I've never played a game that has thrown me in more directions than Alone in the Dark. At times Eden's ambitious survival horror game touches on brilliance, dazzles with blockbuster spectacles and revels in originality. Its problem is that these moments make up a small portion of the game - a game which suffers from almost every longstanding gaming irritant and problem I've written about a thousand times over. Despite wanting to love it and enjoy its many clever puzzles, disappointment, frustration and annoyance set in all too often.
You play as Edward Carnby, who awakens in a fairly groggy state at the start of the game in a room with an old man (Paddington) - who soon becomes a pivotal character in the game. Strangely, Ed is the very same character from the old Alone in the Dark games, presumably sent through time to the modern day. From the off you're asked to blink in order to clear your vision, just one of the game's real-world gameplay mechanics which are both genius and immeasurably annoying. You're in an apartment block overlooking Central Park, New York, and soon enough things take a turn for the worst. The building begins to break apart, fissures appear along walls and demons possess the bodies of the living. You must get out alive, and it's here that the game's controls become the real villain of the piece.
Alone in the Dark is really a handful of games rolled into one. At times it's a Resident Evil 4 like third-person game, but it's also a first-person shooter, a third-person varied camera adventure game and a driving game. You're free to switch to first-person at any time, although the game decides if the third-person view should be over the shoulder or from a cinematically placed camera. After only a few minutes it's all too obvious that deciding against a singular view point is one of the developer's biggest mistakes.
The opening sections are really there for spectacle, tutorial purposes and to meet the main secondary characters (the aforementioned Paddington and Sarah, an art dealer), with the proper game not really beginning until you enter Central Park itself, but the foundations have already been laid. From a third-person viewpoint you can use melee weapons, moving the right analogue stick around to attack. Anything you can pick up can be used as a weapon, and while it's a little clunky it works well enough. You'll probably want to fire your gun at an incoming enemy, but you can't do so from a third-person viewpoint. Switching to a first-person viewpoint allows you do use projectile weapons, but here the aiming is so fiddly (and the enemies are often so unpredictable) that hitting anything is harder than it looks.
'As great as the real inventory system seemed on paper and in presentations, in practice it simply doesn't serve to improve the game.'
Throughout the game you'll be constantly switching between the two views, and it doesn't make for good gameplay. A third-person over the shoulder view that also allowed for Resident Evil 4 style shooting would have been fine, as would a Condemned style first-person view that also allowed melee combat. Having both simply complicates matters. This is even before the game's inventory system is factored in to the gameplay - something you'd assume would have little to no effect on the actual in-game action.
Your inventory in Alone in the Dark is accessed in real time by Carnby looking down into his jacket. It features slots for numerous items, with bottles, canisters and other throwable objects on the right, gun and torch in the middle, and everything else on the left. With limited space storage is always a problem, and you'll regularly have to drop items in order to pick up others - whether it be an essential health spray or much needed bottle of fuel. You can equip one item in each hand, allowing for various combinations, and even combine items before equipping, allowing for such things as sticky bombs or Molotov cocktails.
It's an incredibly fiddly and tricky menu to work with, made worse by the fact that monsters can walk up and batter you while you're trying to combine your leftover items to make something half useful. A handy 'favourites' system allows you to assign up to four left/right hand combinations for quick selection (a lighter in your right hand and bottle of whisky with a bandage jammed in it in the left, for example), which removes a layer of fiddling, but there are so many combinations that you'll always be tinkering with things in your inventory. As great as the real inventory system seemed on paper and in presentations, in practice it simply doesn't serve to improve the game.
Take this situation as an example of how mind numbingly annoying the game can be at times. You're in a lavatory, desperate for a health spray (spraying this over your wounds heals you, and yes, it's done in real time) while just seconds away is a group of blood-thirsty crazed enemies. You set the door to the room on fire to act as a barrier, and then loot the room, hoping for that illusive white canister. You see one in a cabinet, but you're not allowed to pick it up as the right side of your jacket is full. You haphazardly dump items on the floor, freeing up space, then return to the cabinet. For some reason you aren't allowed to pick up the health spray until you've picked up everything else around it. Gahhh. The fire is about to die out and you can sense a horrific mauling. Quickly you grab the items, switch to your inventory and dump it all again. You're now able to grab the spray. Quickly you press right on the d-pad to bring up the healing interface, press the right trigger to begin spraying and then get smashed in the face by a demon monster. You're skull has been crushed and it's time to try that all over again. Did I say Alone in the Dark is annoying?