[Cleaning the Backlog] Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation is the only proper survival horror game I’ve ever finished. The main reason for this is undoubtedly the game’s setting. If I’m going to spend the whole evening hiding under a bed, scared shitless to leave a room, then I prefer it to be an aesthetically appealing room with a bunch of fan service piled up in the corner. Now, I’m not really into the Alien franchise—props to Giger for the cool monster design, but regarding space marines, I prefer the more armored and fanatical ones. Nevertheless, the first 1979 movie is a monumental masterpiece of cinematic art—from its suffocating atmosphere to its pitch-perfect pacing and iconic art direction. Alien: Isolation nails exactly two-thirds of this.

Most of the time, you really feel stuck together with an evil, murderous alien inside a giant metal can floating in the middle of the vast empty, lonely space. It’s an awesome can, though, with tons of fan service piling up in its every corner. Visually, Alien: Isolation still looks excellent, and I won’t lie while saying that this is one of the best-sounding games I’ve ever played.

The thing that the game doesn’t nail is pacing, and it’s the xenomorph’s fault. Its AI was quite a technological marvel back then—the monster could learn, adapt, get curious and mad, and consequently relied mainly on the behavioral tree rather than preprogrammed triggers. Therefore, the pacing is all over the place. Some chases can take a really long time, and others never really happen—xenomorph decides it doesn’t care about you after all. In former cases, some not crucial plot-wise game sequences take longer than they should, while the latter cases harm dramatic tension.

Imagine you walking the long-ass lifeless corridor; each slightest sound makes your heart jump. Lights flicker, and strange shadows move in the distance provoking shivers up your spine. Then, right in front of you, a ceiling air-duct panel opens, and xenomorph emerges in all its xenomorphic alien glory, shrieking menacingly. Your heart stops, and you freeze, realizing you’re done for. But xenomorph stops for a moment, shrieks again, and crawls back into the air-duct, fucking right off, like it forgot its phone in the car or something. Such moments may undoubtedly entertain, but it gets annoying fast when they unapologetically ruin a masterfully built tension—one of the primary reasons to play horror games.

In order to make up for this, the story eventually decides to introduce a new type of murderous villain. Worker Joe is a type of android created for physical labor. As happens with most synthetic humanoids in the horror genre, this physical labor quickly gets limited to bringing pain and terror upon the protagonist. At first, encountering murderous androids felt like a breath of fresh air for me—it happened precisely when I’d been getting pretty fed up with the xenomorph’s quirks. Dealing with Worker Joes is much easier than with an alien—they’re uncanny but dumb; they’re strong but mortal; they’re evil but slow. The problem begins when there are lots of them and you’re forced into stealth sections.

The problem with stealth when there are androids around is that the game quickly becomes similar to all those scary chasing games of the second half of the 2010s that were so popular on Twitch once. Lots of crawling, running away safely after being noticed, and an occasional jump-scare to keep you awake. Again, when this begins to get on the nerves, the story makes another trick, and now we’re up against androids and the alien simultaneously—and if you think it’s twice as annoying, think again!

It’s the best part of the game—standing against both of these pestilences simultaneously. Firstly, by then, you’ve accumulated enough firepower and technological gadgets to deal with Worker Joes in a more spectacular way than running away. Secondly, androids dilute the dramatic tension with action. Therefore, the quirky behavior of the xenomorph makes a less destructive impact on the gameplay. It gets even better when you reach the lair, trust me!

It’s entirely possible that I like Alien: Isolation for the wrong reasons—I like this game in its more action-filled and dynamic moments. But it made me eventually appreciate the moments of hiding, and crawling, and holding my breath—sometimes just before bursting into laughter, but still! I remember that right after I finished it, I decided to make up for all those years of not playing horror games and installed Penumbra. Anyway, Alien: Isolation remains the only proper survival horror game I’ve ever finished.

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