Alien: Isolation starts off like any typical modern survival horror game. In fact, it begins very similar to Dead Space. The game follows Amanda Ripley, an engineer and daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. She is seeking answers for what happened to her mother, who has been missing for fifteen years following the events of the 1979 Alien film. Her search takes her to remote space station Sevastopol, which, she has been told, houses the recently-located flight recorder of her mother’s ship. When Ripley arrives, however, all she finds is chaos. Sevastopol is in disarray, wrecked and lawless. Humans are scarce. Some friendly, some hostile, all terrified, and the station’s android population has gone rogue. In addition to this, a much more sinister threat, the titular alien, lurks in the vents and ducts of Sevastopol, picking off victims one by one.
This is where Alien: Isolation’s similarities to Dead Space, and most other survival horror games, ends. Ripley does not find an army of guns with which to mow down her many foes. She does not take the fight straight to the alien. “Survival of the fittest,” so often a theme in the horror genre, is not the law in this game. Weapons are scarce, and often useless. Instead Ripley must rely on sneaking through darkness, distractions when necessary, and hiding at opportune moments to progress through the space station. This complete disempowerment of the protagonist within Alien: Isolation is a welcome change and a relief. A terrifying, anxiety-inducing relief, which never allows the player to think for one moment that they are unstoppable, thus keeping the scariness of the game at a consistently high level It would be easy, in a medium that so often casts women as helpless victims, to mess up Ripley’s characterisation within a game that so heavily relies on the disempowerment of the protagonist. Instead, the lack of tools at Ripley’s disposal proves that she is perfectly capable without them, if a little on-edge about the whole killer-alien thing.
One of the most exciting parts of Alien: Isolation is the programming of the alien itself. Rather than being on a specifically scripted movement track, the alien’s AI is designed so it can appear at nearly any point in the game. It supposedly “learns” from its encounters with Ripley, so tricking it once may not work the second time. Hardly any area of the game is safe, the save points will warn you but not stop you if hostiles are nearby, meaning it’s possible to save the game moments away from being discovered by a deadly enemy. This only adds to the fear that the game instils in the player, never allowing you a moment’s respite.
A more divisive aspect of Alien: Isolation is its unintuitive approach to missions and tasks. The game gives a broad objective – “get to x location” – and leaves the fine details up to you. Every so often, a forgettable ally will buzz in via radio to offer Ripley such helpful advice as “watch out, there’s an alien,” “consider being quiet,” and “try not to die!” Thanks, pal. It’s not quite Dark Souls in terms of lack of help, but it could be enough to frustrate some players, particularly after dying horribly for the tenth time in a row moments away from the next save point. It’s important to go into the game knowing that it’s going to be difficult. Whether that heightens the terror or heightens the frustrations of the player is down to the individual.
Alien: Isolation is a fantastic survival horror game and, perhaps, one of the best games of 2014. If you are without plans for Halloween, consider picking up a copy. Remember, in space, no-one can hear you scream, pee your pants, and throw your controller at the screen in fear.