Welcome ghouls, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night, to our Halloween special review. And this evening, we’re going to take a look at one of the games that built the foundations of the survival horror genre: Alone in the Dark.
Alone in the Dark is an action-adventure game made by Infogrames and originally released in 1992 for DOS. It was re-released the following year in CD-ROM format and ported to the FM Towns and PC-98 computers. It was also ported in 1994 to Macintosh and 3DO and the following year to the Acorn 32-bit computer. And in 2014 it was released for iOS.
Alone in the Dark came to life when French developer Infogrames decided to do an horror-themed game using the new 3D graphics and animation of the time. Unfortunately, animating an entire mansion in 3D wasn’t possible, so the designers decided to just animate the characters and the objects in a pre rendered 2D background, which forced the use of fixed camera positions. The team also decided to use the haunted mansion trope as their horror setting since it’s a well established classic horror trope, but combined with Lovecraftian elements.
But before we continue with the game itself, let’s look at these horrible visages, shall we?
This is the most well-known cover of the game and I have to confess, it’s quite good, giving a proper eerie atmosphere.
This an alternate cover, released only in Europe. It’s less colourful and detailed than the previous one, but it’s still quite eerie.
But time has come, children of the night, to boot this horror into our systems:
But before playing the game, I recommend reading the newspaper that comes with it which not only presents you the background story, but it also helps you immerse in the 1920s atmosphere, although the text presented in the character selection might be enough as a background story. Basically the story is that Jeremy Hartwood, an artist living in Louisiana, was found hanged in the loft of his mansion Derceto. The police consider the cause of death to be suicide and of course, we all know there’s more than meets the eye.
You can choose between two characters: Emily Hartwood, Jeremy’s niece, who doesn’t believe her uncle committed suicide but believes he left a note for her in his old piano or Edward Carnby, a down-in-his-luck private detective who was hired by an antique dealer to find the aforementioned piano. The intro shows either character arriving at Derceto and heading to the loft, where then the game properly starts. I recommend acting fast when you start because if you take too long, two monsters will enter the loft to confront you and although they’re easy to defeat, it’s best to block their way in.
The game uses tank controls to control the character, which I personally don’t like and although they’re somewhat responsive, the animation is too slow. Luckily, the monsters also move slowly (and some even slower), so you’ll never be outrun by any of them. Also, the game’s mechanics and controls are quite intuitive, so you’ll have no time getting used to them (it depends on your experience with tank controls, though). And as far as I can tell, there’s no gameplay difference between both characters.
Another aspect that becomes immediately apparent is the fixed camera views, which range from adequate to horrible. The perspective changes from one screen to another which can mess up the gameplay (especially if your character is running). Also, some camera angles are weird and although it might improve the atmosphere, it makes the game unnecessarily harder, like getting stuck behind a wall or fighting enemies that are just outside the camera view, among others.
The inventory screen shows your health, the actions you can perform and your inventory. However, unlike graphic adventures, you have limited inventory space in which you can only carry objects until reaching a weight limit. Unless specified otherwise, usually the bigger the object, the heavier it is. Luckily, you can drop objects and pick them up later and apart from weapons, most objects only have one use, so after using them in a specific puzzle, you can just drop them to pick up other objects. And if for some reason, you need to pick up an object you dropped earlier, you can always backtrack for it. It makes the gameplay harder and more confusing but more realistic.
There are four type of objects you can pick up and use: weapons (and ammo for the ranged ones), objects to be used in puzzles, books and parchments that contain the game’s plot and hints to solve the puzzles or how to defeat certain monsters and health objects (potions or food). However, there are also some red-herrings (objects that have no use whatsoever or are dangerous to use). There’s also a reduced number of ammo and health potions throughout the mansion, so you need to know when to use them for maximum effectiveness.
The puzzles are somewhat hard to solve due to the small amount of hints and you’ll be forced to resort to a trial-and-error method in order to solve them. Some of them are typical adventure puzzles (using objects to get other objects or to gain access to new areas) while others are used to bypass or defeat a special monster (because not all monsters can be easily defeated by fighting them). However, the first half of the game is more puzzle-driven, while the second half is more action-oriented (which I’ll talk about later on).
The game presents great sound effects, especially the screams when your character is hit by a monster or every step you take and every creak when you open a door, which contributes to the eerie atmosphere of the game. But the voice-over acting it’s average at best, although some over-the-top delivery can be quite entertaining. However, the soundtrack by Philippe Vachey is superb but it only appears in certain moments, which is a good point, because the silence works in favor of the overall atmosphere. In fact, the music is the only hint you have when a monster suddenly appears.
But unfortunately for me, the worst part of the game are the graphics. Yes, I know this is a 1992 game, but early 3D polygons have aged terribly. Although the backgrounds and the colours look good (especially in the latter areas), the texture of the characters and the monsters look terrible. All the monsters look more funny than scary (especially the bird-like monsters at the beginning). And the lack of shadows doesn’t help either although I do love the game-over screen.
But to properly continue the review, one has to peel back the nice cover to reveal the ugly truth behind it. In other words:
Like I mentioned before, the first half of the games has more puzzles while the second half (after gaining access to the underground caves) is more action-oriented with some platforming. You even get a new action (jump) for said platforming. However, the moment you enter the caves you can’t go back the same way, so I recommend making sure you have all the objects, weapons and ammo necessary to finish the game.
And talking about the platforming, the camera perspectives make it very difficult to properly land the jumps and although you won’t die if you miss a jump, it won’t be easy getting back to where you were initially. Also another small hint: avoid the water as long as possible. And to finish the spoilers, don’t think for a second that the game ends the moment you defeat the bad guy.
OK, spoilers over. Back to the proper review.
So in conclusion, if you can get past the tank controls, the camera angles and the outdated graphics, Alone in the Dark can be an enjoyable experience for Halloween (and for the rest of the year). And despite its flaws, the designers did their best in delivering a proper horror atmosphere that will invoke tension and fear in opening a single door because you never know what awaits in every new room or area. So give it a shot, you won’t be sorry.
Unfortunately, I can’t make a comparison with the other versions because I haven’t played them. Neither have I played the modern rebooted series (that started with Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare), which inspired the infamous Uwe Boll movie (which unfortunately I did see).
Alone in the Dark had a tremendous success and was planned to be the first game of the Virtual Dreams series, but Infogrames decided instead to make its own franchise. However, it did unofficially became part of the Call of Cthulhu series, whose titles are referenced in the game (although they’re all graphic adventures instead). But the biggest contribution of Alone in the Dark was its game mechanics (scarcity of ammo, health items and hints) and scary atmosphere, which inspired Capcom’s Resident Evil and the survival horror genre.
So, children of the night, did you enjoyed this review or Halloween in general? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook and Twitter. Join me again next time and remember, keep on playing, whatever you are BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!