There’s been hundreds of games inspired by the Alien movies. Going all the way back to Alien Breed on the Amiga, to more recent titles like System Shock and Dead Space. This means a ton of novelty value is lost in Alien Isolation before you even start it. Almost everything in the game will remind you not just of the movies, but the mountain of things it inspired.
Despite all this I was pleasantly surprised by how effective this game is. At times it can feel like any other space horror game you’ve played before. But when the stars align it’s like you’re on the set of the movie. You’re transported to something that feels wholly owned by the game and movie alone. It’s thanks to a herculean effort by Creative Assembly to make sure that everything looks, sounds and feels exactly like it should, down to the smallest details. Like even the lens flares look just like they did in Alien. It had a distinctive style thanks to the lenses they used. All the big things, and the smaller subliminal things are here to make it feel just right. This is better than I ever dared hope an Alien game would ever be. Much of it is thanks to it being released today. It’s built with state of the art tech, on top of everything we’ve learned from horror and stealth games over the past 20 years. It’s of its time, in a good way.
What hit me 10+ hours into the game was that while this has collectibles and achievements like any other AAA production, it doesn’t shove them in your face like I’m used to. The developers obviously took things like “tone” and “atmosphere” seriously. It’s a videogame, but it doesn’t feel the need to shove that in your face. It’s the subtle touches that achieve this feeling. Like how the waypoint arrow is part of the motion tracker, instead of having a dot in the game world. And how the mini-game interfaces look like designs that belong in the world. They’ve sacrificed just a bit of usability across the board for the sake of immersion. As a whole this pays off, even if it opens them up to players nitpicking every detail as being just a bit more of a pain in the ass than they’re used to. It’s about the big picture!
As a whole the game looks amazing. But there’s little issues here and there that prevent it from being perfect. The character models look good, in stills. The second they start talking they look more like mannequins than people. The animations can also flip out, with the alien making sudden sharp turns that take you out of the moment. Similarly the audio is outstanding, but with glaring issues here and there. At some sections of the map the audio disappears. Like you’ve wandered out of the sound and music propagation zones. It’s a rare problem, but it stands out, especially since it most of the time is one of the best sounding games of all time.
The greatest failing of the game is the story. The characters are all flat, and devoid of anything interesting at all. They’re inoffensive, but bland. You play Amanda Ripley, and while she does a lot of talking, she failed to create a firm image in my head of her character. Her motivation in the entire game fits in a single sentence and don’t deviate from that. She doesn’t have an arc, so you don’t feel like you get to go on a journey with her, where you end up somewhere different on the other side.
The story feels more like a series of objectives instead of an actual story. You don’t feel like it’s going anywhere, which makes it impossible to guess when it’s going to end. I’ve heard complaints that it “goes on forever”, and that’s a failing with the story. The actual process of playing it is fine! The environments and challenges keep things fresh all the way to the end. But because the story is vague about where it’s going and what you’re trying to achieve you can’t intuitively sense where you are in the story. On paper it has threads and subplots like any story should. But they’re all weak, and fail to make an impression. It feels diffuse. The story isn’t complete shit, just a jumbled mess. Which I guess is a degree of shit, just not on the absolute bottom end of the scale.
As with anything I can live with bad elements if the good outweighs it. And thankfully there’s a lot to like about Alien Isolation that makes it a no-brainer recommendation. The setting is super strong, it manages to come up with new scares even in later parts of the game, and most importantly it feels right. There were parts in the game where I experienced a level of stress I haven’t felt since the scariest parts of Amnesia. When Alien Isolation fires on all cylinders it’s the most effective “being chased by a murderer” simulator I can imagine ever being made. At those moments all the issues fade into the background and don’t matter so much anymore.