Alien: Isolation review – Scream, Ripley, scream!

Karl R. de Mesa
Alien: Isolation review – Scream, Ripley, scream!
Karl de Mesa dissects the survival horror game Alien: Isolation, and gives some recommendations for who can take the pressure of avoiding Xenomorph slaughter

Genre: Survival horror
Suggested for: Gamers who like survival sims, fans of the Alien franchise and the art of HR Giger, people who have plenty of patience. 

Available platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One

Warning: This review contains minor spoilers. 

MANILA, Philippines – What is hell? Hell is Mission 14 of this game with the objective “Destroy the Hive.”

Somewhere in the bowels of the Xenomorph nest, after I died for the bajillionth time, I experienced the same kind of horrific transcendence, which I rarely get but is the whole reason I play videogames, I had with titles like the first Silent Hill and the second Assassin’s Creed.

This is why I believe videogames represent a storytelling strain that is by itself pure, distinct, and yet a convergence of several ancient mediums: immersion so perfect that there are moments that transport you outside yourself like the fury of a divine message.

If you are an admirer of Ridely Scott’s Alien franchise then stop reading this right now and score yourself a copy. Even if you’re not a gamer. Honestly, the controls aren’t that hard and Alien: Isolation has more to do with patience and timing rather than button-mashing dexterity.

In terror abide

Do not pass up this chance to experience the franchise in all its nifty décor and with its grisly, predatory centerpiece. I tell you now: the Xenomorph, and its less dangerous baby phase the Facehugger, is just as deadly as advertised.

I swear that being INSIDE the franchise and inhabiting the boots of a Ripley and seeing the environments (pretty gas giants and ruined space station) in all its 80s tech and retro visual glory is a gothic space experience that is utterly rewarding; especially when you have the zeitgeist of having watched “Alien” (1971) and all the other films – yeah, even the “Resurrection” and the “Alien vs Predator” spinoffs.

It will also, if you were unfortunate enough to buy the game, completely erase the crappy 2013’s “Colonial Marines” from memory.

Interacting with the Alien is simply exhilarating. Which usually means death; again and again, gruesome death. Because when the Alien spots you 95% of the time it results in, again, your demise or a fourth of your life bar since very few weapons in the game (and none early on) are powerful enough to dissuade the Alien from killing you, much less leaving you alone for a few seconds.

Case in point: in an early level, I was able to stop the Alien from attacking me by closing the door by hitting an override button. Not all doors have this, but this one did. I chuckled aloud for a moment as I heard the Alien scamper away. Ha, take some simian ingenuity, you beast!

A quick check on my Motion Detector, however, revealed it had crawled up one of the vents and was moving around so it can kill me from behind. Before I could hit the override button again and escape through the door, my stomach had already been pierced by its bladed tail. All of that happened in the space of about 7 seconds.

Relentless, intelligent, and thrice as quick? Tick them all off and add hypnotic movement, something between a lion and a velociraptor plus an unscripted, randomized AI that’s unpredictable and you’ve got something that the franchise refers to as “the perfect organism.”

The Alien will go away for minutes on end and hang out in the vents and then come barreling back suddenly, it will stalk the room slowly as if it knows you’re there somewhere, it will exit the room for two seconds and then come back. It will also open hiding places like cabinets, lockers, and desk closets.

Also this: you will never get to kill an Alien in the game.

IN YOUR FACE. Time to say goodbye, as this Alien has you in its grasp. Screen shot from YouTube.

Game over, man, game over!

There’s simply no pattern and no way to predict its hunting behavior. For that alone I thank Sega and Creative Assembly, the developers, for crafting the Alien just so; death incarnate. Anything less would have been utterly anti-climactic.

So, yeah, the Alien never disappoints, even if everything else in the game likely will. The story is threadbare and average at best.

The game puts you in the shoes of Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, 15 years after the events if the first “Alien” movie. It’s 2137 and Ellen is working as a gearhead engineer when she’s approached by Christopher Samuels, a Weyland-Yutani Corporation synthetic, who tells her that the flight recorder of the Nostromo, her mother’s ship, was recently located by another ship — the Anesidora — and is being held aboard Sevastopol Station.

Eager for some kind of closure, Ellen agrees to join the mission and fly to Sevastopol, a hulking, nearly derelict space station that’s on its last legs due to some economic collapse that has left its once thriving and mercantile populace in the throes of poverty and eventual exodus to other richer spaceports.

With Samuels and the Weyland-Yutani executive Nina Taylor, Ripley travels to Sevastopol via the courier ship Torrens, arriving at the space station to find things in disarray. Soon they discover why and much death and chaos ensues.

To survive you need to scavenge the Sevastopol (which is a HUGE space station) for weapons, supplies, and access cards that will let you pass into other areas. Ammunition is always scarce and save points are few and far between – especially on the harder difficulty levels.

Chores for the hunted 

Another point against it is the mission construction itself. For the most part, what you do is the equivalent of mundane chores much like ship housekeeping like hacking into computers to turn on the power, opening locked doors by cutting into locks.

By the Nth time I had to log on to a computer, even if it was wonderfully visualized in the 80s DOS aesthetic of the franchise, I swear if the game had asked me to unclog a toilet or change a light bulb it wouldn’t have been surprising or out of place. Which is why a lot of gaming critics out there point out that “Alien:Isolation” isn’t a videogame per se but a survival simulator.

On the PS3 I often experienced some loading bugs. The screen would continue to load until I was sure the game had hanged and had to reboot my system. Sometimes errors in clipping would ensue but very rarely. The controls are weirdly non-intuitive and unwieldy at times, which is a problem if you ever need to get to that next weapon since you’ve run out of shotgun shells. Ripley doesn’t even have a jump button, with climbing and other non-slaved actions requiring the press of a button during a contextual cue.

Many of the weapons will not work if your timing is less than precise and the paucity of save points will often deposit you way way back an earlier section, wasting hours of skulking, hiding, and creeping through corridors. One exception is the Motion Detector, featured heavily on the first two movies, which is a joy to use and tracks the movements of everything around your proximity.

And you will hate the Working Joes; the androids on board the Sevastopol that were used as synthetic help but have somehow gone rogue. I am also fairly sure you’ll hate the unimaginative, ludicrous ending. I mean I did.

In space, no one can hear you die

Despite all that nothing has so far compared to the sheer dread of trembling inside a locker or dark cabinet for minutes, pushing down the “Hold Breath” button and wishing the Alien to just go, go away so you can come out and complete the next phase of your current mission.

Watching the xenomorph’s chitinous, bladed legs go by and seeing it peer into other hiding holes and around corners searching for you you eventually can’t help but admire its uncanny grace, and even consider death at its hands an honor. A macabre death seems just after the stupidity of being a half second too late to hide from your enemy.

Helping along the horror is the awesome sound design that carries the day when the visuals fail and impacts game play like a freight train. Everything from the bleep bleep bloop of the analog devices (that take forever to load or arrive) to the surging of steam through broken pipes, the creaking of locker doors that always seem too loud up to the Alien’s steps, swishing tail, and throat sounds are pitch perfect and are crucial to aiding your survival.

The music, a combination of synths, orchestral strings, and drums, will send you to horror gaming nirvana with the suspense at apt moments. It’s a bite-your-nails-raw kind of good.

Because of the splendid sound design I thought dreamt of the Alien. Before I finished the game I went on honeymoon with my wife and I thought I heard the beast’s distinctive chittering growl as I napped between tours until I woke up and saw that the TV was showing “Alien vs Predator: Requiem.”

That’s what this game is: a flawed attempt to experience the gestalt of the “Alien” franchise that succeeds in peaks and valleys, with your viewing knowledge of the movies filling in the rest. Albeit the novelistic approach and the mission architecture are often banal to the point of torpor, there’s no denying the main attraction, the creature, has been crafted like an obra.

Never mind the flaws. Play this with the lights off. –

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