I’m about halfway through a dark subway tunnel when I realize I’ve been here before. I had ended up back in the dark, dirty depths after nearly being asphyxiated in the dust storm currently raging outside, one of the many dangerous things in this new, post-apocalyptic world. I haven’t been in the city for a year since the disaster and the streets are still very familiar to me, but I never expected the subways to trigger a memory. But this one was more recent- I had been here only hours before. In fact, I realized that I had helped a starving woman at the end of the tunnel, giving her the food cans that she so desperately needed.

I ran down the now-familiar corridor to check on her and stopped short. The rope hanging from the ceiling was the first thing my flashlight played over, the woman whose neck it was strung around the second. I stood there looking at her dangling corpse and felt genuinely terrible, feeling like I’d failed her, feeling that no matter what I could do for these people we all still lived in an changed, violent world.

‘I Am Alive’ is certainly unlike any other game you’ve played. This is true survival horror, brutal and bleak and maybe even a little depressing.

You play as a man named Adam who’s looking to reunite with his family. He had been out on the East Coast somewhere when the a worldwide cataclysm wiped out most of humanity, leaving the few survivors to suffer through horrible earthquakes and suffocating dust. Camps of survivors have sprung up but so have gangs, and the world isn’t safe to travel without a weapon of some sort. It took Adam nearly a year to get back to his (fictional) home city of Haverton, his estranged wife Julie and his daughter Mary, but he finds the apartment empty. He spots a little girl that looks like his daughter outside and chases her only to find out that she’s another kid, and she’s looking for her parents as well. Adam sets out to find them and his own family as well.

It’s a story that pulls you in, even if the setting is familiar. After all, a post-apocalyptic world has certainly been done dozens of times in games, but perhaps never with this degree of realism.

Oh, the look and mechanics can lead people to easily pigeonhole it as foggy ‘Silent Hill’ survival horror meets ‘Uncharted’ environment climbing, but the actual feel of the game hasn’t been achieved (or even really attempted) before. Generally games of the type have a problem where the world feels too much like interconnected, with just the appropriate amount of debris dressing and perhaps some rubble or mutants blocking your path. In ‘I Am Alive’ you’ll experience a genuine city that feels like it was lived in before it was destroyed. The graphics are fantastic, the washed out and grayish colors only contributing to the dreamy, otherworldly feel. The layouts of the street, the inside of a hotel- hell, even a trip through a fallen office building that’s leaning on its side feel real. They seem like actual places rather and it’s even more disconcerting that nearly everything in this game is attempting to kill you, and the only way through it is by scavenging the few supplies and weapons you can find.

Even climbing around the environment is dangerous. At the top of the screen you have a stamina and health bar that are connected together, which makes sens because both are equally important. As you climb around the broken remaining structures of the world your stamina will start to drop. If you don’t find a ledge to rest on or get to the top before it depletes you’ll have a few seconds to overexert yourself and get to safety before you face falling to your death. If you do have to overexert yourself your maximum stamina will be lowered, something that could make the rest of the game harder for you until you find an item that helps you breathe better, like an inhaler. Cans of soda and other items can help replenish your stamina during the middle of a climb, if you can find them.

Health is just as important as stamina, of course, especially since the majority of the people you meet in the game want to kill you. You start the game with a pistol but no bullets, and they are a rare commodity. Fortunately just the sight of a gun can scare people away- whip it out and someone coming after you will think twice, and can be scared off if you bark at them to back up with the push of a button. You can just scare people off if you like- not everyone wants to kill you and some people are just defending their territory or families- but if you back someone up to a ledge or a fire you can kick them off into it. Once in a while you’ll come across a group with a tough guy in it who decides you don’t have the balls to shoot and rushes you. If you have bullets that would be the time to take him out- watch how quickly his friends surrender when you show you’re not afraid to kill.

Of course when you come across enemies with firearms things get a little more interesting. They won’t hesitate to shoot you if you pull out your weapon so you’ll have to take things a little slower, perhaps even surprise them by whipping out your machete for a sneak attack. If you do get in a fight with them you’ve got to aim for the guys with guns first, and try and keep the other guys from picking up the downed weapons, which also might have an extra bullet for you. It makes for tense combat situations, especially when you only have one bullet remaining and come across a gang. Fortunately later on in the game you get a bow and arrow which can be reused as long as you retrieve the arrow, but take a couple of bullets and you’re dead. Since health is so hard to come by you’ll likely spend a lot of time with a half-full health bar and there are only a limited amount of replays as well, so if you don’t conserve your resources you’ll regret it and perhaps have to start the whole chapter over.

Making things worse are the various survivors you’ll find scattered around the world, who require an item or two from you. Sometimes they’ll have items to offer up to you as a reward but others will just give you their generosity, perhaps with some helpful info. But the game is amazing in that it actually makes you consider not helping people out- or even worse, stealing- in order to just keep going.

The combat can be repetitive and the climbing sometimes isn’t as accurate as you’d hope but the game has a decent length (5-6 hours) and a leaderboard that scores you on how you do to encourage multiple playthroughs. But this is a very bleak game that I can’t see really playing through multiple times for fun. The game’s strength is in exploring the oddly beautiful and stark world for the first time, of not knowing what to expect in this terrible-yet-familiar landscape.

However, the otherwise strong story is ruined by an abrupt and fairly unfulfilling ending. You’re pretty certain that things aren’t going to go well for Adam- it’s just not that kind of story- but it cuts off without much of an explanation or anything. This doesn’t detract from a gripping, unique experience, however. It certainly won’t be for everyone but if you’re looking for a much more realistic take on the horrors of the end of the world you’ve found your game. Grab a gas mask and dive in.

Rating: 8/10

‘I Am Alive’ is available for download via the Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network. The game was developed by Darkworks/Ubisoft Shanghai and published by Ubisoft. This review was written based on six hours with the Xbox 360 version.

Alex Riviello is a father, husband, writer, reviewer of films, games, and beer. Follow him on Twitter.

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