Ever since Frederick Raynal's 1992 masterpiece Alone in the Dark made us tense up as we crept into each new room, developers have been chasing down the perfect formula and trying to recapture that magic. Not only has this been the burden of the many that have attempted to take the helm of the Alone in the Dark series, but nearly everyone that has tackled the survival-horror genre since. What was it that was able to make those goofy, blocky creatures so damned scary? How did it get inside our heads like that?
Eden Games has a few answers and, while they seem to have missed the mark in some predictable ways, they've nailed it in some surprising ones. Their reimagining of the franchise – the second consecutive reboot for the series – takes plenty of risks, and the "kitchen sink" approach to their design proves that they're thinking about how to move forward, and not simply keep up with what others have done in the meantime.
To make it clearer: This is not Resident Evil 4. You aren't going to find a shooter in survival-horror clothing here. Fear is in the mind. It lurks in the unknown. Penetrating the oppressive darkness with a flashlight leaves a lot to the imagination, and it's that uncertainty that is Alone in the Dark's greatest strength.
This is not Resident Evil 4. You aren't going to find a shooter in survival-horror clothing here.
There don't have to be enemies waiting around every corner, as long as you think there might be. The threat of enemy presence is always looming, but this is cerebral title in touch with its adventure game roots, and it's longer on puzzles than gunplay. These range from inventive physics puzzles to the classic logic and inventory-based stuff you remember from the original.
Of course, the threat of combat is only as intimidating as the fights themselves, and it's here that Eden takes a turn that might upset those not familiar with the genre. Where other games are usually strive to have an agile, powerful character, Alone features a slightly slow, unwieldy character faced with nimble, athletic enemies can't be killed by bullets. It's not bad game design; it's how you create a truly scary game world.
In fact, these enemies can only be killed by fire; lighting a chair and waving it at them, holding a lighter to a can of hairspray, or dousing your bullets in gasoline to give them an extra punch. If you want to do the latter, you'll need to combine a bottle with your weapon every time you load a clip. Is it awkward? Sure, a little – but it's an effective way to make you panic when you hear those footsteps.
The developers had some interesting ideas on how to update the tone of the series as well, but it's here that they start to veer off course. For some reason the eerie 1920s setting is considered much less marketable in 2008 than in 1992, so Edward Carnby now finds himself in present-day New York City. Central Park makes an interesting sandbox for a horror game, and it's great for anyone that knows the area to see the ordinary perverted and made unnatural. Unfortunately, Edward's street-wise, foul-mouthed wise cracking doesn't do as much to help the mood.
It seems the developers wanted to capture the feel of a television drama, right down to an episodic structure, and montages that tell you what happened "previously on Alone in the Dark." You'll have a bout with amnesia, meet a sassy Latina sidekick/love interest, get into high-speed car chases, and hear something about being a "chosen one." While there are actually some attempts to tie the story into the continuity of the original trilogy, the world seems so removed from its Lovecraftian roots that they really shouldn't have bothered.
Eden clearly seemed to wrestle with the length of this title, and loaded the final stretch of the game with a chunk of filler about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the teeth. While the freedom to drive around is an excellent addition, being forced to roam all over for hours hunting "roots" is a trial of patience. After seven episodes of careful puzzles and clever level design, this just feels like hitting a wall. Mercifully, thanks to the DVD-like structure of the game you can skip this segment, but you have to play at least part of it to earn the privilege.
Despite its flaws, it's hard not to admire Alone in the Dark for taking chances. After all, horror in all its forms is a somewhat masochistic genre. The idea of making yourself uncomfortable runs against everything we know about game design, but it's captured masterfully here. Eden Games fought hard for a very ambitious design that goes against the grain of much of the rest of the industry. While not every idea works, horror fans owe it to themselves to at least consider this one.