I Am Alive takes place in a city ravaged by tectonic shock waves. Massive struts in multi-story buildings, clinging together with rubble and wiring, threaten to collapse with a single aftershock. It’s a touch melodramatic, at least to someone raised in Christchurch, but compared to as many zombie-lasers and nuclear submarine assaults I Am Alive feels refreshingly grounded. The methodical climbing and slow paced combat too, are tense and understated. The game doesn’t take it nearly far enough, but its ideas are grand.
You play as a nameless father searching for his wife and daughter. I suppose that the decision not burden him with a name was made in an attempt to forge a stronger connection between player and avatar. Developers Darkworks, and Ubisoft Shanghai, could have taken it a lot further. He still talks, a generic husky voice that narrates obvious attributes of the environment. Remarking that there is a lot of dust, for example, really detracts from and trivialises the lonely, broken city setting. The plot is entirely driven by his personality too; he mistakes a small girl he finds for his daughter – leading the player on a convoluted chase. His mental characteristics are well worked-out by the game’s writing and a special connection could have been formed by muting him completely.
Characters in I Am Alive subsist on the very edge of starvation and suffocation, and the gameplay strains to reflect that. Climbing is never flashy, and rarely takes place in a dynamic context, instead tension is developed from a fatigue bar that creeps down as the player climbs. Tapping the right trigger to speed up or making a large jump drains the meter in large chunks. In theory, this should require the player to examine the potential paths that they could be taking, and debate whether or not they have enough water bottles and pitons to make vertical journey. The trouble is, and this is a problem that extends into other areas of the game, is that I Am Alive is really linear. There’s always one optimum way to get around, it might require you to reload an area and use less resources before hand, but a player will certainly make it through if they’ve worked out how.
The combat, at first, struck me as pretty remarkable. A gun rarely has more than 1 bullet but even without ammunition your pistol is darn useful. Pointing it at enemies will cause them to raise their hands and you can yell to slowly back them towards hazards or away from their allies. Enemies who think they have the upper hand will slowly approach the player who might surprise them with a machete. It feels great at first – so few shots are fired, so few blows (a near realistic number, even) will dispatch you or your foe. Again though, it ends up becoming too predictable and in an environment where entire buildings threaten to crash down around you at any moment predictable kills the vibe somewhat.
You’d think there would be a touch of moral ambiguity, you know? Broken women and men who try to do good, but occasionally must steal a loaf of bread to feed their starving family? Instead, I Am Alive’s enemies are always cowardly thugs and its friends are always lying on benches desperate for food or medicine. Saving them grants the player an extra “retry”, but since they are abundant anyway the incentive for saving NPCs is low.
There are minor problems too, the kind that plague any Tomb Raider inspired game with a whole bunch of climbing on things. Signposting is often sub-par, leaving the player with no idea where to clamber next. As you might expect, in the trashed world of I Am Alive plenty of surfaces look climbable and it’s hard to tell which parts can and can’t be traversed. The climbing controls are usually tight, methodical and slow-paced but often (in the heat of the moment as your fatigue bar collapses) the nameless protagonist will, frustratingly, climb in a direction that you didn’t desire.
I Am Alive has clever ideas and in a different context in which (Somehow – I’m not sure how. It could easily be impossible) levels are randomly generated and failure is permanent there’s a sense that they could be brilliant. Every decision would be a genuine risk; every other human would be a genuine threat. As it stands, the game boils down to a slightly archaic puzzle solving adventure game. 
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai