Version tested: Xbox 360
At sea in an ocean of blockbusters, Alone in the Dark has no choice but to punch above its weight: high production values, biblical clashes between good and evil, and precociously elaborate game mechanics unite, embraced by a rigid but versatile single location and tempted in every direction by a developer unafraid, perhaps even desperate, to sling every idea at the wall and hope the majority stick.
Beginning in an apartment block overlooking New York's Central Park, which the game centres around, you're thrown behind the eyes of a drowsy Edward Carnby, woken as a captive in the grip of amnesia opposite a weary, cudgelled old man called Paddington. As grimy henchmen drag you away to your death, an unexplained force wrenches the building apart, coincidentally fashioning your escape at the tips of its grumpiness. Dragging yourself through the collapsing structure - grasping the complex controls as groggily as the character you're playing finds his own feet - you meet the key players and catch the gist: an ancient ritual has unleashed something, it's grouchy, and everyone's priorities are going to be shaped by its thrashing arousal.
Soon dumped in Central Park with a gun, a flashlight and a ready supply of explosives and scavenged first-aid kits, Carnby is instructed to head to the museum to meet someone - someone he shouldn't be able to meet - and as the adventure expands and contorts, Alone in the Dark offers a counterpoint to modern survival-horror. The genre's core values - inventory management, tension as a by-product of fumbling and panicking, and elaborate puzzles - are as they were, but Carnby is a practical hero: he heals himself by manually bandaging and patching cuts and gashes, and he solves puzzles with his hands and whatever else he can cobble together.
It's simple and versatile, and divorces the game from a genre obsessed with elaborate and contrived clockwork mechanisms, achieving greater subtlety and cohesion in the process. Puzzles are individual, and often special. A blood-smeared keypad has you scratching at the boundaries of your location for a code, but the solution's staring you in the face. A car hanging over a cliff blocks your ascent along a ridge, but you had the tools to pass it when you awoke. The best solutions are the least prescribed: fashioning a time-delayed sticky bomb from tape, booze and cloth, or reading the room and closing your eyes rather than staring at everything in sight.
Despite a number of tactics emerging, the game avoids routine, juxtaposing lateral-thinking puzzles with dramatic platforming, violence with solitude, revelation with mystery. Every tool and skill you accumulate - and there are as many discrete mechanics here as there are in Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Project Zero put together - has a function, although it may not present itself for some time, and your urge to experiment is so pronounced that you'll curse the inventory system, which gives you a certain number of pockets in Carnby's expansive denim jacket to fill, for robbing you of the chance to stow that knife, flare or mosquito spray.
In its pomp, every room is fascinating. You can pick up chairs, pipes and spades, push furniture around, slam canisters and litter-bins into doors, shoot out rivets and blow up hinges, fish electric cables away from pools of water with hooked branches, hotwire cars and short-circuit junction boxes. The right analogue stick is like a prosthetic hand, allowing you to twist, swing and slam things as you please.
Combat is brutal and unsustainable. Possessed former New Yorkers take a dozen bullets to dispatch, and the more exotic enemies - the fissures that carve bloody scars across every surface, and the black ooze that pools in the dark, swallowing you whole if you set foot in it - demand desperate violence and navigation to evade, so you improvise. Enemies can be shot by entering first-person perspective and aiming, but you can also toss explosives in their direction, watching them arc in slow-motion before firing a Magnum round to detonate in mid-air; or you can sprinkle accelerant across a doorway, and back off and fire an incendiary bullet into the puddle as a monster crosses the threshold. Improvising fire becomes the norm, whether by constructing Molotov cocktails from bottles and rags, powdering bullets with explosive, or grabbing wooden objects, dipping them in flames - situational or hand-crafted - and thrashing them about until they threaten to set Carnby alight.
The game's episodic structure tightens the levels around you. You rarely have time to tire of a location on the way, and the next revelation is never more than a few minutes beyond. Storytelling is handled in-engine, and Eden Studios is careful to keep you on the hook, gradually drawing back the curtain on Carnby's mysterious past, and Central Park's secrets, and driving the events of the game's one night between elaborate dramatic peaks: spectacular but sensibly transparent boss fights, a cache of Paddington's diaries, precursory showdowns with the game's principle villain. High-concept but unpretentious, it's a story of unremarkable people doing remarkable things, and then turning out to be remarkable anyway. Carnby - greying and surprisingly old - is a rugged everyman, and Sara - your AI-controlled counterpart almost throughout - is an agitated foil for much of the spectacle, but both are soft and sympathetic in their own ways, surprising one another.
Eden's TV-drama ambition is also a positive influence. The DVD-style chapter system allows you to skip the difficult bits without missing anything important (a godsend in at least two situations), the episodic structure offers "Previously on..." story summaries that pick you up the morning after a late night, and the camerawork and scoring affectionately pillage Spielberg and Bruckheimer: cliff or building-side rope climbs are a regular fixture, and every one is memorable and exotic, whether you're dodging debris, watching a subway carriage fall a thousand feet past you into the gloom, or inching upwards suspended by the flaming wreckage of a helicopter. Set-piece cut-scenes are rapid-fire money-shots.
For all its good qualities though, Alone in the Dark is a frustrating game to play. Having done so well to avoid the tried-and-trusted genre tropes of idols, badges and keys scattered around zombie-infested buildings that have to be transported past endless set-piece encounters to achieve things, Eden messes it up with a hopeless control system that proves just as pointlessly convoluted. It doesn't just grab defeat from the jaws of victory, it has to press a dozen buttons in a complex sequence across a number of different screens and view perspectives to do so.
For example, the left stick has to do movement and turning (both of which are clunky and leaden), with the right stick swinging your head left and right on a narrow arc. This is because the right stick is meant to be for swinging baseball bats and smashing fire extinguishers through wooden doors, so you can understand why they did it, but as a result getting around quickly is always difficult, and manoeuvring in close quarters is clumsy and awkward. There's a first-person option, which separates moving and strafing from turning, but you can't pick one - you have to use both at different times. Third-person is for interaction, while first-person is for looking and shooting. The game switches you between them where necessary, and on a couple of occasions for no obvious reason.
Elsewhere, you find yourself having to concentrate to do even the simplest things, like healing, which involves pressing right on the d-pad, then holding the right trigger as a medical spray is held over an affected area, then pushing the left stick around to move to the next wound. Running away from a monster, turning and throwing an explosive to shoot in mid-air requires a left-stick click to turn swiftly, a pause to equip gun and explosive, then using the left trigger to set up your throwing arc, angling it with the right-stick and pulling the right trigger to fire at the right moment. By this stage the enemy is either upon you or too close to throw the explosive without blowing yourself up too. You can use the left and right bumpers to cycle items available to each of Carnby's hands, and set-up d-pad direction presets for favoured configurations, but these options just complicate the interface further.
All the best things are too hard to do, and because there's so much to do you often do one thing when you mean another: switching off the torch while trying to run, pulling yourself through to the backseat of a car when you meant to turn the steering wheel when you first climbed in. When it's not clumsy, it's fiddly: if there's a medical spray and some bandages in a cupboard, and you've already got bandages, you have to go into the inventory and drop the existing bandages so you can pick up the new ones to gain access to the spray. Context-sensitive actions, like picking up objects, stack on top of each other in close quarters, so you find yourself twitching the stick this way and that in the hope of getting in the right position to pick up some sticky tape or a water bottle. Even towards the end of the game, it's a fumble, and this is on top of having a restricted inventory that forces you to keep dumping stuff in close quarters to accommodate other things, which you then struggle to pick up.
You could argue that some of this is the Resident Evil theory of restrictive controls generating tension, but it's just as plausible that Alone in the Dark is too busy trying to be different to other games to notice what it's getting wrong. Where an action used to require zero real input, like healing, or used to be inexplicable, like carrying around an inventory of weapons and equipment, here it must be elaborate, practical, considered. All that thought and no one pointed out that you can't move, attack, defend or pick things up competently.
It's not just the controls that are clumsy, either: the first couple of episodes are full of glitches, clichd puzzles and dodgy sequences that don't come off. The car chase sequence through New York streets is the most broken: the city's being torn apart, buses flying overhead, tarmac cleft and buildings toppling, so the peculiar handling and rutted terrain conspire to set you back as much as possible, and each snag usually gives the pursuing scripted sequence a chance to gobble you up and force you to restart. By the time you've watched the same bus fall off the same ledge rising at the same angle for the umpteenth time, any suspension of disbelief has long since snapped like overstretched elastic under a flame. Once in Central Park, things become more straightforward as you move between objectives sticking to the simplest path to avoid being overrun by monsters. In fact the game becomes rather linear, and produces some of its best moments.
But in much the same way the controls miss the point in their attempts to be distinctive, so - in and amongst all its best moments - the general gameplay succumbs to problems as old as the genre itself. There are unsympathetic checkpoints, which put you back in the game prior to a tricky puzzle you'd already completed, or expect you to finish a ten-minute battle with enemies who can attack from near and far, with tentacle tongues that knock things out of your hands. As you get to the end of the game, you're also asked to go out into the park to take out a sequence of evil trees, which involves driving all around and setting them alight using severely limited resources. Some of these scenarios are quite interesting and inventive, but really they're only there to stop you finishing the game for a bit longer, and of course to make things difficult the trees are conspicuously positioned away from sources of fire.
Yet in spite of all this, Alone in the Dark is ultimately likeable, even lovable. If you go back and read those opening paragraphs again, there's a game there that every gamer would want. Inventive, flexible, considered. It's stunning to look at it in places, too, and it's capable of classic gaming moments: quieter than the Would You Kindlies and This Was A Triumphs, but just as special. And in Edward Carnby's practical survivor, Eden has a tool players will enjoy sharpening. The problem is that every time you get excited about Alone in the Dark, it shuts you down. At times it's akin to Atari's Boiling Point: Road To Hell of three years ago; throw any score on the ten-point scale and it will stick to something, but there's so much friction on the lower end that it's often impossible to pull away and remember when you brushed past genius. You want to love it, but it just keeps letting you down, and in the end that's the impression that sticks to the wall and stays there.
7 / 10
Alone in the Dark is due out on Xbox 360, PC, Wii and PS2 on 20th June, with a PS3 version still in development. Xbox 360 version reviewed.