Forget the shots of crumbled buildings and the menace of merciless raiders. Ubisoft's I Am Alive was almost a disaster story in itself, with its lengthy development, plagued by difficulties, saved from its own apocalypse with a last-minute switch to digital. It's all the better for it, too, as an affordable download is definitely the best form to showcase this intriguing but flawed experience.
Perhaps befitting the cataclysmic tone, this is a title that feels like a rickety train going too fast down dangerous tracks, falling to pieces the further it gets. Haverton, a fictional chunk of the USA, serves as the destroyed home for an entirely oppressive game. It's an environment explicitly designed to be caustic, where an apocalyptic event - dubbed ambiguously as The Event - causes the world to go all belly up and forces the fractured pockets of humanity into a struggle for survival.
And struggle you will, as I Am Alive makes few concessions to its players. You will die, reload, and restart on a regular basis, especially if you're ballsy enough to pick the game's resource-challenged Survivor difficulty. This is a game that thrives by displaying the dour tones of its Game Over screen, and while that can be frustrating there's always some satisfaction from your Ray Mearsian attempts at conquering these gruelling environments.
While it features many similar mechanics to that of Ubisoft's other climbing-heavy titles, I Am Alive is the anathema to Assassin's Creed. You struggle where Ezio Auditore could soar, which is challenging when much of the game is in calmbering, shuffling and shimmying across this broken wasteland, and if your rapidly depleting stamina bar runs out of juice you'll likely plunge to a miserable demise. You can catch your breath mid-ascent by plonking down a climbing piton, but like everything in the game's world these are few and far between. For the most part you'll just be holding on for dear life and racing against the clock to reach the next available resting spot.
Plumes of thick sand obstruct much of your view of the outside, meaning for a large chunk of the time you can't even see the grainy, desaturated aesthetic that makes up most of the game. This world of tumbledown concrete and twisted, splayed girders is clearly channelling the grim spirit of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, as opposed to the more explosive postapocalyptia we've seen in recent months. Your first reaction is to hide, rather than beat your chest and rule the newfound wasteland, and in a medium rife with superheroes and highscores, Ubisoft's attempt to make its player character feel weak, desperate and tested is an admirable goal.
There are overtones of survival horror running through the entire game, with the fog and the map in particular reminiscent of the original Silent Hill. The comparison is one of mechanics rather than content, however, and players are forced to scavenge the environment for a limited supply of items such as water bottles, food cans and first aid kits.