Written by Laird S. Allen
Alien: Isolation (A:I) is a first person survival horror game based on the Alien movie franchise. In this game, the player takes on the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver’s character from the movie series) during the long interval in which she is lost in space and in suspended animation. Amanda has been working a company job as an engineer at the edge of human-settled space, following in her mother’s footsteps as she tries to find any sign of what became of her after the disappearance of the Nostromo. When the Nostromo’s flight recorder is found, Ripley travels to space station Sevastopol – on its last legs and pending decommission – to learn what happened to her mother. Once there, the series’ eponymous monstrosity turns up and commences to turn a lot of people inside out. Couple this with a communications blackout, sinister androids, and corporate machinations and you have the classic ‘bad day in outer space’ bursting with genre convention and wickedly gleeful malice.
Let me begin with a brief synopsis of the video game adaptations of the Alien franchise. There have been several, ranging from the coin-operated games of the 1980s and 1990s up to the recent, astoundingly subpar Aliens: Colonial Marines. Most games have striven to recapture the vibe of the considerably more action-driven Aliens, the 1986 sequel, rather than face up to the psychosexual nightmare drama of Ridley Scott’s 1976 masterpiece. This game is one of the first, if not the only, to consciously and conscientiously strive to recreate that sense of menace, fear, and isolation that made the original film a classic of cinema and a cornerstone of horror cinema on par with Nosferatu or An American Werewolf in London.
And in this task, the game succeeds utterly and without reservation. For most of the game, you are alone (utterly alone) with the universe’s greatest killing machine that hunts you while you desperately try to escape. There are, for the vast majority of the game, no non-fatal encounters with the alien. If you get caught, you die. There are other threats, but the alien is the core of the experience; the heart of the game. I’m pleased to report that it is just as utterly horrible to deal with as you might imagination from the movies. In other words, you experience and feel the horror.
The game is maddeningly frustrating though properly speaking, it’s not particularly difficult. Much of the games difficulty comes from frustration. A run through of A:I can easily have you spending hours holding your breath in a supply locker while the alien noisily kills everyone else around you and then hunts you from room to room. It’s frustrating, and while at first, quite effective, with time it becomes an exercise in trial and error, or simply waiting for the alien to spawn in the right place when you load your save.
The art and sound design for A:I are what makes it shines. From the opening, which uses a grainy, betamax quality version of the Fox logo, to the ever-present overflowing ashtrays and drinking bird toys, and paisley shirt collars visible under grease-stained jumpsuits, A:I takes the film’s 1970s aesthetic and stays true to it. Furthermore, the mega-structural scale of the original film is preserved and magnified upon, and while they fail to capture the eldritch horror component that H. R. Giger and Ridley Scott managed, they make up for it with hellish industrial-complexes and cosmos-worthy vistas.
The sound design is exceptional, making use of largely in-universe sounds like machine noises and terrified breathing that can escalate seamlessly to join with the soundtrack at critical moments. Many of the cast of the original movie rejoined the production to voice new lines in character, including two (seriously overpriced) DLCs that actually allow the player to take the role of a character in the original movie. It’s delicious and immersive, inviting the player to consider a future where corporations are evil and user interfaces are stuck in the green on black DOS days. Imagine that.
A:I does have flaws however. It is about 20 hours long, which is, depending on your tolerance for nerve-grinding tension, about 5 to 10 hours too long. It’s a great deal certainly, but there’s much that could be cut in favor of a tighter experience because the story is held together with Band-Aids. There are no characters to care about in the game except for Amanda Ripley, and she has precious little to say. The AI in A:I is well faked, but not particularly good and the alien in particular has a few shining moments and then becomes either predictable or psychic, depending on how much patience you have.
A number of scripted sequences are lovingly composed but rely on stupidity beyond belief from both humans and Aliens. For example, one excellent jump scare relies on an alien leaping from flames right in front of you, roaring a razor edged challenge, and then immediately, it forgets where you are and starts back on the stalking algorithm. Further, because the game can only run one alien entity at once, the game relies on scripted trickery in some scenes to get you to think there’s more than one; it doesn’t work. It undercuts the tension in several important scenes because the alien’s behavior does not change when the player’s does, and then what should be the universe’s apex predator gets chumped over and over again.
All in all, however, Alien: Isolation is a massively impressive work. Despite the flaws listed above, what the game really offers is ambience, and it never fails to deliver. It feels like a movie, and the production values shine through. For fans of the Alien franchise, it is an absolute treat. Survival horror fans in general will find a competent but not revolutionary gaming experience. For others, well, it’s a game that will test your patience. But I found much to love in this game, and I trust that any who remember the stomach-drop thrill of the alien’s razor scream or the sumptuous aesthetics of 1970s science fiction film will love it too.
Alien: Isolation was developed by The Creative Assembly and published by Sega. It is available on Windows, PS3, PS4, Xbox360 and Xbox One. The reviewer played the game on PS4. It currently retails in most locations for $49.99. It is extremely justifiably rated Mature.