Alien Isolation (PC) Review

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When fear permeates the brain, there are few things more dreadful than not knowing what’s out there. This is where the original “Alien” film shines as a timeless piece of horror media. The creature that slinks through the vents of the spacious, creaky ship is something that is rarely shown in complete light; the being’s strange form is constantly cloaked in darkness. I am still haunted by the striking image of a snarling maw dripping with acid and that almost human curled lip. Alien: Isolation is probably the closest that game developers have gotten to recreating the themes of that monumental film, but it does have its flaws.

Sure, Alien: Isolation is a title that most fans of the horror genre have already played, but there are design elements used that I believe deserve to be brought back into the spotlight.

More and more developers are being given more creative freedoms with licensed intellectual properties. Insomniac put out the best Spider-Man game ever conceived and Dragon Ball FighterZ rekindled the fighting game scene in an explosive way for games outside of the staples. Even though this creative freedom may not have been as open for Isolation, it is obvious that the game was created by a group willing to put in a little extra to capture the feeling of the iconic film.

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Stealth and Resource Management

While the actual cat-and-mouse gameplay has a tendency to annoy me, what kept me engaged in Isolation was the environmental and sound design. Slowly uncovering the chaos that occurred prior to the player’s arrival is a lot of fun and effectively builds tension. Immediately I was reminded of Bioshock and how the game’s setting became a huge part of the experience. Players take the role of Amanda Ripley, who is chasing the possibility that her mother Ellen Ripley survived the events of the films. Amanda is also a clever and capable engineer and uses various tools and weapons to traverse the various locked doors, take down the uncanny Working Joe androids, and keep the lone xenomorph at bay.

Rather than the action-focused gameplay that most games take, Isolation focuses on stealth and observation. Each area is fairly small in size, but there are vents that cross various paths, desks to hide under, and lockers to dive into. The game is at its best when the player is exploring an area, only to come across the xenomorph slowly pulling its tail around a corner. The physics on the creature’s body are pretty incredible and the impressive A.I. can create extremely tense moments.

My favorite moment from the game was when I had to duck under a desk, right as the xenomorph walked by, allowing me to get a good look at it. From there, it slinked around the back side of the room, dragging its sharp tail behind it. It was a breath-holding instance and if I hadn’t been on the Normal difficulty, I probably would’ve been dragged out and killed.

Eventually, Amanda is able to arm herself with weapons that can permanently take down the Working Joes and pesky facehuggers. These weapons have limited ammo, so it made the game feel more akin to Resident Evil than Outlast. Knowing when to run from those lifeless faces and when to stand one’s ground are both key to survival. A smart player can also direct the xenomorph to attack foes, like the bandit-like people running around the ship. Luckily, Amanda finds the motion tracker early on which shows the general direction of enemies. Hearing the fast-paced beeping as the alien approaches is enough to raise the heart rate of almost any player.

There is a sense of constant progression and the creeping feeling of being one step away from failure. I spent several sleepless nights playing Isolation. Keeping the lights off and my headphones up, it was an immersive experience that I thoroughly enjoyed, at least for the most part.

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Technical Issues and Odd Design Choices

On the initial launch of the game on PC and even when I played recently, it is clear that there are some technical problems that should have long been patched out. Cutscenes look awful in Isolation with an extremely choppy framerate making it hard to look at. It’s really jarring and I thought that my digital copy had some sort of problem at first. After asking around and doing a bit of online research, it seems that this is a problem that occurs on other versions too. How that got through quality control and wasn’t fixed in a patch is beyond me.

There are also later segments of the game that lose the tension entirely and are set up more like an action gauntlet. There is a part where Amanda is snagged up by the xenomorph and dragged into a nest. This area is filled with facehuggers that are small, quick, and can instant-kill the player at every corner. Then to add insult to injury there are multiple xenomorphs in these tight hallways. Ammo management is a must, but I could only get through it by save-scumming at the two save points in the area. Not being able to actually kill the xenomorph became a huge let down in this area. Less would have been more for this level.

It also felt like the game went on longer than it should have. After the bombastic nest section, Amanda makes her way to contact another ship and get out. Along the way she finds a message from Ellen that serves as the big emotional set piece. It takes hours of going through previously visited areas to get here and there are times when a space suit is required and the walking speed is horribly slow. There is a lot of run to a location, pull a switch, to then pull another switch. It feels like padding.

The game’s ending felt lackluster overall, but the experience as a whole was quite enjoyable as a horror game. I could have done without some of the alien’s instant-kill surprises, but there were some genuinely terrifying moments.

More Quality Alien Games in the Future?

I think Isolation could use a sequel. There are plenty of great ideas and the presentation was mostly on point. There have also been rumors of a sequel swirling around based on tweets by a well-versed industry writer but he could be referring to the MMO shooter reportedly in development by Cold Iron Studio.

For anyone who has yet to play it, Alien: Isolation is a must for horror fans, “Alien” fans, or just those interested in something that captures an IP properly. The game is also slated for a Switch release later this year.

There has also been the release of a mobile game called Alien: Blackout that stars Amanda Ripley as a spin-off to Alien: Isolation. Gameplay seems more akin to games like Until Dawn with elements of Five Nights of Freddy’s but I have yet to play it. It’s available on both iOS and Android for $4.99 USD.

For more information on Alien Isolation, check out the updated website for the Switch version.