Alone in the Dark is long-credited with being the first true “survival horror” game. If you’re unsure of what this genre entails, all I have to say is Resident Evil. If you’re not familiar with either game, “survival horror” generally describes a type of adventure where you are alone in some kind of terrifying/haunted situation, and must find a way to solve a mystery and escape. There are always more enemies than you have weapons. There’s always some kind of inventory management going on, and frequent item puzzles. Any puzzle that cannot be solved with an inventory item is solved by moving some mobile object in the world. All of these requirements fit Alone in the Dark to the letter.
It also invented a revolutionary new way of creating games – the three-dimensional character inside a pre-rendered two-dimensional background. Admittedly, the characters here aren’t quite up to the level of a Resident Evil or a Virtua Fighter, but they are 3-D, and they do turn, move, and interact with their backgrounds rather seamlessly. This, of course, freed the designers from the typical adventure game stigma of being seen directly from the side. With 3-D characters, wild camera angles could now be used, from a birds-eye view of a large room, to a shot from the end of a hall as the character runs toward camera. Videogames could now become more cinematic.
But you’re not here for a history lesson, even though Alone in the Dark does certainly provide a good one. You’re here for how the game plays. If you’re used to Resident Evil and all its various sequels [raises hand], then you shouldn’t expect as polished an experience. You’ll be doing many of the same things in both games, but more awkwardly here. If you’re a neophyte to survival horror, then this isn’t the best starting point, but it’s a fine example of a pretty unique and cool way to change up the standard adventure game.
Dark involves a mysterious New Orleans mansion named Derceto. Yes, the house itself has a name, so it’s clearly evil. (I call my house “Rupert.”) The game begins after its owner has committed suicide. You have the option to play as two similar characters, different mostly in their reasons for coming to the manor. Emily Hartwood is the niece of the late owner, looking for some reason as to why her uncle would kill himself, and believing she’ll find that answer in an attic piano. She benefits from having been to the mansion before, and drops a number of game hints in her opening monologue. Edward Carnby is a private detective hired to assess the condition and value of… a special piano in the attic (see how both stories are so masterfully interweaved!) Carnby doesn’t have any more hit points than Emily, though he is a vastly better fighter. Fundamentally, the two experiences are identical. They differ negligibly in some descriptions of furniture (Carnby won’t recognize the people shown in a picture, but Emily will), but this does not affect the game or puzzles.
Regardless, I would highly recommend playing as Carnby. First, he’s the character that continues on into the sequels, so he’s got that going for him. Second, Emily is a shitty fighter. Frequently you will need to defend yourself from monsters with only your bare hands, and old Iron Mitts Eddie at least has some reach. Emily will slap and make a sissy “UNH!” noise, or put her heel to her ass and kick out forward, like a football kickoff. They both technically do the same amount of damage, but Carnby is far more likely to connect, and connect at a safer distance. Finally, neither one of the characters look all that great, but Carnby is at least serviceable. Emily is so damn ugly that she walks into the haunted mansion, and comes out with an application.
Playing the game is fairly simple. You move and rotate your character with the arrow keys. The Enter key calls up an inventory menu that also doubles as an action menu. If you select “Actions” from the list, you can choose which action you will perform when you hold the space bar. You can fight, search, close, or push. Holding down the space bar will keep attempting to find something to manipulate (in the case of “search” or “close”), will keep pushing an object, or will keep you in fighting mode. Your character assumes a cheesy boxing stance, and the controls now work like the fighting mode in Bioforge. Holding space and pressing the left or right arrows throw a punch, up and down a kick, with different moves and combinations if a weapon is equipped. It’s fairly simple, though the wind-up times are quite exaggerated, so timing becomes a serious issue. It awfully easy to get cornered by a monster and pummeled without being able to get off a punch before the next attack comes. If your timing is good, you’ll avoid these situations.
The last control of note is running, achieved with a double tap of up. The trick is, you already have to be moving to trigger it, and start running with a sort of quarter-release of the key before pressing again. It takes an unnecessary amount of work and practice, but is useful later on.
The 3-D effect works well; enough to excuse the quality of the characters. I don’t think Lovecraft had a fanged, purple duck in mind when he wrote his stories, but some of the later characters actually do look fairly impressive. The polygons making up the figures are few, untextured, and unshaded, but DOS is able to crunch them without problems. The characters are naturally a little slow, but never jerky, and never passing through background art or other 3-D objects. There are times when it’s easy to get “caught” on a movable object (like a stool) and drag it around with it attached to your leg, but this is far from a showstopper. The objects and the backgrounds mix well together, though it becomes fairly obvious as to what you’ll be able to manipulate, and what will (unsurprisingly) surprise you and come to life. Inventory objects are all 3-D as well, and appear primarily in rotating windows in your inventory screen. You have the option to drop or throw them back into the gameworld, and these world objects are detailed enough to find that same object again should it turn out that you need it.
The game shipped on floppies, and was later re-released in CD version. Don’t be fooled. While most CD releases offer enough additional value to be the no-brainer choice to pick up, the same cannot be said with Dark. The primary CD exclusive are the voice actors, who read book passages, character notes, and some observations. They are completely frivolous. The actors are completely underused, and when they do provide occasional readings of notes, they often work against the characters. Emily has a typical Suuthuurn Beyal Ahhkscent. Carnby sounds pompous and bored out of his mind. The note left by the previous owner makes him sound like a raving asshole, not someone I’m supposed to feel sorry for, and fear that what happened to him will happen to me next. The books are narrated by some motherfucker who thinks he’s Laurence Olivier. The rest of the CD offers good effects, and some additional music stings, but neither sound significantly better than what’s in the floppies.
The game is certainly fun, but not very scary, and not too hardcore of an adventure. There are only about 35 rooms, which should only take you a few hours if you’re really good, and get adept at unarmed fighting. There are some clever moments, like shutting a door in a zombie’s face and pushing a table to block it, but most of the game involves finding the clues and avoiding or defeating the monsters. If I had any real complaint, it would be that most of the puzzles in the game have to be solved retroactively. You don’t know the trunk can be pushed to block the trapdoor until the zombie comes up out of it. You don’t know you’ll fall through a weak section of floor until you step on it and it breaks. This encourages frequent saving, and such puzzles are pretty easy to figure out once you recognize what you must do. Still, I can’t see anyone nailing a perfect playthrough, without dying, the very first time. It’s a small caveat for an otherwise enjoyable game. Later survival horror games will do it better, but this one certainly does it right.
Flawed, but fun, original 3-D adventure.
Nothing to make the CD version worth buying over the original, rather short.