Getting horror right is one of the most difficult things to accomplish in the video game medium. So much is based upon player input that sometimes what's happening on screen falls out of sync with what's going on in the players mind.
This is partly the reason why the survival horror genre has morphed into a first person "theme park" ride of frights in which the screams come from startling the player with jump scares. Thinking back to the P.T. demo, you're thrust into the idea that "hey, just maybe these alien things are real" by recreating a believable universe. While, "Alien: Isolation" doesn't shy away from some of these elements it works best when it envelopes you into its world.
It's been quite a bit since the xenomorph terror has induced this much fear but it's earned, not by mashing it into your face suddenly, but through creepy pacing, excellent use of environmental tricks, and loyalty for the movie that began a legacy of horror.
This is what we learned when we weren't cowering in fear.
Like Mother, Like Daughter
The story follows 15 years after the incident in the original "Alien," with you playing the role of Ripley's daughter, Amanda. She's currently employed by the same corporate entity as her Mom - Weyland-Yutani - as an engineer when word of her mother's ship, Nostromo resurfaces. Seeking the flight data of its hazardous voyage, the Company sends a team - along with Amanda - to figure out exactly what happened.
Amanda just wants answers that can finally put her fears for her mother to rest. Instead, she gets to relive the nightmare her mother encountered. Luckily, the badass gene doesn't skip generations as Amanda proves to be just as capable heroine as her mother was on her grisly journey. Taking place on a massive waystation, Sevastopol, she is thrust into a world of danger - but Amanda has questions that need answering and a will determined to survive.
Bells and Whistles... and Screams
The A/V department shines in "Isolation" with amazing visuals that are full of ambiance. Immediately after booting the game, you're transported back into the horror movie classic that started it all. Attention to detail borders on a maniacal obsessive devotion as low-end, "future" tech of scanline CRT monitors, strobing lighting, and chunky computer panels litter the station. Thick fog pours from automated doors as coolant leaks from busted piping. Finally, the lighting -- or lack there of in some cases -- is brilliantly used to heighten your fear. You can even bump up the graininess via an in-game option, to really complete the atmosphere of how 1970's future-space would look. It's a great looking game.
Likewise, the audio amps up the feel of the game, coupling beautifully with the visuals. The space station hums and beeps and hisses as you snake around the corridors and labs. Of course, the most terrifying noises come from the Alien. You hear it pounding through the ventilation, knowing it's just right over your head as you're internally screaming in your makeshift hidey-hole.
Other times, you can make out its bizarre seething rattle as it lurks just beyond the next turn. One of our favorite devices -- the motion detector -- is lifted directed from the source as it pulses faster and louder as it sniffs out your nightmarish enemy. The real star is the sound design, and creates the perfect audio treat. Seriously. Play with headphones -- and the lights off -- you want to absorb this game wholeheartedly for maximum frights.
This isn't an action game... Instead, this is a pure survival horror experience. So don't come in here wanting to mow down a bunch of xenoi with your pulse rifle.
You main objective -- after a disastrous boarding incident -- is to find a way off the station with as many survivors as possible. Unfortunately, the last few weeks on board have reduced everyone into a riotous frenzy. We'll not lay it all out, but the Alien isn't you're only foe.
Malfunctioning androids, paranoid survivors, and even the station itself prove perilous. You should approach each encounter smartly and ideally as stealthily as possible. You're given a few tricks, with craftable distractions like smoke and pipe bombs and noisemakers that can be used as a last resort. For example, if that nasty xeno is stalking an area you need to explore, try luring it away by throwing a noisemaker into an empty room.
Predator and Prey
As you're moving from objective to objective, eventually you'll catch the eye of the monster haunting the station. It's almost of a single mind to make things personal -- as if it knows who you are. You might think you're the main character, and you are, but it's this creature that's pulling the strings. Part of what makes it so frightening is its unpredictability. Outside of a few scripted sequences, the alien does its own thing. If that involves darting around in the vents or pacing, room by room, sniffing you out, so be it.
And there is little you can do about it directly. We mentioned the various devices you can use to get it out of the way, but the Alien never leaves. Your weapons can't kill it. Yes, even the flamethrower (because "Aliens") only annoys it back into the vents. You're helpless and only your wit can even the playing field.
Why this is so great is that horror isn't about empowering the player... It's not very fun if you can just blast your way through the game. "Alien: Isolation" works because the menace is truly something to fear. You're never fully safe, and your temporary hiding spot can be your coffin if you get too careless. Mood and tempo permeates the game so well that you might have anxiety issues when you're finally done.
A Perfect Organism, Mostly
Taking all what we've talked about, it would seem that "Alien: Isolation" is a completely perfect game start to finish. Well, that's mostly true. The wonderful graphics and mood go far to impress, but it can be off-putting in a few areas. There is no autosave in this game -- which is a design choice to up the intensity during long sequences. However, the casual player might find this a bit frustrating.
Additionally, the stealth works well, but sometimes it feels like the AI gets a free pass when you know you've not been spotted.The objectives can be a bit unclear, causing you to roam around in circles. And you'll feel like the errand monkey fixing everyone's problem -- but hey that's video games.
"Alien: Isolation" is the video game horror sequel that the "Alien" movie deserves. The developer absolutely nails the look, feel, and mood of that original film. While it can be a bit overwrought with some of the contrivances that weight down horror games, it proved to "get it" in a way that few licensed IP games do. If you love being scared half to death -- fully to death if you're on heart medication -- then you should check out this game.
"Alien: Isolation" is available now for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.