The buzz surrounding Alone in the Dark in the lead-up to its release was less than optimistic. Several early reviewers tore the game to shreds, and Atari, the game's publisher, threatened lawsuits against the publications with these reviews. Not only that, but the title was supposedly a victim of its many delays, with gamers complaining about numerous inexcusable issues ranging from mediocre graphics to game-breaking glitches. However, for every voice insulting the title's negatives features, there was another praising its virtues. The gap between the two opposing points of view on the game became wider and wider with each review. Now, after playing Alone in the Dark, I can finally understand the dual nature of this debate.
Alone in the Dark is a survival horror game at its core, putting players in control of Edward Carnby, an amnesiac who wakes up in New York City during a large scale, paranormal event. Cultists lead by a mysterious man named Crowley captures him and a man named Theophile. After escaping his captors, Edward meets up with Sarah Flores, an art dealer caught in the middle of the attack, and Theophile, who also managed to escape, and claims to know Edward and hopes to help fend off the demonic attack. They make their way to Central Park to follow what Theophile calls “The Path of Light,” and players work their way through the park investigating its shady past and horrid secrets.
In certain regards, Alone in the Dark does poorly what other games have done well for over a decade and does well what other games won’t be doing for at least that long. The camera system is terrible, as the game will yank control from the player in order to affix it to a random corner of a room. The controls are inconsistent, leading to repeatedly falling off of ledges or flailing wildly instead of attacking using the game’s interesting combat mechanics. Voice acting and dialogue are bad enough to take you right out of the game’s otherwise interesting story. And the title is filled with enough glitches and bugs to make me wonder if Alone in the Dark would have been better off going through a few more development cycles before seeing the light of day.
That said, Alone in the Dark may be the most innovative game of its generation.
The game features so many advancements, innovations, and interesting gameplay mechanics that it would take several pages to list them all. Some may seem silly or unnecessary to begin with, but actually work in the game's own strange way. For instance, while in first-person mode you can close your eyes. It may seem strange, but it ends up enhancing the gameplay and makes the progression of the story far more interesting and atmospheric. It may sound silly, it might be gimmicky, but you need to give them credit for taking a chance and putting something strange, but inventive, into the game.
Separated into eight episodes, the plot progresses as if it were a television series, with each chapter ending in a cliffhanger that is resolved in the opening minutes of the next. Not only that, but Alone in the Dark also allows for nearly every section of the game to be skipped via the pause menu, effectively making it only as linear as the player wishes. This option works great for both the casual gamer who becomes easily frustrated with a difficult battle and the hardcore elite who grow tired of the awkward driving sections, but can also be seen as an experiment in linearity in game design.
Alone in the Dark also features one of the more inventive inventory systems in gaming, with all of the items found being added to the pockets and holsters of the protagonist’s jacket. This inventory is accessed in real time, and enemies will not to give you time to combine items into a Molotov cocktail or wrapping a wound to prevent bleeding. The item combinations don’t end there, either, and crafting together different items using double sided tape, bottles of gasoline, boxes of bullets, or road flares can be extremely rewarding – when it works. Several times you will be stunted by trial-and-error gameplay, demanding that you use a specific tool for a specific job, even if there were other viable options
I realize that most of this review has been spent trying to explain and justify the failures of Alone in the Dark as opposed to actually reviewing it, but that is because the game is better used as an example of true design advancement than it is as a working product. I feel as if the game’s development had the design document being overseen by committed and talented minds and the actual product developed by an entirely different team.
It doesn’t make any sense that the same people who would create a realistic inventory simulation would name the enemy bats “Batz,” or made the “Humanz” shoot their tongues twenty feet as a ranged attack. Something just doesn’t add up about it, and the real mystery in Alone in the Dark isn’t what happened in Central Park, but what happened inside of Atari’s offices. It’s easy to point out all of the problems in the game, but none of them detract enough from the experience to stop me from recommending that everyone tries this game, even if it is just for a few days.