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Tuesday, March 19, 2024

‘Alone in the Dark’ Review – Classic and Modern Survival Horror Collide in Mostly Successful Remake

For as long as survival horror has existed, confounding puzzles and bewildering navigation have been staples of the experience. Granted, they did fall out of fashion for a brief period in the late-noughties — when games like Dead Space and Resident Evil 5 pivoted in a more action-oriented direction — but generally they have been mainstays of the genre ever since the very beginning.

Although it’s up for debate where those origins actually, you know, originated (some would cite 1989’s Sweet Home as the first title that aimed to elicit fear in the player, while that same year also brought us the NES’s oft-maligned Friday the 13th adaptation), the original Alone in the Dark at least belongs in the conversation. It may have arrived a little later than kitschy FMV outings like Night Trap and some of those side-scrolling movie tie-ins — which, let’s be honest, were just bog-standard platformers anyway — but it’s where the style as we understand it today was properly codified.

Indeed, Frédérick Raynal’s trailblazer pioneered most of the ideas that we now associate with classic survival horror, including: fixed camera angles; cumbersome melee combat; a claustrophobic setting; and an inventory management system that forced you to make tough calls about what you were going to lug around with you and what you left behind. Layered on top of all that, it was also chock-full of those quintessential puzzles that have come to define the genre. Some of which were notoriously devious back in the day.

With THQ Nordic’s new reboot of Alone in the Dark pitching itself as a respectful “love letter” to Raynal’s title, it’s not surprising that it too resembles a protracted escape room session. You’ve got the usual adventure-game logic problems to solve (which typically take the form of “find the key” or “find the equally nutritious key-like substitute”), as well as some basic sliding tile conundrums and light mathematical brainteasers.

In addition to these bite-sized riddles, however, there are more daunting headscratchers that will keep you busy for a while longer. Naturally, we are unable to describe them in this review without spoiling half the fun but, take our word for it, there are some real stumpers here. One safe combination took us around 20 minutes to crack and we are pretty sure we weren’t being obscenely dense.

From that perspective then, this remake is certainly very faithful to its source material, offering up rewarding enigmas that are stimulating on their own terms while also providing necessary respite from all the eldritch terror. Where things get a little different though, is in how much help the player is afforded when it comes to figuring out the solutions.

You see, in the newest iteration of Alone in the Dark, there is a separate difficulty level that governs the challenge of puzzles alone. As the name suggests, the “old-school” mode gives you an authentically retro experience with minimal handholding. Conversely, the “modern” setting toggles on certain quality-of-life conveniences that will keep you from banging your head against a brick wall.

There’s then a third option that allows you to calibrate the guidance you receive on a more granular level, in the hope that you will be able to find a Goldilocks sweet spot that’s just right. For example, you might want to turn off the overly prescriptive sub-objectives or deactivate the highlighted interaction points, whist still retaining the map annotations that let you know which places you’ve fully explored, and which doors cannot be opened until you’ve found an as-of-yet undiscovered item (ala the latest Resident Evils).

It’s a super cool feature that lets you customise how deeply you want to be immersed in the role of a detective. We plumped for most of the old-school modifiers, as that was our own personal preference, but if you ever run into an obtuse challenge that has you doing some Beautiful Mind shit or morphing into Charlie Kelly with his infamous conspiracy wall, then you can always swallow your pride and turn on those extra hints.

Not only is it a nice choice to have, but it basically sums up what developer Pieces Interactive is going for with their version of Alone in the Dark. In this remake, they have tried to weave together elements of horror’s yesteryear (an emphasis on puzzles, metroidvania exploration, and a deliberately slower pace) with more modern sensibilities (an over-the-shoulder perspective, limitless inventory space and stealth mechanics) to create a kind of best of both worlds. And it’s a synthesis that works extremely well … For the most part.

Going Down The Bayou

One area where this remake strikes a fine balance, between honouring the past and forging a unique identity of its own, is with its story.

Taking the loose narrative framework of the original Alone in the Dark and using it as a springboard for an altogether different plotline, our adventure once again concerns an investigation into the fate of Jeremy Hartwood: a poor soul who is driven mad by visions of supernatural tormentors that he cannot shake.

Depending on which half of the campaign you choose to experience first, you’ll either control Jeremy’s niece, Emily (portrayed in this iteration by Jodie Comer), or the gumshoe PI she hires to look into his disappearance, franchise-mainstay Edward Carnby (none other than David Harbour). Although there are significant differences between their respective versions of events — in terms of how characters react to your presence, the way cutscenes unfold, and a late-game branching path — there is also a good deal of overlap, with the inciting incident remaining exactly the same.

Speaking of which, the wheels are set in motion here when Emily receives a worrying letter from her frazzled uncle, describing a complex web of paranoid delusions that are in urgent need of debunking. A subject of particular distress for Jeremy is the so-called “Dark Man”; a malevolent entity that he claims haunts his dreams, as well as his every waking minute, with the single-minded goal of eroding what little sanity he has left.

Having apparently suffered a psychotic break as a result of these vivid hallucinations, Jeremy reports that he has been admitted to a secluded mental hospital in the recesses of a Louisiana bayou. Known as Derceto, this establishment has a decent enough reputation amongst New Orleans high society— having been entrusted for years with the care of its most valued citizens and celebrity elites— but Jeremy contends that it’s all a ruse. According to him, this pleasant façade only serves to obscure a far seedier underbelly of occult activity and arcane rites.

For her part, Emily is convinced that these are naught but the ramblings of an unwell relative, yet she is determined to verify the story nevertheless. To that end, she decides to check out this Derceto place for herself, enlisting the ever-crabby Edward (who, incidentally, is a boozing lush and only tags along for pecuniary reasons) to help out.

Against a humid swampland backdrop, this buddy cop duo must try and get to the bottom of the perturbing mystery that lies at the heart of Jeremy’s hysteria. Along the way, they’ll have to contend with the hospital’s uncooperative staff & furtive inpatients, weird voodoo rituals, generation-spanning curses, inexplicable shifts in geography, and assorted psychic phenomena. All while evidence continues to pile up in the background, suggesting that maybe Jeremy was right after all about things going bump in the night.

Feel Good Horror

It’s a gripping plot that unravels in digestible chunks over the course of about 8 hours. That is if you don’t get stuck on puzzles for an embarrassingly long stint (as we did with a vexing X-Ray jigsaw that now plagues our nightmares, in much the same way that the Dark Man plagues Jeremy’s).

Anyway, the point is that the narrative is rock solid; anchored by a pair of charismatic leads, near-perfect pacing, razor-sharp dialogue and sophisticated writing. Creative Director, Mikael Hedberg, has deliberately gone for a campier tone here that couldn’t be further removed from his previous efforts with the Amnesia franchise.

Leaning into film noir tropes, his characters speak exclusively in hard-boiled monologues and pulpy one-liners, while certain scenes transpire in smoky offices where the light is divided up by the harsh shadows of venetian blinds. It almost verges on parody, especially when the archetypal femme fatale shows up flaunting her vintage cigarette case.

Once you pair these tongue-in-cheek visuals with composer Árni Bergur Zoëga’s saxophone-heavy jazz, you appreciate that the developers aren’t even trying to scare you half the time and that their intentions are far more playful. This update of Alone in the Dark is meant to be a winking pastiche, as opposed to a deadly serious psychological horror in the vein of Hedberg’s The Dark Descent.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the catty exchanges between Emily and Edward, which have a nice screwball comedy vibe to them. Their back-and-forth is peppered with snarky insults and quick-witted jibes that the respective actors absolutely nail; Harbour inflecting lines with his signature grouchiness, while Comer capably rises to the task of pushing his buttons (and, incidentally, adds yet another convincing accent to her repertoire). The A-Listers were huge gets for Pieces Interactive and have definitely earned their headline status in all the marketing materials.

Indeed, their dynamic lends the whole thing a Hollywoodized sheen that, again, is a far cry from Hedberg’s other works. But not at all in a bad way. Rather, it evokes the breezy spirit of knockabout B-movies like 1999’s The Mummy or the Tremors films. Having now experienced it for ourselves, we can definitely see what the director meant when he dubbed it “feel good horror” in our recent interview, because only the biggest scaredy cat would be legitimately frightened by this.

There Is A House In New Orleans

That’s not to say that Hedberg’s team can’t conjure up a moody atmosphere when they set their minds to it. On the contrary, Alone in the Dark’s biggest strengths are its immersive world-building and Southern Gothic vibe.

Pieces Interactive have meticulously captured both the geographic and period aspects of their setting. Take the sickly yellow color pallet, for instance, which brilliantly envelops you in the oppressive humidity of the Louisiana marshlands. Where gators lurk patiently in the shallows, ready to pounce on unsuspecting spoonbills. Where paddle steamers regularly run afoul of treacherous waters. And where unthinkable horrors roam freely beneath the night sky.

Occasionally, you’ll have to leave Derceto and embark on excursions to these rich environs or, better still, you might even get to pay a visit to the neighbouring Big Easy. In terms of the latter, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more characterful place for a video game to be set than 1920s New Orleans and the developers have thankfully done it justice.

Should you take the time to scrutinise the set dressing, you’ll be impressed by just how much they’ve managed to cram into the French Quarter: from fliers advertising literal snake oil schemes to historic statues; evidence of a thriving criminal underworld; wilting flower carts; and child-sized coffins that take up the shelves of local voodoo establishments. It’s overflowing with personality, despite the fact that you won’t ever meet any actual people (on account of the streets being ruled by Lovecraftian beasties instead).

The interbellum era is extremely well-realised too, with neat details everywhere you turn. The in-game documents — which are surprisingly plentiful by the way— do an especially good job at fleshing out this side of things. Newspaper articles will catch you up to speed on the latest government policy, you’ll read about the (still-fresh) wounds of WW1, conservative authors fret about the emergence of the flapper sub-culture, and think-pieces will analyse how the economic turmoil of the times is pushing desperate, everyday people towards occult worship. It’s all interesting, and exceedingly well-composed, flavour text that evidences Hedberg’s masterful command of language and prose. We voraciously consumed every last morsel of it.

For those who want to know everything there is to know, you’ll also need to keep your eyes peeled for hidden collectibles. Given the region-appropriate nickname of “lagniappes”, these come in themed sets and can take the form of anything from opera tickets to children’s toys or archaeological finds. Once you’ve completed a given set of lagniappes, you’ll be able to unlock either an exploration-related bonus or some more background information about the story and its major players. So they’re definitely worth your time and hunting them down can be a highly addictive activity.

On that note, combing the environments for secrets and new ways to progress is at the very core of the Alone in the Dark experience, just as it was back in 1992. Derceto acts as a kind of hub that you will return to between more linear chapters and, each time that you come back, more of its sprawling estate will become available for exploration. Think of it like how Bright Falls worked in Alan Wake 2, in that it’s a predominately safe zone where you get to interact with NPCs and bone up on the central investigation.

It’s also where the game is at its undeniable peak. Not only is the hospital a compelling character in its own right (boasting intriguing history and a gorgeous art deco look), but the way that it gradually opens up to you is so damn satisfying.

If you have fond memories of navigating the labyrinthine Spencer Mansion or of mastering the Raccoon City Police Department’s unreasonably elaborate security protocols, then you will be right at home. As was the case with those puzzle-box settings, getting around Derceto will require you to learn its complex layout and interconnecting passageways, while also figuring out which items will get you into which rooms.

In line with genre tradition, you’ll be hunting for keys, acquiring tools that unblock previously-inaccessible areas, and enjoying that sweet, sweet dopamine rush that hits whenever you enter a new location and realise where it fits in the grander scheme of things. It’s a joy to figure it all out and it doesn’t hurt that you’ve got a really legible, easy-to-parse map as well.

Of course, Derceto won’t always yield its secrets quite so willingly. Sometimes it’ll make you work for them by getting you to solve increasingly abstract riddles. As aforementioned, it’s difficult to talk about any of these without spoiling their ingenious solutions but, suffice it to say, if you like meaty puzzles then you will like Alone in the Dark. Because there’s a metric fuckton of them here!

In that sense, it’s a wonderful nostalgia trip that hearkens back to the days when developers emphasised the more cerebral aspects of survival horror. There’s one point, near the very end, where

Hedberg takes this homage idea to its logical conclusion and it honestly had us grinning from ear to ear. By necessity, we have to be cagey about this stuff, but let’s just say that this game clearly understands and respects its heritage.

Stuck In The Past

Unfortunately, there are certain areas where it’s a bit too retro for its own good. In fact, it can be downright archaic.

In particular, you’ll have noticed that we haven’t touched upon enemy encounters in this review yet and that’s because it’s a whole can of worms. Given his pedigree with titles like SOMA, it’s safe to say that Hedberg does get horror, but it’s equally clear that combat is a little outside his wheelhouse.

As such, when you’re exploring Derceto, and there are no threats to be seen, Alone in the Dark is in its element. But as soon you venture outside to fight monsters, the weaknesses in its armour begin to show.

For a start, it’s hard to overlook how buggy combat is: with your character frequently getting caught on the environment, audio cues not triggering when they should (there’s something that robs a Tommy gun of its appeal when the “Gadda Gadda Gadda” sound is entirely silent) and enemy AI that abruptly loses interest in you; as though the hell beast you’ve been fleeing just realised it forgot to run an errand.

Granted, most of these issues can, and probably will, be remedied after launch via a patch. Alas, the flaws run deeper than mere technical issues.

Case in point, melee combat is noticeably lacking in polish right now, let down by stilted animations and the way that your character clumsily swings their weapon around without coordination. Horror games are often given a free pass for this type of thing, with the standard defence being that — if your protagonist is not a capable fighter — it creates an overwhelming sense of helplessness and disempowerment. But you still want it to feel natural! Unless Emily downed 10 shots of vodka before each encounter, there’s no justification for her being this ungainly. Civilian or not.

Ranged combat doesn’t fare much better either. Granted it is functional, but the mechanics are still hamstrung by some frankly odd decisions, like how you’re unable to carry Molotovs around with you and can only use them in pre-designated spots. Or the way that boss encounters seem to invariably take place in cramped arenas that the camera is unable to cope with.

In all fairness, the game does tell you that combat isn’t necessarily the smartest course of action and that evasion can be a superior tactic. The problem with this, however, is that stealth is perfunctory 90% of the time (seeing as most battles begin with you being ambushed) and running away isn’t always possible when you get stuck in a tight corridor. More often than not, you’re gonna have to draw your weapon.

Considering that regular Guillermo Del Toro creator, Guy Davis, worked on the creature designs, it’s also disappointing that none of the foes here are that memorable. Sludgy, indistinct and drab, the vast majority of them resemble Resident Evil 7’s lacklustre Molded and the few variants of them that do exist are pretty vanilla. There’s simple nothing that you haven’t seen before.

In short, anything related to dealing with enemies in Alone in the Dark feels awkward and dated, as though you’re playing a relic from a bygone era where developers hadn’t yet cracked the formula for over-the-shoulder combat. Honestly, you can’t help but wonder if they’d have been better off going all-in on the throwback idea; relying instead on fixed camera angles and tank controls. It would have had some nostalgic charm at least.

With that said, your individual mileage with Alone in the Dark will greatly depend upon your tolerance for jank. If, like us, you can overlook some of these rougher edges, and focus on what the game truly excels at (i.e. writing, character, puzzles, exploration, world-building and music), then it can be hard to put the controller down. Indeed, we blasted through both campaigns in the space of a weekend precisely because the positives do vastly outweigh the negatives. It also helps that the monster encounters tend to be few and far between, so they aren’t able to drag the score down that much.

Perhaps with some fine-tuning in the combat department, Pieces Interactive will be able to knock it out of the park with their next foray into the series (which we sincerely hope gets the greenlight so that these promising foundations can be built upon). Until then, this is still an admirable stab at mixing the old with the new. One that you should definitely check out if you have an affinity for classic survival horror.

4 out of 5 skulls

The post ‘Alone in the Dark’ Review – Classic and Modern Survival Horror Collide in Mostly Successful Remake appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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