Alone in the Dark User Review 'The forefather of survival horror' by Praetorian_Lord - Neoseeker

Alone in the Dark


Alone in the Dark review
The forefather of survival horror


Here’s a fast fact for all you budding game designers out there: technology goes out of date, but gameplay doesn’t. The vast majority of successful modern games aren’t innovative; they just basically provide a more up-to-date version of something that was done years ago. Having played through a lot of older games recently, it therefore occurs to me that the ones more likely to stand the test of time are those that don’t care about being the latest and greatest in terms of graphics or sound quality, but which attempted something new or at least had gameplay as its highest priority. 1992’s Alone in the Dark is an interesting case study because it tried to do a bit of both. Lo and behold, the ‘revolutionary’ (aren’t they always) 3D graphics have aged about as well as Keith Richards, and yet I was amazed by how surprisingly complete a game it is. To be fair, after recent disappointments I did come expecting total horseshit, but it really isn’t that bad at all. It’s by and large a definitive survival horror experience, with everything present that we’ve come to expect from modern industry heavyweights. A good mix of combat and exploration, fixed camera angles and limited ammunition, an engaging plot to motivate us throughout the nightmare – it’s all here, and it all works.

I have a soft spot for Lovecraft, so I’m a bit biased towards Alone in the Dark’s subject matter. The entirety of the game takes place in Derceto, a three-storey mansion with a long and clandestine history of occult rituals and black magic. At the game’s outset you learn that the house’s current owner has recently taken his own life under mysterious circumstances, and as either his niece or a private investigator it’s up to you to infiltrate Derceto, uncover the secrets behind its past and, in turn, vanquish the horrors that reside within. The story can be a little confusing, especially if you’re not interested in reading between the lines of the scattered journal fragments and police reports that constitute Alone in the Dark’s considerable script. It won’t be for everyone, but you can at least see the precedent for similar storytelling devices in modern games.

The first novel feature, as I’ve alluded to, is being able to choose whether your character is male or female. In reality there’s not much difference aside from a slightly altered introduction sequence, a different character model and gender-appropriate grunts during combat. It doesn’t represent much in the way of extra effort on the developers’ part, but it’s still nice to be given the option. After that, it’s Survival Horror 101. Locked in a creepy mansion with a horde of monsters for company? Being forced to explore to find hidden keys, weapons and ammunition in order to destroy the ultimate evil plaguing Derceto and earn your freedom? Any of this sounding incredibly familiar to horror game fans?

The graphics are obviously hideously outdated, but they’re tolerable for the most part. The 2D sequences are very pixellated, but there’s enough detail that you can usually tell what everything’s supposed to be. Derceto itself is surprisingly fun to navigate in 3D. The textures are pretty awful by today’s standards, but Alone in the Dark manages to get away with it since the oblique, fixed camera angles mean that you don’t really get to see anything truly horrendous in close detail... with one exception. Even if they were cutting edge, I can’t imagine that the low polygon counts of the character models were ever impressive. The monsters and the player characters alike look like something a five year old might come up with in Paint. Combined with the generally bright colours and cartoony artistic style, there’s zero chance of actually being scared while playing. There’s very little immersion attributable to the presentation, and there’s no attempt at lighting effects beyond having a couple of rooms being pitch black before being inexplicably flooded with light once you turn your lantern on. You’re literally ‘alone in the dark’ for about five seconds total.

The sound isn’t half bad either. I confess that I’m not a fan of the same, repetitive music playing every time combat begins – although it is useful for alerting you to the presence of unseen monsters – but otherwise I was frankly impressed. It’s generally silent except for your constant footfalls, and the occasional soundbyte of a distant creak or howl. But there are even collectible records that you can find and play on your gramophone if you feel like exploring to classical music. Once again, because the individual sounds aren’t of the highest quality it’s not as atmospheric as you might like from a horror game. But hey, we’ve got to cut pioneers some slack from time to time. And actually, the fact that the atmosphere is entirely down to being in a cavernous mansion with god knows what lurking around the next corner is an impressive achievement. Heck, even the voice acting isn’t terrible. Not good, but not terrible.

Of course criticising outdated presentation is too easy, and when you actually judge Alone in the Dark on the basis of its gameplay then it’s surprisingly modern. From the mix of exploration and combat, to the occasional puzzle-solving, limited ammunition, hidden passages, and storytelling through collectible books and scrolls -everything you’d expect in a modern survival horror title is here represented, albeit in a seriously watered-down form. It’s generally fun, challenging without being too difficult, and consequently there’s a genuine sense of achievement once you figure out what to do.

Once again tank controls – apparently another staple in ‘90s survival horror – rear their ugly head, and while I can’t bring myself to excuse them entirely, they’re not nearly as problematic here due to the relative infrequency of combat. There’s a good range of weapons, too, but because ammunition is scarce you always prefer to avoid fighting when possible. There’s no auto-aim, however, so trying to shoot a monster can be a trying experience. Basically, once you equip your firearm of choice the spacebar becomes your trigger, and the arrow keys let you spin on the spot. Ergo, forget about running and gunning. It adds an artificial difficulty which is probably appropriate, considering that neither of the playable characters has any reason to be proficient with the weapons they use. But considering how limited ammunition is, you don’t get much in the way of practice before being thrown into life and death situations. And the grainy graphics and fixed camera angles can make it difficult to see exactly where you’re aiming, so it’s reaalllly easy to waste ammo. But then I guess that’s the whole point.

Hand-to-hand combat is particularly interesting since the arrow keys allow you to make different attacks once you've assumed fighting stance. Forward is a powerful but slow kick, while left and right are rapid punches with limited range. There’s a good variety of different monster types, and some rudimentary tactics begin to come into the picture depending on the monster you face. Kicks are sufficient to drop the slower zombies, for instance, but for quicker monsters it becomes necessary to slap them back into kicking range if you find yourself backed into a corner. It’s pretty tense having to learn all this on the fly, too, particularly because your character has a glass jaw and health boosts are also extremely limited.

I also enjoyed the puzzles even if they didn’t always make total sense. In some cases, one of the books you find will foreshadow how to defeat an upcoming monster in a roundabout kind of way, making them actually worth reading even if you’re not interested in the narrative. Some of the puzzles are excessively difficult, however. Not in the sense that they’re hard to solve if you know what you’re supposed to do, but the fact that the solution usually won’t occur to you without using every available item in every possible location. An item that you collect in the first ten minutes might not be used until about halfway through the game. It would have been nice if the solutions had been a bit more intuitive, rather than relying on simple trial and error.

There are a few dick moves, though, like your character suddenly falling through the floor to their death if you walk on an arbitrary section of flooring, or finding out the hard way that touching a ghost is an instant perma-death. I wouldn’t mind so much except that the save system doesn’t complement it whatsoever. On death, you’re forced to reload from whenever you last remembered to save. Didn’t save recently? Lose an hour’s progress. I really hate that.

I’m also not a big fan of actions being menu-based at the expense of any kind of HUD. Basically the spacebar is your one and only action button, and you can assign a single action to it at any time. If you want to switch from ‘search’ to ‘fight’ (because a monster’s just appeared behind you, for example) then you have to enter the menu and select the fight action before you can use it. And then once combat’s over, you have to re-enter the menu and assign the search action to the spacebar again. The frustration is mediated somewhat by how quickly the screens change, but it’s still clunky and makes combat considerably less exciting since you’re effectively pausing pretty much constantly. I mean, sure, once you’re familiar with the menu system this process only takes a second or two, but we do have a FREAKING KEYBOARD with like a million buttons in front of us. Surely we can do better than just using the same one over and over? I dunno, maybe the game predates key binding, but it just seems like such an obvious solution to one of the game’s most frustrating aspects. I also thought that the game was a bit short. Virtually all of the monster encounters are scripted, so you can race through the game in under an hour on your second playthrough since most of your time ends up being spent looking for key items and figuring out which goes where. It doesn’t help that the ending likewise feels a bit rushed and is far less satisfying than it should be. Still, on the whole the game is well-executed. A modern redux wouldn’t really need to do much in the way of changing the actual gameplay, since it’s all pretty good even if it isn’t perfect.

Conclusion: When I decided to start playing through older games to find the precedents of modern horror, Alone in the Dark is exactly what I was looking for. The graphics are hideously outdated, as you’d expect, but the game as a whole is surprisingly playable. Sure, it suffers from poor design or a lack of judgment in some basic areas, but it’s amazing how many features of modern survival horrors you can see, relatively unaltered, represented here. And even if it didn’t invent all of them, it combines them in such a way that modern games didn’t really need to do much to change this basic formula. It’s basically a much weaker version of everything gamers enjoy about horror today, and unless you absolutely have to have the latest and greatest and everything, I see no reason why fans of modern horror games wouldn’t enjoy Alone in the Dark too.

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Alone in the Dark
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