A hungry Xenomorph, frightening androids, and a lot of genuine fear.
I am not typically a horror fan. I don’t usually play horror games or watch horror movies, but man do I love me some Alien. I also love a good deal. When the two of those loves collided early this summer, I decided it would be worth it to check out a game that one of my buddies had given some pretty high recommendations for. For $12, what could there be to lose? To my pleasant surprise, Alien: Isolation scared the shit out of me and I loved every minute of it.
You take on the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of the infamous Nostromo badass Ellen Ripley. Your goal, to find out what happened to your mother aboard the Nostromo. You hear news that Sevastopol, a trade station orbiting the gas giant KG-348, supposedly got a hold of the ship logs from the Nostromo that could hold the key to what happened. It’s a relatively simple and motivating goal that ultimately turns into one of the worst business trips Amanda has most likely ever had. If you’ve ever seen an Alien movie, then you may have some idea of how the structure of the game carries out. Things start relatively slowly and continue to build and build and build until everything just comes crashing the fuck down in excellent, invigorating set-piece moments. The story is pretty captivating and is carried by excellent voice acting across the board. From start to finish, I felt very invested in Amanda’s story as I scrambled for survival on Sevastopol along with her.
Mechanically, the game plays akin to a Bioshock or a Systemshock with some Metroid-vania exploration. You’re exploring a great deal of locations aboard Sevastopol station uncovering new devices, blueprints, and weapons so you can use them to explore new areas of the station later on. Devices such as the Ion Torch and the Security Tuner allow you to access new, locked doors that were previously inaccessible and can eventually be upgraded to gain access to even more areas later in the game. There is some backtracking, though not excessive, but each time you revisit an old area there is always something new to change things up, be it new enemies, environmental changes, or otherwise. There is a relatively simple crafting element to the game that proved to be essential to my overall survival. Craftable items such as med-kits, flashbang grenades, noisemakers, EMP grenades, molotov cocktails, and more offered a great deal of variety in ways to defend yourself or move unseen. Relatively early on, you come across a motion tracking device that allows you to see moving targets (both good and bad) within a relatively small radius. It also serves a secondary purpose, indicating where your primary objective is located with a moving line around the edges. This tool is an absolute life-saver, though it often made me more anxious knowing the enemies’ whereabouts than to remain blissfully ignorant.
Playing Alien: Isolation is not the typical “fun” experience. I felt tense, stressed, uneasy, and generally off-balance throughout the entire 25 or so hours through the main campaign. I felt like I couldn’t relax into my couch and was constantly forced to play vigilantly at the edge of my seat. In this game, you are constantly hunted, forced to run, hide, and remain stealthy when there are enemies about. Enemies range from fellow human survivors to “Working Joes” (Sevastopol’s worker androids) to the Xenomorph itself. In all scenarios, stealth is always your best option. Weapons are not all that effective, ammo is relatively scarce, and health does not regenerate without using a crafted med-kit. Weapons like the revolver, shotgun, or stun baton have no effect whatsoever on the Xenomorph other than to anger it more. You do get a flamethrower later on that can save your skin in a time of need but I wouldn’t get too confident, as it only provides a temporary solution. This is a game about avoiding confrontation. There are locations underneath tables, inside lockers, or inside cabinets that allow you to hide from enemies while they methodically hunt you down. The AI for enemies is effective and could pretty easily snuff out where I had gone and where I was trying to hide. The Xenomorph itself adapts to your style of play. The more you try and fight the Alien, the more aggressive it becomes. The more you choose to hide in cabinets, the more it checks for you in cabinets. Hiding is not perfectly safe; if you’re not careful, you may even get discovered and find yourself shot, stabbed, or eaten.
Graphically, Alien: Isolation looks excellent overall. This game was pretty early on in the current generation and was developed and released for both the current and previous generations at the same time. Despite it all, the game looks phenomenal with great textures, excellent lighting effects, fog, smoke, etc. You look out of the windows and see the grand scale of the nearby gas giant dwarfing the station in size with debris flying by as the station decays and crumbles. Character models, environments, and enemies all look great and offer a fine amount of detail. Sevastopol station has the retro-future design of the Alien series represented perfectly. The atmosphere and environment of this game feels exactly like an Alien movie. It all comes together beautifully. My only real issue in the graphical department would have to be the animations and lip-syncing in cutscenes, which can sometimes be stiff and leave something to be desired. But with the excellent voice acting in these scenes, the minor animation issues are mostly made up for.
When it comes to the soundscape of the game, Alien: Isolation’s sound and music is perfectly executed. The music is very representative of the Alien movies and offers a well-made, quiet, and spacious backdrop for the entire game. When moments get tense or danger is near, it smoothly transitions into heavy, heart-pounding arrangements that truly add to the intensity of the experience. I remember vividly a moment where I was waiting for a tram to arrive and the music built and built up to this intense climax as I was standing there in an empty room, just waiting for the Xenomorph to fall from the ceiling to devour me before the doors opened. Ultimately, that never happened and the Xenomorph never showed its ugly face, but the music made the moment so tense I still felt real relief when the tram doors finally closed behind me. With the ambient sounds of the game, Alien: Isolation provides yet more tensity. You can hear the Xenomorph as it moves through the vents above you. You hear its hissing and its tail dragging across the floor as it moves into the room. You hear it sprint away with its powerful stride and you hear it sneak up behind you as it viscerally pierces its tail through your chest with a crunch. The sound adds so much terror and immersion to this game, I applaud the sound engineers who put this all together.
Speaking of being pierced through the chest, Alien: Isolation’s difficulty is unforgiving. I can’t even begin to count how many times I died playing through the game. Sequences where you are forced to weave in and out of a tight area with the Xenomorph around are brutally difficult and can sometimes be very frustrating. One of the core traits of Alien: Isolation is how saves are handled. There are no auto saves and there are no save options in the menu. To save, you must visit an “Emergency Terminal” and wait three whole seconds to save without the game pausing. The simple act of saving your game can become a tense moment when there’s enemies nearby, something the game is kind enough to mention when you access the terminal. Personally, I liked the save system itself. It’s pretty unique in today’s game environment and forced me to play more carefully because of it. My only issue is that coupled with how difficult some areas of the game can be, I found myself having to redo some sections over and over and over again until I could successfully make it through without being strangled, eaten, impaled, or shot in the back of the head. It can be immensely frustrating redoing the same section over and over again as the game continues to scare me more and more each subsequent death.
Alien: Isolation is a fantastic game. Through amazing sound design, wonderful graphics, great writing, and genuinely terrifying gameplay, Alien: Isolation proves to be a solid survival horror. However, while I mostly liked it, the save system can lead to some serious frustrations when things aren’t going your way. And things rarely do go your way. This game is tough, but rewarding. But while some sections feel impossibly frustrating to stealth your way though, when you succeed it’s extremely gratifying. The pacing can sometimes feel like a rollercoaster, the story isn’t a happy one, and there aren’t many silver linings to be had along the way, but the game feels like Alien though and through. If you’re looking for a great survival horror game, or if you love the Alien franchise, this game is definitely worth your time.