after hanging himself. Despite the mysterious circumstances of the event, the investigation is shut down and everyone soon forget about it, except for two people. Emily Hartwood and Edward Carnby, his niece and a private investigator respectively, get tangled up in this plot and trapped within the haunted mansion. The only way to get out is to get to the bottom of the strange goings on and find out the truth about the suicide.
Alone in the Dark has all the tropes you’d expect from a Lovecraft inspired tale, themes of sanity, an ancient being looking for more power and, much like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the plot is almost entirely optional. The majority of the story is told through books you can find lying around the mansion, though if you were so inclined you need never pick one up. While hardly dreadful, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before and hardly the primary focus of the game.
As for the scares, while there are some genuinely spooky moments, the monster thing jumping through the window at the beginning being a highlight, the tone is more goofy than scary, the “twist ending” being evidence of that.
I do wonder what the use in having two playable characters brings however, as nothing really changes. At all. A small point but a curios one.
As gameplay goes, the first room in this game almost feels like a test, if you can’t make it out then this game might not be for you. Almost every action is found in the menu, including fight, open and push. Meaning that you’ll have to navigate the menu every time you want to do something other than just walk around, which in itself can be a chore. The controls are very awkward as the game seems to barely respond to my commands, especially the run command which requires you to double tap the forward button. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it worked about 20% of the time.
That being said, the cumbersome controls sort of add to the experience as this game is downright unforgiving. There is no way of knowing what is coming around the corner and simply walking through a random door or even reading a book will kill you instantly. There is a true sense of unease as you wander about the mansion, unsure what is even in the same room as you due to the camera angles, also due to the fact that monsters can pretty much pop up whenever they want as walking into a different room won’t make them disappear (like in Resident Evil), they’ll still be there and will follow you if they can.
This happens more in the early part of the game however and is less prevalent later on, still, you never feel truly safe wandering the halls. Furthermore, item management is absolutely key to the most minuscule level. Should you not have enough oil to navigate a dark maze near the end of the game for example, then you may as well quit and start from the beginning.
While some may enjoy this sort of tension, it does have an effect on the story unfortunately. As I previously mentioned, the story is mostly told through books you find lying about, though picking them up takes up vital space in your inventory. While it is possible to read a book then discard it, the menu system is so clumsy that I figured I would save time, cut out the middle man and not even bother picking up the books.
Another standard that Alone in the Dark set as far as survival horror games go are the puzzles. While most are fine and simply rely on logic, there are a few too many that consist of baffling solutions that will have you screaming “how was I supposed to know that?”. I would very rarely say this, but due to the strangeness of the puzzles and not enough feedback from the game that you are even in the right direction, nobody could really bemoan the use of a walkthrough for this game, even I admit to dabbling into one on occasion, as this game would take a very, VERY long time to complete without one, as at times it feels that you are meant to try everything included the kitchen sink to find solutions. At one point near the end you are even given a new ability to use out of nowhere that you would only discover out of frustration. Though maybe you like that sort of thing.
All in all, Alone in the Dark‘s gameplay can be applauded for defining the genre and for still holding up. It’s just, even for it’s time, the controls are stiff, awkward and force you to constantly be using the menu just to perform mundane tasks.
While the visuals have certainly aged, what is surprising is how colorful this game is. Sure there is the occasional drab cave and dark maze but this is a surprisingly vibrant looking game. Except for perhaps the tune that plays upon your death, the music is mostly silly and cheesy though not particularly bad.
A sudden change in music can actually be quite scary as it usually means something is in the room trying to kill you. Much cheesier, however, is the voice acting. From the character’s introductions to the reading of diary pages, restraint was not used upon reading these lines. Wether deliberate or not, this helps paint the picture of a game that is keen to scare but not above having a bit of goofy fun along the way.
Alone in the Dark may still hold up after all these years, but it has still definitely aged much more than Resident Evil (which came out in the same year). Add a point or two to the score if you have a love for the nostalgic, though if you have little patience for old school games you may want to take a couple away.
The Final Word: While it has aged an awful lot in the last two decades, this genre defining game still holds up and is worth a go, just be sure to know what you’re getting yourself into.