Alone in the Dark is a franchise that has existed in videogames for over 30 years. However, 2008’s modernisation was a landmark title. Despite releasing on what could now be considered limited hardware, it brought innovations in design that can still be felt to this day. 15 years after the game launched.

Alone in the Dark – A Game Under Pressure

While removing itself from the series’ heritage – shipping without numerical value or subtitle attached – on paper, publisher Atari promised the gameplay would be familiar to series veterans. Yet significantly reinvented for modern technology. With 16 years and five outings – of variable quality – under its belt, the series has a rather large fanbase. It even spawned a Hollywood movie starring Christian Slater, and directed by the infamous Uwe Boll. The first title in the series is often citied as the inspiration for birthing the survival horror genre. This in turn gave us best-selling series such as Resident EvilSilent Hill and even the likes of Dead Rising.

With that kind of pedigree behind it, and the last effort in the series being the considerably poor Alone in the Dark: New Nightmare in 2002, Alone in the Dark had considerable pressure to please the fans. Not only that, but also Atari’s financial turbulence at the time was one of the worst kept secrets in the industry. Many believe that the publisher was simply biding their time to see through the release of Eden Games’ AAA blockbuster.

Alone in the Dark screenshot

Defining AAA in the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 Generation

The big budget that Atari lavished upon Alone in the Dark is evident from the very first moments of the game. Waking in a dingy apartment in Hell’s Kitchen to find two shady characters roughly interrogating an elderly man, your vision is blurred and as you stumble to your feet. One of the antagonists escorts you to the roof for your final moments. You find your stability is considerably hampered. Playing as Edward Carnby – the protagonist of the original title – you find yourself lost in a world that offers little explanation, and little safety.

The story continues along this path for much of the opening act of the game. While a handful of questions are answered, evermore holes in Edwards’ reasoning are presented; one door opens, another closes. And it’s here where Alone in the Dark shines. Much noise has been made in the industry about the ability to tell interesting, emotionally-involving stories. Alone in the Dark capitalised on this with one of the most intriguing plots seen in years. Even surpassing the likes of BioShock and Mass Effect, two titles often considered the pinnacle of the industries story-based presentations. Prey and The Darkness both offered similar pacing and structure in their stories – although, criminally, neither are commonly mentioned when discussing this aspect of videogaming – but are eclipsed here by one seemingly small addition that has made a lot of racket: the Chapter Select feature.

Episodic Delivery – More than the Sum of its Parts

The game is divided into Chapters, each lasting anywhere between an hour and three. These are in-turn divided into Sequences. Each Sequence is a singular element. A handful of puzzles in a few rooms, a car chase or a Boss fight. Each Chapter suitably ends with a cutscene cliff-hanger. The player is given the ability to skip any sequence they wish using a DVD-styled menu in the Pause Screen. Skipping a Sequence will simply start the next, allowing players to progress through the title at their own pace. And, due to the laborious nature of many of the puzzles and action-sequences, may often be utilised by the more casual market Atari tried to ensnare.

Continuing from a previous Save File treats the player to a TV Series-inspired recap of the previous story details. This feature had already been seen in the likes of Pokemon Pearl and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. But here it’s fleshed-out and made into an exemplary feature of the whole package.

While the story is quite obviously a major part of the title. The core gameplay is that which will appeal to the hardcore gamers. Fans of the survival horror genre will witness little that hasn’t been seen before. However, here it’s presented in a title that is as cleanly cut for the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 generation as the GameCube’s remake of the original Resident Evil. That is, bar a handful of irritating flaws most evident in the first third of the title. The game provides the option to switch between first- and third-person perspectives at any point. However fundamental flaws with the control system mean neither will provide a completely satisfactory level of control.

Alone in the Dark screenshot

Alone in the Dark’s Puzzles take Priority

Borrowed wholesale from Resident Evil when in third-person, the dated feel of the singular analogue stick movement was harnessed for Resident Evil 4 and felt more than appropriate. However, with Alone in the Dark, the same pedigree of developers clearly isn’t present. Many puzzle sections will demand the player revert to the first-person perspective simply to view and understand the objective. The camera fumbling doesn’t end here, either. Car-based action-sequences will often find the player starring at the side of their automobile long-after pulling-out of a hair-raising handbrake turn.

As with the traditions of the series, the games puzzles are quite obviously its primary concern. Most often asking you to think laterally about real-world solutions to problems. Which, within most games, require certain knowledge of game conventions. Alone in the Dark uses it’s much flaunted fire element more often than not. It’s here at which the point newcomers to gaming have a significant advantage over the hardcore gamer audience. While the latter may be blindly ignoring the obvious, a casual observer may immediately call upon the answer from simple comparisons to reality.

Burning through wooden doors and bashing through metal ones; lifting electrical cables out of water with a long pole; using objects to block a light source. These are common solutions to a variety of problems, and each seem simple enough after their discovery. However, much as is the tradition with puzzle-based games, many players will find themselves ambling around the area for hours. Only to find that upon returning after a brief hiatus the answer is obvious.

But there’s Still Action, Yeah?

While the action-sequences are most likely to draw the biggest crowds, they themselves are the least appealing aspect in play. They rely solely on trial-and-error set-ups as opposed to any form of skill. And with checkpoints far too few, these areas cause more irritation than most. The car handling is poor. An issue made all the worse when considering the developer’s only other Xbox 360 offering up to this point was the thoroughly enjoyable Test Drive: Unlimited (as noted with in-game advertising). The collision detection is simply infuriating. A square-on collision with a rock may send you hurtling into the air landing with the vehicle still intact. Yet a bump against a two-foot shrub can forcibly remove your roof as if it was attached with plasticine.

Elements such as your Spectral Vision (the ability to see weak-points on enemies, and puzzle-based elements otherwise hidden), the Inventory System, the oblique Health System and the requirements of fire to kill the majority of the game’s enemies add depth to a title that fails to grab its audience within the first few hours of play. While those familiar with the series will love the in-house recalls to the 1920’s escapades of Edward Carnby and the constant – and intelligent – references to other titles in the series, newcomers will find themselves in need of a reason to care about their protagonist, his mission, or his allies. Gameplay mechanics unwind after the opening act, and the player will begin to experiment with the options available to them. This becomes the hook to keep them playing through to completion – be it with or without skipping Sequences.

Alone in the Dark screenshot

Alone in Dark’s Linear Structure Works, Free Roaming though?

For the most-part, Alone in the Dark is a tightly-orchestrated linear adventure, and is very rewarding for it. However, as was a complaint with The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker on its release, in the final third Alone in the Dark unravels its handholding gameplay into an elongated collect mission. Travelling freely through the park in search of Roots of Evil in order to increase the power of your Spectral Vision. The Sequences feel like cynical attempts to check another box on the fact sheet: Free Roaming.

Alone in the Dark is quite a mismatch in many respects graphically. In-game, the title looks fantastic. Enemies and allies alike are brought to life with precision animation and voice acting. Environments are detailed (if often significantly lacking any particularly descriptive features) and the flame effects are wonderful. However, a handful of cutscenes are glitchy and simply inadequate when compared with the rest of the title. Luckily, these minor scenes don’t appear to be included in any recap the title offers.

The accompanying soundtrack is, quite obviously, one of the best features of the title. Often overlooked in videogames, Alone in the Dark swathes between punishingly dramatic nightmare sequences of heavy combat to fully-orchestrated, epic mountain-climbing in the blink of any eye – and back again. Each character is well defined through their voice-acting and – Edward Carnby (and his foul-mouth) in particular – are often believably emotive.

Alone in the Dark screenshot

Alone in the Dark: The Innovator

Innovation in videogames comes in many forms, and to suggest Alone in the Dark is without is certainly to do it an injustice. However, the innovation on show is hampered by such simple – yet annoying – issues that it can often be rather unremarkable in its’ presentation. Bugs and glitches are common place and frequently beguile the player into frustration. Further distancing Alone in the Dark from it’s most obvious inspiration; Resident Evil 4.

Of the two features Atari have chosen to flaunt the most, the Chapter Select addition is the cleverest design decision in the whole game. Whilst the addition of fire that burns and spreads should’ve become commonplace, it surprisingly it rarely is. In-game, neither is as pretentious as to dramatically alter your perception of the gameplay. Yet both help to realise in the final third exactly how Alone in the Dark manages to hold together under such strain. A complex release, then, one with no clear-cut point of reference for quality. But, surely, a game which argues with your own perception of it, even after completion, is at the most rewarding electronic entertainment has yet been?

Categories: Games