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Alone In The Dark - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Eldritch occult horror
  • Multi-step puzzles
  • Alternate endings reinforce themes of Eldritch madness
  • Some subtle character animations help create tension
  • Uncanny and ominous character interactions
  • Event recaps in journal
  • Cover art

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Falls back on tired psychological horror tropes
  • Almost no threat while exploring Derceto
  • Cheap ambushes from enemies
  • Fragile melee weapons
  • Poor gunplay
  • Late-game puzzles become asinine
  • Final boss fight
  • 2 campaigns are redundant
  • Unstable and buggy
  • Overpriced DLC

Overall Impression : D+
Cheap ambushes and redundant campaigns
are not my idea of scary

Alone In The Dark - cover

Developer:
Pieces Interactive

Publisher:
THQ Nordic

Platforms:
PC (via Steam),
PlayStation 5 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox S | X (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $60 USD

Original release date:
20 March 2024

Genre:
Third-person survival horror

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
10-20 hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language

Official site:
aloneinthedark.thqnordic.com/

After playing the ridiculously short Prologue demo last year, I was kind of on the fence about playing Alone In The Dark -- let alone paying full retail price for it. Then I started seeing the mixed critical reviews, with some outlets giving it a 6/10, and other giving it an 85/100. I started to think that maybe I could just pass on it, and check it out later when it hits the bargain bin. Ironically, it was actually a negative review of the game that actually convinced me to buy a new copy. That review (I don't remember the review's source) said that Alone In The Dark feels old-fashioned, and that it emphasizes puzzles in favor of combat or action.

The Prologue demo (all 5 minutes of it!) did not make a good impression.

That actually made me want to play the game! Further, it encouraged me to buy a new copy, at retail, in order to support the niche genre of old-fashioned, slow-paced, puzzle-oriented survival horror, and to show that there is definitely still a market for such games. Horror games do not all have to be either over-the-shoulder shooters a la Resident Evil 2 REmake, nor P.T.-clone walking simulators that take place in residential hallways. I want to see more Eldritch survival horror games that are carried by intrigue, mystery, and genuine terror, rather than action spectacle or cliche "psychological" horror tropes. It's the same reason I bought and played Song Of Horror (which is a much better and more clever game).

The first hour or so of gameplay definitely vindicated those negative reviews. From the start, there were technical and performance problems. The framerate seemed to occasionally stutter, textures and assets would pop in, and the controls seemed a bit floaty (though better than in the Prologue demo, at least). Also, interaction prompts would disappear if I was too close to them, which made it unclear if an empty cabinet was really just an empty cabinet, or if the game was bugging out and not letting me pick up whatever happened to be inside. Other times, a button prompt would appear, but the interaction didn't actually work. And character dialogue and animation came off as unnatural and fell firmly within the uncanny valley. This is all despite the fact that I didn't get around to starting the game until a couple days after its release, and after I had already downloaded and installed a day-1 patch that was almost as big as the actual game on the disc! Good thing I had cleared out extra hard disk space on my PS5 the night before.

The Day-1 patch is almost as big as the whole game?!

I chose Emily as the character for my first playthrough, since her story of trying to find her uncle seemed like the actual story of the game, in stark contrast to the private investigator who is only even here incidentally at Emily's request. But I wasn't sure if I was getting myself into some kind of un-labeled "Hard Mode" similar to picking Chris in the original Resident Evil. I mean, I didn't even know if she would be starting the game with a gun, or if she would even be allowed to engage in combat at all. She does, and she can.

The early combat encounters sure as hell felt like I was in some kind of hard mode. Alone In The Dark loves to ambush the player with cheap shots. Heck, the very first enemy encounter in the game (playing as Emily) is a monster that jumps out at the player from behind a blind corner. It promptly pinned me into a corner and almost killed me. I guess that's one way to establish the threat that the monsters pose. It's also a great way to make the player think that the monster encounters are going to be cheap and unfair.

I was concerned by the fact that I felt like the game was overloading me with bullets and healing items right from the start. Why would I need all of this ammunition and health right from the start? Unless it is because the monsters are going to be bullet sponges that will be dealing cheap, unavoidable damage? I was getting unpleasant Callisto Protocol flashbacks.

The game would go on to ambush me a few more times during Emily's opening chapter, as well as get plenty more cheap hits and damage in. I would also go on to pick up a couple of melee weapons, only to have them break after killing a single enemy with it. When I switched to Emily's pathetic little pistol, each enemy seemed to take exactly 1 more bullet to kill than the gun could hold, meaning I had to reload during every single gun fight -- against the first enemies in the game, on the normal difficulty level.

Frequent ambushes sap health and lead to cheap deaths.

I was already starting to fear that this game would turn into much more of a painful combat slog than the reviews made it out to be.

That fear was partially justified. The game's combat just doesn't feel good, and there's far too much of it for my tastes. I've said it many times before, but I miss the good ol' days of survival horror, when deciding whether or not to even engage with a particular enemy was a strategic choice, exploration felt more open-ended, and long-term resource-management was the biggest challenge.

This game frequently forces the player to engage in combat in close quarters. At this range, aiming a firearm isn't reliable, and I repeatedly missed point-blank shots that I felt should have been gimmies. The melee weapons aren't much better. In addition to having the durability of a wet paper straw, I had trouble judging distances, and often swung the weapon wildly, missing my attacks and leaving myself exposed.

Combat gauntlets are few and far between, however. A large chunk of the game is simply exploring the Derceto manor, which is completely devoid of danger -- aside from a few scripted sequences here and there. There are long stretches of the game in which the player gets to wander around in near total safety, unlocking doors, solving puzzles, and collecting more resources for your regular trips outside the manor and into danger.

The looney bin

Remember that these puzzles were the reason that I decided to buy the game at retail. Boy were they disappointing. The early and mid-game shows some promise in the puzzle department, as they gradually grow in complexity. Sliding block puzzles repeat a little too much, but there's also some more complicated puzzles thrown in. Several puzzles requiring some hunting around for items and clues, actually paying attention to those clues, and going through multiple steps to actually solve the puzzle. None of these are great puzzles, but they are good -- at least by the standards of modern horror and adventure games, which rarely require the player to go beyond simply picking up the key that is sitting in a drawer right next to the lock, or to regurgitate a 3 or 4-digit code that you literally read off of a wall.

There are a few decent puzzles in the early and mid-game.

Unfortunately, these mediocre mid-game puzzles represent the peak of the game's puzzle design. After this, it seems like the designers just ran out of ideas -- or ran out of time to even think of new puzzles. Most of the remaining "puzzles" ask the player to simply go to a place and flip a switch, or to read a safe combo off of a wall or inventory item.

The inflection point where the puzzles go from "decent" to asinine is a puzzle just past the mid-point of the game. This light-and-mirror puzzle involves the player running several laps around some corridors, stopping to pull a lever here and there, and point a single laser at the one and only glowing jewel that it can possible reach. Then run further down the corridor and do that again with a different laser and glowing gem. It's long, it's tedious, and it ain't exactly Portal or The Talos Principle, and I didn't feel smart or clever for having solved it.

I appreciate that there was an effort to emphasize puzzle-solving, but did they have to be so ... childish?

And remember when I said that I was glad to a see a horror game that would involve occultism and Eldritch horrors instead of psychological trauma, repressed guilt, or other tired horror tropes? Well, that delusion didn't last much longer than an hour or so. Not only does one character have unresolved psychological trauma in the form of repressed guilt, but both characters have similar unresolved guilt.

Yes, the primary plot does revolve around a Lovecraftian cult, and a character being driven mad by the cult's activities. So the Lovecraftian stuff is there. But first, the player has to resolve the characters' completely unrelated personal guilt and trauma.

The game sets up cosmic horror and Eldritch themes.

For a game called "Alone In The Dark", the player doesn't spend much time either alone or in the dark. The flashlight is barely necessary outside of a couple levels in either character's playthrough, and the mansion is practically crawling with crazy people who Edward and Emily are constantly running into. No, instead, the title seems to be more about how each character is alone in the darkness of their own mental trauma. For Emily, this manifests as a voodoo shaman who has infested and stalked the minds of every member of her family, and who has now turned his sights on her. For Edward, it's even more trite.

Thrown into the padded cells

Worse yet, both campaigns are the exact same game. The cutscenes and conversations are a bit different, and each character has 1 late-game set piece that is unique to that character, but otherwise, both characters play through the exact same plot, with the exact same puzzles, enemies, and bosses. Since both characters are stuck dealing with repressed trauma and guilt, their unique set pieces fill very similar roles and occur at the exact same time in the story. This isn't the same events seen from each character's different point of view, it's just padding out the play-time by forcing the player to play the game twice in order to see the few bits of gameplay and story that is unique to each character.

Even the voodoo shaman Dark Man will stalk Edward throughout the same chapters of the game in which Emily is stalked. This is true, even though the Dark Man is supposedly a Hartwood family curse, and Edward isn't part of the Hartwood family.

This begs the question: why is Edward even here? This game is about the Hartwood family curse. It is Emily's story. Edward is only here as a hired gun, and his connections to the events of the game are the most cliche and contrived excuse possible. There's no reason for him to be a playable character, let alone for him to have an entire playable campaign.

The cutscenes may be different, but there's a lot of drinking and smoking either way.

If there is going to be 2 playable characters, then the way it should have worked is for there to be a single campaign in which the player alternates control between Edward and Emily. You know, a bit more Eternal Darkness, and a little less Resident Evil 2. Edward should do all the exploration of the Derceto mansion and the investigation of the doctor and his patients' cult activities. Meanwhile, Emily should be doing all the exploration of her brother's imaginary pocket dimensions and confronting the Dark Man. They should meet up periodically to share their notes.

Then either cut out the entire bit about Emily's ex-husband, or tie that plot line more tightly to the plot about Uncle Jeremy (perhaps by emphasizing how Emily's treatment of her institutionalized uncle perhaps mirrored her treatment of her late husband?). And instead of giving Edward the most tired and cliche repressed guilt from his hard-boiled detective past, have the Eldritch influences in Derceto probe his mind and manifest his deepest fears about things that he might unwittingly do in the line of duty. That would at least separate Alone In The Dark from the litany of "character forgot they did a bad thing" plot twists in the last 20-some years of horror video games.

But even if THQ and Pieces Interactive were insistent on having 2 separate campaigns (as the original 1992 game had), then it would have been much better if Edward's campaign had been focused on doing detective work inside the manor to figure out what the cult is doing, while Emily's campaign would be focused on exploring Jeremy's madness. Since each character's campaign would only be half the story, these distinct campaigns would keep the mystery and horror fresh and surprising in a second playthrough. And then a 3rd and 4th playthrough (in order to find all the collectibles or unlock optional endings) would also be less stale and repetitive.

At the very least, even if both character campaigns are going to follow the same plot, Pieces Interactive should have varied up the characters' playstyles so that the 2 campaigns feel a little different to play. The only difference between the 2 that I noticed is that Edward's revolver seems to be stronger than Emily's pistol, and can take down most enemy's in fewer shots (so Emily's game is kind of an un-labeled "slightly hard mode"). Instead, Pieces Interactive could have given Edward (being a hard-boiled detective who is practiced with firearms) a more straight-forward action-heavy campaign, while Emily's gameplay could more heavily emphasize stealth and avoiding direct confrontation with enemies while solving more complex, surreal puzzles.

Edward feels like an unnecessary interloper in Emily and Jeremy's story.

In any case, if you're going to play the game just once, I recommend just playing as Emily, since the story is actually about Emily, and it makes more sense from her point of view.

The scary little details

In the middle of the game, I was kind of getting into it a bit. The gameplay seemed a lot smoother, the mid-game puzzles were starting to get more involved, the mystery was opening up, and I wasn't seeing as many glitches. I was also starting to warm up on the characters a bit. A lot of the awkward cuts and stilted animation from the opening cutscenes faded away, leaving only the unsettling uncanniness of the characters and their interactions. Many of these conversations reminded me of Silent Hill 2. None of the characters (except maybe Edward) fee like they are completely in touch with reality, and it's impossible to take anything that anybody says or does at face value.

Around the mid-game, I was also starting to notice some elements of polish and production quality that had been slipping past me earlier, since I was so focused on the myriad problems. I like that every document I picked up is narrated by the voice actor of the character who wrote the document. I liked how the game keeps a journal of the events up to this point, which can serve as a handy reminder of what you're trying to do if you pick up the game again after an extended break.

Every now and then, the characters have little bits of immersive animation detail. A character might put a hand on a rail or balcony while walking by. And occasionally, they would just kind of pause while reaching out for a door handle, and very slowly and cautiously open the door. This may have been a technical concession, as the game may be loading the next area or a cutscene into memory. But the net effect to the player is to make the characters look and behave as if they are genuinely afraid or anxious about what might lie beyond that doorway. It's actually a great effect for a horror game that builds up the tension. It's too bad the tension and anxiety didn't extend to me, the player.

The characters occasionally pause while reaching for a door handle,
presumably out of anxiety over what might be on the other side.

Regardless, Alone In The Dark was hitting a bit of a mid-game stride. Sadly, it didn't last long.

As I approached the end of the game, a lot of the problems from the beginning of the game (and then some) started to rear their ugly heads again. Enemy encounters became more annoying, as the controls just wouldn't work, or the camera would get stuck on a wall, or he character would get stuck on geometry and pummeled to death with a single 3-hit combo from an enemy. Interaction prompts wouldn't respond to inputs. I'm pretty sure I missed some story content and maybe even a trophy, since there were several late-game items that simply would not respond to me pushing the button to activate their prompts.

Also, I have no idea how anyone is expected to figure out how to trigger some of the alternate endings. Some of them require the player to perform an un-prompted input during a cutscene. But the game had never given any indication that cutscenes could be interactive. So I don't know how anybody is expected to figure this out.

I also largely liked the endings themselves. There is one cop-out "none of it was real" ending, but it (along with almost all of the alternate endings) is relegated to a 2nd playthrough (since it requires collecting collectibles from both players' campaigns). As such, there is really only a single canon ending, regardless of which character you play. The boss fight you have to beat to get that ending is fucking awful, but I liked the ending itself. Despite the 1 joke ending, none of these endings retcon the entire game. Rather, the alternate endings reinforce the themes of Eldritch madness by changing how the characters cope and react to the events of the game -- even going so far as to allow the player to end the game prematurely and roll credits early, if you perform the arcane steps required.

Despite those few glimmers of promise, Alone In The Dark was just too uneven and clumsy an experience for me. More importantly, it wasn't particularly scary. The fact that it comes together fairly well in the middle chapters does not fix the fact that it got off to an awful first impression, and also left a bad taste in my mouth after I was done. In hindsight, I wish I had waited and bought it used.

And my opinion of the game isn't improved by the pathetically-over-priced DLC. There's no loot-boxes or in-game micro-transactions. Instead, THQ expects people to pay $5 for a director's commentary, and another $5 for a set of color filters. Where do these out-of-touch executives get the nerve to sell such over-priced DLCs? Please tell me no one is actually buying these!

 
Where do these out-of-touch executives get the nerve to sell these over-priced DLCs?!

Oh, a little P.S.. Just like with Alan Wake 2, I want to give THQ Nordic credit for making decent cover art for the game. It could have been a boring picture of the 2 lead characters (more like the title banner at the top of this review), but they went with a more descriptive cover that more accurately represents the intended experience of the game -- exploring a dark, creepy, mysterious mansion. I'm especially impressed considering that this cover resists the urge to showcase the faces of the 2 Hollywood stars that are one of the main selling points of the game, in favor of something more thematically descriptive. Sure, it's largely an homage to the original 1992 game's cover art, so I don't think anybody had to strain their brain too hard to come up with it. But it's still nice work, and THQ's marketing department deserves credit for it.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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