"The game returns to the heavily coloured Lovecraftian roots of the original outing. The story is traditional in its potential for spookiness. Some shady setup is hinted at in the intro, and we witness Edward Carnby and Aline Cedrac go down in their plane, due to the intervention of some unseen malevolence. They end up at different points on Shadow Island, (appropriately named) and begin two separate, but intertwining adventures. "
When the stars are right
There is a love affair or two going on here. The one between Infogrames and H.P. Lovecraft is lengthy, and well documented. From “The Shadow of the Comet”, to “Prisoner of Ice”, to “Alone in the Dark”—the influence that the genius of the ghoulish has had on this company is both evident and profound. And why not? Stephen King describes Howard Phillips as the “Twentieth Century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” So if it’s a scary game you’re aiming at, his singularly inventive body of work seems as good a place as any to start.
Unfortunately, making a good game based on the ideas of the master of the macabre is no simple task. His protagonists come across old, dusty, evil books that are hazardous to one’s health to even read. The author’s puppets would chant mysterious incantations to ‘put down’ invaders from ‘the outside’, who appear in the dark, unexplored reaches of the Earth, ‘when the stars are right’. The first AITD managed to pull off all this eccentricity with superb results. However, SotC before it, and PoI that followed, were both certainly less successful. They were marginally scary at times, but those times were sandwiched between long stretches of ineluctable boredom and tedium. Unfortunately, The New Nightmare would tend to follow in their footsteps.
From Derceto to Dopplegangers
AITD2 and 3, almost famously deviated from the Lovecraftian themes of the original. There was lots more to do the second and third time around, since you weren’t limited to the spooky confines of Derceto, the mansion with a soul. The second game was laden with combat, which AITD purists disliked intensely, and it was coloured by voodoo. Pirates were your enemies, masquerading about in 1920 gangster garb. The title proved that Infogrames could provide a level of weirdness beyond even what Lovecraft inspired in the first game. It was extremely entertaining, and its successor only seemed to build on this momentum. AITD3 perhaps perfected the AITD experience. There was more of 2’s brand of strangeness, as you run into an evil doppelganger, and reincarnate as a cougar, among other remarkable events (remarkably, The New Nightmare has a sad lack of remarkable events, but more on that later). The game also made a return to the darker, scarier look and feel of the original, decreasing the combat, while retaining the colour and expansiveness of the second.
Call Capcom the ultimate opportunists. The Street Fighter II sequel-making machine, took time out from developing the further adventures of Ryu and Ken to produce Resident Evil. The game is little more than AITD for the next generation. The polygons were refined to achieve near-realism, and the level of gore was increased ten-fold. Clever puzzles and eerie and creative atmosphere were doffed in exchange for more guns and ghouls, comparatively nonexistent tunes, and cheap, B movie scares. Needless to say, the genre and the inevitable follow ups it spawned were wildly popular, and made Capcom look like geniuses. But I’m sure they—and a cult following of a certain PC classic—knew better.
All of this set the groundwork for Ingfogrames’ most unenviable, but almost necessary challenge: reclaim the survival horror crown. To be simple, they had to show Capcom and their cheap imitation who was boss.
The results are not overwhelmingly successful. And in the context of the AITD history, that in itself is failure.
So Carnby’s back then?
It’s funny really, because what we’ve got here, is a clone of a clone. In its long-awaited return, AITD borrows heavily perhaps the worst elements of the RE series in an attempt to stay current and relevant.
There are a few things that are done well though. The game returns to the heavily coloured Lovecraftian roots of the original outing. The story is traditional in its potential for spookiness. Some shady setup is hinted at in the intro, and we witness Edward Carnby and Aline Cedrac go down in their plane, due to the intervention of some unseen malevolence. They end up at different points on Shadow Island, (appropriately named) and begin two separate, but intertwining adventures.
The ‘low enemy count’ factor works well here too, as it did (rather unnoticed) in making AITD the scariest survival horror game to date (this factor can best be illustrated by comparing how scary System Shock 2 is beside any other FPS game). What we’ve got is a bit of exploration, book perusing, and puzzle-solving with enemies popping out at just the right times. You will rarely find scores of zombies, ganging up on you while you curse your meager ammunition.
Speaking of which, the lack of ammo is a rather clever and well used horror game device that has developed since the first AITD’s appearance, and Infogrames did well to adopt it. AITD games of old would never need this device. This was due in part to the developers making the ammo markedly more available, but that isn't the crux of it. What is more amazing, is how a decent player was able to clear each of the previous AITD games, firing off less than a dozen shots in each case. Herein lies the major difference between Infogrames’ past efforts and their new nightmare: now you can’t fight.
The sharp-tongued Aline Cedrac, who has mysterious motives for coming out on this trip, and the dull-witted Edward Carnby, are both similarly handicapped. I thought that Aline, properly equipped in her tight jeans and wet, stained men’s undershirt might be able to trade blows with the best of them, but that’s not the case. And yes, the new, strapping, Native Indian-esque Edward Carnby also finds himself unable to defend himself without the aid of firearms. In the transition from AITD to AITD2, Carnby lost his mustache, and gentlemanly manner. He buffed up somewhat, and gave up the stylish leisure suit. He retained a certain sense of Carnby-ness however, and now that is gone. The new Carnby is transformed into Keanu Reeves, from the Matrix trench coat, to the stilted delivery. He has also developed a new facial structure, while out on a case in Beverly Hills, and now sports a grill as chiseled and as well sculpted as any male model cum private dick. Cosmetics aside though, and the fighting issue still remains, its ugly head a reminder of ‘progress’.
Now hold on just a moment, or two
What do you mean we can't duke it out? AITD enthusiasts will no doubt find this completely absurd and unacceptable. If you are without ammo, you must run. The alternative, is to endure the most annoying aspect of Capcom’s gore productions, something I like to call the ‘pull down’. If you’ve played any Resident Evil incarnations, you’ve witnessed this most frustrating scene. Unable to slip slickly by a group of boorish and noisy undead, you are quickly locked in a stupid (and often unavoidable) clinch, which then turns into a neck bite.
It is the equivalent of a Blanka bite in Street Fighter, or a Dhalsim 'nuggie'—perhaps Capcom thought they were establishing a bizarre continuity between games here. Whatever the case, Infogrames made an unwise decision in this matter. Using frying pans and battledores, as well as bare knuckles and the instep of a size 10 loafer, made Carnby legendary in my book. He would—as any of us might in his place—dispatch all manner of ghouls by any means necessary. This new Carnby, and his female co-host in this show of darkness, would have looked even better kicking tail now than before, considering Carnby's animation-challenged past. Alas, ‘the lack of fighting problem’ snowballs into issues with lack of character personality, and the inane clinching with enemies (we don’t need it in our hockey, and we don’t need it in our survival horror).
The foes themselves in The New Nightmare are a bland bunch to say the least. There aren’t too many of them, and they share with Carnby—as well as the heroine of the second adventure, Aline Cedrac—that lack of personality. For example, witness these three ‘creatures of darkness’ (as the dramatically written texts are apt to call them). The Photosaurus, the Ophtalmicid and the Phocomelus. These three mainstays of the alien army are all very different in their modes of attack and certain other characteristics, but there won’t be instant recognition upon seeing any one of them.
“Oh my god, that sound. I hope it’s not an Ophtalmicid lurking around the corner. It is!!” There will be no such exclamation on your part. Instead, you are more likely to sigh, and say, “Where did that come from? Oh, (yawn) it’s another one of those…things.” None of the ghastly light-fearing beasts are really that ghastly. The only saving grace is their reaction to light.
Hello, I can’t see a thing!
The other Alone in the Dark games were not all that dark. Things change for The New Nightmare in a big way. Turn off your flashlight and you are lost. Enemies roar and burst forth from beneath the cover of darkness. Turn it on, and these same aberrances scatter, and back away. Truly impressive. The flashlight’s beam guides you, it brings a blue glitter to important objects that you need to interact with, and it looks cool to boot. The ambient and spot lighting techniques are brilliant—light years ahead of what was done in Silent Hill (the clumsy fog effects) on the same system, for example. This is where the main 'ooh' factor is found.
The weapons are standard issue: the revolver, the all-important, almost clichéd shotgun, and the obligatory special alien weapons.
The game is actually too dark, and the backgrounds are all unvarying and unspectacular. This makes exploration boring, because as I mentioned before, there are no really remarkable sights to see. One or two morbid, off key poundings serve as the music. This is a score that won’t get heavy rotation in anyone’s Discman—if Infogrames were to err enough to release an soundtrack, which they wouldn’t. To be honest, they’ve made enough errors in the execution of the game itself.
The New Nightmare calls imploringly (and almost vainly) for exploration to solve some of its obscure enigmas, for which it most often provides little guidance toward unraveling. But predictably, Carnby and co., steal another ludicrous element from Capcom and co.: the limited save ‘feature’. Oh yes. Infogrames, in all their wisdom, allow you to ‘collect’ Charms of Saving that enable you to save your game. But these ‘Charms’ are worse than the ‘ink ribbons’ from RE. You might finish a particularly tough area, for example, and save the game there, only to reload the game, and find many or all of your tasks undone. And never mind looking for the Charm in the area/room that you thought you had completed. It won't be there. It seems as though the game remembers you’ve used the Charm, but nothing else of what you’ve done in that area. Talk about selective memory! This amounts to ‘wasted saves’, something the instruction booklet warns you about briefly, but nevertheless, this sort of inanity should not be present in the game in the first place.
You really need to be able to run about, discovering things, saving your game as you do, in order for this game to be fun to play. Instead, the game forces you to set aside a considerable block of time to play it at each go, as you must reach the next Charm of Saving really, before you use the Charm that you’ve got. At least, that’s what the book suggests, and it makes sense, it’s just that there are far too few of the Charms to be had.
When the stars aren’t right
I had high expectations for this game. But that does not really skewer my judgement on the verdict of the entertainment value to be had playing it. If anything, I would be harsher on the game’s presentation because of the legacy it has to uphold, and that would be cancelled out effectively by my wishfulness for the game to succeed. The truth, then, must be determined through simple enough criteria, despite all the complexity that has preceded this conclusion. Is the game fun to play?
Most certainly not. The overly dark environment, aside from being depressing, makes it difficult at times to know what to interact with, making puzzles much harder than they need to be. Also, some of the puzzles are not well introduced, so that they seem to come out of left field. The cornball rapport between the adventuring heroes is predictable and almost acceptable, sometimes even providing comedic relief from relentless oppressiveness of the darkness and the monotonous ‘music’. I realize that these devices were intended to make the game scary, but they just make it a drag to play. The clutching and grabbing with foes, and the handicapped save feature are the final nails in the coffin for a game that could have been so much more.
They got the light-play right, (an exceptional achievement, which probably helped the game's grade) the story’s premise, and the name, but unfortunately not much else. There are some tense moments playing as Aline, as she repeatedly encounters the first boss in her journey, that won't die(there are only two 'bosses' per character). But, in the end, the wonderfully creative and fear-inducing series that is Alone in the Dark has degraded to a Resident Evil clone that’s harder to save, not as fun to look at, and a generally worse time all around. Lovecraft fans: you can't help but feel that a much better game, with the right effort, was lurking at the threshold.
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 14, 2004)
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