|I Am Alive.
The apocalypse has long been fertile ground for video games. Not the actual apocalypse itself, mind you ... there's not a lot of fun or challenge in unleashing cataclysms on virtual cities.
But after the apocalypse? Oh yes. That's when the fun begins.
I Am Alive is the latest in a long line of post-apocalyptic video games, from the old-school Wasteland to the amazing Fallout series.
But this game is very different from anything that has come before, eschewing mutants and machine guns for a grim, grey and altogether scarier chronicle of humanity's death rattle.
Developed by Ubisoft Shanghai and available for download on Xbox Live for about $15 (and coming to the PlayStation Network this spring), I Am Alive casts players as a man cut off from his family when an unexplained disaster strikes the world. Massive earthquakes and tsunamis have flattened cities across the globe and given rise to a low-lying toxic dust in urban areas.
Months after the apocalypse, our protagonist finally makes it back home to the city of Haventon, where he's determined to find his wife and young daughter.
But the survivors he encounters in his search are sick, hungry and scared, and more often than not willing to kill to take what they need.
The game's art direction is stunning, with the world painted in shades of dirty grey and only occasional splashes of muted colour -- think The Road with a spooky Silent Hill vibe. Streets are desolate, skyscrapers are crumbling and people ... well, the people in I Am Alive are scarier than any mutant or zombie.
I Am Alive has some of the trappings of action-adventure and survival horror games, but this world is ruthless and unforgiving. You'll rarely have more than three or four rounds in your pistol at any given time, plus maybe a single arrow for your hunting bow.
And where Uncharted's Nathan Drake can clamber up a wall without a second thought, I Am Alive's protagonist must carefully suss out a route, spotting places to briefly rest and recover stamina or else fall to his death.
Some survivors in the ruins of Haventon need help that the player can provide in exchange for nuggets of backstory and an extra "retry" -- yes, this game has an old-school checkpoint system, and if you run out of retries, you'll need to restart a chapter from the beginning.
Other survivors simply want you dead. When you're carrying a gun with two rounds and facing down five thugs armed with machetes and handguns, tense doesn't begin to describe it.
Combat in I Am Alive is quick and brutal, requiring you to suss out and eliminate the most lethal threats immediately then intimidate the others by holding them at bay with your gun -- even if you're out of bullets.
It's incredibly exhilarating but also very frustrating when one small mistake often results in death. This trial-and-error approach can be grating, and yet I Am Alive kept bringing me back because I was so fascinated by this grim, grey and broken world. And so curious about how it would all end.
While the game is full of small flaws and larger frustrations, it's too interesting and frightening to ignore. Arm yourself with an open mind and lots of patience and you may thrive in this post-apocalyptic nightmare.