As I was hiding in the locker of some dimly lit coffee room with my eyes glued to the little green blip of the motion tracker, I saw the Xenomorph slithering into the room. My heart jumped into my throat as it started to search the lockers to my left. When the alien approached the locker I hid in, I pressed myself into the back of it and held my breath. It scanned the inside intensely but failed to notice me and, after a minute of agonising tension, went on its way. Giving myself a few moments to compose myself I realised: This kind of tension is what makes Alien Isolation special.
It’s strange to think that it’s only been two years since the release of Alien Isolation. Despite receiving mostly favourable reviews the game has fallen somewhat into obscurity in that time and although it is by no means a perfect game, nor does everything it attempt come close to succeeding, it excels at tension based horror and captures the essence of the original Alien perfectly.
Set 15 years after the events of the first film, you play as Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, and her search for the truth behind her mother’s disappearance. Finding herself trapped on Sevastopol station with the titular Alien, the plot follows Amanda’s journey towards escape. The story itself may not be the most memorable but it drives the action well enough and provides an acceptably creepy backdrop for all hiding and running you’re about to be doing.
Although there have been many Alien games in the past it’s fair to say that this is the closest in terms of tone and style to the original. The clunky CRT monitors, dimly lit hallways and creepy ship groans make you feel like you’re inside the 1979 thriller. The Alien’s structural perfection is matched only by its hostility, and is patrolling the ship with nothing better to do than kill you dead.
In terms of gameplay the experience is split between three different enemies and, as such, has three distinctly different parts:
Firstly, there are the encounters with the titular Alien. These sections are kept infrequent enough that the fear never gives way to frustration, you’re never fatigued by the Alien’s presence because its presence is used sparingly to maintain its significance. Frankly, if the Alien was a near constant threat to the player then the experience would be fatiguing and frustrating. The player moves slower than the Alien in the open, cannot deter its advance until the late stages of the game and dies in one hit; when used strategically this powerlessness is overwhelming and paralysing, but in the hands of worse developers could easily remove all enjoyment and incentive from the player. Undoubtedly this is where the game is seen to excel. The cat and mouse gameplay may be something you can see in Slender or Outlast but here it’s treated with respect. The developers know that for the player to feel completely powerless they need to have some power at other points in the game, which brings us to the human parts of the game.
Brutal, fast and often unsettling, these portions are a far cry from running and hiding from the Alien. Fighting other desperate survivors soaks up your limited health and resources quickly and are often little more than particularly nasty brawls with revolvers, Molotov cocktails and crowbar like Maintenance Jacks all used to their fullest and most violent extent. Especially on the higher difficulties these encounters are little more than desperate grasps at survival with you sneaking around, trying to get the drop on your enemies and then using everything in your retinue to survive when the fighting begins. However unlike the encounters with the Alien, these sections give the player a sense of influence over the games many threats. When faced with the Aliens instant-kills it’s almost relaxing to be able to fight for your life. Despite how desperate these fights often are, it’s important that the player feels like they have a degree of competence and power in a survival situation, if only to take that power away in other parts of the game.
Unfortunately the final piece of the combat portion of the game is disappointing. Although the idea and lore behind the discount synthetic robots called “Working Joe’s” is interesting, in practice they are an utter bore. It seems that the Working Joes were meant to conjure up ideas of Ash from the original film or any number of mechanical threats, lumbering towards you with cold efficiency and being nigh impossible to stop. However, the fact of the matter is that they’re not much of a threat; their speed makes them easy to avoid and even if you are caught, the harm they do isn’t much cause for alarm. You can quickly get out of any tough situation without much effort. Their durability almost makes them feel like a watered down version of the Alien with all the terror and threat removed but… was that ever meant to be fun? I’m playing a horror game to be scared, not to swat at annoying robots like they’re wasps. What’s more annoying is that you often have to deal with them whilst trying to solve puzzles which has all the appeal of eating a jam sandwich under a nest of said annoying wasps. Basically, they aren’t fun and it’s a real shame they have to take up so much time. And it’s strange that developers who seem to put so much time into using the Alien just often enough to be terrifying but not so much that it’s frustrating are the same ones that seem to have thrown robots into any part of the game they don’t know what else to do with.
However. The sound design in the game is absolutely top notch. There’s a reason this game won a BAFTA for audio achievement. It’s no surprise to anyone that sound is instrumental in creating great horror and Alien Isolation has great sound design in buckets. From the wonderfully tense motion tracker to the shocking cracks of gunfire, with the right headphones you will often find yourself just sitting listening to the sounds around you as they create the space station you’re unlucky enough to inhabit.
Pacing is what all of these elements have in common. The excellent sound design, excruciatingly slow stealth and creepy lighting all work best when given time to be appreciated. Isolation is very deliberate with its pace and revels in pinning you down and watching you squirm. The developers know that the player will drive themselves mad given the right circumstances and delights in doing so. Small rooms, dynamic lighting and that damn motion tracker keep you constantly alert for danger and the longer you spend alert, the more those dangers may be figments of your own imagination.
Ultimately, Alien Isolation isn’t perfect; not even close. There are numerous segments that just don’t work and the story isn’t going to blow you away. Yet despite that, when it shines BOY DOES IT SHINE. The many excellent segments of the game are, in my opinion, too dreadfully tense to pass up. In a mainstream games industry that has so often focused on gore and shock value over tension and build up, Alien Isolation breaks that trend. It is a brilliant, if flawed, little gem of a game and if you like tension based scares you really have to check it out.