Alone in the Dark 2 (Mac) review
"Alone in the dark, Alone in the twilight, Alone in the floodlights... Stuff the lighting, it's all the same to me so long as I'm not alone with this game. "
Alone in the dark, Alone in the twilight, Alone in the floodlights... Stuff the lighting, it's all the same to me so long as I'm not alone with this game.
Alone with the Pain
The Alone In the Dark (AITD) games from the early 1990s have developed a bit of a sleeper reputation over the years, albeit one tainted with stress and suspicion. Sure, they pioneered a lot of stuff. They came up with clever 3D polygonal engines and pre-rendered backdrops which 'cut' from screen to screen to create a dynamically presented world. Roll this into a ball with creepy atmosphere, the odd puzzle, pushable scenery and plenty of combat and you have the blueprint for what turned into Survival Horror. Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare is on our Playstation shelves e'en now. But did you notice that the latest AITD goes out of its way to mimic all survival horror games except the original AITD games?
Why is that? Is it because they were no bloody good?
This is a case where the pioneers do not scrub up very well. AITD games are way too hard, filled with obnoxiously arbitrary puzzles, solutions that you have to pluck out of thin air, sudden instant deaths and stupid combat that is usually very cheap. The tragedy is that there are many great things about them too - an utterly distinctive visual style, powerful sound effects and nervy atmosphere - but in the end each AITD game goes down like the Titanic on the gameplay front.
AITD 2 is technically slicker than the first game in the series, but it also honed the insulting gameplay to wreak even more severe psychological damage upon unsuspecting adventurers.
Christmas Eve 1924
Edward Carnby, the private eye with the knack for tackling supernatural crime and our protagonist in the AITD games, faces a dangerous new assignment. Ed's friend's daughter, an eight year-old named Grace, has been kidnapped by a gang of bootleggers and smuggled away to a haunted mansion called Hell's Kitchen. Why? Honestly, I've never entirely worked out why they nabbed her. Even the manual wouldn't tell me, and this was after I tried the 'Aw c'mon, I'll be your friend!' ploy. Anyway, playing Carnby we must dispatch without delay to Hell's Kitchen which is located on a clifftop overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and there rescue Grace whilst surviving another cheap onslaught of maddening puzzles and combat.
Setting the game on Christmas Eve was a beautiful atmospheric manoeuvre. Pity it couldn't pull the whole deal out of the pit.
Alone with Edward Carnby
Control is surprisingly basic throughout these games. The cursor keys are used to make the dapper blue-suited and moustached Carnby turn, walk and run in the relative style of Asteroids. I've always found it weird that this control scheme is a 'can or can't' one; like the ability to roll one's tongue, players can either do it or they can't. You can use various hand-to-hand attacks by holding spacebar then a direction... except that only one of these is any good, namely the fast left hook, because the only combat skill with a high pay-off rate is to corner-trap enemies and then hit them repeatedly and as fast as you can.
There are tons of melee weapons to pick up, like frying pans, swords, sticks and battledores, which is fun - TICK
But most of them (bar the sword) are effectively useless - CROSS
and you're usually better off using your cheapest fastest punch - CROSS CROSS
Then there are the guns. They're only useful if you completely get the drop on a bad guy. If he starts shooting you first, you are locked into a flinching/ injury cycle which leads in %80 of cases to inescapable death. Add a second shooter (he doesn't even have to be behind a grassy knoll) and the death rate increases to %100 - CROSS CROSS CROSS
Take the first scene: Carnby arrives at the front of the mansion. You punch out the first smuggler and grab his Tommy Gun. Now you dash into a hedge maze. Suddenly a horde of terrifying giant hayseeds who inexplicably mutter 'Good morning sir!' lope towards your position and all open up at once with machine guns. Remember - being shot at by one guy is %80 chance of death, two or more is %100. You're transfixed. You're dead.
'How could this slaughterfest be the first scene of the whole game?' you cry. The answer is that there's not a difficulty curve in AITD 2 as such. It's more like a seismograph readout in the moments prior to an earthquake.
Some of the things the game expects you to deal with are hilarious. Fighting six gunmen at once in the mansion foyer is not possible. Literally. The solution to that one is to either solve the obscure puzzle that prevents the situation from occurring in the first place, OR... run up and down the stairs leading to this room approximately thirty times. Sure it's boring (and I'm not exaggerating that number either), but each time you enter, the bad guys all have to take aim anew and they don't mind if they shoot the crap out of each other in the process. Here's a third bonus solution: If by some miracle you make it across the foyer before the enemies arrive, stick yourself behind a doorway - preferably next to the Christmas tree for the sake of irony - and hold down the keys for the fast punch. Maybe your luck will hold and each guy will take his turn to get stuck on your questing left fist and die after upwards of twenty punches.
Thus, the main skill of the AITD games is to constantly abuse their poor engines to find ways to cheat impossible odds. Yay!
Alone with the puzzles
See how you fare with the following questions:
-- If you found a metallic playing card, would you immediately start looking around for an altar?
-- If you are told 'You can't reach' an amulet which you plainly can reach, do you immediately go downstairs and pick a doubloon up off the floor to remedy the problem?
-- Whenever you're about to be captured by enemies, can you anticipate which kidnappings are Good (If I get kidnapped now, the story will progress) and which are Bad? (If I get kidnapped now, I will die!)
How are you doing? If you've answered positively to all three so far, I'm afraid of you because you are scary and you have the magical powers needed to beat the AITD games without ever having to consult a walkthrough... something I've never been able to do.
Alone with Edvard Munch
The man who painted the The Scream thankfully inspired in the AITD games their main reason to be proud: a memorable visual style.
In the early days of polygons, before they were being used to try to closely simulate reality, some clever artists observed their triangular and diamondesque beauty and decided to run with it. The characters in AITD are triumphs of this exaggerated geometrical form. The overall-wearing hayseeds have stripped angular skulls straight out of the Munch painting. Evil eyes are triangles. Limbs and bodies are created in single bold strokes out of necessity. An inverted trapezium forms the sweep of a zoot-suited gangster's broad shoulders, and the wasp-like spiking out of a woman's figure is erotic because of the artists' tremendous understanding of form. The whole thing is like art deco or classic Japanese art, and just as instant in its communication of meaning. The painterly scenery also has many imaginative features, such as evil faces forming in the hedge mazes or vermin scurrying around in the darker corners of a basement.
Sound effects and music are equally strong, even if the dreaded Danny Boy makes a brief appearance. There's a French 'street accordion' flavour in the catchy pirate music and a bouncy quality about it which can almost get your feet tapping. I remember this as the first game I bought for the Mac which had the ability to play the soundtrack directly from the CD if you copied the rest of the files to your hard drive, and the total effect and sound quality still seem fabulous today. The other sound effects are tight too: The clear footsteps which accurately reflect whatever surface you're walking over, from crunching gravel to creaking wooden floorboards. The enemy grunts and yells are seriously scary, usually because they're so strange. Like those hayseeds growling 'Morning Sir!' in a deep octave as they try to massacre you... It's inspired and so bizarre it just digs into your nerves.
But this wouldn't be a real AITD game if it didn't manage to mess up even its best areas with at least one defiantly crappy feature.
Alone with the Voices
Oh dearie me.
AITD 2 has the slowest and most portentously delivered voice acting EVER. It's bad enough that the story of the game is incomprehensible anyway. If you have the patience to drop everything in the middle of a game to read multiple ten page stories (BORING stories) about ghost pirates who sailed the seas centuries ago, you're even more literate-minded than myself. Yes, you don't find messages in AITD 2 but entire books they expect you to read. Trying to read them while the voice actor slowly grizzles his way up to where you are ('Arrrrr!') is unbearable, and their length is surreal! You keep hitting return expecting them to end, but the pages keep-a-comin'. It's that dream again!
Alone with the rest of the game.
Valiantly you fight onwards. You're trying to understand a story which goes out of its way to defy comprehension. You're dealing with obscure puzzles handed down from the astral plane.
Then you get all excited for one moment when there's a shock character change and you find yourself playing Grace! She's cute alright in her blue 'jammies, and Edward's fighting moves have been replaced by Grace's ability to bop around and make rude faces. But as soon as you realise that her top onscreen speed is one centimetre/ second, and that in this mode an enemy only has to see you for you to die your umpteenth death, you're right back in tortureland. Why did they deliver the most innovative part of the game so painfully? I wanted badly to love it, because this is where Resident Evil 2 ripped one of its greatest features from, the ability to switch between an adult protagonist (Claire) and a rogue child (Sherry). But while Resident Evil 2 did something beautiful with it, AITD 2 which invented the scheme just squandered its own great idea! It's enough to make me wring my hands.
After this disappointment it's back to the inexorable and arbitrary pain of AITD 2 that will break most players before they can come near completing the game. Die, die, die, puzzle, die, puzzle, die, puzzle, impossible fight on pirate ship, die, die, die, puzzle, die...
I completed it once, but that's why doctors say I'm going to kick the bucket a year earlier than I would have.
Alone. Just plain old Alone.
Didn't the people in the guilty French division of Infogrames test the AITD games on newbies?
Didn't someone say, 'Hey this is impossible!' or 'Jeez I hate this!'
Or was it all a case of Edith Piaf? 'Je ne regrette rien!'
Why didn't someone do ANYTHING to make the AITD games the triumphs they could have been, had the same graphic and atmospheric beauty been wedded to some decent gameplay? Because if even the most hardcore and reverent survival horror fans like myself can't look back on these pioneering games fondly, who will? They really are tragic.
If you've still got your heart set on visiting any one of these titles to expand your repertoire of infamous games, the first one in the series is a more reasonable proposition.
As for Alone in the Dark 2, well it just gets right up my nose.
-- Alone in the Dark 2 -- 3/10 --
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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